The Fourth Doctor & His Metal Pals

June is all about robots for me!

I’m one of the co-editors of Mother of Invention, an epic anthology of stories about gender dynamics and artificial intelligence — currently running a Kickstarter campaign.

We’re raising $20,000 to pay our authors and other upfront costs of this book, which will be published by Twelfth Planet Press alongside such previous fantastic publications as Kaleidoscope, and Defying Doomsday.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about fictional robots (and megalomaniacal talking super computers), and who actually designs those robots, in the stories. In Doctor Who as much as the rest of pop culture, there are a lot more Professor Kettlewells than there are Madame Lamias.

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Doctor Who is full of vivid stories of women interacting with robots, cyborgs and AI gone bad — think of the little girl from Remembrance of the Daleks, or Tomb of the Cybermen which not only gives us the villainous Kaftan, but features the iconic moment of Victoria Waterfield placing a Cybermat in her handbag. In New Who (we’re still separating them, right? Even though “new” refers to a span of 12 years? Ok good), we had Miss Hartigan & the Cybermen, or the brilliant Oswin interacting close enough with the Daleks to hack their systems from the inside…

But it is rare we get to see Woman As Robotics Engineer, in Doctor Who as well as SF generally. Hence: Our Book. Do women build robots differently to men? Do they want something different from artificial intelligences than male creators do? What gender are computers anyway?

I wanted to make you a list of my favourite artificial intelligences in Doctor Who, and then I realised that most of them were from the Tom Baker era. Like, almost ALL of them. So I decided to lean into the nostalgia instead of, as I usually do, running away from it.

TANSY’S TEN FAVOURITE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCES:

The Tom Baker Edition.

In reverse order, for the sake of the dramah. Be aware that the text of many of these answers will be spoilery for the episode listed in the title so if you haven’t seen it, read at own risk!

10: The Ship, Shada (not 1980)

I love a whimsical talking spaceship, and Skagra’s is one of my favourites. Really the only reason this one is so low down my list is because the one I REALLY love is Hannah Gordon in the Paul McGann audio version which feels faintly like cheating. (My second favourite is Lalla Ward’s reading of Gareth Roberts’ novelisation)

9: Atrios vs Zeos, The Armageddon Factor (1979)

There’s something timeless about the concept behind this story: a seemingly endless war, perpetuated by intelligent automated computer systems? I think you could tell that story now, only with slightly more emphasis on the idea of computers playing games with each other.

Okay maybe these ones aren’t SUPER intelligent.

8: Xoanon, The Face of Evil (1977)

A computer left alone so long he goes mad and also thinks he’s a god and also thinks he’s the Doctor? That starts carving its own face in the side of a cliff for giggles? Priceless. Add some psychedelic lights, Tom Baker girning and the deadpan responses of Leela, and this is a pretty great, highly underrated story.

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7: The Giant Robot, Robot (1974-5)

What you say, that’s super low down the list, Tansy? Why yes, I reply, that’s because it has so much excellent competition!

The design of the robot is beautifully clunky, the story surrounding it is clever and humane, and it gets GIANT and dies tragically. So much to love about this particular bucket of bolts. Ooh, also the robot-eye-view and the grinding music/special effect combo which means you can hear this one coming. He’s lovely.

6: Android Sarah etc., The Android Invasion (1975)

Okay, maybe it doesn’t have the artistry of Robot or the Robots of Death, but I adore android replica stories, and the ones here are used in such chilling, creepy ways — first replacing a village full of humans in an uncanny valley “something isn’t quite right around here” kind of way. And then they take SARAH? The cliffhanger in which her face falls off is one of the all-time iconic Doctor Who moments. The later Yates & Benton androids are a good idea, but not handled nearly as well as this.

Bonus points if you as a kid picked up on the ginger beer glitch, as a sign that something was Very Wrong with Sarah.

Her outfit is fab in this.

