Torchwood: Made You Look (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 4 August 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: Made You Look (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Guy Adams
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Cast: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Matthew Gravelle (Darkness), Marilyn Le Conte (Mrs Rhodes),
Ross Ford (James)
Produced By: James Goss
Script Edited By: Steve Tribe

Released By Big Finish Productions – August 2016

Back on October 22nd, 2006, when Torchwood made its momentous televised debut via BBC Two’s airwaves, the show carried one hell of a tagline: “the twenty-first century is when everything changes”; indeed, some members of the fan-base would undoubtedly argue that “everything changed” for them on that precise date with the series’ arrival. For a second, though, it seemed as if February 13th, 2016 would prove just as pivotal a moment, if not infinitely more-so, as Eve Myles posted the following words on Twitter not long after recording her second Torchwood audio, MoreThanThis, for Big Finish:

“Thank you. Massive goodbye GC.”

Considering that the studio’s official licensed continuation of the ever-acclaimed Doctor Who spin-off programme had barely gotten underway, having produced just five one-hour dramas as of this February and with plenty of time still to go until its ownership of the licence terminated in 2025, the revelation that easily one of the show’s most dedicated stalwarts, the woman responsible for bringing the immortal Gwen Cooper to life on screen, seemingly wouldn’t be returning for more recordings predictably sent shockwaves through the fan-base at the time.

Thankfully everything didn’t change in this instance, since the cunning minds at Big Finish evidently convinced Ms. Myles to rethink her future with the range, prompting her to sign on for not only this month’s Season Two finale, Made You Look, but additionally a fully-fledged ensemble box-set, Torchwood: Outbreak, due to unite her with John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd for a pre-Children of Earth mission this November. Unfortunately, however, the former of these two new entries doesn’t exactly justify her decision to reprise the role for more outings, instead offering up a predictable one-off horror storyline which suffers from an overwhelming lack of both compelling secondary performances and, worse still, any real sense of the fear factor writer Guy Adams clearly wanted to evoke.

In fairness, the first few minutes of this flawed standalone chapter do a fine job of convincing regular listeners that all’s well here, with Adams crafting an atmospheric, horror-esque opening as Gwen arrives at the near-deserted seaside town of Talmouth to investigate the mass disappearances of its residents, only to find herself subsequently stalked by a seemingly omnipresent extra-terrestrial creature which can turn our most basic sense of sight against her, slaying her where she stands if she takes but three looks at its visage. It’s a quintessential Torchwood premise to be sure, one which wouldn’t have felt at all out of place had it formed the set-up for an episode of the original TV show either on BBC One or BBC Two.

Yet had Made You Look been transmitted on the small screen, its critics would almost certainly have called it out for coming up severely lacking from a structural perspective, with the whole narrative simply centring on Gwen’s encounters with town’s two survivors and above all the so-called ‘Darkness’ tracking her every step. In theory, there would be nothing wrong with such a basic approach if Adams made this race for Gwen’s life a thrilling, oft-terrifying rollercoaster ride packed with cinematic chills to send shivers up the spine, but herein lies the real problem, since barring a somewhat Hitchcockian seagull attack and one or two haunting hallucinatory sequences, virtually none of the chase set-pieces contained within the hour manage to ramp up the fear factor in the slightest, instead deploying clichéd tropes of the genre such as ghostly mists, mysteriously re-animated fairground rides and the like as if we’ve never seen them before on screen or heard them re-enacted in audio form. If anything, rather than having trouble getting to sleep after hearing the final track, listeners will be in danger of dropping off before the third act even kicks off as a result of the astounding lack of narrative innovation here, with the only truly effective moment coming in the form of a pleasingly ambiguous epilogue that for once leaves our heroine’s fate– and that of the oft-forgotten Committee, absence for the third time running here – wholly up in the air.

This almost complete absence of the injection of any real tension on Adams’ part isn’t helped at all by the similarly lacklustre performances given this time around by Myles’ esteemed co-stars. Ross Ford charms somewhat as the paranoid but innocently endearing homeless youngster James, yet not so much that he can make anywhere near a noteworthy impact in his minimal airtime, while Marilyn Le Conte renders her blind hotel manager Mrs Rhodes as every bit as comedic and quirky as the script aims for her to be, only to fail to tug at the heartstrings in her fleeting moments of peril and thus limit our sympathy towards her character. Most notable of all, though, is Matthew Gravelle’s brave but ultimately flat turn as the Darkness – the Broadchurch thespian attempts to channel the understated, sinister malice of recent TV villains like Toby Jones’ Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice or Lars Mikkelsen’s Charles Augustus Mangnussen in Sherlock Season Three, yet ends up robbing the piece’s antagonist of any genuine sense of threat in the process. Whilst there’s certainly something to be said for trying to avoid a farcical, pantomime-style turn as Gwen’s latest foil - especially when the manner in which the Darkness approaches pursuing its prey feeds into a topical message on Adams’ part regarding how the world’s bullies manipulate their victims despite having no real power of their own - given how wanting Made You Look’s supposedly unsettling narrative is for fully-fledged scares, that Gravelle opts to restrain himself in terms of showcasing the potentially terrifying extents of the sinister omnipresence of his character’s voice across Talmouth represents a sizable missed opportunity more than anything else.

