Alpha and Omega: Two Science Fiction Plays by Mike Walker

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BBC Radio 7, 3-4 March 2009
This brace of dramas directed by Gordon House and starring David Calder and Sarah-Jane Holm, pictured a dystopian world in which religion and family life no longer had any meaning. Alpha had Calder playing a Catholic priest Marquez working for a supercilious cardinal (John Moffatt) who travelled to Los Angeles, only to discover that the entire region is governed by a computer Alpha (Holm) which not only determines human behaviour but can assume any shape and express any emotion it wishes. The play evolved into a battle of wills between the pastor and the computer, each determined to protect their respective ideological interests. Marquez maintained that a god existed, and remained fundamental to human life, otherwise people would be nothing more than automata. Alpha countered by arguing that the distinction between self-determination and guided thought no longer prevailed: human beings can be programmed to express any emotion they choose. Eventually author Walker came down on Marquez's side by suggesting that human beings could switch Alpha off (should they so wish), but left the door open for future technological development by implying that Alpha represents perfection. If we seek an ideal world free of conflict, then perhaps we should listen to her.
Omega started off by creating an apparently ideal environment of a nuclear family comprising John Stone (Calder), his wife Kate (Penelope Wilton) and their daughter Louise (Helen Longworth). Stone pursues a happy professional life constructing a skyscraper next to the River Thames; the only fly in the ointment being that his employer, Straker (Philip Voss) seems to be a sinister person whose motives remain cloudy, to say the least. Louise falls victim to an incurable disease; although pronounced dead by the hospital authorities, she is miraculously resurrected. While Stone greets the news with delight, he remains suspicious, believing (rightly, as it turned out) that she had been inhabited by a mysterious presence who controlled her life. Eventually we discovered that the presence was Straker who, in conjunction with his evil sidekick Kate had created a new generation of robots to carry out all menial tasks - including designing new buildings. Stone himself was nothing more than a robot; however he had malfunctioned to such an extent that he allowed emotion to cloud his judgment. He thought too much; questioned Straker's absolute rule; feels sympathy for Louise and Kate; and thus needed to be destroyed. Straker duly obliged, much to Kate's disgust.
Like Alpha, Omega speculated on what separates human beings from automata, and came to a conclusion reminiscent of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; that replicants have been so well constructed that they have assumed virtually every function once assigned to humans - even delivering dramatic dialogue. David Calder's theatrical career has incorporated several high points - notably his recent Lear in London - but on radio his voice has a comfortable, rather reassuring quality that encourages listeners to sympathize with him. The same applies to Penelope Wilton, whom older listeners may remember as Richard Briers' long-suffering spouse in the 1980s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles. One cannot quite believe that she would take on the role of an evil genius's sidekick; just as one might doubt whether Calder is nothing more than a robot. But this was precisely Walker's point; in the not-too-distant future it might be difficult to understand exactly what being human might be. And that's a sobering thought for anyone interested in the power of technology to improve existence.