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.

Torchwood: The Victorian AgeBookmark and Share

Friday, 3 June 2016 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: The Victorian Age (Credit: Big Finish)
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria), with Youssef Kerkour, Louise Jameson and Aaron Neil
Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2016​

Believe it or not, there’s something inherently satisfying about experiencing a work of fiction which successfully does precisely what it says on the tin.

Torchwood: The Victorian Age mightn’t come packaged in a tin – depending on whether one opts for the physical or digital edition, it’ll either be encased in plastic or megabytes – but the point certainly still stands; for better or for worse, it’s an audio drama which makes little pretence regarding its goal of standing as a light-hearted, structurally fast-paced thriller that effortlessly keeps its audience entertained. If the second season of Big Finish’s ever-increasingly accomplished continuation of the titular Doctor Who spin-off were to comprise completely of such thematically lightweight escapades, then there’d of course be cause for concern, but in terms of reminding fans of the original TV series how much fun the show’s characters – regular and supporting alike – can have when the writing team allows them a moment to let their hair down, it’s as fine a freshman outing as any to be sure.

As its sub-title suggests, rather than pursuing the Torchwood Three team’s non-linear quest to trace and apprehend the enigmatic Committee in present day Cardiff, The Victorian Age takes both Jack Harkness and Wales’ aforementioned capital city back a couple of centuries to the days of Queen Victoria, pitting both the good captain and indeed the monarch herself against an alien menace intent on stealing the youths of as many victims as possible. Naturally, these efforts to prolong life on the part of the piece’s antagonist enable writer AK Benedict to delve into the well-worn realms of Jack’s inability to shed his mortal coil, albeit via an unexpectedly layered commentary on why the relative brevity of the reigns of rulers like Victoria can in fact prove to be far more of a blessing than a curse. Whereas Pauline Collins took on the role of one of Britain’s longest-serving queens back in 2006’s Tooth and Claw, it’s Rowena Cooper – who also appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures serial Lost in Time, incidentally – who takes the character’s reins here to glorious effect, adding a further layer of pathos to Victoria’s emotionally sympathetic discussion of how she lacks the necessary time to fulfil all of the ambitions she set out for herself when her reign began.

If that all sounds rather maudlin, then as we mentioned above, rest assured that it’s hardly representation of the rollercoaster-esque tone of the overall storyline: Cooper and especially John Barrowman must have had a riot of a time recording their dialogue, at least if the constantly chuckle-worthy, surprisingly multi-faceted rapport their characters strike up through their conversations over the course of the hour is any indication. In stark contrast to his more sombre performances in the far darker The Conspiracy or Uncanny Valley, Barrowman unsurprisingly relishes the opportunity to showcase the sassier, raunchier ex-Time Agent with whom many viewers fell instantly in love in 2005’s hit Doctor Who two-parter The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, giving as good as he gets whenever Cooper’s Victoria attempts to gain the upper hand in terms of authority or general wit. There will most likely be some members of the listenership who find themselves at first a tad disappointed by Benedict’s election not to venture in the morally murkier waters we saw Torchwood’s most loyal recruit enter over the course of the show’s first season of audio adventures, yet Barrowman’s relentless zest and energy are all but guaranteed to win them over once more within minutes of proceedings getting underway.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that The Victorian Age’s admirable commitment to producing a caper-style narrative which only rarely delves beyond the surface of its characters’ psyches doesn’t come without a few minor faults. Much as it’s something of a welcome relief to see Big Finish’s Torchwood range take a turn for the more whimsical given how adult – to say the very least – Season One’s tone became on occasion, there’s an inevitable lack of true emotional or philosophical depth which sets the release apart from some of the TV show’s finest hours like Captain Jack Harkness, Adam, Exit Wounds and Children of Earth, though mercifully that doesn’t mean the listening experience feels anywhere near as close to a chore as was the case with Yvonne Hartman’s alcohol-laden trip through the streets of Cardiff in last year’s One Rule. Add in a few technical blemishes – despite a great play on Murray Gold’s classic “Captain Jack’s Theme” and some convincing sound effects involving the footsteps of the horses Jack and Victoria mount in pursuit of their foe, the score itself leaves something to be desired, rarely hitting the rousing notes one would expect of an on-screen thriller of the same ilk – and another disappointing refusal on Benedict or perhaps producer James Goss’ part to acknowledge the overarching Committee plot threads which have been left obtusely hanging since Uncanny Valley launched earlier this year, and it’s fair to say that for all of the piece’s achievements, there’s still absolutely room for improvement by its successors in the months to come.

Yet if Big Finish’s take on Torchwood over the past six releases can be seen as just a hint at what lies around the corner for the range, then by this point, little doubt should really remain in our minds as to the studio’s capability to ensure that future releases continue to evolve and adapt to combat their predecessors’ flaws – Uncanny Valley provided Barrowman with a more well-rounded storyline than the still accomplished The Conspiracy, while this November’s three-part Outbreak looks set to remedy fans’ gripes with the lack of full-cast audio dramas commissioned to date, all of which only serves to confirm that the licence couldn’t be in better hands. Better yet, given the success with which they’ve had here at providing a thrilling historical outing complete with superb performances and a delightfully unexpected – if fleeting – thematic insight into both an esteemed fictitious character and a renowned real-world leader, it seems that Torchwood Three – or Torchwood Cardiff, as it was once evidently known – has not only a bright future to look forward to in the years between now and 2025, but a similarly bright past to boot.

