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Big Finish: TORCHWOOD: SONNY Review

Tony cares.
Robot carers in an old people’s home.

Ohhh, what can possibly go wrong?

Anyone who’s seen any iteration of Westworld can probably tell you. At some considerable length.

But the whole ‘Robots malfunction and go on a killing spree” thing is faaar too obvious in the 2020s, especially for a writer like Lizzie Hopley.

That worked in the 1970s, when robots in real life were huge and industrial, or clunky and science-fictional. But in the world of Siri and Alexa, of smartphones and the internet of things, robotic or artificial intelligence-guided assistants are a real thing in our day to day lives. They’re still not at peak sci-fi levels, mmmmostly because the amount of machine learning required to do the physical things human beings do literally without thinking, like walking, catching objects in space, maintaining balance and displaying micro-expressions to conquer the uncanny valley is an expensive pain in the bum to put them through, and a disembodied voice that controls your environment, like an Alexa, is a lot more straightforward to deliver on time and budget.

But traditional, evolved-Luddite robophobia has given way, in both real life and science fiction, to something altogether more honest and frightening, now that we can see that artificial intelligence-assisted future from where we stand. It’s not so much that we hate and fear robots because they’re different from us anymore. It’s more that we hate and fear them for what they show us about ourselves.

And it’s into that sort of territory that Lizzie Hopley leads us in Sonny, when an unnamed company supplies several Sonny robotic carer-companions to a local care home, and Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) is seconded by Torchwood to check them out. Rhys enlists the help of his mam, Brenda (the ever-peerless Nerys Hughes) to act as the actual in situ guinea pig for the new technology, and at first, she’s none too pleased about the addition of the robo-companion to her life.

But the longer she lives with her Sonny, the more she comes to anthropomorphise the robot, and the more her relationship with Rhys comes under an unusual strain.

Before you jump to conclusions, this is not a sort of Stepford Son story, either. It’s much more delicate and nuanced and real than any such description would allow. But the more we learn about Sonny’s capabilities, (most irritatingly its prodigiously effective sound receivers, and its seeming inability to tell the truth), the more the potential of the technology becomes clear.

If robots and artificial intelligence are designed to be tools to help us save time and increase the hassle-free efficiency of our lives, it’s relatively easy to treat them as objects, as created things. Tools have always been subordinate to the creatures that made them, so the relationship feels natural to us. Vacuum cleaners have been around for a while now, and nobody is calling for their emancipation.

But there’s a threshold when you start building learning engines, which is essentially what artificial intelligence is reaching towards. And the line is disturbingly blurry. If a machine can mimic the signs of thinking like us, how far is it from BEING like us? And at the point where we ask that question, does it not behove us to look at the examples we’re setting for the ultimately logic-and-programming-driven mechanical intelligences we create?

Big Finish has tackled the blurred line between the learning machine and the creatures from which it learns before, not least in The Robots, Volume 1, where a highly effective AI-powered robot was essentially schooled by the equivalent of an internet chat room.

Sonny (played by Steven Kynmen like the innocent electronic offspring of HAL 9000), takes the logic of tool-use to its ultimate end-point and shows us the reality of the way we live. The bottom line is that we have always built tools to help us do things more effectively than we can do unaided for ourselves. Trowels help us dig more effectively than our primate hands will do. Tanks help us kill more effectively and at greater range than we ordinarily could.

So what happens if we create machines designed to ‘care’ more effectively than we otherwise can?

Let’s not over-sentimentalise – as even Sonny itself says, it is a synthetic, it cannot ‘care.’

But that’s another blurry line. If its first priority is the welfare of its ‘friend,’ and it has connectivity through a Fitbit-style band, recording and transmitting data from the human to the machine, then ‘care’ can mean a lot of different subroutines. It will never forget the red sauce Brenda likes, and left to its own devices, would make sure there was always a supply in store (like a smart fridge). It will monitor the medication-use of its friend to make sure they are in peak condition. It will, above all, be PRESENT, and ATTENTIVE – it has no job to go to, no children to raise, no partner to placate. Its first priority is to make Brenda feel happy.

As people grow older, their children and grandchildren living lives of their own, it can become all too easy to forget what that happiness feels like. To forget how it feels to be IMPORTANT to someone else, day in, day out, rather than just a necessary part of their picture, the part that does the things and says the things they expect of ‘you.’

