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Leela: Doctor, what is 'robophobia'?
Doctor: It's an unreasoning dread of robots. You see, most living creatures use non-verbal signals. Body movement, eye contact, facial expressions, that sort of thing.
Leela: Body language!
Doctor: Exactly. But while these robots are humanoid, presumably for aesthetic reasons, they give no signals. It's rather like being surrounded by walking, talking dead men.
This serial begins in the recreation room of a giant sandminer ship belonging to a civilisation utterly dependent on robots. The workers all are discussing the urban legend of a guy whose arm was ripped off by a robot massaging him. But of course, they all know the robots have tons of safety systems in place and that they could never kill a human, right? Just then, the robots announce that they have detected a sandstorm, which stirs up ores in the sand that are worth a fortune. One poor Red Shirt, Chub, goes into the storage room to collect instruments for a weather balloon when he's strangled by...go ahead, guess. Thus begins a round of Agatha Christie-style paranoid accusations.
Enter the Fourth Doctor and Leela, who materialize in one of the sandminer's scoops. They're brought out by two robots and locked in a room, as the workers feel that the two killed Chub. It doesn't help that after they escape, the two are separately caught in the same rooms as dead bodies #2 and #3. So, the blame game enters Round Two; the crew cannot decide whether the Doctor and Leela did it or one of them. At any rate, they're locked up in iron shackles in the robot storage room. When a man named Poul frees the two out of belief in their innocence, the Doctor points out that they all completely overlooked a possible suspect: the robots. Poul laughs; the robots couldn't possibly kill a human!
While the Doctor tries to convince Poul otherwise, a woman named Zilda goes into Commander Uvanov's room and announces over a loudspeaker that she knows he's the murderer, but before she can explain how or why she gets strangled. For those watching at home, the body count is now up to 4. Suddenly, the ship shakes! Turns out, the ship has been sabotaged, and Red Shirt repairman Borg (No, not that Borg) has become dead body #5. The ship can't handle the stress and is about to blow up, but the Doctor cuts out the power and gets a man named Dask to repair the motors so the ship won't sink into the sand. Leela bandages up the hand of acting commander Toos, who heads to her quarters.
Suddenly, yay, plot! A robot named D84 reveals that it and Poul are undercover agents for the mining company, who were placed on board the miner due to threats of a robot revolution by Mad Scientist Taren Capel. The Doctor and D84 search the miner for proof that Taren Capel is on board, and find a secret workshop where the robots' programming has been changed to enable them to kill humans. He tells Toos over the communications system to get the others and head for the command deck. But as soon as she can get to the door, she's blocked by a strangle-happy robot and just barely gets away by making the door slam onto its hand. Leela manages to find Poul, but he's too busy lying on the ground in the fetal position while he screams about how the robots have always controlled him to help. Meanwhile, it dawns on the Doctor and D84 that "Dask" is really Taren Capel, and he wants to liberate robots by giving them the ambition to take over civilization. Taren Capel (now wearing the robots' clothes and wearing facepaint to mimic them) gives his order to the robots: Destroy all remaining humans on board. The Doctor realizes that this is the end of this civilization, as the robots they so depend on will become a source of overwhelming fear.
The Doctor comes up with a plan to destroy the robots: They're all being controlled by one particular robot: SV7. If it dies, the others will stop killing. He uses parts from a broken robot to creates a final deactivator - a device that will destroy any still functioning robots at close range. At the same time, Uvanov and Toos have arrived at the command deck and built makeshift anti-robot bombs, which they proceed to kick robo-ass with.
The Doctor hides Leela in Taren's workshop with a canister of helium gas, telling her to release it slowly when Taren comes in. The Doctor hopes that this will change Taren's voice, so his robots - unable to recognize him - won't obey his orders.
Taren arrives and damages D84, but the robot is able to activate the Doctor's device to destroy a killer robot, knowingly sacrificing itself in the process (Dead Body #6...ish?). Leela releases the helium gas, causing Taren's voice to become high-pitched and squeaky, and Taren is killed by SV7 when it fails to identify his voice. The Doctor then destroys SV7 with a laser probe. The Doctor spends about 20 seconds explaining some Fridge Logic (Why didn't the Doctor's voice go all squeaky? What's going to happen to Toos and Uvanov, or hell, the entire civilization) and then enters the TARDIS. Cue credits.