Torchwood: More Than ThisBookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 February 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: More Than This (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Guy Adams
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Richard Nichols (Roger Pugh), Guy Adams (Coachman), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy)
Released by Big Finish Productions - February 2016

Remember how in 2007, after a spectacular run of episodes featuring delightful trips to Renaissance England, adrenaline-fuelled races against the clock on doomed space freighters and terrifying encounters with the Lonely Assassins of old, Doctor Who’s third season since its 2005 revival unfortunately concluded on something of a sour note with the downright tedious “Last of the Time Lords”, sacrificing much of the brutal realism which made Martha’s one and only string of TARDIS journeys such a hit with fans in favour of having Tennant’s Doctor spend almost an hour looking like The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum before transforming into a cringe-worthy embodiment of Christ the Redeemer himself? If so, then chances are that sitting through the sixth and final chapter of Big Finish’s freshman Torchwood run will induce quite a tangible sense of déjà vu in your mind from the outset.

Going by the name More Than This – for various reasons, the most enticing of which being its investigation of the ways in which humanity copes with grief and finding subsequent hope – Guy Adams’ first contribution to the show’s lore since his well-received 2009 novel The House That Jack Built seems more than a little oddly placed as the conclusion of a run of half of dozen stories that has centred on the machinations of the oft-enigmatic Committee as well as how their increasingly audacious schemes could come to affect the Earth’s sanctity in the days ahead. 

Far from bringing this ongoing plot arc the same kind of closure which Roger Pugh (Richard Nichols) – the Cardiff councillor who’s unlucky enough to find himself caught up in Gwen Cooper’s latest excursion as she desperately struggles to convince him of the need for the Hub’s imminent reconstruction – seeks more than a decade on from his spouse’s parting, Adams makes the confounding decision to ignore these pivotal new antagonists entirely here, opting to prioritize Pugh’s danger-ridden journey towards a form of enlightenment rather than developing the brilliantly tense aura of threat which writers like James Goss, Emma Reeves and David Llewellyn have built over the course of the season (think what your reaction would have been if all of those hints of the coming darkness in Season Four had amounted to absolutely nothing, and you’ll no doubt begin to comprehend how infuriating this turn of events is for any dedicated follower of the run).

Now, in fairness, this reviewer has no intention of spending the entirety of this critique lamenting over what could have been, since what this somewhat disappointingly surprising denouement lacks in the closure that anyone who’s tuned in since day one – meaning Torchwood’s debut Big Finish outing, The Conspiracy, not the televised episode of the same name, for those confused – will likely have desired, its cast compensate for with consistently entertaining turns galore. Whether the listener is spending some one-to-one time with Nichols’ Pugh as he recounts the day’s events at his wife’s graveside whilst descending into heart-breaking outbursts of self-pity, or keeping abreast of the latest endeavours of Eve Myles’ ever-endearing Gwen Cooper as she rallies against Cardiff’s more reckless drivers with a hilarious ferocity, or even sympathizing with the constant efforts of Tom Price’s Sergeant Andy to establish more than a professional rapport with Gwen despite the increasingly fleeting nature of their regular encounters, they’re sure to have a whale of a time regardless, something which can’t always be said of Big Finish’s works in those cases where the central cast ensembles’ contributions come off as inconsistent as best.

Nevertheless, that Gwen and Andy merely showcase many of the aspects of their respective personalities which made them such fan favourites in Torchwood’s TV days only reaffirms the startling lack of ambition to be found on this occasion – in contrast to Pugh, who most certainly embarks on a compelling personal journey as he learns more of both the universe and its limits in attempting to counteract several temporal anomalies plaguing Cardiff’s population, neither Myles nor Price receives even the briefest of opportunities to develop their characters in any substantial manner here. Whilst such a shortcoming might well have been forgivable in any other instance, that the former actress recently indicated on Twitter that More Than This would likely mark Gwen’s swansong renders Adams’ bemusing insistence upon simply taking her character through the motions as that much more of a missed opportunity (and, in a similar vein to his omission of the Committee, denies Gwen of any of the closure she rightly deserves). At least Price will have his time to shine in the spotlight with Season Two’s Andy-led third chapter, Ghost Mission, but even so, that’s scarcely a valid excuse for the near-complete lack of attention paid to characterisation outside of Mr Pugh’s this time around.

As crushing as it is for this reviewer to admit, then, far from rounding off what’s otherwise been a sublime comeback for the Torchwood franchise with a satisfying storyline that ties up most of the myriad loose ends left dangling over the course of Season One, Adams’ emotionally charged but often depressingly unaspiring audio drama instead attempts to echo Uncanny Valley’s intricate, understated narrative when in reality its characters would likely have benefitted from being involved in a tale with slightly more scale and ambition than the one we got this month. Ultimately, though, that’s far from the case, and as a direct result, there’s a cruel irony about the title which the playwright selected in this case, as whenever one returns to this underwhelming final play, it’s almost impossible to feel as if they won’t be left longing for More Than This.