❉ The ongoing story of Kaldor has proved to be one of Big Finish’s most innovative spin-offs, writes Bryn Mitchell.
“The opening act, exploring Poul’s breakdown and subsequent robophobia, is perhaps the deepest character exploration we’ve had in the series so far, and gives the late David Collings the opportunity to give what might just be the range’s standout performance.”
[Editor’s note: This review may contain spoilers.]
The fourth instalment of this ongoing range brings big changes, a couple of massive twists, and the return of Gregory de Polnay’s D84. The Robots has proved over four sets to be one of Big Finish’s most innovative spin-offs, and this set is no different, providing three episodes that push the range and the characters forward. Kaldor is a world on the brink, and this set brings the precipice ever nearer, with a feeling that the world our characters inhabit could collapse into anarchy at any moment; leading to where it’s at as Liv departs with the Doctor during Ravenous 2.
The first episode is another Toos and Poul lead story, forming a conclusion to the loose trilogy of episodes from their perspective over the last few sets. And as this story returns the characters to the wreckage of Storm Mine 4, it’s the closest the range ever comes to being a direct sequel to The Robots of Death. The revelation that this is the Sandminer they are on is presented as a bit of a twist, and certainly comes as a shock to Poul who has been brought there by Toos, but it is evident to the audience fairly early on. It’s then confirmed by the presence of a battered but still very much alive D84. D84’s relation with Poul as a colleague is explored in the light of Poul’s breakdown and subsequent development of robophobia. The story centres Poul’s trauma, having him revisit it first in nightmares and then physically returning to the place where it occurred. It’s perhaps the deepest character exploration we’ve had in the series so far, and parts of it play out almost like a domestic drama between Toos and Poul. Their dialogue exchanges dominate the opening act, with much of the story consisting of two-hander scenes between them. It’s revealed that Poul has recently become accustomed to seeing Toos on a video screen more often than in-person, and has been bingeing “cheap and trashy” television; details which seek to compound Poul as a very human and very relatable character even in this sci-fi setting.
Poul’s anxieties may be primarily related to his fear of robots, but again they present themselves in symptoms that may be familiar to some of the listeners. His inability to leave the house (due to the omnipresence of robots outside) results in a form of agoraphobia. And conversely, his fear of himself being a robot or being turned into one — something which is threaded throughout the episode — is more related to claustrophobia as he describes it as a fear of being trapped, sealed-in, encased. The story also features him experiencing a panic attack. Despite the science fiction context and science fiction cause of his trauma, Poul’s mental health is consistently presented with verisimilitude and sincerity. This gives the late David Collings the opportunity to give what might just be the range’s standout performance. Given that this had to be, unfortunately, one of his last performances (he’s briefly featured in episode 3 of this set too) it’s amazing that he was able to go out on such a high. It’s a shame that Poul’s story in The Robots saga must come to an end, as the Toos/Poul stories have consistently been set highlights and Poul in particular has had a huge amount of development, but this nicely concludes his arc in the series. At the end of this story there’s a couple of shock twists in quick succession, that genuinely took me aback and which I will not spoil. Not only did they succeed in surprising but, retrospectively, they were expertly set up for and seeded throughout the episode (if not necessarily the previous sets), suddenly explaining things which may otherwise seem like plot holes on first listen. No doubt the repercussions of these twists will go on to have massive impact in the rest of the range, as we already begin to see in the final episode of this set.
Overall, this episode, Closed Loop, does far more than it has to. Given the inclusion of D84 and Storm Mine 4, it might have been enough for many fans if this was a fan-service based nostalgia trip. And it’s true that there is a joy to hearing Gregory de Polnay voice one of the robots again after all these years. But the story is so much more than that, rather than relying on references to The Robots of Death (of which there are very few, the Doctor and Leela aren’t referred to even vaguely), it centres the emotional lives of two characters played by two fine actors and explores their relationship and their shared trauma. It’s a story I feel I will find myself listening to again and again, largely just for the joy of the repartee between David Collings and Pamela Salem.