As with virtually all of Big Finish’s output, however, Made You Look isn’t completely devoid of genuine merits by any means. Fans of Eve Myles who cried out in sorrow at her aforementioned short-lived departure from the range can at least use her third solo Torchwood audio as evidence of the actress’ talents – not least as she outclasses everyone else in the play by reprising the character’s confident swagger, effortless leadership capabilities and underlying personal vulnerability within moments of her first appearance – and anyone with an ear for accomplished sound design or any devotees of the overall horror genre should well appreciate Scott Handcock’s effective use of seaside sound effects like fairground melodies and arcade game blips to enable the audience to better visualise Adams’ – admittedly uninspired – setting for themselves.

There’s no denying that the range’s lead performances and technical elements have remained top notch throughout its first two runs, in fact, but twelve releases in, there’s no denying how much of a shame it is to see certain members of the revived Torchwood franchise’s writing team struggling to produce narratives which are anywhere near as philosophically rich, atmospheric or generally engaging as the likes of TheConspiracy, UncannyValley, Zone10 or particularly last month’s phenomenal Jack-Ianto team-up Broken. That those four tales were such instant, undisputable hits with fans that put their protagonists to such great use does Made You Look no favours whatsoever, since rather than following suit, Adams has simply endowed Myles and company with a generically clichéd, philosophically shallow and completely arc-light script that, like February’s More Than This before it, rounds off a season’s worth of fine drama in disappointingly low-key fashion. Season Two’s much-anticipated denouement could otherwise have been the moment that everything changed for the range, with Eve Myles’ return representing a triumphant statement of the franchise’s longevity, yet in reality, Outbreak and the show’s well-earned – albeit still to be announced – third season of Big Finish audios will have to aim far higher in order to guarantee that the brand keeps thriving rather than putting the studio’s acquisition of the show’s licence at risk.

Torchwood #1 (Titan Comics)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 3 August 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood #1 - Cover A: Tommy Lee Edwards (Credit: Titan)
Script: John Barrowman & Carole Barrowman
Art: Antonio Fusio & Pasquale Qualano
Colours: Marco Kusko
Letterer: Richard Starkings & Comicraft's Jimmy Betancourt
Senior Editor: Andrew James
Assistant Editors: Jessica Burton & Amoona Saohin
Designers: Andrew Leung & Rob Farmer
Released by Titan Comics - August 3rd, 2016 

Few could ever accuse Titan Comics of lacking in ambition when it comes to their range of licensed comics set in the Doctor Who universe, especially since until now, that range had comprised of no less than four regular comic strips – featuring the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors on a monthly basis – as well as three mini-series bringing classic Doctors such as Tom Baker and Paul McGann’s into the fray. Yet on the basis of its astoundingly dense, plot thread-laden opening issue, the publishing house’s launch of a strip continuing the escapades of Captain Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper and the rest of the Torchwood gang already looks set to represent perhaps their boldest venture yet, one which will surely pay immense dividends in the near future so long as everyone involved keeps their eye on the ball.

Thankfully, the odds of this latest regular series’ writing team losing their way are utterly astronomical, not least as Titan have oh-so-wisely drafted in both Captain Jack Harkness himself, John Barrowman, as well as his sister Carole to take the permanent helm of what they’re bravely branding as the spiritual Season Five of the original TV show. As anyone who read the pair’s 2012 post-Miracle Day novel Exodus Code will know – and speaking of which, those who haven’t could do worse than to pick up a copy, since Issue 1 takes place after the events of that particular storyline and incorporates a few secondary characters from the text too – the siblings Barrowman have a fine handle on what made Torchwood tick on-screen. Whether it’s the endearing dynamics formed between the central team members, the world-threatening but morally ambiguous conflicts thrown at them every week or the underlying efforts by the likes of Chris Chibnall to develop plot arcs beneath the show’s usual procedural narratives, the pair show a promising dedication to keeping such elements alive here, thereby validating the strip’s status as a fully-fledged continuation from the outset.

At the same time, though, as they depict Jack, Gwen and Exodus Code’s Ice Maiden frigate crew beginning to realize that the Earth’s once again about to come under threat from antagonists both extra-terrestrial and worryingly closer to home, the helms can sometimes let their imaginations run almost too wild, to the extent that they end up juggling so many plot elements – including an elderly man spending the final days of his life in a familiarly-named Scottish house, the Iron Maiden’s membership tackling adversarial tentacle-clad creatures in the Otega system and Gwen’s beachside picnic with Rhys getting interrupted by one of the most bizarre invasion fleets in Torchwood’s history – that few readers could be blamed for losing track of what’s occurring from time to time. It’s by no means a crippling issue, particularly as Exodus Code more than confirmed the pair’s capability with regards to allowing seemingly disparate threads of their storyline to coalesce by the time of their narrative’s denouement, yet John and Carole could do worse than to follow a few less plot strands at one time as they begin drafting future issues and story arcs.

