Big Finish Review: The Robots 1
The 1977 serial The Robots of Death is definitely a very popular story which has spawned multiple sequels or “spin off” audio episodes at Big Finish – think Robophobia, The Sons of Kaldor, and Escape From Kaldor. The latest is a twelve-part series The Robots.
Nicola Walker stars as Liv Chenka, alongside Claire Rushbrook returning as her sister Tula from the Eighth Doctor story Escape From Kaldor.
Ken Bentley has directed the series, which features sound design by Joe Kraemer and Josh Arakelian, and cover art by newcomer Ryan Aplin. The Robots 1 is available prior to general release on February 1st 2020 from the Big Finish website. Here's the synopsis...
During the events of Doctor Who - Ravenous 2, Liv Chenka left the Doctor and the TARDIS behind. Just for one year. A year during which she would live on Kaldor, and get to know her sister Tula all over again.
But Kaldor is going through a period of tumultuous change. Technology is changing at an advanced rate - the robots are evolving, artificial intelligence is adapting, and with these changes so politics is altering too. Dangerously.
Can Liv and Tula make a difference during the most turbulent time in the world’s history?
The Robots of Life by Roland Moore
Settling into life back on Kaldor, Liv investigates a medical centre where the patients are dying.
The Sentient by Robert Whitelock
Vissey is a young child - the sort of perfect young girl any parents would want to adopt. She is also artificial, and she sees the world in a very different way to humans.
Love Me Not by John Dorney
A widower goes to extreme lengths to keep the memories of his dead wife alive.
The Robots of Life
The series begins by charting Liv’s attempts to refamiliarise herself with the world of Kaldor by getting a job. The relationship between Liv and Tula is front and centre, depicting a range of emotions like any pair of sisters from typical sibling rivalry to begrudging forgiveness.
Liv is presented as the more relatable of the two, though this is down to listeners already having followed her travels with the Eighth Doctor across dozens of adventures. Tula, at least in Liv’s eyes, is the successful company woman who has lost sight of the familial relationships most important to them. On the other hand, Liv struggles to adapt to life back at home, with so much having changed in her absence.
John Dorney and Matt Fitton have dominated much of the writing of Liv in Ravenous and Doom Coalition, so it is pleasing to have two new writers given a go for The Robots. In this story, Roland Moore captures Liv’s acerbic wit, inquisitive intelligence and tendency for impulsive problem solving. He also brings her medical background to the fore and fleshes out her past on Kaldor, including the dynamic with her mentor.
Thematically, The Robots of Life reintroduces notions of class, profit and the company that have pervaded Kaldor-set stories to this point. As in Escape from Kaldor, one of the most interesting aspects of the episode is how it delves into class structure.
The sentiment that, sometimes, there is “no huge injustice, just humans being shoddy” is a promising setup for the series pointing in the direction of exploring complex morality and identity as much as disaster-oriented plots.
Episode two dives straight into the pool of rich ideas on offer for The Robots by looking at artificial intelligence, and what happens when an AI construct moves beyond its original programming. Venice Van Someren is Vissey, an AI in child form who poses a variety of moral questions, such as the absence of love in a capitalist society and – it gets worse – the viability of genocide.
The Sentient’s small cast, like that of each episode, enables a closer look at questions of life and philosophy, cloning, telekinesis and parent-child interplay. Jaye Griffiths’ Til Rork is a professor involved in the education of Vissey, and her interactions with the child – which quickly transgress the bounds of normal human conversation – prove the most engaging parts of the tale.
Robert Whitelock adds dollops of humour to the genuinely intriguing examination of human psychology and self-determination. The banter between Liv and Tula is top-notch, and there is further meaningful commentary on the role of class, status and money (just don’t consider too deeply the logic riddles Vissey uses to confound the Voc robots).
The robot voices are consistently lifeless and off-putting. Robert Whitelock, Tracy Wiles and Jon Culshaw show admirable restraint when providing the unnatural, inhuman performances necessary to depict a world populated by emotionless robot faces.
Love Me Not
The third instalment flows on naturally to focus on another technological development that does not seem too far away from reality – robots taking the place of a partner. John Dorney folds in themes of bereavement, what the loss of a loved one does to someone, and ways of dealing with grief.
On an essential level, losing one’s partner is an intensely emotional experience. Although Dorney does not lean into that sensitive space as heavily as he could, he does illustrate the vulnerability a person shows during bereavement. One of the most penetrating questions that emerge is the extent to which people should go to intervene in someone else’s grief if they suspect they can help.
Liv and Tula, again, get the best lines, which are brought to life vividly by Walker and Rushbrook. Their performances centre the drama and humanise the heightened technological surroundings. The scenes they share are a real highlight; the comedic touch to their dialogue lifts the whole production and balances well with the serious topics at play.
Dorney’s writing is at its finest when blending the comedic and surprisingly emotional – a combination that reveals the complexity of human relationships that comes through brilliantly in scripts like this.
When it comes to extras, around fifteen minutes are included at the end of each disc. They reveal how many of the cast and crew are practically in awe of the 1977 serial that has spawned this spin-off. The real-life rapport between Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook is tangible, and they clearly relish playing sisters.
One noteworthy section is Robert Whitelock’s description of how writing the middle story informed his performance in the opener, and, vice-versa, how the minutiae of acting as a robot fed back into his writing of his next script for the series. Dorney, also the series’ script editor, in particular has only praise for the richness of his ideas – a richness that came through prominently in The Sentient.
Liv Chenka is one of the longest-running original characters at Big Finish, and his new series is simply the next step in that long journey. Volume one of The Robots sets the tone for a thought-provoking assessment of technology and human relationships driven by likeable yet complex characters.