Fab Café, Manchester, 1 July 2012
Greater Manchester Fringe Festival 2012 kicked off today with a special Premiere presentation of Robots of Death and Storm Mine at the Fab Café on Portland Street. For this performance only, former Blake’s 7 star Paul Darrow appeared as Kaston Iago, a character he originally played in the series of Kaldor City audio plays produced by Magic Bullet Productions.
The Premier performance was a read-through by the cast, seated in front of a live audience and reading from the script, rather than the full theatrical performance, complete with props and costumes, that it will be when it returns on 21 July. This being the case, and bearing in mind that the star of this the premiere won’t be appearing in those performances, I’ll stick to reviewing the script for now – with some asides on Darrow.
Robots of Death is a free adaptation of Chris Boucher‘s 1977 Doctor Who story of the ”The Robots of Death”. Originally featuring the Fourth Doctor (the inimitable Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) our heroes have now been replaced by the psychopathic assassins Kaston Iago and his partner Elska Blayes (Tracey Russell, reprising her role from the audios). Iago and Bleyes are not there to help anyone, they are there to kill a target – and anyone else who happens to get in their way.
For the most part the story remains pretty much the same as on TV: aboard the Sandminer Storm Mine 4, a huge vehicle trawling through the debris thrown up by the raging sandstorms of an unnamed planet in search of precious minerals, someone, or something, is killing off the crew one by one. Most of the actual work is performed by three classes of robot, the mute D-Class ‘Dums’, the more sophisticated ‘Vocs’ and a supervising ‘Super-Voc’. The human crew are a quarrelsome bunch, seething with either class entitlement or class resentment but oblivious of the fact the foundations upon which their civilization is built are no more solid than the shifting sands of the desert. The story is essentially a science fiction whodunit: Agatha Christie‘s And Then There Were None (1939) done as science fiction – but this shift in genre is crucial as the themes explored are not simply those of a country house murder mystery performed in science fiction drag.
The major science fiction theme of the story is ‘robophobia’, an irrational – though in this case, perhaps not – fear of robots, which is also refered to as Grimwade’s Syndrome in the TV version – an in-joke at the expense of production assistant Peter Grimwade, who had complained about always having to work on stories featuring robots. (Grimwade was later to become a writer and director on the show.) Robophobia is a version of what robotics professor Masahiro Mori refered to as the ”Uncanny Valley effect”, or Bukimi no Tani Genshō, in an essay in 1970. According to the theory, the more human an automaton looks, the more agreeable it will be to human beings – but only up to a point. When the automaton approaches the point at which it can be mistaken for an actual human being, the non-human aspects (lack of human expression, intonation, body language, etc) unconsciously create feelings of unease. This effect is also said to describe the sense of discomfort reported by audiences of CGI films such as Robert Zemeckis The Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and A Christmas Carol (2009). Robophobia manifests itself in several ways in this story: at different extremes it induces Poul into a catatonic state; for Taren Capel, brought up by robots, it leads to over-identification by a process of what a Freudian would no doubt call ‘reaction formation‘ and cognitive psychologists would attribute to cognitive dissonance.
”The Robots of Death” came towards the end of the three-year run of producer Philip Hinchcliffe, and it was script-edited by the great Robert Holmes. This period had been marked by a degree of Gothic excess unprecedented in a TV show largely aimed at children; the most fondly remembered stories of this period (”Pyramids of Mars”, ”The Brain of Morbius”, ”The Seeds of Doom”, ”The Deadly Assassin” and ”The Talons of Weng-Chiang”) are also amongst the most traumatic things ever broadcast before the watershed. Most of these stories were built around the Gothic theme of the ‘uncanny‘: the familiar made strange. ”Robots of Death” was very much part of this phase; it was also, however, explicitly political in its use of the uncanny to comment directly on colonialism, class, and exploitation, in a way the show had not been since the early Seventies. The story combines a specifically science fictional variation of the uncanny as a metaphor for alienation while retaining the signature Gothic horror codes of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era.
Boucher wrote three stories for Doctor Who, the others being ”The Face of Evil” (1977), which immediately preceded ”The Robots of Death” and introduced the companion Leela, and the Quatermass and the Pit-inspired ”Image of the Fendahl”. He was script-editor of all four seasons of Blake’s 7 (also writing the episodes ”Shadow”, ”Weapon”, ”Trial”, ”Star One”, ”City at the Edge of the World”, ”Rumours of Death”, ”Death-Watch”, ”Rescue” and the notorious series finale ”Blake”) and on the detective series Shoestring and Bergerac; he would later combine the science fiction and detective genres to create the short-lived Star Cops in 1987. In 1998 he returned to the worlds of Doctor Who with the spin-off novel Last Man Running; this was followed by Corpse Marker (a direct sequel to ”The Robots of Death”, 1999), Psi-ence Fiction (2001) and Match of the Day (2005).