That issue of overcrowding extends somewhat to their characterisation as well, with the well-staffed crew of the Iron Maiden – as well as the aforementioned residents of Torchwood House – beefing up the show’s classic ensemble in the absence of the late Owen, Toshiko or Ianto, but at the same time consequently giving off the impression that they’re competing with the series’ returning favourites for ‘screen time’, a crease the writing team must iron out if they’re to develop these Exodus Code returnees in particular as the series progresses. With all of that being said, no-one could possibly accuse John or Carole as struggling to resurrect beloved protagonists like Jack, Gwen and Rhys in printed form – again, as demonstrated in their earlier novelised work, they know better than anyone how vital the rapport of this long-suffering trio of underrated heroes was to the TV drama’s original success, even during the divisive 10-week spanning Miracle Day, as well as how each of them functions, with Jack displaying all of the swashbuckling swagger that John did on-screen, Gwen still capable of standing up to the very fiercest opportunities in an identical vein to the manner in which Eve Myles portrayed her and Kai Owen’s Rhys still as lovably hapless – yet unquestionably loyal – as ever. Indeed, a long running theme of this reviewer’s critiques of Titan’s Doctor Who-centric output has been the strength of the individual writing team’s depiction of each series’ central protagonists, and suffice to say that this USP hasn’t been diminished by the Barrowmans in the slightest in this instance.

Yet if John and Carole take an admirably dedicated approach to portraying the former’s team of undercover agents as authentically as possible here, then the series’ resident artists – Antonio Fusio and Pasquale Qualano as well as resident colourist Marco Lusko – opt for a far more stylised range of accompanying images, preferring to revel in the sheer fantastical lunacy of their scribes’ globe-trotting, alien-encountering set-pieces while rendering many of the locales visited here in bright, bombastic hues that offer up a clear sense of the strip channelling much of the uplifting hope – even in the face of darkest odds – and awe-inspiring wonder at the unknown that made the TV show itself such a joy to watch in the latter stages of the noughties, in spite of all of its minor quirks. Anyone who’s familiar with the similarly eclectic artwork found in Titan’s regular Tenth Doctor comics should have a fair idea of what’s coming their way here, and whilst that far from photorealistic style of drawing won’t necessarily be to everyone’s taste, for the most part it works wonders in terms of bolstering this narratively accomplished freshman instalment.

In fact, aside from the rather off-key note on which Issue 1 leaves its narrative – expect a bonkers cliffhanger to be sure, but not one which succeeds in leaving the audience desperate to learn what happens next in three weeks’ time – only one real point of contention comes to mind here, and in fairness, the sticking point in question has mainly come about due to the marketing campaign more than anything else. When they first announced their Torchwood series, Titan claimed that John and Carole’s storylines would reside in the same continuity as Big Finish’s currently booming wave of audios exploring the titular organization’s past, present and future. Yet considering that the aforementioned series of radio dramas has already revealed the events succeeding Miracle Day to involve the remaining Torchwood members’ hunt for the sinister Committee, the decision here to make no mention whatsoever of either these ambiguous antagonists or to establish when the events of Exodus Code – so far unreferenced by Big Finish – took place in relation to audio dramas like Forgotten Lives or Made You Look – can’t help but seem downright baffling. Most readers won’t give a damn about such trivial matters, of course, but anyone like this reviewer who’s followed both of Torchwood’s recent audio seasons and looked forward to seeing the Committee arc continued – or at least get a mention – while we wait for news on Big Finish’s Season Three might well leave Issue 1 slightly underwhelmed.

That’s but a minor, somewhat nit-picky gripe, though, and one which doesn’t detract from the otherwise well-rounded success of Torchwood Issue 1 in bringing back a hit TV spin-off show’s storylines, its charismatic ensemble of lead characters, its quirky humour and its inspired aesthetic elements in full force. Purist fans who’ve followed every non-televised plotline featuring Cardiff’s most intrepid band of detectives might have wanted John and Carole to at least pay their respects rather than outright ignoring what’s come before in printed and audio form, yet it’s near impossible to pay such insignificant grievances much real heed when the fruits of the pair and their art team’s labours taste so gosh darned delicious so far. John may well be in the process of negotiating the show’s on-screen resurrection with the BBC, but even if those discussions don’t pan out favourably, judging by Big Finish’s stellar recent output and this memorable first issue from Titan, the brand will only continue to thrive regardless for the remainder of its triumphant tenth anniversary year.

