The Robots 4 (Big Finish Review)

Since the release of volume three of The Robots, the series has been expanded from twelve episodes to eighteen, making this fourth volume not the saga’s grand finale as originally planned, but another link in the ongoing chain of conspiracy and revolution on the planet Kaldor.

Let’s recap the key plot developments from previous volumes. Sisters Liv (Nicola Walker) and Tula (Claire Rushbrook) are embroiled in a dangerous investigation into the extremist group the Sons of Kaldor, who are stoking the fires of revolution. Liv and Tula have encountered a range of individuals with conflicting aims and loyalties, such as Vash Sorkov (Jon Culshaw), into whose body the mind of the duplicitous Kiy Uvanov, a character from the original Doctor Who serial The Robots of Death – which The Robots draws upon heavily for inspiration – has been transplanted.

In a separate plot thread, Ander Poul (David Collings) and Lish Toos (Pamela Salem) – the two other surviving characters from the original serial – take up investigations of their own, though the series is steadily heading in the direction of the eventual meeting between the two pairings.

Spoilers follow.

Closed Loop

Closed Loop is the third and final story in the mini Toos-and-Poul trilogy within the broader saga, and the second to be scripted by Guy Adams. Adams’ writing across multiple Big Finish ranges often drifts into psychological territory, exploring spectres of trauma, psychosis and paranoia – think Adam Adamant, Blind Terror, even volume two of The War Master – and his previous two stories for The Robots have been heavy with Poul’s robophobia and PTSD post-Storm Mine 4.

Closed Loop is an even more direct interrogation of the character’s mental illness, allowing Poul to face up to his demons – to ‘close the loop’ – during an expedition to the ruin of the sandminer from the original serial. David Collings fully commits to presenting the inner torment of the “washed-up investigator” as he rails against the world with fervour; by contrast, Pamela Salem’s Toos is the more assured company woman with a hidden agenda. Each provides a nice counterbalance to the other, and they also share a healthy banter that prevent the story from getting too morbidly depressing.

The climactic revelation that Toos and Poul are both robot duplicates – and that the former has been replacing those sympathetic to “the cause” across Kaldor – is a big one, reconfiguring listeners’ understanding of where the saga might be headed. Pair it with the Kiy Uvanov revelation at the end of The Robots 3 and we’ve got an idea of the conspiracies, deceptions and ulterior motives at play.

Off Grid

Episode two is also Sarah Grochala’s second contribution to The Robots, after the superb courtroom drama pastiche Do No Harm in volume two. Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook are back in the driving seat for this story, alongside Robert Whitelock as Tula’s boss Skellen and Jon Culshaw as Sorkov, who is now in the business of liberating robots from the clutches of the exploitative Kaldor Company.

By now we’re well and truly embroiled in the plot. Off Grid gives us a robot with an ominous message, a tenuous alliance between Liv and Vash Sorkov, and accusations thrown at Tula of being allied with the Sons of Kaldor, whose presence is becoming increasingly visible – in this episode alone they orchestrate an explosion at a city market and detonate an EMP that fries power throughout the city.

Time and time again, the highly relatable rapport between the two leads carries this series. They’re characters you want to spend time with, and Walker and Claire utterly sell the sisterly relationship. Another area where the series has excelled is the exploration of technology’s use for good and for ill: Off Grid highlights more of the murky boundaries surrounding human enterprise and gives a snapshot of the lengths some people will go to – violent terrorism, technology-spurning nomadism – when attempting to secure their future.

The Janus Deception

The Janus Deception again balances furthering the overall arc with exploring a fascinating and topical aspect of technology. Past episodes have tackled topics like artificial intelligence and robot rights, and now writer Robert Whitelock weaves in ideas around identity theft and data as currency, as Tula is framed for leaking company data onto the black market. Whitelock also decides to kill off his own character, Skellen, who was always a little sketchy, after he is revealed as the source of the leak – although, given the saga’s trajectory, he could easily return in robot form in volume five.

As we continue to build towards the explosive conclusion glimpsed in Ravenous 2, when Liv rejoins the Doctor after a year away, we see how Kaldor’s civil upheaval is pushing different factions into conflict with each other. There’s the Company, of which Tula is decidedly a part; Liv does more of her own thing but stays loyal to her sister even in the face of accusations against her; and the anti-robot Sons of Kaldor are positing themselves as a force to be reckoned with – these have been the key players in volumes one through three.

