Released July 2011
Acting as a sequel of sorts for the brilliant Fourth Doctor story ‘Robots of Death,’ ‘Robophobia’ picks up on the rumour that the robots aboard a sandminer headed for Kaldor City somehow turned dangerous and murderous, nearly destroying the entire crew. With 157,000 deactivated robots now aboard the transport ship Lorelei, the Doctor’s witnessing of a murder and nearly being strangulated brings the simmering paranoia and fear back to the forefront.
It might seem a bit odd to have the Seventh Doctor confront the famed robots, but Sylvester McCoy, stripped of any companions, offers arguably his strongest performance for Big Finish yet, and the eerie tenseness fits his incarnation wonderfully. McCoy deftly switches from light and witty to dark and manipulative, and at the right times he is genuinely frightening with his delivery of lines. The Seventh Doctor’s willingness to stay in the shadows as he moves his pawns about the board, waiting for the most opportune moment to strike, is one of the most fascinating traits of this incarnation, and that is in full effect as he furtively moves about the ship putting just the right notion into the just the right people’s minds. This is a man who seemingly has all of the answers, but he wants the crewmembers to discover them for themselves as he prompts them in the right directions. Of course, the robots’ willingness to sacrifice themselves takes even the Doctor by surprise, and his tinkering and tampering must suddenly take another turn. The mischievous and manipulative side isn’t always addressed or portrayed perfectly, but ‘Robophobia’ highlights the quintessential Seventh Doctor magnificently.
At the same time, Nicola Walker’s Liv Chenka fills the role of companion for this story admirably. She is smart, witty, and quick to the point, standing up to the Doctor in short order when he isn’t as forthcoming with information as she would like and soon becoming another instrument of the Doctor’s. Her mannerisms and unwillingness to talk about certain aspects speak volumes about the rather sterile relationships aboard the ship, and her inability to believe that the robots could do any harm speaks of the culture of the time more than any dialogue ever could. It’s tough for one character to become so memorable and well-rounded in one story, but Liv manages and certainly warrants further exploration in future tales should the opportunity arise.
The release starts out at a blistering pace, and the mystery involving both the humans and robots after the Doctor rigs a cargo bay for robotic activation is incredibly engaging from beginning to end. The idea that a civilization can become crippled because of an unfounded fear of the robots is fascinating, and the continuity between this story and its predecessor only heightens the emotional investment and intrigue as the Doctor tries to save the robots and their integrity while the very human threats and sentiments slowly come to light. The eventual revelation of the true culprit is very well-handled and satisfying, wrapping up the story on yet another high note.
Any time a classic one-off foe is brought back for a sequel, there’s the risk that the story itself might focus too squarely on the villain and not enough on the characters and plot. And though ‘Robophobia’ may not have the deepest plot or make the best use of its claustrophobic setting, the subversion of expectations and the characterization of the both the Doctor and Liv as the mystery slowly unfolds are utterly superb, making this a most welcome return to the world of the Dums, Vocs, and SuperVocs.