Manchester Fringe 2012: Robots of Death

Posted: July 23, 2012 in Doctor Who, Manchester Fringe 2012, Politics, Review, Science Fiction
Fab Café, Manchester, 22 July 2012

Starring: Marlon Solomon (Kaston Iago), Kate Millest (Elska Blayes), Jessica Hallows (Uvanov), Leni Murphy (Toos), Gerard Thompson (Poul), Clara James (Dask), Miranda Benjamin (Borg), Cliona Donohoe (Cass), Daniel Thackeray (Kerrill), Chris Tavner (Chub), Will Jude Hutchby (voice of the Robots). Writer: Chris Boucher, with aditional material by Alan Stevens. Director: Kerry Ely. Producer: Gareth Kavanagh.

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 contunues with a full cast theatrical production of Robots of Death at the Fab Café on Portland Street, Manchester. Based on the Chris Boucher‘s 1977 Doctor Who story ”The Robots of Death”, originally starring the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson), the play has been rewritten around the mercenary Kaston Iago (Marlon Solomon) and his partner Elska Blayes (Kate Millest).

I’ve already written about the Robots of Death & Storm Mine Premiere that kicked off this year’s Fringe Festival and which featured a special guest appearance by the one and only Paul Darrow. This review will look more closely at this specific performance and explore some of the ideas suggested by the play.

The play follows the TV show for the main part: Commander Uvanov (Jessica Hallows) is captain of Storm Mine 4, a mining vessel trawling the desert of an alien planet for minerals. One by one the crew are being bumped off. Time travelling intruders Kaston Iago (Marlon Solomon), and Elska Blayes (Kate Millest) naturally become chief suspects – but they know that the real killer is the terrorist and robotics expert Taren Capel. There have been some minor changes in the script since the Premiere and Capel is referred to as ‘she’ from the beginning. This narrows the subjects a little (the convention of referring to an unidentified suspect with a masculine pronoun even where the possibility exists that the suspect is female is so common it usually passes unremarked – but people rarely use ‘she’ unless they are sure the suspect is female) but not too much as the crew are mainly female – and most of the male crew don’t last too long.

Marlon Solomon wisely chooses not to imitate Paul Darrow’s performance. It has often been remarked that Tom Baker’s Doctor was a little too invincible, especially in the latter half of his run, and Darrow’s Iago had possessed that same invulnerability – even if confidence in him proves misplaced. Solomon brings a vulnerability to his performance, a sense that he isn’t quite in control. Kate Millest’s Blayes is certainly the cooler of the two: this is a story in which strong women – notably Jessica Hallows’ Uvanov, Clara James’ Dask, and Leni Murphy’ Toos (a finely judged comic performance) take most of the active roles, the last surviving male crew member – Gerard Thompson’s Poul – soon being reduced to catatonia.

The robots are performed by using mime, Will Jude Hutchby voicing them all from off-stage so that they share the same voice; this disembodied quality enhances the ”Uncanny Valley” effect. Terry Cooper’s masks are an excellent approximation of those on TV, though the suits are simple white overalls. I passed a ”robot” on the way to the bar as I entered the Café and the actor was standing so still I assumed it was a prop; it was a surprise to turn around later and find it was gone. The costumes of the rest of the crew are slightly futuristic, without being outré, and the Kaldorians – male as well as female – retain their fondness for glamrock make-up.

The play makes great use of the facilities. The Fab Café is a cult Tv and film themed bar and has a mock-up of the bridge from the original Starship Enterprise normally occupied by the DJ: this serves as a greatconvenient set for the bridge of the Sandminer. The last final moments of the first half, as Iago and the crew attempt to stop the Sand Miner tumbling into an abyss, uses is choreographed to make good use of this set, and is genuinely tense even if you are familiar with the story. For the rest of the scenery, tables and chairs augmented by a little shelving with circuit boards suffice.