But more recently we’ve seen the emergence of a group of robot duplicates, led by Toos and including Sorkov, who are fighting for Kaldor’s liberation and aim to create a new civilisation for robotkind and its allies. And The Janus Deception finally brings Liv face-to-face with Toos, who wants to recruit Liv to their cause. We don’t hear what Liv’s response is, but now the two storylines have merged there will no doubt be more interactions between her and the Chenka sisters.

As we reach episode twelve of eighteen, the disparate parts of The Robots are finally beginning to come together. I like how the series doesn’t always spell things out straight away, but that does mean you need to pay attention to keep track of the discrete plot threads and character motivations – and you certainly wouldn’t want to start listening halfway through and miss everything that’s come before. The Robots 4 ushers in some surprising revelations while keeping close to the themes and relationships the series does best.

The Robots 4 was released in June 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until the 31st July 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Extras

At Big Finish, the end of a story doesn’t always mean the end of a release – oh no! Interviews with actors, writers, script editors, composers and others give us a peek behind the production curtain. Highlights from the interviews on this release include:

  • John Dorney’s memories of having Gregory de Polnay as his voice tutor at drama school – and sharing a VHS of The Robots of Death with friends so they too could hear him in action as D84;
  • De Polnay’s own memories of helping Tom Baker with a crossword on set;
  • Robert Whitelock’s love for the cyberpunk-inspired world of Kaldor;
  • Jon Culshaw’s description of the robots as the result of “a Cyberman who tried to upgrade Mozart”; and
  • Joe Kraemer’s analysis of the parallels between the social upheaval of The Robots and what he observes in his home country of the US. It’s genuinely pleasing to see the composer, who we don’t always hear from in these interviews, share such an incisive perspective on the story world and explain how music responds to and enhances the emotional beats of characters.

There’s also a short suite of music to give you that final Kaldor fix before another six-month wait for the penultimate volume, scheduled for release at the end of this year.

Synopsis

Closed Loop by Guy Adams

Toos needs Poul’s help on a mission so sensitive she won’t even tell him where they’re going. Needing to escape from his demons, Poul agrees. But he finds more ghosts waiting for him at their destination.

Landing in the desert, Poul can’t help but be reminded of his time on Storm Mine 4… and soon he’s hearing familiar voices.

As he and Toos start to dig, they’re about to discover that some secrets can’t stay buried…

Off Grid by Sarah Grochala

When a Supervoc is found on the streets, claiming responsibility for a recent explosion, it’s clear to Liv and Tula that the Sons of Kaldor are attempting to frame robots for their murderous attacks. But where are they? And how to stop them?

As they try to smuggle the Supervoc out of the city, it’s clear that finding the enemy will be the least of their worries as tonight… the lights are going out.

The Janus Deception by Robert Whitelock

Tula is under investigation by the company – for fraud, industrial espionage and conspiracy. She knows she’s innocent… so who is impersonating her? And why?

Liv, meanwhile, is nearing the finishing line of her trail, a meeting with the survivors of Storm Mine 4, in person. But will that really be the end… or a new beginning?

Cast

Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka)
Claire Rushbrook (Tula Chenka)
David Collings (Ander Poul)
Pamela Salem (Lish Toos)
Gregory de Polnay (D84)
Jon Culshaw (Vash Sorkov)
Sarah Lambie (Graf Kirran / Deep Blue)
Glen McCready (Bendis)
Carolyn Seymour (Ullmann)
Robert Whitelock (Skellen / SV72)
Tracy Wiles (SV48 / SV49 / Jadia / Virtual AI)

Credits

Cover Art by Ryan Aplin
Director Ken Bentley
Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs & Jason Haigh-Ellery
Music by Joe Kraemer
Producer David Richardson
Script Editor John Dorney
Sound Design by Joe Kraemer & Kristin Simpson
Written by Sarah Grochala, Robert Whitelock & Guy Adams
Based on characters created by Chris Boucher
Remote recording dialogue assembly by Joe Kraemer & Kristin Simpson

Suggested Listening

The Robots 1
Doctor Who – Ravenous 2
Doctor Who – Robophobia

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