Big Finish: From The Worlds Of Doctor Who THE ROBOTS Vol 2 Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: From The Worlds Of Doctor Who THE ROBOTS Vol 2 Review

The robots are revolting, and Tony’s dancing.

It’s nine years ago now that Big Finish, and in particular, official clever sausage Nicholas Briggs, created Robophobia. The flipped-on-its-faceplate sequel to Robots of Death first brought Med-Tech Liv Chenka into our lives and lugholes back in 2011. That feels like a whole different planet, rather than just a different time, doesn’t it?

The Robots of Kaldor are still going strong.

You probably don’t need the potted prologue, but Liv Chenka, now a companion of the Eighth Doctor, took a year out to go and mend fences with her robot-developing sister, Tula, and that year’s what The Robots box sets cover. Good? Clear? On we go.

Robots Of War, by Roland Moore, kicks off this second box set of Kaldoran calamity. It’s plainly, unashamedly about as close to the original Robots Of Death as you can get. But it’s also interestingly plugged in to our own developing real world truth, which gives the shivers it delivers more depth and hook than would otherwise be the case.

Imagine a military training camp. Now, if you know robots at all, you’ll know they can’t be asked to do harm to humans. That would invalidate their programming and Asimov’s laws of robotics.

But we should never underestimate the sneakiness of humans in finding ways around obstacles. That ability to develop both moral and practical flexibility is one of the reasons humans have survived as long as they have. So imagine a military setting where robots could advise real human warfighters on the best strategies for survival, the ways to cross minefields, the ways to disable security protocols and so on. Imagine HQ-based robots as every smart tool James Bond ever had or needed, feeding information to the soldiers to make them better, more effective fighters.

That would be a work-around for Asimov’s laws, and it’s one Roland Moore brings to life in Robots Of War.

There’s much more to the story than that though. Moore’s a multi-level writer, he won’t ever leave you hanging on a single story-strand. Take that scenario, and make the training camp a sealed environment (can anybody say ‘Base under siege’?). Imagine that both the Chenkas, Liv and Tula, are on official visits – Liv to do med-assessments of the young cadets, Tula to check on a new protocol in these warrior-assisting robots. Imagine also that the commander of the base (Silas Carson putting his voice to great effect as Garlon Roshe) has their own, unusual history with robots, and that they’re an old flame of Tula’s.

And then imagine humans are stupid. Really, quite staggeringly, almost impressively stupid. But – and this is important – believably and strategically stupid.

What you have there is a collection of all the elements you need for a military base under robotic siege. In fact, it’s possible to go further. Science fiction veteran Philip K Dick always had a theory that the ‘rise of the machines’ that would theoretically wipe us out would be brought on not by the robots attaining consciousness or going rogue or any of that quantum-leaping cobblers. The rise of the machines and the death of humanity, Dick thought, was much more likely to come from the machines doing exactly as they’re supposed to do.

That’s very much the territory in which the original Robots of Death played, of course – it should be impossible to change what a robot understands it’s supposed to do. If you can do it, that’s the end of your civilisation. Here, Moore brings it very much closer to home. Robots in a military command structure, with a single, simple imperative. Protect the commanding officer at all costs.

At all costs.

It’s a story that is beautifully human, Robots Of War – it allows for different humans to have different, petty, self-revolving emotions and motivations, and for their actions to play in catastrophically to a bigger picture they’re not paid enough to see. Plus it gives the base under siege story a real kick in the strategic realities. Interestingly enough, if you Google ‘Robots of War’ without explaining it’s a Doctor Who or Big Finish term, you’ll see the sorts of source material for Moore’s evolution of Dick’s ideas. We’re already doing the sort of work on which Robots Of War hangs its drama – teaching machines firstly to protect human beings, and then to assign different lives different strategic values. Assigning some of us as pawns, some as rooks, some as bishops. All of whom, if necessary, can be sacrificed to save the king and ‘win’ the game of war.

Bring that logic to the robot-powered world of Kaldor, and see who blinks first – the humans, or the robots.

Punchy, powerful, with that old Robots Of Death thrill but turned up several notches so it sings a new note of techno-panic in your brain, Robots Of War is a cracking opener.

Of course it does rather make you wonder whether Big Finish are going for the whole Horserobots of the Apocalypse thing. War, we have. Death, we have. Robots Of Famine, next, maybe? Robot-run food factories? (Again, as per Philip K Dick?). Robots Of Pestilence? A computer virus that transfers across to run on human wetware?...Actually, shelve that thought for a couple of episodes. It may just be relevant within this box set.

Toos And Poul is the second story in this set.

Toos…And Poul.

Toos and Poul, Toos and Poul, Toos and Poul!

This is where we do our Toos and Poul happy dance. It’s sort of like the robot, but really, really not.

If you’re considering buying The Robots 2, it seems inconceivable you won’t already know this, but Toos and Poul were two of the surviving characters from Robots Of Death. Played by the now-legends that are Pamela Salem and David Collings respectively, Toos and Poul were characters written with enough complexity and power by Chris Boucher that they’ve always lived in the imagination of fans. Like a kind of futuristic space-bound equivalent to Jago and Litefoot, they had chemistry, they had complexity and they had potential.

And now they’re here. Together. In a script written by Andrew ‘No Slouch At This Robot-Writing Lark’ Smith.

