The Plot: 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.
“We’re not blinking detectives darling, let’s leave that to the professionals!”
This is a direct sequel to The Robots of Death, a classic Fourth Doctor and Leela story by Chris Boucher first broadcast in 1977 which is fondly remembered by fans for its clever mystery plot, a fine cast including Pamela Salem, David Collings and Russell Hunter and the wonderful Art Deco design of its titular robots. In fact, strictly speaking, Robophobia is the second sequel – Boucher previously published a continuation in novel form in 1999 entitled Corpse Marker. This audio four-parter however is written and directed by Dalek maestro and Big Finish’s Executive Producer Nicholas Briggs and is undeniably fueled by a true love and devotion for the original serial.
In a pre-titles teaser we are given a brief recap of what happened in the first story, in which scientist Taren Capel reprogrammed the service robots on a Sandminer so that they would kill all the humans to create a new dominant species. This briefest of necessary information is neatly conveyed before two men are apparently killed by a robot, one of whom is the Doctor! This gets the story off to a really great start though the pace does slow down quite a bit after that. The recapping of the old story proves essential to understanding the plot, which as in Boucher’s original, combines a SF-mystery hybrid reminiscent of Agatha Christie (several murders are committed in an enclosed environment with the least-likely-suspect turning out to be the villain) but given a twist in that it’s about men pitted against their mechanical counterparts despite the fact that this infringes their programming by going against the precepts of Isaac Asimov ‘Three Laws of Robotics’:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Briggs’ story provides many of the same elements of the original but also finds several new wrinkles to produce a solid whodunit with that undercurrent of deep emotion that we have come to expect from this writer. Although it avoids being too slavish in following the pattern of Robots of Death, a lot of the elements here will feel very familiar to those who know its TV progenitors though so it is just as well that it has a genuine ace up its sleeve in the shape of Spooks star Nicola Walker. As the ship’s love-lorn medical officer (the first victim is the only man to have shown even the least interest in her in 2 years), she gives a terrific performance and makes for a great semi-companion to the Seventh Doctor, who here is up to his usual Machiavellian machinations as he tries to save the humans and the robots from annihilation.
“Doctor, will you stop being mysterious for one moment and tell me what the hell is going on!”
Although the play has a lot of humour, mainly at the expense of the stuffed shirt of a Captain (voiced by Nicholas Pegg), Toby Hadoke is given the straight role as the unfortunate Security Officer and proves to be very good in a multifaceted dramatic role. Slowly paced but building up to an action-filled climax, this is an enjoyably traditional story that works well even if you can guess the identity of the culprit fairly early on. In addition to Big Finish’s customary fine production values, and an excellent score by Jamie Robertson, Robophobia boasts a great performance from McCoy who, in one of the rare but always cherishable instances in which his Doctor is found flying solo without his regular companions, has a great time delivering mysterious utterances, mixed up metaphors and mangling old proverbs. Great Fun.