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5: Polyphase Avitron, The Pirate Planet (1978)

It’s a robot parrot that kills you if its cyborg pirate captain tells it too. Polly is just… there are no words for the fabulousness of Polly.

4: The Androids of Tara, The Androids of Tara (1978)

Androids impersonating people! Especially the companion! And humans who mysteriously look like the companion for no adequately explained reason! And androids who look like them too!

Really all the Prisoner of Zenda needed to make its story even more bonkers and swashbuckling was human replica androids. I adore the use of the androids in this one, even if they never quite take on ‘intelligences’ of their own — the building and training of the androids, trying to get them to properly impersonate the real people, is fascinating to me.

Add to this that for once we actually do get a female genius creator in Madame Lamia, a teensy bit of class commentary in the worldbuilding (only peasants know how to build/fix androids) plus the androids sometimes get to duel people, and the amazing outfits?

Androids of Tara is just super great, okay?

I just rewatched this as part of my “introduce Ms7 to all the Classic Companions” festival of awesome, and it totally holds up. This swashbuckler uses androids in such an interesting way AND introduces the BBC version of a lightsaber. On point, Doctor Who!

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3: D84, The Robots of Death

“Please do not throw hands at me.”

The Robots of Death are gorgeously designed, and integrated into the story which remains one of the best Classic Who scripts. The worldbuilding supports the plot! This is still probably one of the most interesting uses of robots as part of an imagined future society in the show.

D84 himself, working against everything we have learned about the Robots and their restrictions, is a clever character with even more deadpan humour than the Doctor and Leela, which is saying something. His death is one of the most tragic robot deaths in all stories ever. And I’ve watched a lot of Astro Boy, so I know robot deaths.

2. The Megara, The Stones of Blood (1978)

These chatty, snarky lawyer robots from hyperspace who look like chroma key sky glitter and act like they’re guest-starring in Rumpole of the Bailey are the literal best. So determined to fulfil the letter of the law, they lose sight of the spirit: basically they represent everything the Doctor does not. It’s amazing they aren’t officially his nemesis. BRING BACK THE MEGARA!

In other news, what is it with the Key To Time stories and great artificial intelligence narratives? It’s almost as if… they were trying to get across a big hint… about artificial people? Nah.

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1. K9, Every Appearance Ever, Even The Not-John Leeson Ones, Starting With The Invisible Enemy (1977)

Second to none, he’s the robot dog who owns this show, and don’t you forget it.

I personally think that part of the reason that Matt Lucas’ Nardole is working so well in Series 10 (against all expectations – I don’t think we’ve had such a reversal of fannish response to a character since Donna Series 4) is because he’s basically a version K9 without the production problems that come from running a metal dog over location ground.

Think about it: he’s smart, sassy and seems to know far more about the Doctor than any previous companion, up to and including River Song. He calls the Doctor on his bullshit. He provides comic relief. He can go all dark and kickass when required. Oh yes, and whenever he’s damaged, the Doctor (or Romana) can rebuild him.

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The actors may have loathed performing with K9, but thanks to a classic design and a fantastic voice performance by John Leeson, this fabulous disco robot dog added a joyous dimension to Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. K9 was stern and strict when the Doctor wanted to be childish. He was snarky when the Doctor got too pompous. He sided with the Mistress — either Leela or Romana — when she was right. He stayed by the Doctor as a loyal companion, while also protecting his Mistresses.

He saved the day on a regular basis.

He was a good dog.

Mother of invention (1)

Mother of Invention, edited by Tansy Rayner Roberts & Rivqa Rafael, is a speculative fiction anthology of diverse, challenging stories about gender and artificial intelligence. Crowdfunding now on Kickstarter until the end of June! Rewards include knitted robots, themed jam and tea, mugs, tote bags and most of all, THE BOOK ITSELF. There’s a particularly natty $18 ebook bundle so you can catch up on Twelfth Planet Press’s other marvellous anthologies of science fiction.

Back us now, and help us make this fabulous book! May contain glitter. Will contain robots!