Saturday, February 25, 2017

Where are the Robots of Life?

This past week I've been re-watching the 1977 Fourth Doctor Doctor Who serial Robots of Death, widely considered one of the best Fourth Doctor serials with good reason. I love how quickly and naturally it accomplishes its world building while the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) are trapped in some kind of ore refinery.

The petty arguments in the lounge while everyone is quite at ease establishes the sense of an idle, wealthy class, oddly in command of an enormous mining vehicle. When one thinks of miners, one doesn't think of a posh aristocracy quarrelling about games and manners. Their existence is explained by their robot servants.

Obviously paying homage to Isaac Azimov, Robots of Death is halfway between a story about slavery and a story about technology. There are pitfalls in treating another form of life as an allegory for human race relations, which the writer, Chris Boucher, seems conscious of in creating the villain of the episode as a human deluded into thinking he's leading a race of people into rightful rule over the galaxy for their physical and mental purity. But these aren't Daleks.

As automated workers are having a greater impact on the human work force to-day, it seems like stories like Robots of Death were well ahead of their time, and you have to love science fiction writers who bothered thinking about these things long before most people thought they were pertinent issues, or thought they ever would be.

The problem to-day isn't so much the danger of robots becoming murderers but as the cause of human unemployment. I suppose the upper class human crew of the mining vehicle would be descendent of the tycoons profiting to-day from being able to avoid paying a human workforce.

The episode does all this while also being a lovely development in the chemistry between Leela, for whom this is only her second story, and the Doctor. His explaining to her robots and body language is a nice way of establishing the concept of the uncanny valley in the story. I particularly liked the comparison of the robots to walking corpses.

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