Thursday, 18 October 2012

Audio Review 21: Robophobia, written by Nicholas Briggs (2011)

Released: July 2011

Cast:

The Doctor – Sylvester McCoy
Liv Chenka – Nicola Walker
Farel – Toby Hadoke
Bas Pellico – William Hazel
Selerat – Nicholas Pegg
Cravnet – Dan Starkey
Tal Karus – Matt Addis
Leebar/Computer Voice – John Dorney


Main Production Credits

Producer – David Richardson
Script Editor – Alan Barnes
Writer – Nicholas Briggs
Director – Nicholas Briggs
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording –Toby Hrycek-Robinson at Moat Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, arranged by Keff McCulloch (Remixed by David Darlington)
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery


WARNING: All reviews contain SPOILERS!


Story Summary:

The Doctor finds himself on a Voc Robot supply ship heading for Ventalis, however before he can properly come to terms with his surroundings, he finds himself flung into a deadly murder mystery. Members of the crew are being picked off one by one, and Liv Chenka, the ship’s medical officer, has fears that history may be repeating itself. Many years ago re-programmed Voc Robots murdered the crew on a planetary Sandminer, but could it all be happening again?

The Doctor reveals that a human with robophobia, a psychological and debilitating fear of robots, is murdering the crew himself and is making the Voc Robots appear to be the culprits by setting up a fake disaster, so that human civilisation will do away with them for good. After drawing the real human perpetrator into the open, the Doctor discovers the murderer is Farel, the security chief. Farel though, has fixed the supply ship into a collision course with Ventalis, and tries to depart in the ship’s escape pod. The Doctor talks the security code out of Farel, which he fixed the ship’s directional control with, but also discovers that the source of Farel’s robophobia was the past death of his wife, which he blames the robots for. Although the spaceship is saved from a collision course with Ventalis, the controls are too damaged to land, so the Doctor and the robots set the ship for a collision course with the Sun, and help the humans evacuate to safety. The Doctor meanwhile asks the Voc Robots to relay the truth of events back to Ventalis to ensure that the robots place in future human civilisation is assured.


Story Placement

Between Lurkers at Sunlight’s Edge (Big Finish Audio) and The Doomsday Quatrain (Big Finish Audio).

(Sadly, I cannot explain this as it would spoil the big twists at the heart of some of the 7th Doctor’s latest Big Finish audio releases, but suffice to say, the 7th Doctor’s personal audio chronology is a lot more complex and thought out than some may think.)


Favourite Lines

Farel – “We think we’ve found the culprit...a stowaway”.
The Doctor – “Ah, that old chestnut”.

The Doctor – “The real drama isn’t the Robots wiping out the Humans...it’s the Humans wiping out the Robots”.

The Doctor – “We’re all different. That’s one of the few certainties I’ve ever come across”.


Review:

The Robots of Death is rightfully seen as one of the all-time great Doctor Who television serials. A tightly plotted thriller, this classic 1978 adventure effortlessly mixes and pays homage to the story types and fictional writings of both Isaac Asimov and Agatha Christie. Although, like in many murder mysteries, the audience was always privy to the main culprit (the robots), in this case even before the opening titles had played out. The real mystery though, was identity of the controller of the robots, as well as how long it would take the rest of the characters to figure them out. In many ways, it’s one of the best examples of one of Doctor Who’s most common story types in itself, the ‘base under siege’ storyline.

So in light of how both popular and successful The Robots of Death was, Nicholas Briggs’ task of trying to create a sequel must have seemed daunting in the extreme, even terrifyingly so. Imagine my amazement then when Briggs comes up with a brilliant sequel that not only matches the quality of the original, but improves on it and surpasses it completely, without diminishing the value of its predecessor. In fact, Robophobia is such a fantastic story and audio release that it’s almost difficult to believe that this was written by the same person who came up with the clich├ęd and troubled mess that was Destination Nerva just a few months later. Then again, everyone has a bad day, so it’s easy to overlook it and forgive Nicholas Briggs for any innocent mistakes in light of such a hectic production schedule, particularly when he can come back and create works of genius like Robophobia.