Torchwood: Broken (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 8 July 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Broken (Credit: Big Finish / Lee Binding)
Written by Joseph Lidster
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones), Melanie Walters (Mandy Aibiston), Eiry Thomas (Glenda), Ross Ford (The Saviour)
Released by Big Finish Productions - July 2016

They say that all good things must come to an end, and nowhere will that oft-used idiom seem more apt in a month’s time than in the case of Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood range. In the space of just twelve months, producer James Goss and his merry band of audio playwrights have expanded the mythology of the eponymous TV series further than fans could possibly have imagined when this continuation was first envisioned. Together, they’ve introduced enigmatic foes like the Committee, unforgettable supporting characters like telesales operator Zeynep and the reclusive billionaire Neil Redmond, but most of all a plethora of exhilarating new storylines for classic Torchwood Three recruits like Captain Jack, Gwen and Ianto, all while convincing the actors who played them first time around to return for at least one instalment of their year-spanning pair of seasons.

All of those seismic achievements are of course reason enough to bemoan the range’s impending temporary conclusion with August’s Season Two finale, Made You Look, but if one hoped to find a primary means by which to justify imploring Big Finish to commission a third season as soon as possible, then they’ve certainly gotten it with this month’s long-awaited release. Dubbed Torchwood: Broken for reasons that become well apparent as its core plot progresses, the odds of this fifth and penultimate chapter in Season Two matching some of the range’s finest moments – TheConspiracy, UncannyValley as well as the more recent Zone10 foremost among them – seemed slim at best prior to its launch, making its triumphant success in this regard that much more of a remarkable feat on the parts of just about everyone involved.

As with any of the studio’s most critically acclaimed titles, Broken’s status as a captivating, award-worthy work of audio drama comes about thanks to a number of contributory factors, but no more so than thanks to the returns of both John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd – for the first time since October 2015’s Fall to Earth in the latter’s case, no less – to the roles of their somehow ever-increasingly beloved pair of doomed romantics, Jack and Ianto. Not since Friends united Joey and Rachel has a fandom arguably rallied behind a couple as ardently as this immortal swashbuckler and his endearingly faithful butler; nor since James Cameron’s Titanic have viewers shed wetter tears at a relationship’s denouement as we all did in the penultimate chapter of 2007’s Children of Earth. As opposed to giving complacent performances due to assuming that fans would pick Broken up anyway, both esteemed thespians instantly remind listeners why they proved such a dual hit on-screen, with Barrowman perfectly balancing his consistently engaging swagger with a more reserved, empathetic portrayal as and when the script requires it, while David-Lloyd tugs at the heartstrings at every opportunity by rendering his lines with such pathos, such dramatic gravitas that even this reviewer found keeping his eyelids wholly dry a challenge at times.

Of course, without the right narrative material to work with, both players might have been forced to go through the motions, so thank goodness for Joseph Lidster, whose masterful script helps elevate his leads’ turns to unprecedented levels with a level of unmistakable ease that most playwrights would envy immensely. To divulge too much of the precise narrative that the man behind televised episodes like A Day in the Death has concocted here would be to spoil the fun, but suffice to say that in setting Broken just days after the events of the divisive but undoubtedly emotional Season One episode Cyberwoman, wherein Ianto’s original crush, Lisa, became a pseudo-Cyberman before finding herself gunned down by the rest of her boyfriend’s team, Lidster ensures that he’s got plenty of meaty dramatic material to dive headfirst into, exploring in depth the nature of psychological trauma involved with grieving a loved one’s demise, the inevitable self-reflection such a loss can provoke for the widow with regards to their own life choices, as well as how one’s perception of those who seemed to be their ‘allies’ prior to such heartbreaking events can change forevermore as a result. In the wrong hands, the integration of such topical issues – especially in an age where terrorist attacks are tragically taking so many real-world individuals’ loved ones on a daily basis – could have felt contrived or borderline disrespectful, particularly if they’d largely played second fiddle to a by-the-numbers sci-fi tale, yet this month’s scribe evidently knew better than to take that approach, instead only peppering in genre elements when absolutely necessary so as to allow this deeply satisfying investigation into Ianto’s psyche – not to mention the birth of his romantic attachment to the future Face of Boe – to take centre stage throughout.

Whilst Torchwood’s primary genre doesn’t substantially manifest itself here, though, those who followed the original TV programme more for its fantastical action and otherworldly antagonists plucked from the previously untapped regions of the Doctor Who universe will surely find enough to sink their teeth into thanks to the fleeting but memorable contribution of Ross Ford as the disconcertingly benevolent extra-terrestrial known as ‘the Saviour’ and, more importantly, Melanie Walters as Ianto’s resident barmaid, Mandy Aibiston. Again, how these two connect to the show’s wider universe is best left unsaid until more of you have had a chance to give this one a listen, although it’s not a spoiler in the slightest to say that with more airtime than Barrowman as well as just as much stage presence, Walters well and truly makes her mark on the audience over the course of the hour. Not only does she endow her character with just as much of a sympathetic, compassionate voice as is befitting of the woman who finds herself nursing – albeit via alcohol – Ianto out of his grief, but she equally making the infrequent heated exchanges between Mandy and Jack seem just as believable owing to the protective stance her construct takes over her latest regular.