But here’s where Sonny, the story, comes into its own. It shows us not just how much we can let ourselves take older people for granted in our busy, crowded, rapid-fire lives, and how much our society conditions older people to live without, in terms of time and involvement in their families’ lives.

It also shows us how addictive the sheer, focused INTEREST of another person can be, especially in lives where that interest has been lessening under a pile of other factors like work, deadlines, more demanding, more immediate family and the like.

If a certain amount of memory and regulation of life in the best interests of a friend can feel like the electronic basics of care, any machine that can listen, then a constant presence, with intelligent questioning and intelligent response, can feel like a real friend – or even, with a certain amount of anthropomorphism on top, like a real child. And by comparison, the flesh and blood family we have – who ARE consumed by all those other demands on their time and effort - can begin to seem less than enough.

While we won’t spoil the point of whether there’s some inherently nefarious purpose to the Sonny machines or not, what is revealed in Sonny is the flaw in our current social models of life and family. We are intensely over-pressured, and that can leave us as not only poor models of care for our older relatives and citizens, should any machine intelligence be trying to learn from us, but relatively poor examples of humanity.

That’s not the fault of the humans who scurry about the system, though – it’s the result of the pressurised way the system has evolved. We’re conditioned to please a thousand voices, a thousand needs a day – write that email, fill that order, read that bedtime story, listen to our partner’s day, cook that meal, eat that meal, work a little late, meet that deadline. In the world of social media, that pressure has ramped up tenfold – who said what on Twitter? Should we retweet? If we do, does it carry a moral implication of complicity with situations beyond our control? Arrrgh! All of it takes time, takes effort, and thought, and ‘quality time’ events become a necessary substitute for the simple presence of our body and mind with the people we love.

And in that system, those who demand less (as older people tend to do within a family dynamic) are destined to get less – less attention, less time, and less appearance of love and care, despite the good intentions of their children.

Sonny highlights the flaws in our system – whether to a purpose or just by existing, we won’t tell you. The effect is so pronounced that while Rhys tries to resist feeling the hostility of being pushed out of his mother’s central focus by her Sonny, another trio of characters show us the reality of the mirror held up by technological ‘carers.’ Prudeep (Amerjit Deu) becomes so addicted to the ‘care’ his Sonny unit gives him that an intervention is necessary by his daughter Priya (Shobu Kapoor), and the manager of the care home, Joy (a strong performance from Donna Berlin as a stressed modern manager, trying to do the best for her residents).

And even while we know the intervention is necessary to stop Prudeep retreating from the company of other human beings and investing only in his Sonny (which has been configured with a lighter, female voice to represent the daughter he always wanted, rather than the one he actually had), it still feels heartbreaking to understand that the intervention will force both he and Priya back into the system where the world and its demands will always come before spending time with the people who love us most unconditionally.

Again, we’re not about to spoil the ending for you, but there’s some strong stuff for Nerys Hughes before the end – she doesn’t exactly slap on warpaint and lead a jungle revolution, but she does become a kind of accidental Moses, leading an exodus from the care home. What happens then is inevitable, and emotional, and causes a period of distance between Brenda Williams and her son.

Both Nerys Hughes and Kai Owen play their roles in this drama with an agonising perfection, showing the two sides of our system’s dichotomy – the children who really do want to do the best for their parents, but are at a loss for what that looks like or how to provide it in a world so very full of demands, and the parents growing older and closer to their end with diminishing returns of love in the present, getting more and more used to broken promises, belated birthday wishes, and forgotten red sauce.

Sonny could so easily have been a lazy re-tread of the ‘rise of the machines’ trope. In fact though, it’s absolutely light years beyond that, showing what is above all a clear mirror of humanity and the demands that fill our lives in the first quarter of the 21st century.

The performances are intensely sensitive, and the writing much more finely-threaded than the premise immediately promises.

Sonny is a thing of beauty, philosophy and, with no irony whatsoever, care. It might well leave you with a tear in your non-synthetic eye, and it may even make you think about your future, the future of the people you love, and how to weave a more caring pathway through the insanely demanding productivity of the 21st century. Either way, it’s a hugely atmospheric piece of audio drama that will draw you in, makes you think, and leaves you pondering the society in which we live.

Torchwood: Sonny is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 April 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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