Big Finish Review: The Robots 3
Drawing on its rich Doctor Who heritage and fuelled by topical thematic concerns, The Robots 3 uncovers the humanity and reality within science fiction. Nicola Walker, Claire Rushbrook, David Collings and Pamela Salem return as Liv, Tula, Poul and Toos in this three-part boxset release from Big Finish Productions.
A joint directorial effort between Ken Bentley and Louise Jameson, the third instalment of The Robots is exclusively available from the Big Finish website here prior to general release in February 2021. Be sure to revisit our reviews of volumes one and two of The Robots with The Digital Fix. The synopsis follows:
The Mystery of Sector 13 by Robert Whitelock
Liv is investigating the Sons of Kaldor - looking out for any unusual activity on Kaldor. But when her hunt leads her to an abandoned warehouse, she may have bitten off more than she can chew... And while she’s away, Tula is finding that some problems lie a little closer to home.
Circuit Breaker by Guy Adams
Poul has returned to Kaldor City... and Toos is doing her best to help his recovery. After troubling events in a local hotel, he finds himself with another crime to investigate. But are there some mysteries that shouldn’t be solved?
A Matter of Conscience by Lisa McMullin
The Sons of Kaldor are stepping up their anti-robot campaign as Liv and Tula are stepping up their search. But even as they get closer to the survivors of Storm Mine four, their understanding of events on Kaldor is about to change irrevocably.
The Mystery of Sector 13
Picking up from the end of Do No Harm, Liv’s investigations into the terrorist group the Sons of Kaldor lead her to the derelict slum areas of Sector 13, while Tula stumbles across a cover-up in the company archives that hints at broader conspiracy. Writer Robert Whitelock pulls triple duty on The Mystery of Sector 13, appearing as both robot SV56 and company representative Skellen, the former accompanying Liv on her foray into the Sector 13 warehouse complex and the latter further complicating Tula’s attempts to juggle work responsibilities with a duty to the truth.
This episode begins to fold in the events of previous stories into the broader arc; the fallout from The Sentient in particular is tied into Tula’s discovery in the company archives. Tula herself has typically been presented as the committed company woman in contrast with Liv’s free soul, but she seems to gradually be moving in the direction of breaking free from hegemony and regulation. She’s not quite there yet, but the groundwork is being laid, which is a pleasing development for Claire Rushbrook’s character.
It’s become clear that there are three main components to The Robots: the domestic lives of the Chenkas and their efforts for work-life balance; an exploration of the world of work and ‘the company’; and the layers of interplay between Kaldorans and robots, leading to the manipulation of robotkind for malign purposes and the extremist tendencies embodied by the Sons of Kaldor.
The previous set featured the first woman writing for this series with its two female leads, and this set at last promotes a woman, Louise Jameson, to the role of director. Jameson is praised in the interviews for her ability, like any good director, to put actors at ease and allow creativity to occur; she herself commends Whitelock’s multiple talents as writer and actor. Whitelock’s explanation of the differing writing processes for this story and his previous contribution, The Sentient, is also refreshingly honest.
Circuit Breaker is another middle story murder investigation for Toos and Poul (and another episode without Liv or Tula), this time laying the focus squarely on Poul’s mental illness. Guy Adams – always one to incorporate hefty thematic ideas into his scripts; look no further than Adam Adamant – mines the complexities of the human condition alongside a whodunnit mystery with a twist.
Poul’s distrust and fear of robots – his robophobia – was a key component of his characterisation in Toos and Poul, the middle story in the previous set which reintroduced the two characters, and who could blame him given his history. The irascible Poul, in the depths of what is clearly an enduring depression, is the more vivid of the two characters here. Toos quietly sparkles, and listeners develop the distinct impression that there is more to her than meets the eye (or rather, ear) considering the revelations given in The Mystery of Sector 13.
The pair shares a touching collegial rapport, and David Collings and Pamela Salem hold the audience’s attention as well as Walker and Rushbrook. In volume two, the mechanic by which they would become involved in the main Robots story arc was still unclear; by now, the series is steadily moving in the direction of the inevitable meeting between Toos and Poul and the Chenka sisters.
Adams shines a light on the dodgy underbelly of Kaldor City just as he exposes the systemic issues precipitating that inequality. He parallels the squalor of lower-class living conditions, petty crime and violent murder with the Kaldor founding families lording it over everyone else and turning a blind eye to the imbalance they perpetuate.
In the interviews, Adams gives Salem and Collings the generous but not overstated epithet of “unquestionably two of the finest actors”, which goes to show why Poul and Toos are still playing a part in the world of Doctor Who forty-three years after their introduction.
A Matter of Conscience
It’s in A Matter of Conscience, the first in the series to be recorded during lockdown, that we finally get to hear the Sons of Kaldor in action as an organisation – and realise that the trajectory of The Robots is becoming more layered and complex.
Lisa McMullin explores why an individual who considers themselves disenfranchised and disadvantaged might go to such extreme and militant lengths to get back at those deemed to have dealt out such misfortune. Her script doesn’t hold back in addressing challenging topics: the speculation about life after death and the transference of consciousness from corporeal body onto software is ethereal and creepy; and at one point Liv faces a classic and ever-difficult moral dilemma. (Three individuals are trapped under rubble. Does Liv try to save two which inadvertently kills the third, or save the third and risk time running out to save the first two – who are, to make things even more complicated, the parents of the third individual, a child.)
Jon Culshaw is back as Vash Sorkov (a name that, like many on Kaldor, sounds very cool) from The Mystery of Sector 13, giving an arch and snobby-nosed performance as the mysterious and clearly-up-to-no-good character. Red flags instantly go up for listeners when he shows up – and with good reason, for Sorkov is revealed to be an alias for Kiy Uvanov, originally played by Russell Hunter in The Robots of Death, and the only other survivor from that story in addition to Pool and Tous. After a series of scientific experiments Uvanov has had his mind transplanted into a new body – an act that pushes at the boundaries of morality and self-determination and provides a neat setup for the resolution in part four, to be released in June next year.
Society on Kaldor is complex, with many different groups having conflicting loyalties and aims. Some are pro-robot and some-anti-robot, some seek disorder and others a profit. In the midst of it all are Tula and Liv, trying to get along and find out where they stand. There is real potential for The Robots to draw to not only a big and exciting conclusion, but also one of real emotion for the two leads.
If the first and second instalments of The Robots set up the world and laid out the key concepts at play, then this release expands further upon the human manipulation of technology and robotkind. Cover art by Ryan Aplin, a recent addition into the Big Finish fold, gets better and better with each release, and sound design and music achieve their purpose to complement the story.
Waspish and impulsive but never without good reason, the Liv of The Robots (and Stranded and Ravenous and Doom Coalition) is a far cry from the Liv of Robophobia, the 2011 story in which she was introduced, where she had heart but seemed unfairly tethered to the whims and casual rebuffs of the men around her, and lacking agency on her own terms. Alongside Tula, whose own arc is gradually gaining definition, the sisters are the human core of speculative science fiction.
The standout sequences in volumes one and two tended towards the domestic, the personal; scenes between the two characters feel so real, their lived experiences and emotions so tangible. The Robots 3 has more of the same and excels because of it. There is something supremely relatable about Tula and Liv, and there shouldn’t be an end to the praise Rushbrook and Walker deserve as actors for their ability to evoke such nuanced and relatable moments of humanity.
Jameson is a good choice to take up directing duties on The Mystery of Sector 13 and A Matter of Conscience (and presumably at least one or two episodes in the final volume) considering she starred in the original serial. Working with Rushbrook and Walker, she and all involved find the humanity and reality within big-concept science fiction.