Archive for the ‘Doctor Who’ Category

Lass O’Gowrie, Manchester, 29 July 2012

Starring: Kate Millest (Blayes), Morag Peackock (V23), Sean Mason (Chief Mover), Marlon Solomon (Iago), Ben Patterson (Commander). Writer: Daniel O’MahonyDirector: Sam Al-Hamandi. ProducerGareth Kavanagh.

Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 came full circle with a full cast dramatisation of Daniel O’Mahony‘s Kaldor City audio play Storm Mine at the Lass O’Gowrie pub. This play had formed the second part of the opening diptych when Paul Darrow performed this and Robots of Death at the Premier performance.

Storm Mine dispenses with the opening prologue of both the Premiere and the audio play as Elska Blayes (an excellent Kate Millest, given ample chance to display her range) awakens on another Sandminer, uncertain how she got there, 18 months after the conclusion of Robots of Death.

The excision of the prologue is a good move, I think: the opening dialogue between Blayes and Iago (now apparently a disembodied voice in Blayes’ head) reveals a much more antagonistic relationship between the two that is barely hinted at in Robots of Death, and they also allude to a violent confrontation between them which does not seem to match the resigned murder-suicide that concluded the previous play. We can imagine the two of them having had further amoral, posthumous adventures in the intervening 18 months even if Blayes does not recall them.

Marlon Solomon’s chilling Iago is closer to Paul Darrow’s character here, a full-on psychopathic presence with a twisted Buddhist philosophy:

IAGO: When you set out upon a journey, kill everyone you happen upon: kill your friends and your parents and your children, should you meet them on the road. Kill the topmasters, the firstmasters, and the holy men; only that way can you become free. Only when you have killed everyone will you become truly enlightened.

Gone is his sense of vulnerability: what does he have to lose if he is already dead?

Most of the crew of this Sandminer have apparently been killed in an accident and the communications with Kaldor City are cut off, the Sandminer now unable to reach its final destination and condemned to wander the desert like a sandcrawling Flying Dutchman. Blayes is invited by the Chief Mover (Sean Mason) to meet the ‘Survivors Club’ which appears to consist of just himself and the Commander (a very funny Ben Patterson). A third human survivor, the Chief Fixer, is absent, though her robot, V23 (Morag Peackock), now assigned to Blays, is present.

The play is, I think, a better presentation of O’Mahoney’s script than the audio, despite the bigger name cast of the original. Kate Millest’s Blayes is much more credible assassin than Tracey Russell’s. When Darrow’s Iago refers to Chief Mover as displaying all the hallmarks of a serial sex-killer in the audio it seems to come from nowhere: John Leeson’s Chief Mover just seams overly polite. Sean Mason’s Mover, on the other hand, is a predator with a distinctly unhealthy interest in Blayes.

Morag Peackock performs V23 with make-up rather than a mask. Although the voices of the robots in Robots of Death had been supplied offstage it would not make sense to repeat this for a single robot, and a mask would have muffled Morag’s voice; but it is ultimately an artistic choice rather than a technical one. There are sequences where V23 takes centre stage – notably when she recalls a dream she has had – where her not-entirely unhuman delivery draws us in. It’s an impressively restrained performance.

Signal from Noise

Yes, but what does it mean? Well, no one said it was going to be easy…

In my review of David Bordwell‘s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989) I drew on Bordwell’s distinctions between four levels of meaning, each at ‘higher’ levels of abstraction: ‘referential‘ (what happens within the story), ‘explicit‘ (an abstract conceptual meaning, or the ‘point’ the author is trying to make), ‘implicit‘ (covert or symbolic meanings, or ‘themes’), and ‘symptomatic‘ or ‘repressed‘ meanings the writer may not be consciously aware. Generally speaking most audience members agree on the ‘referential’ meaning of a text (what they saw and heard happen), and to a lesser extent the explicit meaning (what the author was trying to say); ‘implicit’ meaning becomes more a matter of debate – and can keep fandom arguing for decades – while ‘symptomatic’ readings are generally the province of academics. Storm Mine is that unique beast, a text in which the implicit and symptomatic interpretations are actually easier to determine than the referential – because although I have some idea what the play means the audience won’t necessarily agree on what has actually happened! 

