The audibook release of Doctor Who and the Robots of Death is a reason to cheer on lots of levels.
For a start, it’s a stone-cold classic. The story always features prominently in fans’ lists of their favourite Doctor Who stories on TV; so much about the story went wonderfully right that it’s always remembered as one of the pinnacles of the Fourth Doctor’s time in the TARDIS. Tom Baker as the Doctor and Louise Jameson as his companion Leela were both on stellar form when it was put in front of cameras, and there’s a playful wit in Chris Boucher’s script is full of evergreen zingers (such as the Doctor’s infamous put-down, “you’re the perfect example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.”)
It’s also a gripping whodunnit. Very much a sci-fi version of Murder On the Orient Express, the story is pure Agatha Christie, set in an isolated environment: in this case, it’s a kind of mobile oil rig floating on oceans of mineral-rich sand, but decked out inside like a kind of science-fiction art deco country house. The people are elegantly dressed and made-up, and the robots who act as their entire service class are products of the same design aesthetic – their faces are angular but beautiful, their bodies covered in quilted jackets, their hands silver, and their hair is waves of swept-back metal. The robot voices are well-meaning and neutral, adding a level of emotionless creepiness to the base-under-siege or locked-room-mystery scenario, like being surrounded on all sides by beautiful, metallic versions of Jeeves.
And what’s more, whether it intends to or not, it also delivers a commentary on the age of convenience and the creeping indolence and arrogance that comes with it, which if anything is more relevant today, as we embark on a new age of robot-assisted living, than it was forty years ago when Robots of Death strode across our TV screens.
The novelisation – one of many by the undisputed king of Doctor Who novelisations, Terrance Dicks – is relatively slim and the scene-setting very workmanlike, Dicks understanding that sometimes, the best thing to do to a Doctor Who story is to get out of its way and let the magic translate straight from the TV to the page. Where he adds his own touches, they help make clear some character elements that were not immediately obvious from the broadcast version, particularly as regards the leader of the sandminer’s crew, Commander Uvanov, meaning you end up with a slightly richer piece with a more clearly beating heart than made its way onto our TV screens.
The aforementioned co-star Louise Jameson takes on reading duties for this audiobook version, and gives you far more than your money’s worth, jumping up and down the age range of her voice to deliver all the characters that bring the sandminer to life, including both its human and robot crew. She’s especially effective in terms of rendering the robots – while not exactly true to the televised version, the uniformity of her robo-voices conveys the same sense of electronic, unflappable calm that made them creepy on TV.
Jameson’s reading overall is evocative and multi-faceted, though she does bring some differences in pronunciation for some of character names, compared to the TV version, particularly when it comes to the story’s main villain. But at a distance of forty years, you’d need to be a particularly pernickety fan to let these differences affect your enjoyment of a story as good as Robots of Death. Instead, give Jameson the chance to charm you, let her quality of performance reach you, and she’ll lead you through the robot-infested corridors of the sandminer with an absorbing, energetic read.
So is Doctor Who and the Robots of Death worth getting on audio? Of course it is – it’s Robots of Death, after all. Although Dicks’ novelisation provides a simple translation of what was on the screen, the quality of what was on the screen means you never find yourself lacking depth or detail, and Louise Jameson is still a phenomenal, evocative actress. And any chance you get to spend three-and-a-half hours with her telling you stories and doing all the voices is three-and-a-half-hours well spent. The fact that this particular story is Robots of Death is just a joyful added bonus.
Doctor Who and the Robots of Death is available now from Amazon.co.uk and other leading retailers.