Part of Nicholas Briggs’ genius is his skill here in being able to subvert our expectations. From the outset it appears to be another straight-forward retelling of The Robots of Death, where the Voc Robots have seemingly been programmed to start killing the crew of a Robot supply ship, the programming having been done by an unknown member of the said crew. However, Briggs springs a fantastic twist upon us, revealing that an unknown crew member is instead murdering the other humans disguised as a Voc Robot; their intention being to blame the crimes on the Robots and get them permanently decommissioned by the supply company, perhaps even removed from human civilisation altogether. The twist is all the more effective because both the plot and the dialogue are made to strongly suggest that the Robots are the real killers, a nice piece of calculated misdirection by Nicholas Briggs.

The following episode, part three, develops quite predictably after that twist, because the real culprit to the killings becomes obvious very quickly. However, the dramatic twist that I, and I’m sure many others weren’t prepared for was the late reveal in part four that the murderer’s Robophobia was brought on by the death of his Wife in a Sandminer accident, where the Robots tried to save her from being killed in the Scoop during a storm and failed. The cunningly more relaxed pace and plotting of parts three and four, meant that I was completely floored by the emotional sucker punch that Nicholas Briggs had up his sleeve, and I was genuinely moved to tears as the development was slowly told, building towards its powerfully tragic and sad climax. The episode, and most of the story in general is written quite subtly too, which makes Briggs’ emotional beats all that more believable and powerful as a result (New Series Doctor Who writers, take note).

Yet what I also love about Robophobia is that Nicholas Briggs ends the story on such a sublime and gloriously positive note. The Voc Robots sacrifice themselves to save the humans and aid their escape, but the Doctor makes sure that word of their good work, selfless natures and strong benefit to humanity are known and spread throughout the Planetary System so that their true worth can be appreciated by all. The final scene also acts as a subtle and uplifting reaffirmation of a simple truth that is as important now as it ever was - that one should always seek the truth, and work to overcome fear, superstition and ignorance in order to reach a better and brighter future. The conclusion is a perfect end to a magnificent story and a fantastic script by Briggs. This is the mark of a greatly talented writer, who has clearly perfected his craft, and knows exactly where to plot his twists and emotional beats with pin point accuracy (the other part of Nicholas Briggs’ genius in Robophobia).

Another reason why Briggs’ twists and emotional twists work so well is because he gives us more recognisably human and down-to-earth characters to begin with, their relatively mundane lives and natures well juxtaposed against the story’s extraordinary events and surprising reveals. This is especially true of Liv Chenka, who is set up as the audience’s window into the story, as well as someone to relate to; a sweet, shy, brave, clever and very likeable person with a brilliantly written and complex personality. Liv represents our conscience and guide to story events as they occur, as well as our mixed reactions to the clever interweaving plot strands as they unravel themselves into one big ingenious story arc. Liv Chenka also proves to be a great foil for the 7th Doctor, following his cryptic hints and suggestions; challenging him for answers to what takes place, as well as rebuking him for his clear manipulation of her throughout the story. However, the Doctor also has a more positive impact on Liv, encouraging her to question the events taking place around her and not take them for granted; as well as building up her strength of character so that Liv can challenge and face the problems and situations they face.

Of course this is as much about the Doctor manipulating Liv for his own ends as it is about helping her, probably more so, which is why this is also a fascinating take on the 7th Doctor. He uses Liv Chenka as an extra pair of eyes and ears, as well as a tool to poke about the affairs of the Robot supply ship and its crew, until a reaction is provoked that will tell him more about what is going on, or more to the point who is to blame. Considering where this seems to take place in the 7th Doctor’s personal chronology, this is a notable development in the colder and darker side of his nature, casually manipulating and deliberately accelerating events and people to find out the truth of the situation as quick as he can, albeit still for benevolent reasons here. Perhaps the latest 7th Doctor Big Finish audio trilogy (Protect and Survive, Black and White, Gods and Monsters) will set some more light on this development, as tonally the character moves ever closer to his darker extremes as shown in the Virgin New Adventures novels. In contrast, it’s also notable that while travelling alone, some of the 7th Doctor’s more wacky eccentricities have returned, which helps put a light spin on what is at times a fairly dark and earnest script, producing a neat range of emotions and reactions from the Time Lord, although this is as much to do with Sylvester McCoy’s quirky and delightfully mad performance as it is Nicholas Briggs’ characterisation. I like how the Doctor flits around the ship like a ghost, there one minute and gone the next. It’s also quite amusing how he creeps up on Liv Chenka and interrupts her reminisces about Tal Karus, telepathically following their train of thought.