In the second instalment of this boxset, Off Grid, we’re back with Nicola Walker and Clare Rushbrook as sarcastic sisters Liv and Tula Chenka. The story is also complemented by a number of guest characters, many of which return from previous sets, cementing the ensemble feel this range is starting to develop. Robert Whitelock returns as Tula’s abrasive colleague Skellin, and Jon Culshaw is ‘Vash Sorkov’ who was revealed in the previous set’s major twist to actually be a robot duplicate and reincarnation of Uvanov (as originally played by Russell Hunter in The Robots of Death). The story provides separate plots for Liv and Tula after their initial interactions in the opening act. While Liv tries to get out of town with Uvanov and a Super Voc that could be key evidence against The Sons of Kaldor, Tula remains at The Company to try and cover for the robot’s absence. It’s at this point, a reasonable way in, that the event that gives the episode its title occurs. There’s a power outage, seemingly affecting the entirety of Kaldor. The story depicts the naturally devastating consequences of this for such a technologically dependent society, including ‘flyers’ crashing out of the air and pacemakers ceasing to function.
Tula and Skellin’s narrative then becomes about trying to restore the energy from the company’s back up, while dealing with an incursion from the ‘Sons of Kaldor’ terrorist group, all made more complicated by Skellin’s distrust of Tula. Meanwhile, as Liv’s two robot companions become inactive, she relies on a nomad’s horse and carriage to help transport her and her allies. It’s this section of the narrative that’s more interesting, exploring the cultural makeup of Kaldor, featuring Nomads (members of Kaldor society that have left the city/abandoned technology) and the Ferellin (the indigenous people of Kaldor, who inhabited it prior to the Founding Families arrival). Liv’s sympathy with the nomads is offset by Tula’s pragmatism in the other half of the story, as it’s revealed that the only way to restore power is to activate the wind farms, which will displace and disrupt the nomadic people as they rise out of the ground, something which doesn’t seem to faze Tula.
This episode, with its frequent two-hander scenes and slow moving action, is another example of how this series is a more contemplative and gently paced sci-fi than much of Big Finish’s output. Slower paced stories can be a harder sell on audio, as there is more of a struggle to maintain attention than in visual mediums, but the pacing absolutely suits the stories being told. It’s interesting too how much the range has shifted into more complex and interesting themes. The first boxset seemed to be primarily concerned with issues around robot sentience and the fear of advancing technology — almost Doctor Who’s take on Black Mirror — but as the series has gone on it has shifted into a deeper serialised narrative, focusing on the relationship between communities and exploring ideas of terrorism and revolution. With characters like Uvanov the debate around whether it is possible for a robot to be sentient doesn’t even seem to be a question now (albeit this is a robot imitating a real human, rather than a purely original sentient being), and the sets are more concerned with what a world in which this is possible is like. This episode is a prime example of that, and effectively comments on the world that has been created by showing what might happen if it was thrown backwards to a time before technology. Writer Sarah Grochola’s contribution to the second boxset was one of my favourite stories from the range, and while this story perhaps suffers from being pulled in a few more directions than that one was, it shows her talents as a writer just as effectively.
In the third and final episode Robert Whitelock takes on double duties, both writing and continuing his part as Skellin. There’s a time jump between this and the previous episode, and after those events Skellin now appears to be more on Tula’s side, which is useful when she becomes suspected of leaking information from the Company. Before all that, there’s a short pre-titles scene featuring Toos, Poul, and Uvanov together. The scene exists to write Poul out, as he expresses a desire to go off-world, but it also feels significant to finally have these three Robots of Death characters together again in a scene (albeit with Uvanov recast). It also makes it the first episode to feature both Toos and Poul, and Liv and Tula, setting us up for the inevitable crossover between these two narrative threads.
