Tony plays Dum.
When you call your Doctor Who story Robots of Death, you pretty much dispense with the whole ‘whodunnit’ element of your plot, right from the off. Clearly, it was a robot. That, and the fact that we actually see a Robot go red-eyed and murdery within the first handful of minutes, means it’s something of a storytelling miracle that Robots of Death by Chris Boucher is the tight, tense thriller it is – at least until you understand what a robot is in the culture of the Sandminer crew. It’s a knife. It’s a gun. It’s a thing, with no more will of its own than either of those objects. And as the National Rifle Association was once fond of saying, ‘guns don’t kill people. People kill people.’ That’s a distinction that lets Robots of Death have its shock title, and still be mysterious. The robots are not ‘whodunnit’ but ‘whatdunnit.’ The who is the person who turned the robots into weapons of destruction, and we don’t find out who that is until quite late in the day, once almost everybody else has been killed.
Robots of Death is right up there in terms of its storytelling and tension – it’s Agatha Christie in a sci-fi world, and as such, it’s been approached once or twice in 52 years, but rarely if ever bettered. The design is highly striking, the robots themselves are both beautiful and anodyne, making them all the creepier when they bring their mundanity of function to the business of killing people. Chris Boucher’s dialogue, heavily edited and embellished as it was, still works to create vivid characters, and a wider world beyond the Sandminer, for all we never go beyond the confines of its claustrophobic enclosures. Like many stories regarded by fans as ‘the greats,’ it’s been seen almost as sacrosanct, too perfect to disturb with anything so vulgar as a sequel. That said, the world and the threat cast long shadows in fans’ minds, and the world of Robots never really died – in 1999, Boucher wrote a sequel as a BBC novel, Corpse Marker, and the same year he was involved with Magic Bullet productions, who produced the Kaldor City audio stories to broaden out the world of Robots of Death, and actually, if thinly, link it to the world of Blake’s 7. While Corpse Marker successfully re-ran the formula of Robots of Death but expanded it to the whole of Kaldor City, the Magic Bullet audios set the idea of Robots of Death against a wider social and political context. Since then though, the Robots have slept, and in New Who, they’ve been rather subsumed by more specific and down-to-Earth versions of the same idea – ubiquitous tools gone bad. Think of The Sontaran Stratagem as Satnavs of Death, or The Bells of St John as WiFi of Doom, and you get the idea. Probably the least said about Voyage of the Damned, which wanted to be Robots of Death so badly it nearly squeaked, the better.
Step forward Big Finish then, with an alternative direct sequel to the original Robots of Death.
Step forward Nicholas Briggs in particular, who both wrote and directed Robophobia, the Seventh Doctor story that sees the gameplaying Doctor on a space freighter carrying 157,000 Robots of Potential Death, and a human crew to boot. And let the games begin.
One of the main reasons Robots of Death is difficult to follow with a sequel is because the story is complete in and of itself. Boucher found two logical ways to extend and expand the story, but if you put a Robot of Death on the cover of your story, the pull of the original story is so strong that you actually expect certain things – humans dying, no-one knowing who killed them, investigations, company agents, the Doctor being accused, someone having Robophobia, and an undercover psychopath intent on killing everybody. You almost demand it, or there’s no real point in it being a Robots of Death story. The danger though is that if you include all that…don’t you just end up with Robots of Death, all over again? How do you make it different enough to warrant its own existence, while hitting all the gracenotes you want it to hit?
To be fair, Big Finish manages to walk this line well in Robophobia. In the first place, while still very clearly the same society, it takes us away from the Received Pronunciation of the Sandminer crew with their Founding Family aristocratic boredom, and puts us at the grubbier end of the social spectrum. Most of the crew of the Lorelei, the ship full of dormant robots in Robophobia, have northern or regional English accents, William Hazell playing pilot Bas Pellicoe slightly camp in addition, adding to his casual likeability, while TV’s Sontaran du jour, Dan Starkey, has fun stomping about the place as security officer Cravnet, with a West Country accent (for the uninitiated, think Matt Lucas in The Husbands of River Song). Toby Hadoke, now heard in more and more Big Finish titles, was new to the game in 2011 when he took on the role of Security Chief Farel, and given the other roles he’s played, this is a welcome slice of hard edging for him. The same is true of Nicholas Briggs himself, who’s gratifyingly almost unrecognisable as Captain Selerat – gratifyingly because he has one of the most recognisable voices in the Big Finish world, but here that’s subsumed in the performance.
It actually feels slightly odd to have the Seventh Doctor in this story, where yes, plenty of people die (though many of them appear to get killed en masse, and off screen, minimising the impact of their slaughter) and many Robots of Deaths standards appear – bloody robot hands, shattered robot face-masks, the master robot control switch etc – but the McCoy incarnation eventually seems just right for the nature of this story; the Doctor who knows everything already, but nudges the real investigation along. There are certainly grey moral areas to the Doctor’s relative passivity in this story, given the body count, but there’s classic McCoying here too – poignant questions that explode like hand grenades of silence in the middle of angry, scared people’s rants, a refusal to jump to conclusions, and most especially of all, a quiet, caring speech to help save millions of lives at a crucial moment of high tension.
The story is probably unique in that it does give an insight into what the Robots of Death are like when they’re not busy slaughtering people, and in a way, it reclaims them from the status of hapless victimhood that the original Robots gave them by way of excusing their actions. It’s rather a neat flip, even if it does seem like one made because there’s nowhere else to really go with them.
Robophobia does one other thing beautifully well – it shows the evolution of a potential companion. Nicola Walker stars alongside Sylvester McCoy as his one-off companion here, and as Med-Tech Liv Chenka, she channels Pamela Salem’s Pilot Toos through a more modern, less languid sensibility, asking all the right questions, feeling the sorrow and the anger when her friends are killed, but recognising that itch at the back of her brain that says all is not what it seems to be, and that trusting the Doctor might be the right thing to do. In the early days of on-screen Doctor Who, it was occasionally the case that actors would impress the Production Team so much they would be invited to become companions on the strength of their showing – both Peter Purves and Frazer Hines joined the Tardis crew that way. Walker pulls off the same trick here; she gives Liv Chenka the attitude, the open mind and the trust that great companions are made of, and though she’s never travelled with McCoy’s Doctor since, Big Finish was keen to bring back both the character and the actress when the opportunity presented itself in the Dark Eyes series, and she’s become the Eighth Doctor’s latest companion, allowing Walker to explore different facets of Liv’s personality in response to a very different Doctor.
Robophobia is not Robots of Death. It’s probably not the equal of the original, looked at with cold and dispassionate eyes. But in the fact that it finds a new if slightly obvious story to tell with the Dums, Vocs and SuperVocs, that it ties itself directly to the original, that it allows McCoy to do his trademark dark and twinkly imp-man Doctoring and gives him a great speech, that it’s boldly characterised and played to show us a different stratum of the same society, that it flips and redeems the story of the robots who kill, and that it marks the beginnings of a great audio companion, Robophobia comes a damn sight closer to matching the original than you might ever have thought possible.