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.

Torchwood: Uncanny ValleyBookmark and Share

Saturday, 20 February 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: Uncanny Valley (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by David Llewellyn
Directed by Neil Gardner
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Steven Cree (Neil Redmond), Emma Reeves (Miss Trent)
Released by Big Finish Productions - January 2016

Every now and then, Big Finish launch a work of audio drama which, against all of the odds, somehow manages to catch the audience (this reviewer included) completely off-guard. Just think back to last September’s Torchwood: The Conspiracy: in light of the wholly underwhelming nature of its source material’s fourth televised season, Miracle Day, few listeners would have likely been surprised if the studio’s first venture into the world of Captain Jack, Gwen Cooper and Torchwood Three had only served to further highlight the show’s supposed decadence in an age of myriad near-identical detective dramas. But quite to the contrary, Season One’s opening chapter had precisely the opposite effect, incorporating inspired contemporary storytelling devices such as social media and video-blogging whilst reminding us how captivating and morally layered a performance John Barrowman could offer up when gifted with the right script by placing the actor front-and-centre in a storyline which took full advantage of his considerable capabilities.

Fast forward four releases, and we reach a similarly masterful new chapter in the form of Torchwood: Uncanny Valley, which wisely brings Barrowman back into the fold in order to depict Jack Harkness’ ongoing efforts to decipher the still-ambiguous origins of the sinister Committee by investigating their backing of the reclusive billionaire Nick Redmond (Steven Cree). That’s not to say that spending time in the company of the rest of Jack’s gang – Gwen, the much-missed Ianto and even Yvonne Hartman included – over the course of Season One hasn’t been a treat unto itself, yet whereas titles like Fall to Earth, One Rule and in particular Forgotten Lives have each taken fairly predictable approaches to developing the mortal members of the series’ ever-changing ensemble, this penultimate chapter mirrors Conspiracy in its emphasis on quite how much of an unknown quantity Barrowman’s beloved construct remains more than ten years on from his debut in 2005’s “The Empty Child”. We may have seen Jack adopt the roles of Time Agent, conman, leader, mournful sibling and lonely immortal over the years, but given how many facets of himself the man has revealed in these various guises, the concept that there may be plenty still to learn yet still seems highly probable, if not downright inevitable, at this point.

Certainly, writer David Llewellyn (who, unsurprisingly, penned both Conspiracy and Uncanny) does little to diminish this trail of thought here, either, delving further into Jack’s increasingly flexible sexuality, his almost despicable mastery of psychological manipulation and the rules he’s willing to break in order to complete the mission at hand than any of Big Finish’s other Torchwood releases, to the extent that the hauntingly ruthless soul we saw murder his own son in Children of Earth’s closing moments fades back into view at times. Thankfully, though, the manner in which Llewellyn elects to portray his protagonist this time around doesn’t represent him in a wholly pessimistic light, with his exploration of how striving for immortality, be it literal in Jack’s case or cultural in Redmond’s, can take a substantial toll on one’s sense of their own identity casting the supposed Face of Boe in an entirely different, often more sympathetic shade than that which we’ve seen before, thereby ensuring that despite the character sporting a fascinatingly complex moral compass which often forces him into questionable territory in the eyes of the audience, many elements of his personality can and will still resonate with listeners everywhere as they contemplate along with Barrowman’s ageless vagabond and Redmond’s ageing icon whether it’s possible to stay true to their core values if they spend their lives only trying to ensure themselves a lasting legacy.

As for the narrative through which Llewellyn effortlessly develops Jack’s characterization, to spoil too much beyond Uncanny Valley’s previously-discussed premise would undoubtedly ruin our reader’s enjoyment of a relentlessly surprising, thought-provoking tale which had this reviewer thrilled, intrigued on an intellectual level and emotionally invested in equal measure throughout its running time. Suffice to say that what with its depiction of multiple incarnations of Barrowman’s character, the rather dazzling cover artwork Big Finish have produced for this instalment’s CD release at least provides a hint or two as to some of the issues which are explored as Jack discovers how Redmond attends corporate events while remaining safe and sound inside his cosy mansion. For anyone worried that the sight of doppelgangers might indicate they’re about to endure an hour-long ‘Greatest Hits’ tribute to recent cloning-orientated greats like Humans and Ex-Machina, however, rest assured that Llewellyn, director Neil Gardner (who lends a refreshingly intimate air to proceedings, ensuring that Jack and Redmond’s increasingly heartfelt conversation isn’t rendered as a farcical one by an overly heart-wrenching score or similarly clichéd technical elements) and the remarkably versatile three-player cast seem only too aware of these potential comparisons and as such make every effort to connect with their audience on a deeper level – both emotionally and intellectually – than any of their esteemed rivals.

