Doctor Who whodunnits have an unfortunate reputation for not being so ‘rewarding’ when time comes for The Doctor to unmask the culprit or culprits. The episodes mentioned in this blog are by no means bad or terrible, one of them is actually considered to be one of the finest that Doctor Who has to offer. The reasons why whodunnit narratives don’t quiet work will be explored in this blog using the best three examples of whodunnits narratives across Doctor Who’s first 59 years on the small screen. Spoilers will be of course be prevalent throughout so please stop reading if you aren’t familiar with Doctor Who whodunnits.
In The Curse of Peladon (1972), a group of alien delegates gather to decide whether or not the planet of Peladon should join the galactic federation. As things progress it become apparent that someone is working in the background, secretly conspiring to ensure that Peladon does not join the Federation, and will later be revealed as the conniver working away in the shadows. The only question is who, and why?
We know that Hepesh (Geoffrey Toone) is the antagonist right from the start since he has prejudiced views about the galactic federation, believing Peladon will become corrupt with technology. In the opening scene we also know that Hepesh does not want Peladon to join the Galactic Federation (for reasons unknown at this point), whilst Torbis (Henry Gilbert) does, who is later killed by Aggedor (Nick Hobbs). Hepesh is also seen consorting with Grun (Gordon St. Clair), the King’s Champion to depose The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), and the alien delegates. Grun is clearly seen sneaking away from the throne room, only to re-emerge on a platform above the entrance to the throne room, where he prepares to send a stone statue of Aggedor crashing down on The Third Doctor and the alien delegates heads. Hepesh is later seen ordering Grun to destroy The Third Doctor, whom he believes to be a threat to the planet of Peladon by any means necessary.
We also know that Aggedor is responsible for some of the killings, but is he doing them on his own accord, or is he being controlled by a person or persons unknown? Its does seem quiet possible that Aggedor is being manipulated since he only seem to appear and disappear at convenient moments throughout the serial (almost as if someone wants to keep his appearance secret from everyone else). Aggedor does not appear to have the power of speech nor is he telepathic, so he is pretty much the epitome of the term ‘Savage Beast’, and perfect to be used as a play thing for Hepesh and his evil plans.
The only question is: which of the alien delegates is also working with Hepesh. It seem without a doubt that there is a second player in the whole Aggedor conspiracy, the only question is which one of the delegates will it be? The alien delegates; Izlyr (Alan Bennion), Ssorg (Sonny Caldinez), Alpha Centauri (Stuart Fell voiced by Ysanne Churchman), and Arcturus (Murphy Grumbar voiced by Terry Bale) are the only suspects. Alpha Centauri can be crossed off the list, since ‘he’ is too stupid and clumsy to do anything remotely dangerous. The Ice Warriors claim that they are now a peaceful race, which would seem to be true since Ssorg does ultimately save The Third Doctor’s life later on, and seems unlikely that the Ice Warriors would turn around out-of-the-blue and yell ‘surprise where actually still as bad as the Universe remember’. So that leaves Arcturus, as the only possible candidate. The serial does try and fool the audience by making us believe someone sabotaged Arcturus’ life support systems which seem to take f-o-r-e-v-e-r to fully shut down. If the ‘culprit’ wanted the proceedings to stop, why not kill Arcturus, and give the delegates a good reason to go home, unless of course, Arcturus is the one who is behind some of the criminal acts, and wanted the scent to be drawn away from him. Arcturus is seen at the cliffhanger of episode three priming his weapon (so is Ssorg, but only to defend The Third Doctor), and is soon blasted to death. Hepesh departs the scene, since his partner in crime is now dead, and both their guilts are easily assured.
In The Robots of Death (1977), the narrative continually reminds the audience that the robots are important characters. Great attention is paid to this fact; the robots are always lurking in the background, all of the Sand Miner crewmembers have black lines painted around their eyes which mirror that of the robots, and the audience know that the murderers are robots after Chub (Rob Edwards) is throttled by V45 (Richard Seager). So this means that the Robots are the murderers and it’s only a matter of time until the crew realise what they are battling against right? Well, no. As The Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) points out robots must always serve humanity, but never harm anyone (a bit of Isaac Asimov’s I Robot at the play here). So this means that the robots must have been reprogrammed by someone on the sandminer and is probably one of the crewmembers, and not somebody hidden away in a secluded area. The only question is who? Well unfortunately one can efficiently point out the murderer as early as episode one.
