Review by Ryan Carey
Originally announced as a four-part series, Big Finish have returned to Chris Boucher’s creation of Kaldor City for two more volumes (at least — is it greedy to hope for more?) of director Ken Bentley’s The Robots, an ambitious, sprawling, politically-charged audio drama extrapolated from concepts originally introduced in the Tom Baker-era classic The Robots Of Death, principally starring Nicola Walker, reprising her role as Eighth Doctor companion Liv Chenka, and Claire Rushbrook as her sister, Liv.
For those coming to this range with a fresh set of ears, the stories take place in a “gap year” in Liv’s life when she found herself separated from Paul McGann’s Doctor and pursuing a “normal” life on her home-world of Kaldor, where the excesses of our own late-stage capitalist and techno-dependent society have been dialled up to 11. The series’ previous stories have revolved around such subjects as civil unrest, corporate greed, class division, and the slippery slope that is techno-organic hybridisation, and those themes are all present ad accounted for here, even if the tragic passing of legendary actor David Collings likely necessitated some conceptualisation on the fly just as the long-form parallel arc reuniting him with Robots Of Death co-star Pamela Salem was both coming to a head and dovetailing with the main arc featuring our two sibling protagonists.
All of which means the focus is a bit tighter this time out, but the issues the writers are tackling build upon what’s come before while expanding upon them at the same time. Granted, it made more narrative sense to have a couple of folks with long histories of involvement with Kaldor’s ruling corporation (generally referred to only as “The Company”) knee-deep in the intrigue than it does to have a couple of mid-level functionaries somehow coincidentally right at the heart of every major occurrence that threatens to shake this society’s delicate social fabric to its very foundations, but hey….needs must and all that, and anyone who’s travelled with The Doctor knows all about showing up somewhere and immediately finding themselves in way over their head. It’s part of the standard companion’s job description..especially, it would appear, when they’re no longer a companion and find themselves thrust into a more central role.
Anyway, with all that as preamble, then, let’s take a little more detailed look at what this latest box set of The Robots has on offer…
Big Finish newcomer Aaron Douglas pens The Enhancement, a generally-competent take on rather standard trans-humanist fears that sees a microchip-based “augmentation” go awry because, hey, it’s sci-fi and that’s what these things do. Anthony Howell returns as Volar Crick, who first appeared in volume one of the series, but he’s considerably the worse for wear given that he’s completely forgotten that he tried to replicate his dead wife’s mannerisms and memories and perhaps even her consciousness in a robot (it’s a long story…but also a very good one, so if you’re new to this series you’ll definitely want to go back and play catch-up), as well as other painful but necessary truths about his life. Douglas has a good handle on the character’s dialogue, and the principal and guest casts all perform magnificently, but some of the real-world parallels here are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed for their own good, concerns about the titular enhancement echoing almost word-for-word those of the “anti-vax” crowd of the here and now and attempts by “The Company” to suppress so-called “alternative” views on the subject expressed on Kaldor’s social media networks likewise being cribbed from (or, if you’re feeling more generous, “inspired by”) the rhetoric of those who distrust the mainstream media and prefer to get their “information” from the likes of, say, Alex Jones or Joe Rogan. I have no idea if Douglas falls into that camp himself or is just trying to be topical, nor does it particularly matter, but as someone who enjoys blatantly political art (including stuff I vehemently disagree with…..hell, I’m a lifelong fan of Randian Objectivist comics artist Steve Ditko, even though I find his worldview to be absolutely bonkers), I like to think I’ve developed the capacity to discern when messaging is being finessed into a story and when it’s being wedged in there regardless of how well it fits. It’s always a tricky thing to get right, of course, and points to Douglas for trying, but there are simply too many occasions when this starts to feel like it’s winking and nudging at the audience in plain sight. I’ll still give it a 6/10 score, as it’s a gripping and structurally sound yarn that moves things forward while standing on its own two feet in the best Big Finish tradition, but I prefer to be persuaded rather than lectured to. Still, your own mileage on this may vary depending on things like whether or not you think George Soros or Elon Musk is the nearest thing to a real-life Bond villain or who you consider to be the more legitimate populist, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Speaking of which…
A vaguely “Trumpy” rich guy with a thirst for political power named Kador Arris is the main “baddie” in veteran BF scribe Phil Mulryne’s Machines Like Us…or is he? Like all the best stories in this series to date (and this is definitely one of them), all is not as it seems here, and the twists and turns that Mulryne serves up on the way to a potentially-disastrous conclusion are very delicious indeed. The messaging here is more subtle, and all the more effective for that fact, with the story making the point as opposed to the points making the story. Plus, it’s constructed in such a way that if one wants to opt out of and/or deliberately ignore parallels with our society, one can do that and simply enjoy a fun, reasonably pacy conspiracy thriller. Finlay Robertson turns in a nicely subdued performance as Ariss, which proves to be a bold choice given that many actors would understandably play up the character’s “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” faux-populism, and our regulars do a superb job representing both the pro-and anti-Ariss points of view while remaining reasonably civil toward one another, something many an actual family has understandably struggled with in the post-2016 world. This one hits all the right notes from start to finish, and consequently earns every point of its 10/10 score.
Interestingly, the final play in this set, author Tim Foley’s Kaldor Nights, dials back the political intrigue while dialling up the plot intrigue, giving us a good-old fashioned mystery (with an appropriately technological twist or two) that takes place on the set of a popular prime-time soap opera/reality show hybrid named — well, you can guess from the title. This is one of those situations when saying much more and saying too much more are very nearly one and the same thing, but fans of David Lynch’s Inland Empire will probably find a lot here to their liking, while Alan Moore readers will certainly be reminded of V’s famous line “the cast gets eaten by the play.” As for the cliffhanger, well ….it’ll knock your socks off and leave you eagerly looking forward to volume six, and who could ask for anything more than that? A bit of the OTT melodrama from guest performer Jemma Churchill as diva actress Louisha Deltarto goes a long way, though, and while it’s entirely apropos for her character, it does grate from about the halfway point on and diminishes the “re-listen value” of this one just a bit. Still, a 9/10 score is a good one in anyone’s estimation.
And it’s a score very nearly equaled by the set when taken in its entirely, which I’ll award a good, solid 8/10. Things start off on a forgivably rocky note with a story from someone who could still very well prove to be a talented new addition to the BF ranks, then quickly recover and never really lose their footing in any appreciable way. Collings and Salem are missed, to be sure, but this series is still a masterclass in cohesive world-building and events are accelerating toward what promises to be a bang-up conclusion…one that I’m anticipating and dreading in equal measure given that I can’t wait to hear how it all ends, but really don’t want it to be over.
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