The credits don’t stop there, either – in fact, between Scott Handcock’s exemplary direction of what must have been a rather daunting non-linear play to tackle, the inspired usage of Murray Gold’s “Captain Jack’s Theme” and “The Ballad of Ianto Jones” to aurally rouse the listener and break their heart respectively, and the narrative’s success where its predecessors failed in providing a compelling enough standalone yarn to compensate for the lack of mentions of the Committee, it’s difficult to know precisely where to draw the line with all of the warranted gushing in this instance. For fear of spending as long as Jack’s lifetime singing Broken’s praises, then, let’s end on this – here we have the most satisfying entry in the Torchwood range to date, a true masterpiece that combines nuanced performances with Oscar-worthy scripting to remind the world over what made Torchwood such a riotous success on TV and why it couldn’t have been in safer hands than those of Big Finish. All good things must come to an end, but on the basis of Season Two’s spectacular second-from-last entry, its masterminds would be utter fools to let August’s Made You Look or November’s team-up boxset Outbreak signal the dying days of their latest range; if anything, the story’s only just begun.

Torchwood: Moving Target (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 7 June 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Moving Target (Credit: Big Finish / Lee Binding)
Written by Guy Adams
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Indira Varma (Suzie Costello), Naomi McDonald (Alex), Nicholas Burns (The Referee)
Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2016

“The twenty-first century is when everything changes…and I should have been ready.”

Well, that’s one way to start a new instalment of Torchwood ten years on from the series’ debut, we suppose.

If nothing else, nine releases into their take on the four season-spanning Doctor Who spin-off show, it’s to the credit of James Goss and the rest of his writing team’s creative vision that they’re still able to offer up neat little surprises such as this on regular occasions, especially given the constraints placed upon them by having to limit the cast of each tale produced so far to but a handful of players at most. Take also the return of Indira Varma to the role of Suzie Costello; like Tracy Ann-Oberman’s feisty Yvonne Hartman before her, Varma’s complacent Torchwood Three agent met her on-screen demise – or rather whose first demise – almost just as speedily as the show’s itself. Yet far from giving Suzie equally minimal attention, the minds of Big Finish have instead opted to structure an entire one-hour drama around her pre-deathly days - this time going by the name MovingTarget - a development which it’s safe to say most fans of the original programme wouldn’t have easily predicted at first.

With that being said, however, much as the prospect of delving deeper into a morally ambiguous secret agent’s psyche than the show ever did in Everything Changes may have sounded like a sure-fire route to success for Big Finish, the piece’s surprises come to a halt almost as soon as the show’s iconic theme tune signals the end of its first track. That the core narrative driving Suzie’s actions forward feels so predictable from the outset doesn’t help its case; Varma’s still reckless, still trigger-happy character finds herself tasked with resolving a situation not unlike that posed in the 2007 Who serial Smith and Jones or 2010’s The Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter The Empty Planet as virtually all of the Earth’s inhabitants are frozen by extra-terrestrials, prompting her to join forces with the only other human being able to move a muscle as a band of other-worldy hunters recruited by the Committee give chase across Cardiff. Given the rather overly familiar nature of the premise as well as the fandom’s complete awareness of Suzie’s dark side, the hope would surely have been that writer Guy Adams could have subverted our perceptions of both the story format and Ms. Costello herself, but barring a rather charming interlude involving a bottle of vodka during the third act, Adams sticks to purely safe territory here, structuring most of the plot around a repetitive, overextended chase sequence before wrapping up in a manner which just about any long-term fan of the show’s televised incarnation will see coming from a mile off.

There are those academics who would argue, of course, that no one work of fiction can ever boast a truly original storyline, with the vast majority of tales conforming to one of seven predefined formats or genres such as the tragedy or the epic, but even so, we’ve already seen this range of audio dramas in particular regularly venture into unexpected territory, what with its dabbling with sexually provocative, existentially challenged androids in January’s UncannyValley as well as Queen Victoria’s final days in TheVictorianAge. The transition back into the more pedestrian, less shocking realms of storytelling here seems that much more jarring, then, as does the equal lack of effort invested in developing Suzie’s partner-in-crime of sorts, Alex, beyond the realms of ordinary expectation: as with the overall narrative, the trajectory of Naomi McDonald’s wayward citizen seems all but certain from the moment her role in the aforementioned hunt becomes explicitly clear, giving the listener a disappointing sense of inevitability in terms of how events play out, especially when compared to the unpredictable nature of recent Torchwood releases like February’s Zone10 or recent Big Finish box-sets such as their War Doctor compilations.

