Tony says yes to the Yes Men. This could take a while.
There are many good, sensible reasons why the Tom Baker story Robots of Death wasn’t entitled Robots of Civility and Learning. Technically, it could have been – the Voc Robots were nothing if not polite and accommodating until someone introduced the idea that they were being mistreated into their circuits – but it does play merry hell with the dramatic tension of the thing.
The Yes Men, the first Patrick Troughton story in the ‘Early Adventures’ series which replaced the Companion Chronicles, treads fairly similar ground in essence, Simon Guerrier creating a society where robots are very much an underclass, and where politics and chicanery are rife in the wake of a previous visit by the First Doctor, when he helped the colonists of New Houston defeat a Big Bad From Outer Space.
What you have to ask yourself in order to appreciate The Yes Men for its storytelling merit is what would have happened if Taren Capel hadn’t beggared about with the programming of the Sandminers’ robots. Would they have gone on in perpetuity, selflessly obeying their human masters and mistresses – or would something rather more interesting have happened? Guerrier plays with the idea that it might, and it’s an idea that saves The Yes Men from being perhaps a piece too true to the period in which it’s set to make compelling listening fifty years on – too full of bickering politicos waving guns around, and throwing accusations and counter-claims at each other in an atmosphere of building paranoia.
There’s plenty of that, and it does help give the story a distinctly early Troughton feel – not so much a base under siege as a society in crisis (we should perhaps make it clear that the story’s not set in the same society as Robots of Death; the Tom Baker story’s just a handy reference point for understanding this one). And the idea that gives us plenty else to think about besides the paranoid politicos and their lackeys also serves another useful, practical function, separating our Tardis team into two groups, and giving both groups something active and interesting to do for two hours, so that none of them stand around looking surplus to requirements.
That’s particularly important here as the story marks the first full-throated attempt to resurrect the full Tardis crew of Jamie, Polly and Ben. We’ve known for some time now that Frazer Hines, besides sounding barely a day older than he did back in 1967 when he slips into Jamie’s Scottish brogue, does an utterly uncanny Patrick Troughton impersonation, a fact which has brought to life more than a handful of Troughton tales and let us relive the feeling of those black and white days with spectacular vividness. But of course Michael Craze, who played Ben Chapman, sadly passed away long before the opportunity ever arose for him to add his voice to the mix at Big Finish, leading to dangerous territory: do you simply contrive ways for Ben to be off doing something else if you want to tell stories of the period, or do you take the bold step and re-cast him for a new generation.
To be fair to Big Finish, there’s never been an easy, right-feeling moment to recast; never, if you like, a need so pressing that the risk of alienating fans was worth taking. But now, two moments have come together – firstly, having fought valiantly to tell Third Doctor stories with everyone under the sun speaking Jon Pertwee’s lines for him as reported speech, Big Finish has bitten the bullet and re-cast the Third Doctor as Tim Treloar to allow full-cast adventures to be recorded for the dandy Doctor again. And there’s this release – the shift of the Early Adventures into the Second Doctor’s time and territory. Once you’ve re-cast a highly popular Doctor, a companion probably doesn’t feel as daunting a prospect (though that’s probably not a theory worth testing with some of the higher-profile companions: re-casting Sarah-Jane, anyone?).
Step forward then, Elliot Chapman, as the new voice of Ben Jackson.
Maybe it’s because several of Ben’s stories are missing from the archive, but for this listener at least, Chapman’s practically indistinguishable from the original. Certainly, his youth and gusto brings the essence of Ben to the story, and in one of those peculiar moments where your focus shifts, you realise what you’ve been missing all this while. Ben and Jamie are both pivotal in the story, providing an in-universe answer to that question of what happens to a robotic underclass, capable of learning, if they’re continually mistreated. The answer, as it turns out, is that they learn from that treatment – a touch of sci-fi doing what it does best here, using advanced fictional societies to teach us a fundamental truth about our own: how we act towards those less fortunate than ourselves is a lesson we teach, whether we mean to or not.
Meanwhile the Doctor and Polly are stuck at the more expositional end of the plot, trying to uncover who’s really dead, if anyone, who doesn’t exist and why, and what is really going on on New Houston – assuming anyone actually knows. There’s toing and froing as the Doctor tries to find out exactly how his friend, Meg Carvossa, died (let’s just say, according to the records, she had a really, really bad day), and plots and counter-plots as political rivals blame each other for the planet’s problems. This half of the story takes a while to get into, and then unfolds at a reasonably metered pace across the course of the four episodes.
If The Yes Men has a fault, it’s the one that underscores why Robots of Death wasn’t entitled Robots of Civility and Learning: there’s a good sense of paranoia developed in the mid-section, but there’s never a particular feeling of peril, of threat, of ‘We’re all going to die!’ and credits. There are angry people and curious robots and dubious double dealing and a bit of a revolution but none of it feels terribly consequential, and everyone, in the end, is rather reasonable about the whole thing. Robots of Reasonableness isn’t a great title either, but there’s a chance that listeners will feel that’s exactly what you get with The Yes Men.
That said, while the peril factor’s not massively high, it is delightful to hear this Tardis team in full-on action again, and Chapman makes a spirited debut and a great addition to the adventure. Guerrier’s script is faithful to the Troughton era’s spirit, while posing some solid philosophical questions and teaching a good lesson. Lisa Bowerman, on directorial duty here, keeps the pace moving briskly, cutting between the two main story-threads at jusssst the right moments to keep the plates of audience involvement spinning and keep it from ever sounding like something you want to fast forward. So for an interesting, if not overchallenging adventure that brings Ben Jackson back on board the Tardis properly for the first time in audio, say yes to The Yes Men today.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk