Big Finish Review: The Robots 2

Big Finish Review: The Robots 2

Big Finish returns to the robot world of Kaldor with the second instalment of spin-off series The Robots. Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook appear as Liv and Tula Chenka alongside Pamela Salem and David Collings, who return as Toos and Poul from the original and much-loved 1977 Doctor Who serial (with Collings’ performance being posthumous).

Catch The Digital Fix’s take on the first volume of The Robots, before picking up volume two, which is available from the Big Finish website exclusively prior to general release in September 2020. The series is directed by Ken Bentley and produced by David Richardson, with sound design and music by Joe Kraemer. Here's the synopses...

Robots of War by Roland Moore

A visit to an old flame goes badly wrong for Liv and Tula and soon they find themselves locked down in a military training base, surrounded by traitors and robots designed and built for war. As they attempt to get everyone out alive, is there a chance they’ve missed something important?

Toos and Poul by Andrew Smith

When a murder takes place in an isolated outpost, there’s only one man who can look into the crime. Investigator Poul, newly reunited with his Sandminer colleague Toos. But can he over-come his fears and prejudices and solve the case?

Do No Harm by Sarah Grochala

After an incident in a laboratory leads to a tragedy, someone needs to be found accountable. And who better to be prosecuted than a robot? But when complicated ethical questions arise, the outcome of the trial becomes bigger than a single case. What if somebody else is working behind the scenes?

Review

Robots of War

After themes of medical assistance, artificial sentience and love were explored in the first volume of The Robots, Roland Moore’s volume two opener (his second for the series) holds a microscope to a different facet to robot life on Kaldor, that of collateral damage and escalation. The episode unfortunately does not delve as deeply as its title might suggest into the ethics and complexity of war or militarism – material ripe for harvesting in a series committed to examining the impact of advanced technology – but the fifty-minute story still proves decently entertaining.

Liv and Tula visit a military training base and become embroiled in sabotage that puts at odds with the robot population. Liv again shows herself to delightfully snarky and sarcastic with a low tolerance of time wasters, which is balanced by a strident passion and resourcefulness. Her banter with Tula is sharp and quick; the glimpses into their daily lives are all too brief, so it is their sisterly bond that carries the tale.

Silas Carson guest stars as Captain Rosh, the “old flame” of Tula’s mentioned in the synopsis. The inclusion of such a character continues the interweaving of personal lives with robot-related plot. Owing to Rosh’s connection with Tula and the fact they share only a few scenes together, there would be significant potential for Captain Rosh to become a recurring character and augment the web of relationships around Liv and Tula; it remains to be seen however if this, or something similar to this, will eventuate in the series.

Robots of War isn’t particularly ground-breaking: something goes wrong with the robots, complications ensue and people are killed, Liv and Tula solve the problem. Still, the episode is another entertaining hour spent on Kaldor examining the repercussions of the presence of intelligent robots in a highly technological society.

Toos and Poul

Toos and Poul is the first episode of The Robots to really change tack and mix up the format. By taking its usual leads out of the story entirely, and bringing in two previously established characters from the world of Kaldor – Ander Poul and Lish Toos from The Robots of Death – the episode becomes the standout of this second volume, simply for the change of pace and setting.

Andrew Smith’s script leaves Kaldor City behind in favour of one of the planet’s rural settlements, where inhabitants make a living prospecting and working the fields, and the robots are more run-down than they are in the cities. The episode also ties in heavily with the Fourth Doctor audio story The Sons of Kaldor, also scripted by Smith, with discussion about the anti-robot extremist group playing into the murder investigation in Toos and Poul.

For there has been a murder, and Poul and Toos are on the case. The pair is played by long- actors David Collings, who sadly passed away earlier this year, and Pamela Salem. Poul has become a recluse, living the life of a nomad far away from mainstream Kaldor society, with a healthy distrust – fear, even – of robots, which is entirely reasonable his history with them. Toos is the company woman who draws him out of “retirement”, before proceeding to somewhat temper his wilder moments of passion and idiosyncrasy. Their rapport, much like that of Liv and Tula, drives the story.

A whole series could be written solely for Toos and Poul, and so it is pleasing to know that Collings and Salem have already recorded their lines for upcoming releases. After the introductory adventure for them both in this episode, it remains to be seen how exactly they will be incorporated into the Liv and Tula storyline, but the end result promises to be a strong one.

Do No Harm

The writers of preceding episodes have done an admirable job at pulling apart the intricacies of life alongside robots and unpacking the sisterly relationship between Tula and Liv, but with Do No Harm, there is at last a woman writing for a series with two women as its leads.

Sarah Grochala’s is the courtroom drama episode: an SV unit is accused of killing 734 Kaldor scientists in a laboratory explosion, and is brought to ‘robot court’ for a trial, where Liv steps in as the defence representative. All the tropes of the genre are here: witnesses and cross-examination, narrative flashbacks to the events leading up to the murder; new evidence being discovered; a few twists; and like the best courtroom dramas, an ending that is not wholly predictable.

The courtroom drama conceit, along with the accompanying idea of a robot violating its prime directive not to harm a human, is a smart way to explore themes around the role of robots in society as well as reveal the sectors of humanity willing to go to unethical lengths to undermine the status of those robots.

Extras

An interviews track is attached to the end of each episode, giving a glimpse into the ideas behind each story and the cast’s reactions to the script. Notably, Roland Moore, in outlining the ideas that went into Robots of War, explains his intent to present a “greatest hits” version of The Robots of Death. As he and producer David Richardson explain, his episode was the one that best emulates the base-under-siege, chase-down-corridors setup of the original story, in contrast to the majority of The Robots episodes that deliberately go in new and different directions.

The whole cast shares in a communal delight at playing an array of smooth and emotionless robot voices. Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook continue to convince as sisters, displaying a rapport in the studio both on and off microphone. Pamela Salem and David Collings reminisce about filming the original serial and share in their enjoyment of returning to their roles decades on.

Final Thoughts

The end of Do No Harm sets up Liv to take the fight to the extremist group the Sons of Kaldor, which threatens to destroy the synergy between humans and robots and whose influence has been felt across multiple episodes now. This is an exciting setup for the back half of the series; after six standalone episodes, there is potential for the action to build and the stakes to get bigger.

Beyond being simply a speculative sci-fi series with robots in the Doctor Who universe, The Robots presents an opportunity for listeners to both marvel at the possibilities of future technology, and also be reminded of just how chilling the rapid advancement of such technology can be.

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