Yet one element which doesn’t betray this fourth outing of Season Two’s quality is the casting: despite the brevity of her on-screen appearances, Varma makes quite the impact as Suzie once more, bringing to the surface shades of sincerity, regret and a genuine hope of redemption that barely had chance to manifest themselves on the small screen. Arguably to a greater extent than was the case with Tom Price’s performance last month, there’s an inherent subtlety about the way in which the actress portrays this evidently morally apathetic, unashamedly selfish yet somehow almost tragic antihero as she attempts to cling to the path of righteousness, only for the more cold-hearted aspects of her personality – aspects which, it’s implied, might even be the result of a troubled upbringing – to re-emerge as the situation facing her and Alex takes a turn for the very worst. Her co-stars McDonald and Nicholas Burns – who plays an irksome android tasked with monitoring the last sentient humans’ progress – don’t suffer in the slightest from not having appeared in the TV series prior to now, though: if anything, they deserve just as much commendation for injecting their constructs with such sympathy-inducing innocence and charming malice respectively, with Alex in particular coming off as a refreshingly emotionally layered mother-to-be thanks in no small part to McDonald’s performance more-so than Adams’ somewhat clichéd characterisation and structuring of her arc. It’s often difficult to fully acknowledge the contribution of director Scott Handcock to the range’s strengths, but suffice to say that he and his players worked in fine unison this time around, producing a set of performances which just about warrant a listen from series devotees.

Beyond that more dedicated section of Torchwood fandom, though, it’s unlikely that Moving Target will come off as a true masterpiece to most casual listeners. Sure, it’s a more compelling listen than last October’s Oberman-starring OneRule, yet that both scripts were penned by Adams and both have ranked as the range’s weakest outings to date on account of their uninspiring chase-driven storylines, shallow characterisation of their supporting constructs and overall lacklustre quality could suggest that Goss and Adams might need to have words regarding how best the latter scribe might go about drafting his next contribution to the range. Neither of his two scripts have resulted in absolute travesties, admittedly, rather a couple of merely passable storylines which would interest rather than captivate most listeners and wherein a great deal of potential felt unfulfilled. That the three-strong cast’s turns here serve to render the tale at hand as an infinitely more engaging fiction than it might have been with a less accomplished ensemble is at least its saving grace, but even so, Adams can’t rely on this to always be the case; indeed, his scripts may well need to ramp up their ambition in order to come anywhere close to matching the range’s best efforts to date. In the meantime, this reviewer will retire to his local pub in the hope of meeting a dashing American and an endearingly shy butler who can work together to lift his spirits – and speaking of which, look who’s just around the corner…

Torchwood: Ghost Mission (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 7 June 2016 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Ghost Mission (Credit: Big Finish / Lee Binding)
Written by James Goss
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson), Samuel Barnett (Norton Folgate), David Warner (OAP), Lisa Bowerman (Quite Anxious Shopper), Laura Doddington and Aaron Neil (The Graces)
Released by Big Finish Productions - May 2016

Building momentum over the course of a season’s first half rarely tends to be difficult for skilled writing teams, yet maintaining that momentum poses a far greater challenge.

Take Ghost Mission, the James Goss-penned, Scott Handcock-helmed third instalment of Big Finish’s second series of Torchwood storylines, which undertakes the unenviable mission of not only following up the thrilling capers of TheVictorianAge along with the more nuanced mysteries of Zone10, but equally striving to ensure that Season Two doesn’t lose any of the traction gained so far moving into its latter three instalments. Try as he might, Goss seems to struggle under the weight of the task at hand, presenting more of a filler instalment with only the shallowest of impacts on the run’s wider plot arc that, despite its mildly intriguing premise and competent characterisation, unfortunately doesn’t quite leave as noteworthy an impact as its esteemed forebears.

Before we come onto those contributory elements which hold the piece back from greatness, however, it’s worth noting that there’s plenty here to keep dedicated fans of Torchwood’s most unsung defender of humanity, Tom Price’s ever-lovable Sergeant Andy Davidson, more than content until this month’s fourth chapter – MovingTarget, featuring the return of Indira Varma as the not-so-late Suzie Costello – hits the Big Finish website. For one, Price couldn’t have slipped back into his long-running role with greater ease judging by his hilarious yet sympathetic performance here, easily an aspect of the play which ensures that even when Goss’ script takes a turn for the mundane – more on which later – listeners are all but guaranteed a laugh or two in the meantime, if not a teary eye or two judging by the surprisingly poignant way in which Andy’s latest solo adventure reaches its conclusion.

