Chris Boucher’s The Robots of Death has various influences, including Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel, Dune and Art Deco (an influential artistic movement of the 20th Century). Another is, of course, the whodunnit, a sub-genre of detective fiction in which the audience is unaware of the perpetrator of a crime. In this sub-genre, an audience can engage in a process of detection and deduction as they attempt to work out ‘whodunnit’ or they can just sit back and enjoy the twists and turns of what tends to be, in the hands of writers like Agatha Christie, at least, intricately plotted fiction.
However, although this story borrows the trappings of a whodunnit, it doesn’t really follow through in terms of the parlour game aspect of that sub-genre. We can guess from the title who’s doing the killing (and we have this confirmed on-screen at a fairly early point in proceedings) and we’re told explicitly who’s controlling and directing the robots, although the specific identity of that person, in terms of which crew member it is, isn’t immediately revealed. Of course. The Robots of Death isn’t a whodunnit, any more than State of Decay is a horror story. Instead, like all of the best Doctor Whos, it takes a mix-and-match approach to genre, exploiting the fact that in the TARDIS, the Doctor has a magic doorway through which he can step into any story or assemblage of story components.
Christie’s stories, conversely, do derive a significant amount of their audience-pleasing punch from twists, although some of the solutions she presented for murders did stretch credibility in the eyes of certain critics (I’m specifically thinking here of Murder on the Orient Express). However, the denouement of The Mousetrap, her long-running stage play, is masterful, as were many of the other twists and turns in her fiction.
The specific Agatha Christie novel that is often referenced in terms of The Robots of Death is And Then There Were None (which is only one of various titles that have been used throughout its publication history; some of which have the potential to offend, which is why I’m not going to include them here). Its conceit is that a group of people are lured to an isolated island and picked off one by one by an unknown murderer, whose identity is only revealed in a postscript. The Robots of Death borrows that novel’s isolated setting and core premise. Instead of an island, we are, of course, on a sandminer, Storm Mine 4, where a crew of humans, ably assisted by their robot servants, are scouring a desert planet for minerals. This setting is a good choice, because it increases the tension of the situation for both audience and characters. There’s nowhere to run, as more and more of the crew are picked off one by one by killer robots. It gets so bad, in fact, that one, Poul, is gripped by robophobia: a fear of robots that results in him becoming a gibbering wreck.
Into this milieu step the Doctor and Leela, with our favourite Time Lord taking on the role of detective, as he tries to deduce what exactly is going on. And Then There Were None doesn’t have a comparable figure, unlike most of Christie’s other whodunnits. Instead, the ensemble that sits at the centre of that novel embarks – somewhat fractiously and sometimes at odds with each other – on an attempt to work out exactly who is responsible for the murders. This makes And There Then Were None an example of a darker strand of social commentary that did, on occasion – and despite her popular appeal – run through Christie’s fiction. Indeed, the novel, in its explanation of what has occurred and who is responsible, suggests that the murders could easily be interpreted as justice rather than crimes. This is because each of the victims has been involved in some kind of wrongdoing, from killing children while driving without care to murdering an employer.
However, the social values of the whodunnits Agatha Christie and her contemporaries wrote were often more straightforward and conservative, with the murderer’s deviance presented as exceptional rather than relatively commonplace. The formula was clear, even if each story’s twists and turns weren’t – a murder occurs (or multiple murders), which tears the social fabric of whatever community it happens in asunder. A sleuth, who may be an amateur or professional, steps into the breach. There is deduction. There may be more murders. The murderer is revealed and brought to justice, in most cases. The status quo is restored.
In The Robots of Death, the Doctor is, as already mentioned, our sleuth. He’s a time-travelling Poirot, who brings order to the chaos he finds. Or maybe Holmes, with Leela as his Watson. Of course, the Doctor doesn’t always represent the status quo. Sometimes – quite often, in fact – he is a subversive influence in his stories. In Day of the Daleks, the Doctor is a restorative presence, who fixes a problem and re-sets the story back to where it was before events were disrupted. On other occasions, meanwhile, he disrupts things so that a new, better model of living can hopefully step into the hole he has created, as in The Happiness Patrol.
It would be wrong to over-state the influence of the whodunnit on The Robots of Death, sitting as it does beside multitudinous other influences and the many, wholly original creative contributions made by the story’s cast and crew. However, the whodunnit and, specifically, And Then There Was None is still a significant part of this story’s narrative mix. They provide the basic structure for Boucher’s script, a clear and recognisable role for the Doctor in proceedings, and inspiration for a suitably isolated setting in which to show a frightened, disempowered group of people being picked off one by one.