I’ll be the first to admit that when this was announced I greeted the news with a mix of emotions. The Robots of Death is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories and Liv is a great companion for the Eighth Doctor. But did we really need a spin-off for the both of them? Well, I risked it and purchased the set and boy was I impressed and as I was listening I was wondering why I had any reservations at all, Big Finish always delivers the goods, and this set proves that even the most seemingly random combination can be a great experience in their talented hands.
Following on from Ravenous Volume 2 where Liv left the Doctor for a year to reunite with her sister on her home-world of Kaldor, The Robots picks up that plot thread and shows us what Liv, played by Nicola Walker got up to in her little gap-year. Over the course of the three stories we got some very intelligent social and political commentary on the function of robotics, what’s acceptable and what isn’t, how much we should rely on robotics and technology, as well as a look at humanity with emotional exploration through pain, grief, loss, love, family, and human trappings like old-age, dementia, creation of life and deceit. That’s an awful lot to cram into three episodes.
And that was another thing that seemed to work in the favour of this set was that it was only three episodes. Normally a box-set will have four different outings for the cast and while I would have gladly have heard another episode, I think the three-episode format, that seems to follow in the upcoming three-sets, will really work in this ranges’ favour.
The Robots of Death has already been the basis of a BBV audio production called Kaldor City, with episodes being written by the original author, Chris Boucher. And Big Finish has also returned us to Kaldor with stories like Robophobia and The Sons of Kaldor, which have given us enjoyable and different looks at the much loved-robots. It could be all-to-easy for Big Finish to re-tread the same ground as the original television serial, but each time they’ve done something completely new and that is a trend that continues here.
Roland Moore opens the set with The Robots of Life, and in typical Moore fashion, he explores the darker side of humanity, this time dealing with themes of deception, betrayal as well as making us feel sympathy for the characters through themes of friendship, old-age and dementia. Moore has quickly become one of my favourite authors at Big Finish and this another story that proves how excellently he tells us stories.
As with any series, the pilot episode is perhaps the most important episode as it has to lay a lot of the groundwork, set up society’s and characters moral standings, as well as delivering us an interesting story that’ll make us come back for more. Moore manages to do just that, giving us genuinely likeable characters as well as showing us how corrupt Kaldorian society can be. The Robots of Death touched upon that, how the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and it’s nice to see those themes explored here.
Liv knows something isn’t quite right thanks to her travels with the Doctor while her sister Tula, played by Claire Rushbrooke, doesn’t necessarily see things in the same way because for her, this is the way things have always been. Moore plays with these two characters brilliantly, instantly giving us the feeling that these two are sisters and their relationship feels very real, there is a lot of love between the pair as well as respect, but their almost opposing world-views are constantly threatening to pull them apart.
The second episode of the set, The Sentient, shows another side to Kaldorian society. Looking after the people for many years, they finally want you to meet Vissy, the daughter you always wanted or never had. Robert Whitelock creates a great tale here, that focuses on people’s need for knowledge and Vissy wants to learn about everything.
In many ways, its a sci-fi story that’s been told time and again, the idea of an A.I gaining too much sentience and trying to destroy humanity but Whitelock makes sure it doesn’t re-tread those old tropes and instead delivers a cracking good story, which is part A.I trying to destroy humanity and part the betrayal of a loved one. Vissy is child-like in her mannerisms and as such doesn’t understand the world she has been programmed into. She wants to learn about everything, by any means necessary. And that story makes sure Vissy walks the knife-edge of leaving her ignorant and giving her just enough information to make her own decisions. Of course, it all goes wrong, but focusing the story on a child is a unique way of telling this type of story.
And its also a story that asks a lot of questions about humanity, in particular, the role of a parent and how a child is brought up. It offers us a lot to consider and particularly in that regard Whitelock, gives us a fantastic second instalment and I look forward to seeing future stories written by him.
The set concludes with Love Me Not, from John Dorney. A story that deals with grief and the death of loved ones and people’s need to hold onto the past, in some cases, in the extreme. Of course, we don’t model robots after dead loved ones, but that is exactly what Volar Crick does when his wife passes away.
But Dorney makes sure that this isn’t just a story about death, instead its a story about the sometimes uncomfortable topic of mental health. And Dorney delivers this topic in an original way, especially the consequences of what happens when mental-health isn’t dealt with properly. And uncomfortable it is supposed to be and the story and themes it deals with are made all the better for that, it makes you sit up and listen. And the cast really rises to the challenge on that mark too.
As someone who has dealt with his fair-share of mental-health issues in the past and who continues to sometimes struggle with it, I really appreciated the topic being talked about in Doctor Who in a really intelligent way. Well done Mr Dorney and thank you!
With excellent scripts from three talented writers and another great example of why Ken Bentley is one of Big Finish’s greatest directors, The Robots boasts an excellent cast, both guest and main, everyone should be very pleased. Nicola Walker has always been excellent and you’ll be forgiven if you’d forgotten she first appeared as Liv Chenka opposite the Seventh Doctor in Robophobia as she’s made such a name for herself opposite Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor. Here though, Liv proves she is more than capable of stepping out the Doctor’s shadow, and carrying a series of her own. And Claire Rushbrooke is just as excellent as Tula, the pair effortlessly feeling like family and sisters. Those themes run particularly strong throughout the set of three stories and so long as Big Finish do nothing too drastic, which I’m sure they won’t, I’m really looking forward to hearing where these two characters go in the near future! And maybe we can have Rushbrooke joining the TARDIS team at some point? Pretty please?!
Overall then, Volume 1 of The Robots was an absolute blast. Three strong stories which intelligently deal with their themes while throwing some occasionally uncomfortable glances at the nature of humanity are handled with great care and tact. The three stories work perfectly listened too together or separately and with the return of Pool and Toos in Volume 2, two survivors from The Robots of Death, I’m really looking forward to seeing where this range goes!