Chris Boucher’s three TV Doctor Who stories, The Face of Eeevilll, Robots of Death, and Image of the Fendahl inspired a nation’s citizens to ask themselves what evils from their ancestors persist in society, to question the role of machines in society, and to paint pupils on their eyelids.
Having written the previous Doctor Who serial, Boucher was immediately invited back because he left his house keys on the desk of Producer, Philip Hinchcliffe. To get back to Hinchcliffe’s office, he had to wade through the River Styx, attempt the labours of Hercules, take a bus journey to Ipswich, and watch The Web Planet 3 times in a row. Alternatively, he could’ve used the elevator, but there was a dodgy-looking teen in there.
Philip was pleased to see the writer back, but little did he know that Boucher was staking a claim to the character of Leela, introduced in The Face of Eeevilll with that script noting she’s “a strong, power woman, just like Maggie Thatcher but obviously not as fiercely sexy.” The disagreement between Chris and the BBC was settled, with Boucher agreeing that the production crew could use Leela for a total of 40 episodes across 9 serials, as long as she wouldn’t encounter any classic monsters apart from maybe, just maybe, the Sontarans.
“I’m going to meet the Daleks!” Louise Jameson enthused on press night.
“No,” replied Hinchcliffe.
Script Editor, Robert Holmes immediately engaged Boucher to write the second story to feature Leela; the production crew had a hard time with other writers who couldn’t grasp the concept that this new savage-like companion wasn’t the sort of girl to scream at the mere mention of monsters, to twist her ankle on twigs and shadows, or be brainwashed by an artificial intelligence and sent to recuperate in the countryside.
Boucher pitched an idea about an artificial intelligence brainwashing Leela, but the notion was quickly rejected (not least because it had already happened in The Face of Eeevilll). Chris instead came up with an eeevilll scientist brainwashing artificial intelligences. Sorted. “Following The Face of Eeevilll with another story about machines taking over wasn’t ideal, but I was still trying to explain to Terrance Dicks that Leela was more of an Eliza Doolittle character than Pearl White’s Pauline,” Holmes admitted in Kernel Magazine, the official publication for nuts and fruits. “When Dicks pitched The Liabilities of Leela, I decided to re-neducate the writers team.”
Despite all the faff, dillydallying, idling, shilly-shallying, dawdling, and dodgy deals, Hinchcliffe and Holmes were very happy with the final scripts, Boucher having been inspired by the work of Isaac Asimov – particularly his early Mills & Boon work – and Karel Čapek’s I Had a Dog and a Cat (or something). “It had wit, warmth, wisdom, and, the thing I always look for in a script, words,” Holmes added. The production team were particularly impressed with how economical the story was; for instance, the Control Deck was described as “not unlike that of an aircraft but it’s larger and more complex, but as it has to be achievable with a BBC budget, maybe just a shed or that janitor’s closet near the Gents?”
Indeed, Hinchcliffe assured Boucher that no expense would be spared on his serial.
In an unrelated matter, there was a sale on bicycle reflectors at Halfords.
Boucher since explained his inspirations for a few of Robots of Death‘s most quotable quotes to Katherine Irene Thornton-Tait, journalist for the official trading magazine for General Motors.
The Doctor describing robophobia as “rather like being surrounded by walking, talking dead men,” for instance, apparently came from Boucher’s visit to McDonalds. Chris also recalled flinging copies of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Pea Blossom, and The Little Mermaid at a charity-shop worker, and being influenced by her response, “Please do not throw Hans at me.” He has yet to reveal the inspiration for the Doctor’s “dead stowaway” jibe.
While the producer and script editor were happy with the four episodes, the rest of the cast and crew weren’t.
“In my day, I had to deal with a number of scripts that were, frankly, canine excrement,” Baker told Colonic Irrigation Monthly, the magazine about often-misused punctuation. “City of Death was pure poodle poop, Horror of Fang Rock was sheer shih tzu sewage, and Robots of Death was completely definitely 100% whippet sh*t.” He was initially scorned for swearing during the interview, but after conducting further research, shih tzu is a real breed of dog.
Director, Michael E. Briant also felt the story wasn’t up to much – noting in a BBC memo, “nowhere near as exciting as my previous efforts, Death to the Darlicks, Revenge of the Cybermen, and Colonoscopy in Space” – so conspired with Designer, Kenneth Sharp and Costume Drawing Lady, Elizabeth Waller to make it better.
The distinctive styles of the Dums, Vocs, and SuperVocs were especially praised. Briant loved their shoes, having a special pair made for himself for special occasions; Holmes loved the ‘padded quilt thrown over yourself’ look; and Boucher loved how the robots’ red eyes were realised. Hinchcliffe, however, was worried that Leela’s red eyes, irritated by contact lenses, might confuse viewers so the robots’ eyes were instead presented as a lovely fuchsia.
Despite their initial misgivings about the story, the cast nonetheless bonded on set; in fact, Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Russell Hunter, Pamela Salem, David Bailie, David Collings, Brian Croucher, Tania Rogers, Tariq Yunis, Rob Edwards, Gregory de Polnay, and Miles Fothergill decided to form a short-lived theatrical group. Proposed names for their group included Bailie’s Bunch, Fothergill and Friends, Yunis’ Youths, Salem’s Lot, and Gregory de Polnay’s Miscellaneous Crew of Theatrical Actors For Hire Including Pantomimes And Any Further Televisual Work Thank You Please.
They eventually decided on Baker’s Dozen. They soon fell out, however, when all 12 were offered a part in Tennessee Williams’ The Two-Character Play.
When Robots of Death screened in January and February 1977, it immediately proved a critical success.
“The script was absolutely astounding, revelling in wit and wisdom,” Mr Philip K. Richard wrote in to Radio Times.
“This was, without doubt, one of the most beautifully designed serials in the history of the show,” Sensei ロボット said in a BBC Report.
“I’d like this to be read in the voice of D84,” Dr. Eggman told Points of View.
The story struck a particular chord with younger viewers. Several reports came in from schools, for example, noting how the story had affected their children: “During playtime,” wrote one teacher, “all the kids were walking around bolt-upright, dime-stopping, not showing any emotion on their faces. Just like Zilda.”
Robots of Death remains a classic, and even influenced Russell T. Davies when he wrote Voyage of the Damned. “I made sure Kylie Minogue sucked on helium for five hours a day as a tribute. I think it inspired her songs, Breathe, Higher, and her duet with Barry Gibb,” the Welshmen said to Welsh Media for Welsh People in North Wales, South Wales, and Mid-Wales, the niche television station devoted entirely to vowels.
Chris Boucher’s experiences with the BBC budgeting department led him to write for Shoestring. In the DVD commentary for Robots of Death, he concluded:
“I’ll leave you with what must be the most affecting description of robotics there has ever been – Russell Brand, who writes, in his Booky Wook: ‘Over the road there was a church: a modern gray building, which constantly played a recording of church bells. Strange, it was. Why no proper bells? I never went in but I bet it was a robot church for androids, where the Bible was in binary and their Jesus had laser eyes and metal claws.’ As true now as when it was written.”