Speaking of the cast, whereas Tracy-Ann Oberman’s backing players went some way towards reducing the overall impact of her return as Yvonne in last December’s One Rule with their one-dimensional portrayals of the most stereotypical representations of Welsh society in recent memory, the same can hardly be said of Barrowman’s co-stars; instead, Cree and Emma Reeves both seem born to play their respective roles as Redmond and his far-from-selfless benefactor Miss Trent. Admittedly Reeves has, for whatever reason, guest-starred in Forgotten Lives already this season and her ‘screen-time’ here remains particularly limited, meaning that Uncanny Valley places much of the onus on Cree’s dynamic with Barrowman, hence why it’s such a welcome surprise to see the pair develop such a deep, near-intoxicating chemistry in the space of but a single series of captivating discussions. By turns egotistical, pathetic and immensely relatable, Cree’s Redmond stands as easily Big Finish’s most compelling addition to the Torchwood pantheon to date (a remarkable feat in and of itself given how quickly many listeners adored Lisa Zahra’s hapless-but-endearing call centre worker Zeynep in Fall to Earth), and whilst Llewellyn’s constantly evolving portrayal of the character helps no end, that he’s such an instant success is primarily down to Cree’s unpredictable, unforgettable performance.

The word “unforgettable” seems as fine an adjective with which to summarize Uncanny Valley as a whole, come to think of it – like Llewellyn’s The Conspiracy before it, this morally subversive, intellectually stimulating and yet somehow incredibly understated tale takes full advantage of the strongest elements of the original TV series (Barrowman’s performance and its dealings with far more adult topics than his character could ever encounter in the world of Doctor Who). More impressive than that, though, is how its scribe goes one step further with his second script, placing his primary supporting construct on equal (if not superior) footing to Jack and in doing so creating that much more of a thematically rich narrative which brings out the best in both of its leading players whilst allowing the audience to connect with its events to a far greater extent than they might have when viewing them solely from the perspective of an immortal being whose humanity is debatably fading by the day. An all-out blockbuster Uncanny Valley mightn’t be, but in truth, we wouldn’t have it any other way, for in place of a shallow, action-driven storyline, we’ve gotten one of the most cunningly crafted and emotionally satisfying productions in Big Finish’s history.

Torchwood: One RuleBookmark and Share

Friday, 15 January 2016 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: One Rule (Credit: Big Finish Productions)
Written by Joseph Lidster
​Directed by Barnaby Edwards
Starring: Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), Gareth Armstrong (Barry Jackson), Rebecca Lacey (Helen Evans), Dan Starkey (Ross Bevan), Catrin Stewart (Meredith Bevan)
​Released by Big Finish Productions - December 2015

For better or for worse, the quirky premise powering the fourth instalment in Big Finish's first season of Torchwood ​initially sounds more akin to that of a parody take on the original series as opposed to a respectful continuation of what came before; after all, can you really imagine one of the intrepid Torchwood Three team ever spending almost an entire episode roaming the intoxicated (both metaphorically and ​literally, in this case) streets of Cardiff in the hope of protecting local mayoral candidates from a series of grisly demises? Either way, that's precisely the situation which Yvonne Hartman, the short-lived commander in chief of Canary Wharf's Torchwood One who had both her entrance and exit in 2006's two-part Doctor Who ​serial "Army of Ghosts / Doomsday", finds herself in as she travels over from England's capital to Cardiff Bay just three weeks after both cities fell under siege from the Nestene Consciousness' Auton armies in March 2005.

It perhaps shouldn't come as a great surprise to any keen follower of the Whoniverse that far from the aforementioned extraterrestrial attack seeming to have had any noteworthy impact on Welsh society's apparently universal (at least if the manner in which One Rule ​depicts England's neigbours is any indication) appetite for an extravagant, no holds barred nightlife, life appears to have moved on in such a way that Cardiff's residents regard the attempted invasion more as a running joke than anything else. Indeed, in a similar vein, this reviewer couldn't help but gain the suspicion that whereas The Conspiracy and in particular last month's ​Forgotten Lives ​were intended to serve as reminders that the darker, often more enticing elements of Torchwood ​as a franchise still live on in aural form, Joseph Lidster hoped to demonstrate that much of the humour which came to define the show over the course of its five-year tenure still resides in Big Finish's adaptation, even if doing so meant crafting a more simplistic, inconsequential piece of drama than its recent predecessors.