- Alternate Character Interpretation: It's stated by Poul that Uvanov left Zilda's brother out to die ten years before because he didn't want to waste time and money. Later, Uvanov reveals that he in fact tried to save him when he came down with robophobia and panicked. The boy's father didn't want the boy thought of as a coward and had the records altered.
- Androids and Detectives: D84 and Poul.
- Bizarre Alien Biology: the reason the Doctor's voice didn't go all squeaky.
- Depth Deception: The Doctor's explanation for the whole "bigger on the inside" thing. One box is actually larger than another, but appears smaller because it's far away. The TARDIS uses transdimensional engineering to put two similar spaces in the same place, while keeping those relative sizes.
- Easily-Detachable Robot Parts
- Elite Mooks: SV7.
- Everyone Is a Suspect
- Evil Gloating
- Freak-Out: Poul suffers a really horrible one when he finds a deactivated robot with fresh human on its fingers.
- Helium Speech
- Heroic Sacrifice: D84.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Taren Capel.
- Hollywood Science: the Doctor's explanation to Poul that bumblebees fly even though that's "impossible" is an urban legend which has been traced back to at least 1934 if not earlier and is based on applying equations to bumblebee flight that were known to be the wrong ones even back then.
- Informed Ability: Leela's knife 'throwing skills' only work when she doesn't try throwing a knife on screen (as it's actually a useless prop, it just clunks to the ground in front of her target).
- Jerkass: Uvanov. At first, he seems to care about little more than getting as much sand (read: money) as possible. Of course, this is before he realizes how truly screwed he is.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: When he tells the story of what Happened to Zilda's brother it's clear he's haunted by the memory, and tries to keep Poul calm.
- Just Between You and Me: Subverted:
The Doctor: I see. You’re one of those boring maniacs who’s going to gloat. Are you going to tell me your plan for running the universe?
Taren Capel: Oh no Doctor. I’m going to burn out your brain. Very very slowly.
- Machine Monotone: Much less severe than usual for the show. The result is somewhat sing-song-y, which just makes it that much creepier.
- Mad Scientist: Taren Capel.
- Mobile Factory
- Mooks: The titular robots.
- My Species Doth Protest Too Much: D84 is the only good robot in this serial - though to be fair, the others didn't start out evil, and the one having its "good" programming rewritten on the operating table is very distressed throughout the process.
- Nice Hat: The workers have some...odd headgear.
- Perspective Magic: the Doctor tells Leela that that this is the principle that enables the TARDIS to be much bigger on the inside than on the outside.
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: An effect of the manner in which the robots are reprogrammed.
- Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain: an absurdly high number of robots take laser probes to the head.
- Robot Buddy: D84.
- Shout-Out: Robophobia is officially known as "Grimwade's Syndrome", a shout out to production assistant (later in the 1980s to be a Who director and writer) Peter Grimwade, who had complained that all the stories he worked on seemed to involve evil robots...
- Special Effect Failure: The effect on Taren Capel's face while he reprograms SV 7 completely fails to disguise who it is, which is a shame as up until that point the attempts to hide his identity worked rather well.
- The Speechless: The robots are divided between "Dums" that cannot speak and "Vocs" that can. In addition, "Super Vocs" like SV7 have advanced intelligence and command the lesser 'bots.
- Lampshaded by D84 near the end of part 3:
D84: This is a communicator. It can function on either human or robot command circuits. Would you like to use it? I cannot speak...
- Spin-Off: Magic Bullet Productions have produced plays centered around this civilization and their robots. Russell Hunter reprised his role of Uvanov for them.
- Starship Luxurious: The mining ship is quite luxurious, despite being crewed by people desperately hoping for a good strike.
- Strapped to An Operating Table
- Ten Little Murder Victims
- "Three Laws"-Compliant: The robots are more or less presumed to be, before Taren Capel starts messing with them.
- Uncanny Valley: The robots themselves, with their blank expressions and creepy sing-song voices. The Doctor hangs a lampshade on this: see the page quote.
- Undercover Cop Reveal
- The X of Y
- Your Head Asplode: The effect of the "final deactivator" on nearby robots.