Don’t take our use of the term “solo” to describe this Cardiff-set excursion as meaning that Andy’s alone in discovering how out-of-the-ordinary chemical slippages connect to the ongoing schemes of the Committee, however: as has been the format of virtually all of the range’s releases so far, Ghost Mission essentially takes the form of a two-hander, with Price’s occasionally bumbling, occasionally authoritative policeman matching wits with Norton Folgate, a ghostly apparition from the 20th Century who’s supposedly come to assess Andy’s viability as a candidate for Gwen Cooper’s newly-resurrected incarnation of Torchwood Three. Samuel Barnett takes on voicing duties here, and a great job he does of it too – not only does he capture the understated charisma which Goss endows the character with perfectly, but he also manages to give the construct enough emotional sincerity to ensure that Andy’s belief in Norton’s convincing account of his connections to the Torchwood organization feels genuine rather than the pair’s partnership seeming like nothing more than a contrived, unrealistic plot device unbefitting of Price’s oft-dubious character.

In a similar vein to past instalments in the series, Price and Barnett are joined fleetingly by a handful of co-stars such as David Warner as a delightfully sinister OAP to whom there may well be more than initially meets the eye, Lisa Bowerman as a Welsh shopper who has the misfortune of coming into contact with one of the previously-mentioned chemical spillages as well as both Laura Doddington and Aaron Neil as the deadly alien Graces whose only real narrative purpose is to serve as a sudden physical obstacle for Andy to overcome as best as he can. This in turn brings us back to this occasionally forgettable third outing’s flaws, however – whereas in April’s Zone 10, both Ella Garland and Geoffrey Breton made sizable impacts during their brief time on air as traumatised astronaut Anna Volokova and an unrelentingly aggressive FSB agent respectively, none of Ghost Mission’s supporting cast members receive any dialogue from Goss that could bring them anywhere close to matching their predecessors, hence why they’re unlikely to be the members of the cast ensemble who leave a tangible impact on the listener’s memory come the credits. Admittedly it’s probably more a case of the inclusion of esteemed thespians like Warner and Bowerman – both of whom shine elsewhere in Big Finish’s catalogue, for example in the Doctor Who Unbound series – raising this reviewer’s expectations of their characters’ presences further than usual, yet even so, that only the two leading players get a true chance to impress here certainly represents a severe missed opportunity on the playwright’s part.

That said, gripes like this one would be far more forgivable if Goss’ central, fairly standalone narrative didn’t leave so much to be desired. It’s fine and dandy for the range’s scribes to divert somewhat from the overarching tale of Torchwood’s centuries-spanning mission to bring down the Committee every now and then, as evidenced by the wholly enjoyableFalltoEarth last October, yet in order for this approach to pay dividends, the procedural plot which said scribe thinks up needs to be just as compelling as its Committee-centred counterparts, if not more-so. Quite to the contrary, though, barring a brilliantly tense exchange between Andy and Warner’s OAP which does lightly tie events back into the Committee’s ever-increasing influence on the lives of Torchwood Three and its allies – even shedding unexpected further light on the events of Zone 10 by revealing how the red key which Tosh was given found its way back through the timelines when Andy first encountered it long after Ms. Sato’s demise – the central plotline feels remarkably pedestrian, rarely developing many themes beyond Andy’s enduring longing to fulfil his own potential or uninspired ‘action’ sequences – such as his attempts to avoid the Graces by hiding in the nearest garbage container – in any great detail, thereby resulting in a rather hollow listening experience that seems all but doomed to be forgotten in a few months’ time judging by the relative dramatic strength of the recently-released trails for both the Season Two finale Made You Look and November’s team-up box-set Outbreak.

Ultimately, then, Ghost Mission can’t quite warrant as wholehearted a recommendation as the opening two instalments of Torchwood’s second series in the hands of Big Finish, owing mainly to the disappointingly unambitious nature of Goss’ latest contribution to the studio’s array of licensed storylines along with the unfulfilled promise of layered performances from studio legends like David Warner and Lisa Bowerman. To its credit, Price and Barnett’s accomplished performances – as well as Goss’ entertaining portrayal of their two constructs – just about serve to keep the play engaging enough to prevent listeners from switching off their CD or MP3 players, but even so, most listeners will all but definitely come away thinking Season Two has lost some of its earlier momentum here rather than maintaining it as hoped; unfortunately, they’re not wrong either.

Torchwood: Zone 10 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 3 June 2016 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: Zone 10 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by David Llewellyn
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Naoko Mori (Toshiko Sato), Krystian Godlewski (Maxim Ivanov), Ella Garland (Anna Volokova), Geoffrey Breton (FSB Agent)
Released by Big Finish Productions - April 2016

If March’s Torchwood: The Victorian Age did exactly what it said on the metaphorical tin, then its immediate successor achieves precisely the opposite ambition, subverting the listener’s expectations at every turn, albeit to an even greater degree of success.

Set sometime before the events of the TV show’s 2007 season finale, Exit Wounds, Torchwood: Zone 10 not only develops the Committee arc which has tied each instalment of Big Finish’s licenced range so far together, but also reintroduces one of the original programme’s most beloved players back into the fold in the form of Naoko Mori as the ever-intrepid Toshiko Sato. Like Ianto before her in last October’s high-octane air-bound thriller Fall to Earth, Toshiko’s latest mission revolves as much around her hopes of proving her capabilities as a solo agent to the rest of her team in their absence as it does her investigation into a previously unexplained signal which takes her deep into Russia’s mountainous regions. It’s a shrewd decision on David Llewellyn’s part, one which lets Mori sink her teeth into a tale that expands her character’s occasionally insecure personality as well as offering a meaty mystery to be resolved along the way.