In case any readers are wondering based on that sweeping assertion whether Lidster's latest addition to the history of the organisation which still insists on branding itself as being "outside the government, beyond the police" doesn't deserve their time, rest assured that whilst it's far from the series' finest hour to date (either in terms of its newly-conceived audio incarnation or in terms of the overall saga which began life way back in 2006 with the aptly-named "Everything Changes" on BBC Three), One Rule ​still provides its listeners with more than enough in the way of laughs, memorably exaggerated set-pieces (most of which brilliantly play on Yvonne's undisguised disdain for the working class by placing the character in an all manner of situations where social etiquette is immediately thrown out of the window) and intelligent references to the programme's now less than recent history - look out in particular for an unexpected development with regards to Ianto's burgeoning romantic relations with a certain soon-to-be "Cyberwoman" - to warrant its asking price. There's no doubting that Lidster still holds just as keen an understanding of what the Torchwood ​fan-base was surely looking for from this quasi-prequel tale (not least some insight into Torchwood One's perspective on everyone's favourite ragtag team of Welsh secret agents) and better yet, how best to exploit Tracey-Ann Oberman's character so as to ensure she reaches her full potential here.

Of course, had Oberman not brought the trademark wit, droll outlook on the so-called British Empire in its current state and vengeful charisma which rendered her somewhat tragic construct as such an instantaneous hit in the eyes of fans in 2006, then Lidster's efforts to resurrect Yvonne in style might well have been fruitless at best. As was the case with John Barrowman in September, Gareth David-Lloyd in October and the dynamic duo of Eve Myles and Kai Owen just two short months ago, however, the ​Eastenders ​star brings with her all of those qualities and so much more, infusing ​One Rule ​with a relentless sense of energy and momentum even when its central plot arc - which rarely taps into themes much deeper than surface-level political corruption or the needlessly selfish aspects of human nature - grinds to a halt for no other reason than to have her character down another pint or find herself the subject of social ridicule as a result of the state in which her increasingly digressive mission leaves her. This isn't to say that Lidster and / or Big Finish need necessarily hurry to invite Oberman back for further appearances in the role, but rather that if they elect to take this approach, then even if Ms. Hartman's next outing falls similarly short in terms of overall narrative ambition, then at least we can breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that having her at the reins will at least guarantee the audience a hilarious (albeit low-octane) ride.

Yet if Oberman represents this oft-uninspiring fourth chapter's saving grace, then unfortunately, her co-stars can easily be singled out as one of the primary factors behind its failure to captivate: neither Gareth Armstrong nor Rebecca Lacey afford their respective councillors any more enthusiasm or political / emotional nuances than the script asks of them, instead simply casting both constructs as wholly one-dimensional Welsh citizens, with only Lacey's Helen Evans coming anywhere close to representing an empathetic construct as she enters into a brief discussion with Yvonne on the subject of her somewhat empowering approach to politics late in the day. Worse still, whilst one could arguably have relied upon the Paternoster Gang's own Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart to elevate proceedings to a certain extent in most cases, the married couple the pair portray barely make it through a single scene before taking their leave, meaning that neither of the two talented thespians receive more than the briefest of moments to leave an impact despite them having more than proved their joint ability to hold their own in recent Who ​serials such as "The Crimson Horror" and "Deep Breath". Naturally, some characters in an action-driven storyline must inevitably exist only to progress said narrative with their untimely departures, yet to have Starkey and ​Stewart fulfil such menial roles when they might well have served the release as a whole better had they traded places with Armstrong and Lacey seems a counter-productive move on either Lidster or the studio's part(s) at best.

Nevertheless, even if ​Torchwood: One Rule ​won't likely go down as a prime example of what makes Big Finish the strongest possible candidate to carry the show's legacy in its hands now that its televisual days are seemingly done, that it's still a far superior effort to many of the studio's monthly main Who ​releases (at least from this reviewer's modest perspective) should at least instil fans with a fair degree of confidence about the programme's immediate future on the airwaves. Oberman still presents the audience with an authentic, laugh-out-loud take on her character a decade on from her memorable on-screen debut, Lidster's script - while lacking in meaty thematic material - undeniably achieves its goal of taking the series in a more light-hearted, casual direction than was the case with the overly melodramatic Miracle Day ​(the less said about which, the better!) in 2011, and for what it's worth, despite their contributions only amounting to cameos, both Starkey and Stewart do a fine job of attempting to redeem the title's otherwise wholly underwhelming supporting cast ensemble. David Llewellyn's masterful season opener The Conspiracy ​still doesn't have anything to worry about in terms of maintaining its place on Big Finish's recently-erected Torchwood ​throne, but all the same, thanks in no small part to Oberman's return to the role, devotees of the British Empire's most dedicated servant will still find plenty to love this time around.