The Robots Volume One – Starring Nicola Walker, Claire Rushbrook, Jon Culshaw & Tracy Wiles. Written by Roland Moore, John Dorney & Robert Whitelock & Directed by Ken Bentley – 3xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Robots Of Death is one of the most elegantly designed, classically plotted Doctor Who stories ever broadcast. While in essence, it’s Agatha Christie in space – a small group of upper class people and the servants who do the real work in an enclosed environment, but then people start dying – the lightly layered context of the world in which the story is set has fascinated people ever since. Kaldor is a long-established colony that brought a concept of aristocracy with it, the ‘First Families’ akin to British lords and ladies who came over with William the Conqueror, or the descendants of American Mayflower settlers, happy in their societal privilege.
But then there are the robots.
The robots twist the historical perspective somewhat, because what they are is a permissibly kickable caste – you don’t have to be polite to a robot, any more than you do to a kettle or a cash machine. It’s a thing, a mobile personal assistant, it’s Siri on legs or Alexa with an art deco face. The robots turn the Kaldorans not into aristocrats, but into Imperial Romans, owning their own three-level slave workforce.
Here’s the thing. When Robots of Death was broadcast, it was Agatha Christie in space, yes, but it was also pure science fiction – personal robots were a dream of the future or of pure invention, like flying cars, missions to Mars and worlds interconnected instantly by webs of data.
The future is very nearly now. Mars is in our sights, flying cars have been experimented with and self-driving technologies will make them more likely, you’re reading this on a worldwide web.
And the robots are coming. So interestingly, while the Kaldorans reach back to the political reality of Imperial Rome, they also, now, are an analogue of our future. Imagine Siri did have legs and could go do your grocery shopping while you were at work. Hell, imagine Siri could go out and do your work, leaving you to wait in for a grocery store’s walking Siri to turn up with your shopping. Robots are our future, and the Kaldoran robots have never been as relevant as they are now.
Here’s the other thing.
They’re fiendishly tricky to write single stories for.
Once you’ve told the story of Robots of Death, as the Fourth Doctor predicted, it’s probably the end of that civilisation. Once the slave class can be programmed to kill their masters, you have a civilisation with a deadly secret, but what else you can do with the robots is an enormously tricky question – there’s the straight flip, as Big Finish did in Robophobia, and then there’s an evolution of the nature of both humanity and robotkind, as it did in Sons of Kaldor. But it’s actually easier, if you’re going to re-use your robots, to drill down into the civilisation that uses them and show how it deals with the ethics of their use, their existence, and very possibly their increasing evolution towards sentience and self-determination within an organic population that really doesn’t want them to have it.
Welcome to The Robots Volume One.
If you’ve not followed everything Big Finish puts out with the slavish loyalty of a reviewer, here’s the score. Liv Chenka (Nicola Walker) is a Kaldoran med-tech (or doctor, as we’d call them). She’s been in the Doctor’s life a while, first meeting him in his Seventh incarnation, then teaming up with his Eighth for wild adventures in time and space. During the Ravenous story arc, we returned to Kaldor and met Liv’s sister, Tula (Claire Rushbrook), who’s big in robotic development. At the end of that adventure, the Doctor and his other friend Helen Sinclair flew off, because Liv had asked for some time to re-connect with her sister, her home planet, her life. A year later, they flew back, and Liv rejoined the Tardis crew.
The Robots box sets will tell the story of that ‘missing’ year.
In this first set, we explore the ethics of robot-assisted living, focusing on three key ways they could be put to use. In Roland Moore’s Robots Of Life, Liv reconnects with some old medical friends in a robot-aided hospital where it turns out people are dying on the operating table, and there’s a very unusual SuperVoc on standby. Is it a case of robot error, and if not, who’s covering for whom, and why?
As we mentioned, the robots are a permissibly kickable caste. Medical ethics are complex enough when there are only humans involved, and if things go wrong, you can’t sue a scalpel for killing your relative. But on Kaldor, is it possible to get a scalpel to take the blame for your wrongdoing? And if it is, is that ever where the story ends?
