Torchwood: Instant Karma (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 August 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Instant Karma (Credit: Big Finish)
Writers: James Goss, David Llewellyn, Jonathan Morris
Director: Lisa Bowerman
Featuring: Naoko Mori, Jonny Dixon, Sara McGaughey, Duncan Wiseby, Ross Ford

Released by Big Finish Productions - July 2018
Order from Amazon UK

“That feeling…it felt amazing.”
“I know.”
“We could do anything, couldn’t we?”

It was only a matter of time. Between its mother show’s satirical coverage of the subject in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” and the franchise’s recent deconstructions of classic sci-fi tropes such as artificial intelligence (Cascade), cult conspiracies (Believe), and nihilistic escape rooms (Aliens Among Us Part 3), Torchwood always seemed inextricably bound towards tackling society’s rabid superhero mania. Case in point: avert your eyes from the screen of whichever digital platform you’re consuming this review via right now and look up into the sky. See that mythical figure descending from the heavens, like the Greek god Icarus with his majestic wings of old? That’s not a bird, nor a plane, nor even the Man of Steel himself – introducing Instant Karma.

Rest assured that the following verdict won’t comprise simply of genre puns, though – partly because iconic adages like “with great power comes great responsibility” sound rather dated in the age of social media influencers / trolls / politicians, but moreso because this reviewer would sooner renege his profession than get on the wrong side of Karma’s three-strong writing team. If Family Guy’s Peter Griffin took to Quahog 5 News’ TV airwaves to “grind his gears”, then Torchwood range regulars David Llewellyn, James Goss and Jonathan Morris evidently selected audio drama as the ideal medium to do so; from pesky stragglers holding up the queues for ATM machines to ignorant railway passengers incapable of wearing headphones, from far-right politicians to Cardiff-based secret agents sticking their noses where they oughtn’t be, the axes are well and truly out in a vengeful hour of unrelenting bestial fury…

Just kidding! But odds are that we’ve all bemoaned at least one of the bugbears mentioned in the previous paragraph, thereby confirming how brilliantly the three wrights channel commonplace social tensions into a painfully believable tale of tragic hubris. The aforementioned persistent agent, Toshiko Sato, has her hands full as ever, with our scribes throwing nuanced moral dilemmas aplenty in her direction as she investigates the emergence of a seemingly superhuman community group capable of murdering their irksome victims with but a single malicious thought. Might we justify such grievous violence if directed at the ‘right’ target? Is it always fair to blame up-and-coming ‘vigilantes’ for the unforeseen consequences of their actions? In a world where those influencers mentioned earlier often come to the fore with but a single viral tweet or video, only to find their every word scrutinised for its potential to shape followers’ actions / ideals, originally far-fetched dilemmas such as these are fast gaining pertinence, making the script’s refusal to commit to one moral standpoint as the more righteous stance all the more powerful in hindsight.

Serving full justice to weighty debates such as these takes more than politically charged dialogue and the odd explosive set-piece, of course; you’ll also need accomplished performers with the emotional range to keep a straight face given the tale’s disbelief-testing premise, yet simultaneously to avoid sinking listeners into despair when critiquing our childhood cravings for supernatural abilities. It’s for this reason that the decision to centre Karma around three core stars rather than an overstuffed ensemble works to such compelling effect – naturally Naoko Mori resurrects Toshiko’s personal vulnerability, intellectual sense of humour and oft-overlooked bravery with the ease of flicking a light-switch, but don’t underestimate Jonny Dixon or Sara McGaughey either. Both shine with remarkable intensity given their newfound introduction into the Torchwood universe, Dixon’s initially collected take on soldier-turned-bus driver Simon belying a deeply unsettling egotism underneath and McCaughey’s seemingly blindly faithful lover Janet fast revealing herself as no less psychologically complex – nor formidable – as events take a turn for the worst.

Perhaps it’s telling, then, that this reviewer’s only reservation towards the finished product concerns the sense of unfinished business lingering for these richly-detailed characters as the credits roll all too abruptly. Every great storyteller knows the value of leaving their audience wanting more, but past instalments in Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood range left us practically on the edge of our seats, desperate to know what became of Jack’s investigation into the Committee after The Conspiracy and Uncanny Valley, who the time travelling conspirators engineering events in Visiting Hours were or – as discussed last month – the true intentions of Norton Folgate, only for subsequent instalments to pick up with the same protagonists and yet virtually no sign of those previous plot threads. While this could suggest a bigger game-plan at work, what with one-off releases such as The Torchwood Archive and Outbreak admittedly furthering some of those minor story arcs, some might equally interpret it as Big Finish wanting to avoid those picking up a random Jack or Owen release in the monthly range finding themselves lost amidst ongoing story arcs, in which case return trips to Karma might induce a frustrating sense of longing for the closure which never came.

But that’s a question for another day – no doubt our understanding of Torchwood’s evolving narrative continuity under Big Finish will continue to grow as a second season of post-Miracle Day antics launches this autumn and the monthly range kicks into top gear with a full year’s worth of standalone missions starting next March. Regardless, Instant Karma confirms without any hesitation that now’s the perfect time for the studio to up their game with further monthly outings, delivering both exhilarating action for superhero aficionados and arguably the perfect therapy session for anyone in serious need of venting their stress mid-commute. Just be sure to remind Goss, Llewellyn and Morris that we told you as much, alright? The New Gods only know what’ll happen if we incur their wrath.

Next Time on Torchwood – Never mind superheroes, though; to paraphrase one Jim Moriarty, every comic-book needs a good old-fashioned villain. Trouble is that those ne’er do wells reckless enough to stand in the Torchwood team’s way rarely live to tell the tale, with one notable exception – Bilis Manger. If only we could ascertain the whereabouts of Abbadon’s kindly yet secretly bloodthirsty benefactor, then perhaps, just perhaps, this fourth season of monthly releases could finally buck the trend of past runs ending on devastatingly underwhelming notes. No luck? Oh well – we’d best retreat to the Travellers’ Halt for the night in that case. Rumour has it that the buffet’s to die for…