The Robots goes on as Volume 5 challenges the Chenka sisters with a new scheme by the Company to retain control of Kaldor and a new player in the game emerges

The Robots Volume 5 is the Robots box set that wasn’t meant to exist. Big Finish originally intended this series chronicling the ‘gap year’ spent by the Eighth Doctor’s companion Liv Chenka on her homeworld of Kaldor to run for twelve episodes across four sets. That would have been one for every month of Liv’s stay. But under the philosophy that you can’t have too much of a good thing, this fifth set continues the story. So everything so far will have to bunch up a little in time to make room.

The script makes clear quite how much time in a neat little bit of exposition. Liv’s sister Tula meets Volume 1’s Crick again and mentions it’s been “half a year” since she saw him. So it looks like we may only be at the halfway point for the Chenka sisters investigations into the various conspiracies and skullduggery just below Kaldor’s shiny art deco surfaces. But does Volume 5 make the best use of this extra lease of life the series has been given? Or does it just risk diluting the popularity of the range with fans?

The heart and soul of The Robots remains Liv and Tula, and Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook’s brilliant performances

Fortunately, these three episodes continue to find new and enticing ways build this strange techo-dystopian world. It also brilliantly utilises The Robots’ greatest strength – the interplay between Liv and Tula. For listeners familiar with Liv from her rather more dour, almost defeated, tones in Stranded, it’s a relationship that let’s us see a refreshing side of the Med-Tech. The Robots Volume 5 sees Liv at her sparkiest and funniest, always ready with a sardonic aside and witty observation.

That may well be a reaction against Tula’s more serious, professional and, at times, more skittish and fretful, character. But it makes for a partnership that’s equally entertaining and heartfelt. They move seamlessly from arguing about cooking or ordering in, to grappling with decisions impacting an entire society’s fate. It’s also a combination that makes full use of having two such great actors, Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook, on hand to play the Chenkas.

 

Ken Bentley, Claire Rushbrook, Nicola Walker, and David Richardson at the recording of The Robots 5 (c) Big Finish
Ken Bentley, Claire Rushbrook, Nicola Walker, and David Richardson at the recording of The Robots 5 (c) Big Finish

Kaldor continues to be of the best defined, multi-layered civilizations in Doctor Who, familiar to many, but equally engaging for new listeners

At this stage, Kaldor is one of Big Finish’s finest achievements in crafting a complex, multi-faceted world. It’s one in parallel to the sense of the Chenka sisters as, real, three dimensional people and siblings. The plot lines appear to organically grow from the world around them, and from Liv and Tula’s very believable and consistent reactions to them. It also enables occasional shifts in genre like the comedy elements in third episode Kaldor Knights. Moments like killer robots leaving Tula more offended by their off-style guide paint jobs than the threat of imminent death left Blogtor Who grinning, but it’s moments like this which work because we feel we know these characters so well. It’s even more impressive when you consider how accessible this set is. Even without listening to earlier volumes, you’d quickly grasp who these characters are and how this world operates.

The Company’s new Personal Enhancement Chips could reshape the face of Kaldor forever… but for good or evil?

The latest threat facing the beleaguered planet of Kaldor is the roll out of the new personal enhancement chips from the omnipresent Company that underpins Kaldorian life. Introduced in opening story The Enhancement, it’s originally available to Company volunteers. But of course it’s soon mandatory for all Company employees before finally rumours of a planetwide rollout begin. It’s supposedly the ultimate in personal information security. Implanted within the human brain, it eliminates the need for passwords, logins, or identifications as the chip itself becomes an inviolate proof of identity.

It’s presented as a way to fight back against the Sons of Kaldor’s attacks in the earlier box sets. Naturally, this being the Company, naturally there’s a more sinister agenda at work. And once more Liv and Tula are walking the tightrope of trying to expose the dangers before its too late without brining the whole cornerstone of life on Kaldor crashing down.

 

The Robots: Volume Two - Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook (c) Big Finish
Nicola Walker and Claire Rushbrook remain the heart and soul of The Robots (c) Big Finish

The three episodes draw inspiration from diverse sources like Videodrome, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Only Way is Essex

Tula is an early volunteer to get the chip, after her traumatic experiences in earlier episodes. Soon, she’s alarmed as her and Liv’s, well, more memorable collisions with the Company start slipping from her mind. The Company seems disinterested in anything that might slow the chip’s rollout. They might simply be ambivalent about flaws in the chip, or there might be a more deliberate plan at work. Then in Machines Like Us, a new populist figure rises, eager to fuel his ascendancy with incriminating evidence against the Company. Evidence he hopes the Chenkas can provide. But are his claims that the Company can, and are, using the chips to eavesdrop on people’s every conversation and movement true? And who is the shadowy figure warning Liv not to trust him?

Final story Kaldor Knights sees a tip-off bring the Chenkas to the set of Tula’s favourite Made in Chelsea style reality show. It’s probably the best, and certainly the funniest, story on the set. It introduces a whole new class of robot, and an ominous new exploitation of the chips. Along with them comes a new player to the game for Kaldor’s future that nobody could have anticipated.

A pacey and involving conspiracy thriller with two engaging leads, this volume proves there’s plenty of mileage in the world of The Robots yet

The whole storyline is rich is allegory, though it’s often hard to tell exactly what it’s trying to say. Science fiction has always thrived on conspiracy theories and secret societies manipulating society from the shadows. Now more than ever, stories of high technology companies run more like cults than businesses, plans to put chips in people’s heads for direct access to their thoughts, and seeking in a fit of pique to take over, basically, Space Twitter to stamp out criticism, hits as being particularly relevant.

Leaving such close readings of the subtexts aside, The Robots works well as a pacey and involving conspiracy thriller. In a way, it’s all the more remarkable since at this stage the listener knows full well that the Company can’t be trusted. But the scripts work layers upon layers as conspiracy, counter-conspiracy, and even counter-counter-conspiracy come into play. It’s really not a question of asking who you can trust when it comes to life on Kaldor. Rather it’s a game of working out the exact reason why you can’t trust anybody. By the end of this volume, Liv and Tula are at the centre of a square of conspiracies as the Company, a resurgent Sons of Kaldor, a Son gone rogue, and a dangerous new side, all try to shape the planet’s future.

 

The Robots Volume 5. Cover by Ryan Aplin (c) Big Finish Productions Doctor Who Liv Chenka Nicola Walker
The Robots Volume 5. Cover by Ryan Aplin (c) Big Finish Productions

The Robots Volume 5

The Robots: Volume 5 is now available now for just £19.99 (collector’s edition CD + download) or £16.99 (download only), exclusively from the Big Finish website. Volume 6 is also available to pre-order at the same price.

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