For a character that has only a few fleeting appearances, Tal Karus is surprisingly well-sketched by Nicholas Briggs. His presence as an undercover investigator, as well as his murder at the start of the story, is a neat way of setting the darker tone of the narrative, and raising the dramatic stakes quickly in one fell swoop, so the plot can progress straight away without any lengthy exposition, or establishing scenes, and the listener is thrown straight into the heart of events. I also like the neat way Nicholas Briggs expands upon his character in flashback so he can structure in character development, story direction, mood and exposition at just the right moments. However, Tal Karus’ scenes are far more than just convenient narrative devices, as we see his cute first meeting with Liv Chenka and how they quickly create chemistry together in a believably shy and understated way. So even though this character departs the plot early on, we still get a real sense of who he is, which is masterful writing if ever I heard it.

Farel the Security Officer also gets an intricately layered and well-rounded character which is slowly peeled away as the story progresses us. The script cleverly fools us into thinking at first that Farel is a typical unimaginative security guard, a harmless and hopeless bumbling fool, who is tremendously insecure about his extreme incompetence in the role, leaps to conclusions, and seems to cowardly avoid taking any action whatsoever. However, the twist revealed at the end of part two also reveals Farel to be a clear candidate behind the mysterious deaths, even if the script refuses to confirm him as the real culprit until the end of part three. The twist about a conspiracy involving a human trying to discredit and destroy the Voc Robots for good, as does the sudden ‘takeover’ by the Robots that follows, shines a mirror onto Farel’s actions up to that point, and turns them on their head. Farel’s bumbling incompetence can actually now be understood as the Security Chief actively trying to stall and sabotage the investigation through hesitation, non-action and attempted misdirection, some of which the Doctor encourages Farel to enact prematurely, by revealing the apparent truth of events and forcing his hand. I also like the fact of his personal Robophobia being used by the script to make him initially appear innocent during part two, while at the same time actually being the source of his motivation for destroying the Robots and creating this conspiracy in the first place. The truth behind Farel’s Robophobia and the story behind it of his wife’s death, which although doesn’t absolve him from being a murderer, wonderfully rounds out his character and gives him a more human and multi-dimensional appearance that helps the audience to empathise with him. Have no doubt, Farel is still the villain of the piece, but he’s also a tragic figure, an emotional victim of an industrial accident that killed his wife; full of sorrow, wracked with guilt, and turned into an unstable wreck. It is such a breath of fresh air to encounter a villain who is not written in black and white, and it makes the final twist all that more meaningful and powerful, because most, if not all of us can relate to emotional trauma, even if we haven’t necessarily experienced it to the same level as others.

The other supporting characters, Cravnet and Selerat, while being entertaining foils for the more central characters, as well as the script’s jokes, add little extra depth or value to the story as a whole, except as useful plot devices to ask the right questions at the right moments, or offer misdirection to the audience when the script requires it. Cravnet though is particularly likeable and endearing as an innocent, sweet and bumbling security guard, who while not being the sharpest mind on board, often finds himself closer to the truth of events by the virtue of not having the arrogance and lack of humility as his superiors. Selerat on the other hand is merely the typical clueless fool in charge, and only succeeds in being the lesser light comic relief of the story.

However, none of the characters would be quite as enjoyable without the production’s stellar cast. Sylvester McCoy wonderfully plays on his Doctor’s more eccentric elements, while making sure they don’t dominate his performance. I would also say that Robophobia also features one of McCoy’s most assured and varied performances, ranging from mysterious and quiet pensive mumblings to subtle mischievous wit and wisecracks to weary deliveries of the Doctor’s age-old wisdom to occasional flashes of lunacy, and back again. Without a doubt, Sylvester McCoy is on top form, and this is definitely one of his best Big Finish audios to date.