We start once more with a story that keeps Liv and Tula fairly separate, but unlike the previous episode their two narratives converge and bring them together, which allows for some nice moments of sisterly banter between them, something that has otherwise been lacking from this particular release but is a defining feature of the series. Liv’s intervention as Tula’s defence in the case being brought against her goes pear-shaped in a particularly amusing way. There is a slight vein of humour to this episode throughout, as we also get to see the otherwise technologically astute Tula grapple with the difficulties of social media: referred to on Kaldor as the socio-virtual network. There’s some effective worldbuilding in this story through use of colloquial neologisms, with the act of using this social media being referred to as ‘tumbling’ and the terrorist group Sons of Kaldor being referred to by the initialism SOK. The latter of these is a concise way of showing how normalised and part of the cultural landscape of Kaldor this group and their actions have become.
It’s a story full of lovely, small incidental details like this. While references to the Doctor are generally sparse in this range, there’s a moment where we see how Liv maintains his morality even when away from him, as she remarks how a man once taught her “carrying guns only increases the chance of violence”. It’s a brief line that doesn’t in any way detract from the more grounded nature of this series, but just briefly reminds us of Liv’s other life in the other ranges, even while she is characterised in a slightly different way here. There’s a scene not long after this where she drinks alcohol, and while this is by no means something completely off limit in Doctor Who, it does feel like a reminder that she is living a more ordinary life after spending years with the Doctor.
Tula’s interactions on the socio-virtual network also make for clever writing, as when trying to expose the real leaker, by impersonating someone who wants to pay for their services, she comes up against technology that can tell if she is lying. The result is her having to use phrasing ambiguous enough that her statments remain true, but also suggest something else to the leaker, so that she can maintain the conversation long enough to gain information. It’s a perfect example of writing subtext and shows Robert Whitelock’s skill, both in engineering the script to have this situation and then writing it as well as he does when it comes.
This story and set ends with Liv finally achieving her goal of getting an audience with Toos. It feels like a huge, iconic moment, and makes me excited for how the characters’ relationship will develop in future sets. By keeping Toos separate from the main narrative for so long they’ve built this up to be a big deal and it pays off extremely well. It’s interesting that this range was originally announced to only be four sets (before being changed to six), but I’m glad they made the decision to continue it as otherwise this set would have felt very rushed in order to bring us about to the conclusion where Liv leaves and rejoins the Doctor (as seen in Ravenous 2.1 – Escape From Kaldor). The story really has escalated to such an extreme point here, with tensions so high on Kaldor, and both the Sons of Kaldor and Toos’ alliance seeming poised to make big moves soon.
It’s an impressive feat that after twelve episodes this range still has so much potential and there are so many questions I still want to see answered. I am certain that the next two boxsets are going to be explosive, and I am looking forward to them greatly. But for now these three new episodes are more than exciting enough, and a brilliant addition to the ongoing story of Kaldor. It’s not just a brilliant Doctor Who spin-off, but a fine slice of political sci-fi audio drama in its own right, and is more than worth listening to for the first episode, and David Collings unforgettable performance in it, alone.
THE ROBOTS: VOLUME FOUR
Director: Ken Bentley
Producer: David Richardson
Script Editor: John Dorney
Written by: Guy Adams, Sarah Grochala, Robert Whitelock
Executive Producers: Nicholas Briggs, Jason Haigh-Ellery
Duration: 210 minutes approx.
Released: June 2021, exclusively from the Big Finish website.
All images © Big Finish Productions.
❉ ‘The Robots: Volume 4′ is now available from the Big Finish website at £19.99 as a collector’s edition CD box set or £16.99 as a download from the Big Finish website. The Robots: Volumes 5-6 are now available to pre-order as a bundle for just £38 on CD or £33 on download. Visit https://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/v/the-robots.
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❉ Bryn Mitchell (@BMitchell_Twitr) is currently reviewing DW Time Lord Victorious at: Time Lord Victorious Blogging Project
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