Widely recognised as of one the all-time Top 10 favourite Doctor Who stories featuring Tom Baker, arguably at the height of his powers, 1977’s ‘The Robots of Death’ was a stylish murder mystery with a strong guest cast including Russell Hunter (Callan), Brian Croucher (Blake’s 7) and David Collings (Sapphire and Steel). Tantalising mention was made during the story of the wider world beyond the Sandminer – Kaldor City. Subsequently, the spin-off media began to explore Kaldor City. Creator Chris Boucher wrote a novel expanding the story and characters, and with his blessing, Magic Bullet Productions produced further stories (sans The Doctor) starring Paul Darrow, and reprising his role, Russell Hunter. Now, Robots of Death and one of its audio sequels, Storm Mine have been adapted for the stage as the launch event of the first Greater Manchester Fringe. But how will it translate to the stage?
For this first performance, the cast for the full productions later in the month were joined by Paul Darrow (Avon in Blake’s 7) reprising his role as Kaston Iago and Tracy Russell as Elska Blayes from the Magic Bullet Kaldor City series. Both joined the cast of the regular run (at Fab Cafe 22-24 July and the Lass O’Gowrie 28-30 July) for an ‘enhanced’ reading.
Robots of Death is the action piece of the two stories. With a set of murderous robots on the rampage, investigators Iago and Blayes end up returning to the scene of one of the most infamous events in Kaldor City’s history – but before they can rewrite history – they’ve got to survive it…
For purists of Doctor Who, Robots of Death has been faithfully adapted. New material to bridge and entwine continuity with Storm Mine has been added, but for extra authenticity material has also been added from the rehearsal scripts. Not only adapting, but enhancing the adventure provides for an entertaining ride. All of the key moments that made the story a success are present.
Yet for all the familiarity for those who know the story, events begin to take a very different turn towards the end. To say much more will spoil it, but needless to say, the ending poses more questions than the televised version of Robots of Death ever did. Watching Iago and Blayes, even armed with their foreknowledge of events having a parallel adventure to the one seen on screen is captivating.
I was lucky enough to see the rehearsals of some of the key moments of Robots of Death, and watching the cast at work, polishing, refining and rejigging key scenes was a window into how such performances are crafted. Still works in progress, the ensemble team are continually working and refining the product – if it is of this quality now, then the finished productions are guaranteed to be outstanding. Attendees were lucky to get a sneak preview of the iconic robot masks that retain the original design from the BBC story and are to be used in the finished productions.
Effectively Part Two of the story, Storm Mine picks up eighteen months on. Trapped on board a Storm Mine, Blayes has no recollection of how she got there. With Kaldor City locked down in quarantine and some familiar occupants on board the Storm Mine, she must prevent the destruction of the world as we know it – or witness the creation of a new one.
As events on the Storm Mine unfold, you are left to question what is happening. Although there are strong indications guiding you, events are left open to allow you to have your own interpretation – the script juggles Buddhist themes, notions of unity and identity in a challenging, but rewarding story. The tension is ramped up with Iago’s unnerving presence and the eerie yet seductive V23 hovering at the periphery. One of the most beautiful scenes of the play was V23’s chess match with Blayes where she begins to realise there is more to V23 than meets the eye. V23’s retelling of the recurring dream that it (almost, very almost does the robot betray emotion) has, is all the more chilling for being told in such neutral tones – a stellar performance.
Each of the remaining characters to appear – the Commander, Chief Mover and the elusive Chief Fixer are all familiar echoes from Robots of Death, yet remain enigmatic. The very notion of being trapped on this more or less deserted vehicle is a terrifying one – it would appear that the Storm Mine and its eerie ghost-like crew are waiting for the quarantine on Kaldor City to be lifted – a scenario that may never happen. Yet something lurks in the shadows waiting – or is it already chewing away within everyone?
Storm Mine does what all good science-fiction should do – it encourages you to ask questions. They may not be questions that occur to you immediately, but the play leaves a lasting impression. Absolutely essential watching for anyone who would like to see one of the most imaginative and engaging pieces of drama – never mind science fiction in quite some time. Whilst I suspect that it is going to be a divisive piece, my verdict firmly comes down on having enjoyed and appreciated it. I can’t claim to have fully digested Storm Mine, but therein lies the beauty, I can take away my own interpretation, which most likely might change, or evolve on second viewing.
The assembled cast excel in their roles. Many will be familiar faces; some of the genders of characters you would be familiar with have swapped adding another layer to the production. Darrow and Russell’s performances necessitated some moment of cast to accommodate this, but in similarity to the original, there are some very strong performances. As far as the performance of the two guest stars in this reading, Paul Darrow gives a very gruff, gravelly tone to Iago. Treating is as if a Western, he brought an electric and quietly menacing quality to the play. Blayes, and with it Tracy Russell comes to the fore in Storm Mine, she gave a strong and unnerving performance that was powerful to watch.
With these two plays, you have an ambitious and successful reinterpretation of one of the all-time classic Doctor Who adventures. Robots of Death has been ambitiously reimagined for new and existing audiences. With a witty script and a pacy plot and much of the baggage of the original production removed, Robots of Death is an ambitious and successful re-telling of a clssic. As a companion piece and sequel, Storm Mine just edges out Robots for me. Many going to watch may not be as familiar with the source material, but this does not matter as what follows over the hour and a half that follows is a deep, intelligent, psychological and illuminating piece that is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of spin-off fiction Doctor Who has produced. Essential for science-fiction fans, anyone looking for a thought-provoking piece ought to go and see these two plays – a strong and promising start for the Fringe
The Fiction Stroker gives Robots of Death and Storm Mine four strokes out of five:
The Kaldor City series is avaliable to buy from Magic Bullet Productions. Alan Stevens and Fiona Moore, the masterminds behind Kaldor Coty have also just launched a book on Battlestar Galatica – By Your Command – a guide to Battlestar’s original series and the 1980 series – available from Telos Books.
Robots of Death and Storm Mine are part of the Greater Manchester Fringe – more details at www.greatermanchesterfringe.co.uk