The TARDIS arrives on Storm Mine 4, a huge sand-crawling mining vehicle, picking up valuable minerals on the surface of a storm-wracked desert planet. There is a small crew served by numerous robots: black “Dum” robots that do not speak, gold and green “Voc” robots that interact with the human crew, and a “Super-Voc” SV7 robot that manages the other robots.
Just before the Doctor and Leela (Louise Jameson) arrive, one of the crew is murdered. Naturally, the Doctor and Leela are accused, but as the bodies pile up, the crew turns to asking for the Doctor’s help. Leela discovers that D84 is supposed to be a Dum, but it can speak. The crew start to accuse each other—they’re like the people trapped in an Old Dark House mystery, all of whom are unlikable.
The vehicle’s engines go out of control and the machine starts to sink into the sand. They discover that the engineer is another victim. The Doctor sorts the engines out. He is certain that the robots are behind it all, but no-one believes him because everybody knows robots cannot kill. D84 explains that it was placed aboard out of fear of a robot revolution initiated by Taren Capel, a scientist raised by robots. They discover a secret lab aboard the vehicle, where robots have been re-programmed to kill, and the Doctor thinks Capel is aboard.
A crewman named Dask (David Bailie) is really Taren Capel. He shuts down all the robots except those he has programmed to obey only his voice. The Doctor puts together a deactivator and tells Leela to hide with a canister of helium gas. Capel is lured to the lab by the Doctor. When SU7 arrives to kill the remaining humans, Leela turns on the helium to change Capek’s voice. The Super-Voc kills him. The Doctor helps to shut down SU7 and cancel its programming. Certain that help is on the way, the Doctor and Leela leave in the TARDIS.
Influenced by sources as varied as Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and a bit of Arthur C. Clarke, the Robots of Death became a fan favorite, described as suspenseful and beautifully designed. In the British Film Institute’s 50th Anniversary Celebration of Doctor Who, it was chosen to represent the Fourth Doctor. The only negative people noticed was a lack of chemistry between Louise Jameson and Tom Baker, who was still grumpy about having to have a companion when he was sure he could carry the show without one; I love the man, but he could be a shit sometimes. This was the first Doctor Who story I ever saw, and I remembered the striking opening scene for years, until the availability of DVDs proved that the scene I recalled so vividly never actually existed. But I was impressed nevertheless. Because of a near-accident, Louise Jameson’s steel knife was replaced by a rubber one.