Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Robophobia written and directed by Nicholas Briggs

What’s it about: Nothing has ever been officially confirmed, but there is a rumour that on a Sandminer, bound for Kaldor City, the robots somehow turned homicidal and nearly wiped out the entire crew. Can that really be true? The robot transport ship Lorelei has a cargo of over 157,000 robots on board, all deactivated. So even if there were any truth in the rumour of that massacre, there'd still be no danger. Surely, there wouldn't... But then, the Doctor witnesses a murder

The Real McCoy: Forgive me for a moment of unrestrained hyperbole...I love the seventh Doctor travelling on his own! I don’t know why (it might be a strange alignment of planets that just happens to coincide with his solo releases) but whenever Sylvester McCoy is stripped of his companions he gives the most naturalistic and charming of performances. It happened in Master and again in Valhalla and Robophobia is another score for the solo seventh Doctor. He’s cheeky and witty but also devious and manipulative (look at his terrorising eyes reaching out from the cover) and all the while doesn’t seem to forget his humanistic side. It’s a bewitching mix that sees McCoy at his best. I am genuinely thrilled to that there will be two more McCoy stories after this (after a little stop gap for some Colin and Nicola magic) and I never thought the day would come when I said that. Listen to the way McCoy growls out the answers at the end of episode two…he is positively terrifying.

The Doctor cleverly goes straight for the one person on the transport ship who gave a damn about Tal and puts the idea in her head that there might be something worth investigating. He’s like a creepy little pixie wandering around the ship whispering in people’s ears and watching the action unfold. When asked why he is dressed like he is he answers it is a look they are trying out in the Engineering Deck! Appearance as he often finds himself reminding so many people are deceptive. For all Liv knows the Doctor is a glorified villain like Taren Capel and his actions in activating a robot army certainly paint him in the same colours. What the hell is he up to I was thinking and that is a lovely feeling to have. Ironically enough the mysterious playing of chess championed by Andrew Cartmel was completely absent from his Lost Story season but makes a chilling recovery in this tale. Everything is always his fault and he’s quite used to the insinuation. In many ways he is quite like a human and in many more ways he’s not. He managed to kick in his respiratory bypass system when the robot tried to throttle the life out of him and he loosens his collar to show off the bruises. Its like he knows all the answers but wants them to find out for themselves. He’s rather fond of robots because they are helpful, polite and sophisticated and killing them all would be little short of genocide. I love the scene where he talks to Farel and tells him that the thing his wife and he have in common is that a robot killed them. He manages to subdue the villain by understanding his grief and its devastating. When asked if he usually guesses his way through his adventures the Doctor states that he has been watching human beings for a very long time. Even better is the Doctor breaking the rules to go back in time just a tad to get the robots to change the course of the ship…only to discover that in an incredibly humanistic move they have already changed the course, sacrificing themselves to save their masters.

Surrogate Assistant: I’m very keen on Nicola Walker (no not like that) and have been waiting for her to appear in Doctor Who for quite some time. She doesn’t disappoint and is thrown into the companion role in the absence of an assistant for the Doctor. You are waiting for Liv to say that she was having a relationship with Tal but because she falters so much on just telling the Doctor that he was nice reveals all you need to know about the personal relationships (or lack of) on this ship. The very idea of robots running amok never occurred to her so to hear about the cover up of the incident on the Sandminer frightens the hell out of her especially since they are carrying 157,000 robots on board! Liv thought the Doctor was dead even after she had a conversation with him – not very flattering! She gets the measure of the Doctor’s game quickly enough and says she is sick of all his hints and clues and that she wants him to just tell them what is going on. When he is arrested he whispers further directions to her, using her like an instrument to do his dirty work whilst he is incarcerated.

Standout Performance: A strong cast for sure with Doctor Who stalwarts Dan Starkey and Toby Hadoke turning in lovely performances. I was trying to figure out throughout which one of them was responsible for this robot massacre and for the most part I was swayed by the former so imagine my surprise when it was the latter!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Even on huge soulless ships like this lasting bonds are formed.’
‘The Sandminer where everyone’s worst nightmares came true…’
‘The real drama isn’t the robots wiping out the humans. The real drama is the humans wiping out the robots…’
‘And so the drama continues…’ purrs the Doctor with a chuckle. Could he be any more frighteningly enigmatic?
‘Please do not fire your weapon, it is dangerous’
‘Why has SV10 been deactivated and decapitated?’
‘This culture is very lucky to share its existence with creatures as selfless as you.’