I used the phrase ‘signal from noise’ in my review of the Fringe production of The Year of the Sex Olympics where I associated it with the ‘Texas Sharpshooter’ fallacy. There are several psychological phenomena associated with this tendency: apophenia, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in apparently random or meaningless data, and pareidolia the perception of images or sounds in random stimuli (e.g. seeing a face in rock formations of the Cydonia Mensae on Mars, or hearing the voice of the Devil when you play a Heavy Metal record backwards). This isn’t to say patterns aren’t sometimes ‘real’ – the ability to pick out the pattern of a predator’s face peering through the grass of the savannah is what separates your ancestors from those who did not live long enough to have descendents of their own – but where there is no real order your mind will impose it.

Many writers have explored these phenomena, especially writers of postmodern fiction and science fiction: Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris (1961) and Don DeLillo‘s Ratner’s Star (1976) are classic examples demonstrating human failure to understand extraterrestrial phenomena because of our tendency to impose anthropomorphic patterns gets in the way. DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and William Gibson‘s Pattern Recognition (2003) are also based on the phenomena of divining patterns from noise, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons‘ Watchmen (1986) also explores the human capacity for creating meaning: the character Rorschach, whose mask represents the blots of the famous psychological test, is almost a living embodiment of apophenia, and in one memorable sequence Silk Spectre teaches Doctor Manhatten, who sees patterns but ascribes no meaning to them, how to see again as humans see.

Cult TV shows like Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner (1967-68), David Lynch and Mark Frost‘s Twin Peaks (1990-92) and Lost (2004-10) also successfully exploit the audience’s capacity to create meaning for themselves by presenting an excess of textual cues that cannot be reduced to any single interpretation even if they do not explicitly explore the themes of apophenia itself.

There are no coincidences, but sometimes the pattern is more obvious.

The essential features of an ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic text’ – I may have just invented those terms – are an excess of textual cues (characters, symbols, allusions) from which patterns can be made and interpretation drawn, and a sense of repetition that suggests these patterns are more than just coincidence. O’Mahony’s script makes many allusions to both repeated patterns and to noise: Iago admires the patterns of shadow on the X-ray of Blayes’ skull and suggests her experiences are merely the result of randomly firing neurons in a dying brain. The entertainment screens and communications devices are full of white noise and when Blayes asks Iago can anyone else hear him he responds ”Yes, if they listen to the static”. The Chief Mover has listened to the last message between the Sandminer over and over again but his interpretation blinds him to the actual words themselves: ”We are all in this together”. The Commander of this Ship of Fools  talks of the Aleph, a fixed point from which everything is visible; Jewish mysticis relate Aleph to the element of air, and the Fool of the major arcana of the tarot deck. He listens to the noise of the wind and talks of the repeated course through which the Sandminer travels: a figure eight (8), or infinity () ”depending on how you look at it”. We also have allusions to the Knight on a chess board traveling around and around. The play is also concept-heavy: it introduces themes such as evolution without fully exploring them. But this excess is all data that can be transformed into meaning.

So Storm Mine is a self-consciously ‘apophenic’ or ‘pareidolic’ text who’s implicit or symptomatic meaning is the search for meaning itself. Whether the story is set in Blayes’ dying mind, in the electric dreams of V23, or the gestalt unconscious of the fleshy tree the Fendahl has created from the Kaldorian race is indeterminable – and ultimately irrelevant. There is no ‘Aleph’ from which the play can be comprehended referentially. It depends on the viewpoint you take, and how you choose to look at it.

And we are all in it together.

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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:
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  • 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

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian philosopher with a particular interest in language and its relation to the social world. Marginalised and even persecuted for much of his lifetime he has more recently been recognised as one of the leading cultural thinkers of the 20th Century. This essay is brief introduction to his ideas as presented in his dissertation Rabelais and His World and further developed in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics and the four essays contained in The Dialogic Imagination.

I explore these ideas by applying them to Doctor Who – mainly because I like Doctor Who! But I also aim to show that complex processes play themselves out in popular TV shows as much as in self-consciously ‘difficult’ work – I mean, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge to find Bakhtin’s ideas at work in the  science fiction ‘campus novels’ of Samuel R Delany, would it?

I read Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque, grotesque realism, heteroglossia, polyphony, unfinalizability and the chronotope into Doctor Who, and illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas through examples drawn from that show: this essay is, in effect, an exercise in dialogue between Bakhtin and Doctor Who.

This essay is a greatly expanded version of an article which originally appeared in the Doctor Who fanzine Shockeye’s Kitchen # 9 in July 2001

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