Unusual for a Doctor Who writer, Boucher displays a knowledge of science fiction literature: ”The Face of Evil”, for instance, had distinct echoes of Harry Harrison‘s Captive Universe (1969) in its portrayal of a civilization which has fractured into two groups, a tribe of Bronze Aged savages and another which retains traces of scientific knowledge coded as religious ritual. ”The Robots of Death” borrows liberally from several key science fiction texts, notably E.M. Forster‘s The Machine Stops (1909), Karel Čapek‘s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920) and several stories from Isaac Asimov‘s Robot series, in particular his novel The Naked Sun (1957). Forster’s short story features a machine-dependent society on the brink of collapse while Čapek’s play describes a robot rebellion (in fact, Čapek’s play is the origin of the word ‘robot’). The name Taren Capel is likely to have been derived from that of Karel Čapek. The Naked Sun features a similar robot-dependant society faced with the possibility that their servants may turn against them, and a protagonist who is mildly robophobic. The Sandminer is, of course, borrowed from Frank Herbert‘s Dune (1965). These intertextual threads are woven deftly together by Boucher to create a coherent sense of a fictional world in which we can believe his characters live and work, helped on TV, I should add, by some terrific art deco production design; although they were not used in the Premier performance of the play the group have recreated the beautiful robot masks used by the BBC.
Paul Darrow was magnificent in his one-off performance, a snarling Clint Eastwood just the right side of camp (depending, of course, which side of camp you regard as the ‘right’ one!). His delivery of the Doctor’s withering put-down ”You are the perfect example of the inverse relationship between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain” will stay with me a long time. The cast had been slightly rejigged for this premiere performance in order to accommodate the star so it will be interesting to see how the production changes when it returns later this month. The cast are excellent, snd you may recognize several from the Lass O’Gowrie‘s adaptation of Alan Moore‘s The Ballad of Halo Jones (look out for Dan Thackeray’s Together in Electric Dreams, by the way). and the producers have gone the revamped Battlestar Galactica route of freshening the story up by altering the sex of some of the characters. ”The Robots of Death” had been unusual for the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era in having decent roles for women other than the Doctor’s companion, and changes here, while making little difference to the pot, nonetheless open the story up to a feminist interpretation.
The play, however, is not a total success, and where it falls is largely where it deviates from Boucher’s original concept. On TV the Doctor had to investigate the mystery, then improvise an ingenious solution when Taren Capel was revealed. Here, Iago and Bleyes are aware of Capel’s presence from the start, and the story concludes in an unsubtle hail of plasma bullets. Worse, the last few minutes unveil another, previously unhinted-at force behind the events; it’s the equivalent of Hercule Poirot gathering all the suspects together in the library, only to reveal the killer is from an entirely unrelated Miss Marple story before spraying the room with a machine gun. The play itself has been made strange.
This rather unsatisfactory conclusion is included to lead directly into the second feature, an adaptation of Daniel O’Mahony‘s Storm Mine. Storm Mine is the seventh Kaldor City audio (counting the 20 minute story The Prisoner, included as part of MJTV’s CD The Actor Speaks: Paul Darrow), and the final episode to date. Although the first three stories, Occam’s Razor, Death’s Head and Hidden Persuaders are stand-alones, Taren Capel, Checkmate, The Prisoner and Storm Mine form a single continuing narrative, and it’s fair to say that by the final episode the series had built up a considerable backstory not adequately explained in this play.
Blayes comes to the fore in this story as awakes 18 months later on another Sandminer, uncertain how she got there; Iago is now reduced to a disembodied voice in her head. The story involves constantly shifting realities, with a much more sketchily defined background, and supporting characters lacking any sense of motivation, or indeed, reality. Whether the story is set entirely inside Blayes’ dying brain or inside the alien gestalt or somewhere else entirely is open to interpretation. The story involves several Buddhist themes derived from the teaching of Zen Master Linji Yixuan, founder of the Rinzai school:
Followers of the Way, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.
This teaching is echoed almost exactly in Storm Mine:
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.
The difference is that Linji was speaking metaphorically, and did not carry a plasma pistol.
Dates and venues of future performances:
Tickets for both productions are available from Quay Tickets (www.quaytickets.com),
Also check out:
- Asimov, Isaac (1957) The Naked Sun
- 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)
- Harrison, Harry (1969) Captive Universe
- Herbert, Frank (1965) Dune
- Mori, Masahiro (1970) Bukimi no tani The uncanny valley (K. F. MacDorman & T. Minato, Trans.). Energy, 7(4), 33–35.
- Smith, Dale ”Welcome to Kaldor City, Population: 1” at Dalesmithonline.com
- Sorge, Eric (2010) “The Truth About Robotic’s Uncanny Valley – Human-Like Robots and the Uncanny Valley”, Popular Mechanics