Also, for the first time in a long time, there's been no promotion of an overall arch or storyline across the plays. There's not even any companions, just the Doctor alone. There are a couple of hints in the play itself of Something Bigger tm (the Tardis is black and the wording above the door is slightly different), but apart from that throwaway line Robophobia is, in terms of relation to other Big Finish plays, entirely standalone.
The Robots of Death was a murder mystery, albeit one that gave away who was controlling the murderous machines too early in the game due to showing off his distinctive disco trousers. This sequel tries to do something similar, including, sadly, being a bit too obvious in places (distinctive disco trousers are entirely absent, though I hope the cast were wearing them in the recording).
Whilst the original was set on a Sand Miner going across the deserts of their home planet, Robophobia occurs on the spaceship Lorelei as it transports a massive cargo of robots between worlds. A murder is committed, and the Captain desperately wants to just ignore it till they make planetfall, but mysterious stowaway the Doctor has other ideas...
The seventh Doctor is at his most mysterious and enigmatic here, the story's real lead character being more the ship's “Med-Tech” Liv (Nicola Walker), as she discovers from his prompting the murdered man worked for the company and finds out from his files about the original Sandminer murders and that robots can actually kill.
Though McCoy plays it well, his back seat role is something of a problem here. When dealing with a culture that's utterly dependant on robots and can't even conceive of them doing harm, he goes and puts the idea of robot murder in their heads. Even though this turns out not to be the case at all. Indeed, the villain's plan effectively makes no sense as he wants people to think the robots are killing, but it's something that would never have occurred to them without the unexpected help of the Doctor. If the Doctor had just gone “It's a man disguised as a robot” the play would have been about half its length. And yes, this incarnation plays things very close to the chest, but this is ridiculous and unnecessary even by his standards.
Another problem is the fact it isn't really robots doing the killing but someone in a costume is obvious from fairly early on (though people who have heard Kaldor City will find this amusing as “It's people in costumes” was one of the attempts to cover up actual robot murders in that series). There's also only two potential suspects, ship's captain Selerat (erstwhile TV Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg) and security officer Farel (erstwhile man who had moths eat his Doctor Who scarf Toby Hadoke). And as Farel is conveniently late to the scene of the second murder it's fairly obvious it's him. And the title of the play sort of gives away his motivation for wanting to get rid of all robots. There is however one nice nod to the TV stories roots as a Ten Little [Insert the Currently Acceptable Term Here] homage by Farel faking his own death to keep attention away from him.
When Farel is revealed at the end of the third episode, there really isn't anywhere else for the story to go. So we get a somewhat randomly thrown in sub-plot where he's forced the ship on a crash course towards the planet they're heading for in an attempt to make the entire galaxy hate robots. This is not only slightly forced, but makes little sense. Not only is it a remarkably well thought through plan for someone who's a gibbering wreck in most of his scenes, but dialogue makes it clear the planet has the ability to just destroy the approaching ship.
The source of Farel's robophobia is interesting though. He was never the victim of a robot attack, but instead of them failing to save his wife from a sandstorm despite their best efforts. Without anyone to blame for the freak accident he turned his hatred towards the robots. It's a nice idea (albeit suspiciously like the source of Will Smith's dislike of robots in I, Robot), and Hadoke really gives his all in the scenes that require him to breakdown completely.
The Doctor manages to get the four survivors of Farel's actions off the ship (though unless I'm missing something it's never entirely clear what happened to the rest of the crew. It's implied early on to be very large, large enough for Liv to believe the Doctor's claim he's one of the engineers because she doesn't know everybody on board. Farel couldn't have killed them all single handed, and if they were supposed to have been taken out by the two bombs he planted in the robot bays it's decidedly unclear). But his plan to get the ship moved onto a course into the sun is pre-empted by the surviving robots who decide to stay with the ship to make sure it doesn't prove a hazard to any other spaceships.
As is likely obvious by this point, the plot of Robophobia isn't up to very much, being incredibly contrived in places. It's also missing the main selling point of the original TV story, the amazing art deco design work of the robots and the Sand Miner.
However, there's still a lot to like here. The robot voices are as sinister as ever, and everyone gives a top notch performance that manages to overcome some of the odder decisions that their characters are asked to make. McCoy in particular is brilliant, bringing the lonely melancholy take on the seventh Doctor very much to the fore. Toby Hadoke also deserves credit for making finely judged insanity an art form, even if he does tip his hand a bit too early in signposting the character's instability. In many ways it's perhaps fitting for a story that has its roots in a Agatha Christie send up is more about mood and cool bits than a fully coherent plot. It's not amongst the best of Nick Briggs' writing, but still manages to pass the time well enough. However, for a really top notch sequel to The Robots of Death, you'd be better off tracking down the six Kaldor City audios.
[Three Hands Thrown At You Out of Five].