Great Ideas: Opening with a murder and the attempted strangulation of the Doctor, Robophobia certainly doesn’t waste time getting to the exciting bits! A robotic scientist is murdered, hit with some considerable force. The Doctor reveals just in the nick of time that there is a bomb in the cargo bay and the reason that he knows is because he rigged up robot bay 117 for robot activation. After their activation the Captain doesn’t order them back to their slumber so they are simply walking about the place, fixing things, like the walking dead. The Doctor activated the robots to protect them. Robots are faultlessly obedient unless tampered with. Tal was working for the Kaldor City Company and they wanted the Sandminer business hushed up in case there were any fanatical followers of Capel’s out there. I love how the murderer uses the hysteria of the Sandminer incident to terrify the crew into thinking the robots are attacking – such a clever use of continuity. The real danger on this ship is robophobia and that a whole civilisation could be crippled by an irrational fear. Farel wanted a disaster that the authorities couldn’t hush up, he is robophobic and wanted everybody to realise their true horror and dressed up as robot to kill people. He plans to crash the transport ship into Ventalis so the robots would be blamed. Farel couldn’t accept that there was nobody to blame for his wife’s death and so he blamed the robots.

Audio Landscape: Hurrah for Nicholas Briggs for only slightly modulating the robot voices so we can understand what they are saying! I think its quite cleverly done actually because although they are clearly robotic there is a strong enough human sounding voice there to give you the willies – Briggs has managed to give me the same chills via audio as the TV series did with its images. The transport ship screaming through space, the Doctor opening up his umbrella, alarm sounding, the explosion ripping through the cargo bay, the robot bays opening up and their footsteps as they advance, banging on the door, the ship tearing into the sun and being destroyed.

Musical Cues: Its been ages since I last heard a piano score as good as this. When watching Tal’s murder at a robots hands there is a Dudley Simpson style heartbeat score that bubbles in the background. There are lots of pacy musical cues as the story progresses from one exciting set piece to another but this time Robertson saved the best for last and the final scene is scored to send the robots off with maximum emotion. Listen to the second bonus track - Doctor Who music doesn't get better than this.

Standout Scene: Whilst the audience will have figured out by this point that somebody is posing as a robot to kill the humans and whip a fever of robophobia but the way in which the murderer maintains the pretence until the last possible moment, keeping his voice level and polite whilst he strangles the Doctor is really scary.

Notes: To get all listeners up to scratch who might not have seen The Robots of Death the opening scene recounts the events of that tale (skewed a little bit for historical purposes!).

Result: Nicholas Briggs is a clever bastard and no mistake. For a while now I have been questioning the importance of bringing back so many old monsters at the expense of providing us with any new ones and this latest drama – Robophobia – seemed to be another pointless return of an old foe. But in exactly the same way The Feast of Axos reversed the roles of the villains and the heroes it takes the elements you would expect to trick you into thinking it will a replica of the Tom Baker story and then turns the whole situation on its head with gleeful surprise. I really like that, using audiences expectations against them. What’s more this is a story that keeps you guessing throughout and that is rare thing too. The plot is quite thin but you are slowly inched in the right direction with teasing hints and it pleases me to say that the 7th Doctor, grand orchestrator of all plots, is on board to direct the story. Sylvester McCoy is superb in this tale, one of his strongest ever performances as the Doctor and Nicola Walker makes a great foil – if McCoy was this good all the time I would be clamouring for more stories with him. The combination of Nicholas Briggs and Jamie Robertson continues to produce magic (the score in particular is again very memorable) although my one complaint would be that the story wasn’t quite as claustrophobic as I would have hoped. But I’ll happily skip over the lack of a stifling atmosphere (especially when there are plenty of exciting bits as the story progresses) for the surprising, thoughtful tone this tale adopts when I was expecting nothing but clichés. The best release since Axos: 8/10

Buy it from Big Finish here:

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