After an extended hiatus, The Robots are back. The penultimate volume of the saga has all the intrigue, conspiracy and human drama of past volumes, now with an added sense that things are pushing rapidly towards the explosive conclusion glimpsed in Ravenous 2.
The Eighth Doctor’s long-running companion Liv (Nicola Walker), most recently heard at a later point in her timeline in Stranded 4, headlines the story alongside sister Tula (Claire Rushbrook), who both grapple with momentous societal change on their home planet Kaldor. A world visited in just a single Doctor Who serial has been expanded to encompass an entire canvas of story possibilities.
Read what We Made This had to say about volume four of The Robots here.
From the off, the Robots saga has intentionally tackled questions of technological change head-on: artificial intelligence, robot rights and identity theft have each taken centre stage. Now, it’s the notion of surveillance and privacy of the individual.
With activity from terrorist group the Sons of Kaldor quietening down, Liv responds to the distress call of a company worker experiencing memory issues after receiving a brain chip implant called the Enhancement. This chip, aimed at updating the security protocols of company employees and preventing malign ‘data wraiths’ from conducting identity theft, is also one that Tula volunteers to receive.
“If we don’t have our memories, what are we?”
Complications ensue, of course, when both the company worker and Volar Crick – the robotic scientist who designed the innovation and who was last heard back in the first volume undergoing severe trauma following the death of his wife – show signs of significant memory damage post-surgery. When Tula herself inevitably begins to lose memories, Liv takes charge in classic Liv fashion.
Aaron Douglas’ script showcases the Liv-Tula pairing above all else, and in that way is precisely in the vein of past episodes of The Robots. Overall, The Enhancement isn’t hugely revolutionary – the story is linear and hits all the beats you’d expect, and touches on themes, such as the sisters’ love for their deceased father, that are common to the saga. But the story, like those previous, reveals that human intervention and manipulation of Kaldor technology is usually to blame for any wrongdoing, not robots.
Machines Like Us
Phil Mulryne’s follow-up takes a different tack by delving into the political world of Kaldor and its Company, a world of factions and plans. These are ideas which have certainly been present in the series up until this point but here receive extra attention.
Finlay Robertson, best known in Doctor Who as Larry in Blink, makes a decidedly more threatening turn as populist leader Kador Arris, a blue-blooded Kaldoran and Company committee member espousing a desire to change life on Kaldor for the better. This isn’t a faintly sketched mockery of a populist figure we’ve seen pop up across the globe in recent years – there’s considerably more complexity to the situation presented here.
For starters, Arris is oddly beguiling and seems earnest in his endeavour for positive change, rather than being in it for the sake of power, even if listeners aren’t quite provided with enough details about how he exactly plans to do so – although given the revelatory twist regarding the character, this could indeed be the point. Liv and Tula fall on opposite sides of the fence as they so often do: Tula exercising a healthy scepticism to begin with while Liv seems more open to the idea. In addition to Arris, there’s a returning Vash Sorkov (Jon Culshaw), whose initial menace has been superseded by what appears to be a willingness to cooperate with the sisters.
Machines Likes Us is certainly a middle episode, like each of these three stories really in the broader scheme of things, but as always there is an added layer of thematic depth to the storytelling.
Tim Foley is a writer who has lent his pen to many a Big Finish range, but this is his first for The Robots. His contribution to this volume echoes another of his recent scripts, that of My Guest Tonight for the Torchwood One – Nightmares, owing to its connection to television and entertainment, but this is in a much different vein.
Liv and Tula make a set visit to Kaldor’s very own scripted reality television series, Kaldor Nights, while on the hunt for abnormalities in the Enhancement chips of the show’s actors. The characters those actors play are of the snarky and combative kind typified by such programmes, and the script relishes in displaying their infighting tendencies.
“Let me be the cynical one. You still have to hope for the best with all this tech.”
What starts out as a fun parody of soap operas and television filming – and it is fun, with this episode being possibly the most light-hearted instalment in the series so far – turns into something much darker, and more eerie. Not only have the Enhancement chips been editing memories, they’ve also been steadily drifting into the territory of mind control. The Robots 6, currently scheduled for January 2023, will have to grapple with the wider repercussions of this as the Sons of Kaldor presumably return to wreak further havoc – and among it all, Liv and Tula will likely continue to work on their relationship.
Describing The Robots 5 as ‘more of the same’ would seem to undercut its quality. Although this being the fifth volume of six does mean its follows in the footsteps of twelve hours of previous content, there’s enough original thinking in these latest three stories to keep things fresh. And the saga’s exploration of technological advancement remains highly topical; Kaldor is a planet populated by robots, but it’s a planet where, as ever, humans are the ones to blame when things go wrong.
The Robots 5 was released in May 2022. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 June 2022, and on general sale after this date.
The Robots of Death gets a lot of love behind the scenes, as does Nicola Walker as a standout actor and adept series lead. Anthony Howell recaps the backstory and motivations of his character Volar Crick, while Paul Bazely and Sarah Lambie share their thoughts on how these speculative stories speak to the state of our own world in tangible ways. Jon Culshaw entertains with impressions, and composer Joe Kraemer fascinates with anecdotes from youth and creative insights alike.
The Enhancement by Aaron Douglas
The Enhancement chips are the next stage of personal security for the citizens of Kaldor – and following her experiences with identity theft, no-one is keener to get involved with them than Tula. Liv, however, has other concerns. The Sons of Kaldor have been suspiciously quiet. But is this something to be worried about? Or is the true threat much closer to home?
Machines Like Us by Phil Mulryne
Kador Arris of the founding families used to work for the Company – but now he’s on the outside and demanding greater accountability. His populist plans are gaining momentum – but also gaining him enemies. A terrifying conspiracy is underway – and only Liv and Tula are in a position to stop it.
Kaldor Nights by Tim Foley
Kaldor Nights is the most popular reality tv series on the planet… and it now has two new people on set. As danger approaches outside, Liv and Tula are there to ensure the show must go on. Because it’s just tv isn’t it? There can’t be anything sinister going on… can there?
Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka)
Claire Rushbrook (Tula Chenka)
Nicholas Asbury (Hari Ventross)
Paul Bazely (Elio)
Jemma Churchill (Louisha Deltarto)
Jon Culshaw (The Source / Sorkov)
Anthony Howell (Volar Crick)
Sarah Lambie (Graf Kirran / V709)
Yasmin Mwanza (Rosama Volf / V557 / Shinko Caprice)
Finlay Robertson (Kador Arris / V48)
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
Written by Tim Foley, Phil Mulryne & Aaron Douglas
Based on characters created by Chris Boucher
Remote recording dialogue assembly by Joe Kraemer