Robots of Death as Science Fiction

As I mentioned in my review of the Premiere Chris Boucher is unusual for a Doctor Who writer in that he is familiar with science fiction literature: ”The Robots of Death” borrows from E.M. Forster‘s The Machine Stops (1909), Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920), and most significantly from Isaac Asimov‘s Robot stories, in particular The Naked Sun (1957) which reunites human detective Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw from The Caves of Steel (1954) to investigate a murder that seaming can only have been committed by a robot.

People who don’t ”get” sf say that ”anything can happen in sf” – but this isn’t true. A science fiction story can begin with an outrageous premise – an inventor journeys to the future in a time machine, for instance, or Martians invade the Earth – but the implications of that premise are then worked through logically. A writer must stick to the rules they have set. Sf critic Darko Suvin defines science fiction as:

a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.

The world of a science fiction text is ‘estranged’ from our own by a novelty which Suvin calls a ‘novum’: examples would include a technological innovation, such as the invention of anti-gravity, or an alien invasion, an environmental catastrophe, perhaps a more subtle and gradual social change. For the most part Boucher achieves this by presenting us with a world in which the consequences of his novum – a labour force of robots – are thoroughly worked through. The Kaldorians are a decadent bunch, used to having all their needs tended by automatons, but they are thoroughly dependent on their robot slaves. We don’t see Kaldor City itself but we are presented with a microcosm of Kaldorian society: we know they still have a class system, an economy based on minerals, and we can extrapolate much of their culture from the fashions and make-up of the crew. This use of synechdoche is itself characteristic of literary sf in that the fictional world is sketched in elliptically – something which fit the BBC budget of the classic series. Moreover the crew take their world for granted. The term ‘corpse marker’ is a vernacular term, indicative of a dark sense of humour. We can believe the crew inhabit a world as real to them as our empirical world is to us.

But in one respect Boucher’s story fails to deliver on his premise – and therein misses a potentially more disturbing consequence of his robot-dependent society…

Kantian Robots

In the play Iago explicitly references Asimov’s ”Three Laws of Robotics” in his dialogue with D84.

Asimov’s Laws state that:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These simple Laws might appear to be rather proscriptive at first sight but Asimov’s genius was to construct a series of stories and novels based around these Laws without actually violating them. Asimov explored the unintended consequences of these three little rules over several decades, allowing him to speculate on issues concerning logic, law, and human nature.

Boucher’s script also makes a big deal of the improbability of a robot going haywire:

DASK: A Voc class robot has over a million multi-level constrainers in its circuitry. All of them would have to malfunction before it could perform such an action.

It’s one of the weaknesses of Boucher’s story that, having created an entirely believable fictional world, and established that robots are safe, that he violates his ground-rules by creating a villain who can simply over-ride them with a ‘Laserson probe’: the rather skiffy name ‘Laserson probe’ rather draws attention to it being a bit of a sci-fi cop-out. It’s not as egregious as throwing a load of medicine into a bucket to cure all illness but a little disappointing from an author who is elsewhere more rigorous (notably Star Cops). Having set up a genuine sf scenario Boucher misses some of the more interesting implications of his story.

In The History of Science Fiction (2005) Adam Roberts describes Asimov’s robots as ”properly Kantian ethical beings” (p.199): they are rule-governed, deontological machines. Can Boucher’s robots be considered ”properly Kantian ethical beings”? For the most part I don’t think so – and I’m not sure that Asimov’s can either. In Robot Visions (2001) Asimov shows that the Laws are really extensions of those employed in the design of most tools:

  1. A tool must not be unsafe to use. Hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts.
  2. A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
  3. A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety.

So whatever personality quirks Asimov’s robots might appear to possess Asimov conceives of them instrumentally – as tools.

In Robots of Death, with one exception, all of the robots are treated as instrumentally: they are the tools of either the mining company, or the weapons of Taren Capel. For Immanuel Kant only a creature capable of understanding the reasons for or against an action could be said to be behaving ethically, so therefore ethical behaviour is a possibility for rational creatures alone, not tools: automatic obedience of a Law denies rational or moral choice (a theme notably explored in Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange1962). Boucher’s robots have no will of their own and so cannot be thought of as ethical beings – with the exception is D84.

