It’s Robot month here on Sci-Fi Fantasy Network I thought this would be an easy ride for the Doctor Who department. After all, there are loads of robots in Doctor Who… Right? Well, it turns out there is a surprising lack of robots in Doctor Who. Cyborgs, androids, armoured travel machines, and supercomputers are fairly common – but what about your actual robots?

The number robots that do actually appear and play a part in Doctor Who stories is surprisingly low. I’ve decided to take a look at some of the examples that stand out, however, from your run of the mill jobbing robot.

Of course, there is the 1974 story Robot, starring Tom Baker. The titular K-1 Robot has something of an existential crisis when it kills its creator, and the story centres around questions of just who is responsible, and who should be held to account – the robot itself, the people manipulating it, or the creator? But what makes K-1 somewhat ‘more’ than a robot is that it was built of a ‘living metal’, thus raising the question; was K-1 not a robot, but a living being?

This is a fairly common theme in Doctor Who – challenging the very ideas of what it means to be human, or to be alive. What sorts of rights and responsibilities are given to machines, and at what point do they become necessary?

Most robots in Doctor Who tend to be ‘work units’ in some respect. They perform (sometimes deadly) tasks for some powerful creature or creatures. This is subverted, however, in ‘The Mysterious Planet’ where the robot Drathro is put in the position of power over the humans, who he calls ‘work units’. Indeed, Drathro has come to believe that without him, humans would have no purpose.

A recurring issue with robots in Doctor Who comes down to the instructions their creators give them. Robots in the Doctor Who universe tend to be fairly literal and lack nuance when it comes to carrying out tasks. In more recent times, the ‘Clockwork Droids’ from ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ were tasked with keeping their ship working. Their maintenance tasks took priority to the point where they started harvesting the crew for spare parts. Just following their programming.

Not all robots are bad, of course. The infamous K-9, the robotic dog, became a companion and life long friend of the Doctor’s. (You can see our interview with John Leeson, voice of K-9, here). But similarly to many other robots, one of the things that constantly frustrates the Doctor is his tendency to be very literal. But K-9 could be tremendously resourceful and intuitive at times, and so the Doctor tolerates him even when he is infuriating.

Kamelion was classified as a companion, though for budget and practicality reasons, he rarely played any active roles in stories. The Master picked him up as a souvenir from the planet Xeriphas, and his exact origins are left unstated in the show. Though Kamelion is initially used for the Master’s plans for mischief in earth’s history, he is somewhat sentient – it is the Master’s powerful will that sways him, and it is only the Doctor’s great effort of his own will that sways him to his side. There is, however, little to say about Kamelion, as he was somewhat underutilized (for obvious production reasons). He does however pose some uncomfortable questions, given his level of sentience. Is the Doctor right to impose his will on Kamelion, and does doing so make him just as bad as the Master in this regard?

K-9, the Doctor’s faithful robotic dog companion

Ultimately, Doctor Who, when it does address robots, does so only briefly. Their story arcs, if they have them, tend to ask difficult questions about how we view their, for lack of a better term, humanity. Is it right to use them simply as slaves when they have sentience? Is that all that is required to grant them kindness? Is imposing will over a robot denying it’s free will; do they have free will?

Will there be more robots who tackle these issues in future series? Time will tell. It usually does.