Their story is pretty much standalone, inasmuch as Toos and Poul don’t interact with Liv and Tula at all. But it does tie in to story elements from Smith’s own previous robot story, The Sons Of Kaldor, and those elements are woven into the world of The Robots, bubbling along in the lives of Liv and Tula too.

So if it’s not tied in to the main story of Liv and Tula, what does Toos And Poul have to offer?

It has Toos and Poul, fool!

More than that though, it’s a chance to step outside the hyper-sophisticated world of the Kaldor we know. Whereas the Liv and Tula stories are set in the equivalent of Space-London or Space-New York, the glittering world of the company, the privilege, the First Families and robot assistance in every home, Andrew Smith takes his story out to the likes of Wyoming. Or Middlesborough, depending on the budget of your mind. Frontier living is the vibe here. And a murder that makes no sense.

Ander Poul has technically retired from any of the jobs he used to have the last time we encountered him. Lish Toos, less so. She has a problem to solve, and she picks up Poul to help her solve it – as well, just possibly, as solving the puzzle that is Poul himself and his seeming resignation to a world he dislikes, and wants very little part of.

It’s got strong vibes of ‘Old sheriff of the west brought out of retirement for one more act of righteousness,’ this story, while also bringing in some contemporary – and probably timeless – elements of disaffection between people. There are indigenous traveling people here, there are tensions between mingled groups that regard themselves as different, there’s infringement and insult and of course, there’s at least one robot, and at least one death. But when the Dums talk – a memory given a good deal of horror and impact for Poul personally – what is it they’ve been hiding? Do they have blood on their hands, or is there more to the murder than the simple horror of a robot of death?

Smith’s story here is gloriously off-beat, stuck between the two stories of Liv and Tula Chenka in the privileged world of Kaldor City. It shows a kind of wider world beyond the city walls, and that’s something we’ve always known Kaldor has, but rarely has it been evoked as it is here. Usually, outside the city we’ve been in closed environments full of robots – effectively city enclaves on wheels or tracks. Here, the difference in the wider world is hypnotic and instructive, and we get to hear of a more complex Kaldor than its previous ‘only city on the planet’ sci-fi existence has allowed.

The fact that Toos And Poul is separate from the Liv and Tula adventures, while dealing with the central premise of the robots, opens up the potential and the palette of the Robots box set. So far, it’s all been about Liv and Tula, but as a proof of concept, Toos And Poul, with its rich characterization and tight investigative mystery plot, succeeds in showing us a broader, more multi-layered Kaldor we could visit in future sets. Maybe The Robots needn’t be all about the Chenkas. Maybe, just maybe, there’d be room for other, newer voices too. Who rules Kaldor, for instance? Are robot rights and the push towards sentience things that are debated? How far up the chain of command and governance do the Sons of Kaldor have their operatives?

Just things which Toos And Poul makes us think about. Sadly of course, the world has been robbed of the perpetual story-helper that was David Collings since this set was put together, so the potential for further adventures for Toos and Pool is limited to whatever has already been recorded. But in terms of giving the world of The Robots greater depth and a broader canvas, Andrew Smith’s done a fantastic job, while also making all the hardcore Classic Who fans melt into puddles at the return of a favoured Seventies double act.

Robots Of Pestilence, you say?

Sarah Grochala’s more or less written it in Do No Harm, the story that closes out this box set. We came in with the question of whether robots should ever have the power to assign various values to different human lives. In Do No Harm, we have to deal with a single, powerful, clever robot – Tula’s prototype, SV22 – assigning consequences to actions that could kill a lot of people. Or save a society. Or both.

If you knew you could save the world, but you’d have to personally sentence hundreds of people to death to do it…could you? Would you?

For SV22, it’s technically a straightforward decision. The needs of the many, as another logical being once said, outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.

Except we don’t live in an entirely logical world, and neither do Liv and Tula.

There’s a degree to which things get a little far-fetched and stretchy in Do No Harm, with Med-Tech Liv Chenka training literally overnight to get her most basic level legal training so she can defend a robot in a Kaldoran court of law. SV22 stands accused of mass murder. It’s up to Liv to prove it innocent – at least of intentional harm.

But we don’t live in an entirely just world, either.

While it takes the world of Liv and Tula and turns much of what we know about it off so as to focus on the courtroom drama, it’s a blistering mystery, this one, as the Chenka sisters find allies, find enemies, and discover there’s chicanery afoot to place the blame for the mass deaths on the shoulder of a clever robot that seems to be getting above itself. When life and death is a robot’s to decide, what’s next? And can the Chenka sisters cope with law, justice and what comes after it when it comes to the actions of Robots within their increasingly uneven society?

The Robots, Volume 2 is a rocket-fuelled evolution of form from Volume 1. The first volume stayed quite tight on a handful of characters, expanding out into a few ethical questions of robot evolution as slaves, as children, as replacement partners and in an almost inevitable drive towards sentience. Volume 2 broadens out the scene a great deal, and tackles the relationship between humans and technological life forms that have been programmed to make ethical decisions about whether – and when - human life should be sacrificed to a greater cause.

It’s bigger and wider and if anything, more ambitious than the first set, the kind of audio to stay up late at night for. It’ll blow you away and leave you with shudders, not only at the potential power of robots that do exactly as they’re told, but at our own society, which genuinely thinks it’s smart and compassionate enough to programme them.

The Robots 2 is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until August 31st 2020, and on general sale after this date.

Tony 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 day, he 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

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