Roland Moore takes the grey areas of medical ethics and flings them into the complex arena of culpability in a robot-assisted world, while never forgetting the human aspects of Liv’s return to Kaldor, her connection with her sister and their jerky, scratchy relationship – they’re bonded by family ties, and they do love each other and look out for one another, but also, sometimes, they want to hit each other in the face with a spade. Y’know, like real siblings the universe over.
There’s great chemistry between Liv and Tula from the word go in this story, taking forward the relationship we heard in their first story together, Escape From Kaldor. But whereas that story had to hit the dramatic beats of a one-off episode in a box set, here we’re settling in for a longer haul, so Robots Of Life touches on some longer-term issues, memories and realities for the Chenka sisters. The story blends character relationships and medical conspiracy drama with a complex underlying philosophical question that’s explored the only way it can be – by throwing humans and robots into the deep end and seeing how they all react. The results are perhaps a little surprising, but we can listen to them as the product of an entrenched robot-assisted society, a society used to its walking Siris, none of whom are sentient or equal to their human masters.
Or are they?
Robert Whitelock’s The Sentient, naturally enough given the title, delves further into this question, as we explore the idea of robot ‘children’ with some degree of self-aware sentience being developed to fill gaps in the lives of some childless people. There’s a degree of parental bonding in the process, because there’s an organic element in the prototype robokind, Vissey, taken from her lead developer, Rork (Jaye Griffiths) who builds an emotional connection to the new, potentially sentient robot-child. But there are several levels of philosophical trouble brewing. Firstly, as Liv says when she discovers the project, they’re building children with mute buttons for when they become invonvenient, or loud, or stroppy, and secondly, they’re allowing Vissey unrestrained, unprotected access to the Kaldoran equivalent of the internet, complete with message boards. More than that though, the story shows the condescension inherent in liberation from a form of bondage only at the speed and to the level comfortable for the oppressor – as Vissey evolves her understanding of the world, it far outstrips that which her creators would want her to have, and she becomes far less a child parody, far more a slave revolutionary, tapping into the inevitable dichotomy of a world which builds itself a slave and calls it their child. There are uncomfortable questions by the truckload in this story, and it’s telling that it’s Liv Chenka, who’s seen the universe with the Doctor, who takes the position that would essentially forever render the Kaldor robots no more than talking kettles – the position that the kind of AI that Vissey has, with the ability to evolve into sentience, will ultimately lead to the destruction of the human population. If you want to get uber-philosophical, there’s a lesson for us in this story – Vissey learns and evolves by interaction both with the people she meets online, and by the history of the society into which she’s being built to integrate. What she finds leads her to an individual but destructive destiny. Perhaps before we go down the robot route, we should make sure our society could only be viewed as a positive example for any intelligence discovering it fresh.
Let’s not hold our breath though, eh?
Love Me Not, by John Dorney explores the idea of robots as grief-conduits, if not grief counsellors. When someone we love dies, would it be possible – would it be acceptable – to install a robot in our home, with knowledge of their nature, their memories, even their voice? Where’s the boundary between being a conduit for human grief and replacing the missing familymember? Becoming the missing familymember?
The husband of one of the victims who died on the operating table in Robots of Life returns to work earlier than anyone expects. He’s given a very particular SuperVoc to help look after his children as he adjusts to his new reality. But as he and the SuperVoc grow closer, the walls of reality and the rawness of grief collide. Can Volar Crick (Anthony Howell) tell the difference between reality and fantasy any more? And can the Chenka sisters help him back from the brink, while investigating why his wife Jasdar (Annabelle Dowler) died in the first place?
The first Robots set does what no Kaldor robots story has had the scope to do since the Kaldor City audios by Magic Bullet Productions – it takes us down among the people and the robots of Kaldor and tackles what their co-existence looks like, and what it means; the challenges, the wonders, the everyday dramas. More than those audios though, the Robots set fits comfortably within the Doctor Who universe, and deals with the robots not so much as science fiction, but as a philosophical reality we need to address in our future. And uniquely, the Big Finish version of Kaldor has the power of Liv Chenka and her sister Tula to add human warmth, compassion and sibling bickering to the world of the Robots, which makes it an irresistible listen. Tony Fyler