The Eighth Doctor’s Ravenous storyline had a number of small points whose larger meaning wasn’t evident until the story came to an end. One that still hadn’t been explained by the release of Ravenous 4 was Liv Chenka’s “missing year” on her home planet of Kaldor during the events of Escape from Kaldor in Ravenous 2. Liv left the TARDIS to hang out with her sister, the Doctor popped forward one year and grabbed her, and off she went, with some hints that something terrible had happened, but it was never mentioned again.
What happened was a spin-off series: The Robots Volume One is the first of four volumes chronicling Liv’s time spent on Kaldor with her sister, Tula, allowing Unreality SF favourite Nicola Walker to step into a lead role alongside Claire Rushbrook. The marketing and extras promise that The Robots will use the setting of the classic 1977 Doctor Who serial The Robots of Death to tell science-fiction stories about robots and artificial intelligence.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find this terribly compelling as sci-fi. The worldbuilding is minimal. It’s been an awful long time since I’ve seen Robots of Death, but I remember a very stylised, decadent world; this Kaldor doesn’t seem too off from 2010s Earth, just in the future. Especially I kept feeling like characters didn’t react to robots in a realistic way given what we know of Kaldor society. Almost every character here seems to be reacting to robots as though they are a recent innovation to be sceptical of — but it seems as though they ought to have grown up around them. We might be nervous about robot surgeons, but why would someone from Kaldor? The world here didn’t feel very well thought out.
The attempts to explore issues of technological development are often heavy-handed, especially in the second story, Robert Whitelock’s The Sentient. This one turns around an attempt to develop a substitute child, and though Whitelock’s script raises some interesting issues, it settles for the most banal of sci-fi plots in the end: What if this new invention went horribly and obviously wrong? The most successful, on the other hand, was John Dorney’s Love Me Not, which manages to reserve ethical judgment and just explore the role that empathetic robots might play in the grieving process.
I do love a bit of Liv, but I don’t think this story shows her off at her best; she’s all quips and bluster here, with little sign of the real Liv underneath. She’s also somewhat inconsistent, seemingly alternating between empathy for intelligent robots and fear of them depending on the demands of the episode. It might help if there was a sense that there was something at stake for her, that she had some kind of purpose in staying on Kaldor. Supposedly it’s about reconnecting with her sister, but you wouldn’t know it from how rude she is! (I like a bit of sarcasm, but Liv isn’t like this with, for example, Helen, and only like this with the Doctor when he deserves it!) It would be nice for Claire Rushbrook to get to do more, too; mostly Tula just gets meekly swept along by Liv’s plans, and offers tepid defences of consumerism.
One thing that I really think puts this set off on the wrong foot is the music. I usually like Joe Kraemer’s work; he really nailed it with his Paternoster Gang theme… but the music of The Robots is much too similar to it, Murray Gold–style orchestral bombast, which doesn’t serve well the “thoughtful science-fiction” genre that The Robots is supposedly playing in. Also every time a “this is funny” cue played over a scene I died a little inside.
It does have its high points. Like I said, Love Me Not is a strong conclusion to the set, with interesting ideas, good mystery plotting, meaningful character moments, and a great performance from Anthony Howell, who quite simply cannot be in too much Big Finish. I’m on board for more of The Robots, but hopefully it manages to elevate itself above the generic sci-fi mostly on display here.
The Robots Volume One (by Roland Moore, Robert Whitelock, John Dorney; starring Nicola Walker, Claire Rushbrook) was released by Big Finish Productions in December 2019.