All is not well aboard a star freighter transporting a massive cargo of VOC robots. The Doctor arrives to find that his previous encounter the mechanical servants aboard a sandminer has been mainly forgotten and only survived as a tale greatly altered to make the company look good. Unfortunately, trying to hush up a murder spree does not prevent a similar series of killings from taking place, apparently perpetrated by the VOC robots, and no one can stop the body count from rising.
Chris Boucher and Robert Holmes’ Robots of Death is an absolute classic, one of the few stories that I would recommend to just about anyone. It has a palpable mood, stunning visual design, and Tom Baker at his best. A grim and gritty yet stylish whodunnit murder done in the style of Agatha Christie (though set on a sand miner on an alien planet), Robots of Death is nearly timeless.
So why even attempt a sequel?
Luckily, Nick Briggs loves Robots of Death as much as I do and has recognized what made that story work in his own story Robophobia. Set a short time after the sand miner murders, the Doctor returns to see the outcome on the culture of the future only to find that it has been hushed up by the company. In the process, he witnesses one man’s murder and is then throttled to death by the same killer robot. This is all in the first few minutes.
Nicola Walker (of the hit series Spooks) is superb as Liv Chenka, a somewhat out of sorts medical technician aboard the spacecraft, mourning the loss of her friend-who-could-have-been more. She suspects that something malevolent is going on, but, like the others of her time seems eager to just accept things as they are. The Doctor plays his trickster role to the hilt in this story, prodding others to peel away at the thin veneer of their world to discover what lies beneath.
In addition to Walker, comic actor and Doctor Who expert Toby Hadoke plays Farel, one of the jumpiest characters to ever grace a Big Finish Production. Most of the crew seem to stumble along through conversations, struggling for the right words or failing to convey the correct concepts, but Farel is purely mental. He drifts in and out of stammering fits and mumbles to himself as the situation deteriorates. One murder can be easily explained, but an entire shipment of robots exploding and a weird little man appearing out of a black box in the hold (yes, black) is another thing entirely. I was much more familiar with Hadoke from his writing and commentary, but he is sterling acting material.
As a sequel, Robophobia hits all the right marks. It correctly captures the style and feel of the original without needlessly re-telling the same story. It also embellishes the established tale without dishonoring Boucher’s script. Briggs dances a very fine line effortlessly, transforming what should have been a dreadful notion into an excellent experience.
Robophobia plays up the Seventh Doctor’s strongest traits. He appears to know far more than he lets on, but he may just be playing a game. He also seems to appear out of nowhere as if by magic, but he’s just using maintenance access ports. The Doctor is also spritely yet full of rueful passages that hint at the destruction of an entire population. Briggs takes hints from the New Adventures books but dodges making his story into a navel-gazing emo-fest that occasionally happened in that line of novels, though most of them are definitely an important part of the Doctor Who mythos.
Traveling alone, the Doctor is an entirely alien persona who only the listener understands and can chuckle with childlike glee as the other characters he encounters find him baffling. At one point he attempts to pass off his attire a the ‘latest thing in the engineering deck’ and that his hat is for small fluid leaks while the umbrella could be used for much bigger ones. It’s a delight and re-affirms the magical appeal of the Seventh Doctor.