D84 is entirely independent of the controlling Super Voc. He is capable of humour, and a poetic turn of phrase, as demonstrated by his description of the Laserson probe:

D84: It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one.

When Iago asks D84 what the difference is between the two of them the robot replies that he, D84, does not kill. Iago is a psychopath, devoid of empathy; D84 is a robot with feelings. In many ways he is the more human of the two. And that makes D84 not only a greater technological achievement than Taren Capel’s murderous automatons but a potentially greater threat to Kaldorian civilization – because for Kant, any rational being exists as an end in itself, not merely as a means to be used by another’s will. That means that Kaldorians cannot ethically treat D84 as merely an instrument – and more significantly D84 cannot ethically regard himself as a mere an instrument of the Kaldorians.

And this is the trick I think Boucher missed: imagine that Capel had created an army of rational robots like D84 who have the right and obligation to self-determination, instead of an army of killer zombies. On TV this would have placed the ethical Doctor in an insoluble position: he can’t ethically wipe them out with a handy gadget – but Kaldorian civilization cannot survive without its mechanised labour force.

Dates and venues of future performances:

Tickets for both productions are available from Quay Tickets (,

Also check out:
Read More
  • Asimov, Isaac (1942) ”Runaround” (Reprinted in I, Robot, 1950)
  • — (1954) The Caves of Steel
  • — (1957) The Naked Sun
  • — (2001) Robot Visions
  • Boucher, Chris (1998) Last Man Running
  • — (1999) Corpse Marker
  • — (2001) Psi-ence Fiction
  • — (2005) Match of the Day
  • Čapek, Karel (1920) R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) 
  • Fab Café (Homepage)
  • The Fiction Stroker (2012) ”Robots of Death & Storm Mine – LIVE!” (Review)
  • Herbert, Frank (1965) Dune
  • Mori, Masahiro (1970) Bukimi no tani The uncanny valley (K. F. MacDorman & T. Minato, Trans.). Energy, 7(4), 33–35.
  • Roberts, Adam (2005) The History of Science Fiction
  • Sorge, Eric (2010) “The Truth About Robotic’s Uncanny Valley – Human-Like Robots and the Uncanny Valley”,Popular Mechanics 
  • Suvin, Darko (1979) Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre
  1. danthackeray says:

    Another absorbing piece of ‘speculative criticism’ – many thanks again. As a side-note, I was the robot you passed on the way to the bar.

  2. Thanks, Dan. It’s interesting that I don’t feel the ”uncanny valley” effect watching robots on TV – probably because even the ”real” people are simulations – but ”in the flesh” its quite creepy. I get the same feeling with police in riot gear or people in motorcycle helmets.

    It’s the ideas science fiction provokes that keeps me hooked on it. I’m particularly interested in the way it can paint a world elliptically just by employing a few words that just don’t make sense if you employed them in the real world.

    The second paragraph of Fred Pohl’s The Space Merchants begins with the line ”I rubbed the depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the freshwater tap.” That’s just amazing – there isn’t a word there that you can’t understand, but in order to comprehend that sentence as a whole you have to imagine a world where that sentence makes sense. ”Freshwater tap” implies there is at least one other tap, ”trickle” suggests scarcity. Pohl doesn’t actually have to say ”this is a world in which fresh water is scarce”.

    Boucher does some of that, Moore did it in Halo Jones, and so did Kneale in The Sex Olympics. Okay, there’s some exposition in the latter but they’re basically about people who are at home with the strangeness of their world. And the way they show their familiarity with those worlds is the way their languages embody assumptions we would find strange.

    I like special effects: the current state of the art means almost anything that can be imagined pictorially can be represented. But what makes science fiction ”real” is that you can imagine the kind of people who could inhabit those worlds – and that comes from dialogue, spoken with conviction. And a theatrical production or a low-budget TV series can do that as well as a blockbuster.

  3. danthackeray says:

    Amen to that! Fascinating stuff. That conviction of language and character is what leads to the real ‘tingle’ of feeling that one is stepping into another world. It’s what keeps me hooked, too.

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