Better yet, far from resting on her laurels, Mori goes out of her way to confirm why fans so fervently called for her return in one of Big Finish’s releases, mirroring John Barrowman, Gareth David Lloyd, Eve Myles and the rest of her televised co-stars’ accomplished reprisals of their respective roles by rendering Toshiko as just as compelling a lead character in aural form as she was on-screen. Whether she’s trading wits with Krystian Godlewski’s secret agent Maxim Ivanov on the Russian slopes or defending the wayward astronaut Anna Volokova’s right to leave the dangerous territory known as Zone 10 as the storyline progresses, Mori shines regardless in capturing the character’s capacity for understated jokes, personal engagement with her cohorts and adversaries, unlikely leadership and willingness to put her life. If anything, over the course of the hour, her sublime performance – coupled with Llewellyn’s accomplished characterisation – only serves to strengthen Tosh’s status as one of her organisation’s most renowned employees.

Neither of Mori’s leading co-stars let her down in this regard, either: thanks to Llewellyn’s narrative casting Godlewski’s Ivanov as an old friend of sorts to Toshiko who nevertheless finds his loyalties tested by his own agency – the KVI, Torchwood’s Russian counterpart – the construct doesn’t so much come off as a clichéd obstacle for our heroine to overcome as a realistically morally conflicted individual whose hands become increasingly tied as more of the KVI’s connections to the Committee come to light, an internal battle which Godlewski portrays with brilliant subtlety. As for Ella Garland, who plays the aforementioned outer space explorer, her character doesn’t factor into proceedings until around the halfway point, yet such is the poignant, immediately sympathetic nature of Garland’s contribution that by the moment Volokova utters her final words in the play, the audience will be just as attached to her as they’ve grown to Mori’s returning Tosh and Godlewski’s expertly-handled Ivanov, if not more-so, which speaks to the raw power of her voice-work. Even Geoffrey Breton intimidates the audience to an impressive as one would hope from the piece's solitary minor antagonist, a KSB agent pursuing Tosh on her quest for the truth, although his airtime admittedly gets limited to but a few minutes at most.

If it seems as if this critique has stopped short of highlighting any chinks in Zone 10’s armour so far, then there’s a good reason for that: virtually all of its contributory elements stand up magnificently to scrutiny, with Scott Handcock’s direction in particular far outdoing his work on April’s The Victorian Age thanks to his decision to sparingly use weather- and firearm-based sound effects so as to aurally create a backdrop for the aforementioned cast members that’s positively dripping with atmosphere. Perhaps Llewellyn could have done a little more to make his latest contribution to the Torchwood range accessible to newcomers, since he seemingly assumes – perhaps rightly – that most listeners will be familiar enough with the Committee from previous releases to understand their impact this time around, yet at the same time, considering that both March’s More Than This and The Victorian Age kept irritatingly clear of this fascinating plot arc, maligning the scribe’s efforts to shed further light on the joint history of this elusive extra-terrestrial body and the newly-introduced KVI would be a hypocritical move to say the least. Suffice to say that anyone who’s shared this reviewer’s desire for the arc in question to kick itself into gear won’t come away underwhelmed in this instance; instead, such listeners will find themselves left enamoured by the now greatly increased likelihood of us finally gaining some closure in the remaining chapters of Season Two.

Even if the Committee arc appears to be moving rapidly towards its denouement at this point in time, however, the same certainly can’t be said of Big Finish’s Torchwood franchise as a whole; quite to the contrary, in light of the ease with which both Season Two’s opener, The Victorian Age, and now its sophomore instalment – Zone 10 – have reinvigorated the series after Season One ended on something of a rough note, the show’s immediate prospects in the realms of audio couldn’t appear more promising if Russell T. Davies were to be writing the remainder of the run. That sentiment in itself speaks wonders for how far producer James Goss as well as his masterfully selected team of writers have brought the range in the space of just eight months. Indeed, if future monthly releases continue to build upon the superb performances, atmospheric directorial work and tight scripting employed by Llewellyn for Tosh’s spectacular comeback, then chances are that by the time Outbreak rears its long-awaited head in the closing months of the year, we’ll be left in no doubt as to why BBC Worldwide chose to resurrect one of Doctor Who’s most popular spin-offs in audio form rather than on TV. We might be no closer to seeing Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper and the gang return to our screens ten years on from their debut in 2006’s Everybody Changes, but between releases like these and Titan Comics’ just-announced dedicated Torchwood strip – set to launch this Summer – there’s no denying that the show remains in as rude health as ever regardless.