Nicola Walker is one of those stellar British actors of modern times that I’ve been eager to see star in Doctor Who for a while now, so it’s great to hear her in as strong a production as this. Walker brings out the shy sweetness and vulnerability of Liv Chenka to the fore, while delivering the most naturalistic and believable performance of the cast, which really successfully encourages the audience to root for her in a way that makes you wish that the character would be a future companion. However, Nicola Walker makes sure that Liv is certainly no reluctant lightweight though, by neatly making sure that her vulnerability and the trauma Liv goes through emotionally makes her stronger, and more steely determined in her aim to find the truth and prevent any further deaths. The Doctor, through his manipulations also helps Liv to believe in herself and her own abilities, and Walker also deftly shows this braver and more assertive Liv growing throughout the story.

Toby Hadoke was the real surprise of the cast though. He’s cemented a successful reputation for himself as a comedian and an engaging and delightful presenter, as well as very genial and friendly Doctor Who fan in general. I had no doubt that he could act well, but I had no idea that he had the talent to pull off the huge dramatic and emotional denouement that was required of Farel’s character at the end of the story. In fact, Farel’s earlier persona and misdirection seemed explicitly written to show off Hadoke’s well known comedic talents, but his flawless depiction of Farel’s emotional breakdown was so well judged it helped to pull off that moving scene brilliantly. The rest of the cast also performed well, with Dan Starkey getting a rare opportunity away from portraying monsters to delve into a more comedic role for a change, and relishing it enormously; while Nicholas Pegg delivered another amusing variation on the bemused and hopeless spaceship captain stereotype.

Praise though also has to go to Nicholas Briggs again for direction, allowing Sylvester McCoy to have more fun with the role of the Doctor, while reigning in any potential excesses of eccentricity. At the same time, Briggs has also kept the cast performances as natural and believable as possible, and the results are superlative, and keep on giving on multiple listens, particularly on the twists and more emotional scenes. There was only one slip up I noticed, where Nicola Walker over emphasises Liv’s warning to Farel about the Robots in episode two, but I’m clearly nitpicking here, as everything else is so brilliantly done.

However, what is even more wonderfully done on Robophobia is the post-production. After listening to a production from over 12 years ago, one of the big things that blew me away on listening to this was, 11 years later, how far Big Finish has come in their overall sound production, something which has always been good from the start, but here in Robophobia was simply amazing. From the roaring engine of the supply spaceship to exciting stereo explosions to little things like the quiet rumble of the engine aboard the ship interior, the little bleeps and door sounds, and the change of EQ on the spaceship computer audio readouts.

The other big thing that blew me away from the start was the quality of the music soundtrack by Jamie Robertson. From the first plucked guitar strings I knew we were in for something special. Robertson is beautifully subtle and menacing when called for, but equally creates large and powerful orchestral themes just where the story needs it and never goes too far. I particularly enjoyed the little string section when Liv was reminiscing about Tal Karus, and the powerful section underscoring the reveal about Farel’s deceased wife, but I liked everything about the music. It was so good and professional I would easy rate it as being good enough to be used on a big worldwide feature film, and I say that as a passionate film soundtrack music lover. At times the score reminded me of The Matrix in scope, originality and tone. In fact it was such a joy to listen to that I took great enjoyment from listening to the small section of soundtrack put as a separate track on the end of Discs 1 & 2 (which as a great little CD extra I can’t recommend to Big Finish enough that they should keep doing for us music fans, so thank you for that). Plus I loved that great final big orchestral music statement at the end of Robophobia, which reinforced the story’s final positive note and left me feeling very happy indeed.

The Robots of Death may have been a brilliantly-produced and executed thriller, but Robophobia, its sequel, is so much more than that. Robophobia is a great examination of what it means to be human, in terms of both life and loss, but it’s also a great examination in how we should never take anything at face value and reminds us of an important teaching to always appreciate what we have, however common or mundane it appears to be. Furthermore, the audio is a completely first class production on all counts, and one that I’m sure I’ll revisit on multiple occasions in the future. Plus, to top it all off, Robophobia is a fantastic thriller in its own right.


Score: 10/10

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