The serial throws in many tropes found in crime fiction; the blame game, a group of characters arguing amongst themselves about who the killer is, hidden possible motives for every character still left alive, the calling card of the murderer, and the red herring where the true murderer seems to be quiet knowledgeable about the killers’ calling card, and openly shares this information, and wouldn’t possibly draw attention to themself.
The main and biggest problem with The Robots of Death is the identity of the murderer is not well hidden; we see their distorted face on a screen speaking to a robot, they fail to change his costume when giving a robot its orders to kill Zilda (Tania Rodgers) – which is actually a good clue if one were to pay attention, and their voice is too similar to what the audience heard previously. There are possibly other clues which viewers could pick up on, but these are the most obvious.
Another problem is, at the end of episode two, most of the characters are dead (and there haven’t been any ‘fake’ deaths), and by episode four, 3 of the remaining characters are isolated away from the fourth, and therefore the ultimate reveal and identity of the murderer is not surprising due to this setup. The Doctor makes it very clear to Toss (Pamela Salem) that no one is be allowed into the control deck under any circumstance. At this point the only crewmember missing is Dask (David Bailie), so The Doctor must have good reason to suspect him of being Taren Capel, and in turn, so have the audience since episode one.
In Terror of the Vervoids (1986), everyone is a villain of some sort, and the statement of The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) that either a crewmember or passenger will become a murderer seems a little redundant; Edwardes (Simon Slater) who says, ‘we don’t want you breaking your neck, at least not until..’, is a classic example of this, before Edwardes is electrocuted.
The serial also tries to fool the audience by giving ‘almost’ every character a secret agenda that they want to keep hidden, but fails in other areas to create a good mystery. Empty corridor and room sets, devoid of characters make for a dull mystery, and a very short list of suspects only adds to the serial’s central problem. There are several moments where characters are seen to be lurking about the place, and keeping in the shadows, and being quiet voyeuristic, setting their preying eyes on certain people. These moments are decent plot devices, but since they aren’t developed any further the appropriate characters within these scenes will probably not turn out to be the murderer; unless these scenes were to be further developed later on.
The audience knows (again) that it is the title villains who do most of the killing, and therefore are the central antagonists. There is a red herring moment where the ‘bad guy’ mistakenly leaves incriminating evidence lying around which doesn’t make sense in the least. The classic ‘he’ game is thrown into the mix when people try and suss out the true killer, but Mel (Bonnie Langford) does point that the killer could be a ‘she’.
There is great attention paid to the Isolation Room and Pod Area, these two rooms are very important which help the audience and The Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) solve the mystery. The fact that Professor Lasky (Honor Blackman), Doland (Malcolm Tierney), and Bruchner (David Allister) are the only people who realise the danger the Vervoids pose is also a big giveaway, the killer must surely be one of them. They do a lot of running back and forth between the two rooms, hold ‘secret’ conversations in the middle of grounded rooms, and their behaviour is strange to say the least.
When it comes time for the big reveal, most of the characters are dead anyway, just like The Robots of Death and only one person could have killed Atza (Sam Howard) and Ortezo (Leon Davis), out of the 3 likely candidates, one of whom is Mel and she certainly isn’t the murderer, therefore the identity of the murderer is down to 2 people, and only one person has been developed to any degree to give them a suitable motivation for his wrong doings. Therefore their identity as the surprise villain is reassured, and again, the person is killed off with roughly half the episode to go.
Doctor Who whodunnits have never really worked, if you exclude The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008) which does an excellent job of setting up an Agatha Christiesque murder mystery, and almost reaches the end before the big reveal. The reasons as to why other whodunnits have never worked can be put down to any number of reasons, and the big reveals are always a disappointment. The writers of the serials mentioned in this blogs are/were talented nonetheless, and they are enjoyable adventures; its just a shame that audiences are never given the chance of solving the mystery over the serials’ debut instead of before the end credits of episode one begin to roll, or maybe we’re just too clever for our own good and the serials mentioned are actually intelligently written.