Torchwood - The Green Life (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 12 June 2019 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Green Life (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: David Llewellyn
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Katy Manning (Josephine Jones); Stewart Bevan (Voice of the Hive)

Released by Big Finish Productions - April 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“This isn’t the 1970s, Ms. Grant. You won’t find me in any one terminal, circuit board or roll of magnetic tape – I am everywhere.”

If there’s one established truth on which we Doctor Who universe aficionados can surely concur, it’s the undying appeal of the franchise’s various crossover outings. Whether these involve multiple Doctors, companions uniting in their own escapades or an overflowing melting pot of the pair as seen in “The Five Doctors” and “Journey's End”, these ever-anticipated ensemble pieces serve dual purposes, stoking our collective nostalgia while offering a worthwhile entry-point for those viewers who’ve yet to explore the past of the five-decade-spanning shared continuity.

Big Finish’s recently-announced plans to square off the Torchwood Three team (alongside their allies and occasional frenemies) against classic Who monsters in a new series of Main Range instalments thus seemed like a recipe for commercial and creative success from the outset. Sure enough, with April’s Gwen Cooper-starring Night of the Fendahl came a thrilling chamber piece which cunningly melded the titular supernatural antagonist’s mythology with #MeToo explorations; fast forward one month later and the results spawned by pairing the indomitable Captain Jack Harkness not only with “The Green Death”’s iconic maggots, but one Jo Jones, are no less delectable…for want of a better term given the subject matter.

Much as Fendahl rekindled its 1977 TV predecessor’s gothic chills and macabre tone for the modern listener, so too does The Green Life stay true to the unmistakable environmentalist undertones found in 1973’s “Death”, not to mention Jo’s own work to save the world as referenced in her Sarah Jane Adventures appearance. Of course, that Ms. Jones (née Grant) remains so dedicated to preserving life in all forms hardly makes her ideal company for Jack as they investigate a resurgent maggot infestation in the pollution-free village of Llanfairfach. Such crossovers wouldn’t prove half as fun without the odd heated confrontation, though, and true to form, writer David Llewellyn exploits this ideological tension of brawn vs. benevolence for all its worth. From exchanges as gloriously bonkers as the pair navigating sewers while Jo hunts for her missing car keys to unexpectedly explosive moments like the ex-Time Agent questioning why the Doctor truly parted ways with Jo in ’73, there’s dramatic and comedic mileage alike gleaned in abundance here.

It equally goes without saying that – beyond fitting neatly into the Torchwood Main Range’s four-part greatest hits tour – Life shares Night of the Fendahl’s painful topicality in 2019 by delving into the realms of environmental exploitation. Yet rather than simply banging the drum of global warming protest alongside those who took to the streets of London recently, Llewellyn takes an unexpectedly nuanced viewpoint of the situation. His depiction of a corporation manipulating society’s healthy foods drive recognises the dangers of us overlooking business malpractice for conservational ends on the one hand, only to simultaneously highlight the challenge that comes with tearing down these systems if it comes at the cost of whole communities’ workplaces and livelihoods. Who would represent the real villain in that situation? No lone audio drama can profess to provide a definitive answer, as with Fendahl’s necessarily open-ended take on Hollywood gender politics, but to leave Life with such (ironically) meaty food for thought certainly odes Llewellyn huge credit.

In case all of these weighty themes sound a tad overbearing for a one-hour Torchwood adventure, worry not; few thespians could provide greater catharsis in such circumstances than John Barrowman with his gung-ho bravado or Katy Manning with her bubbly wit and infectious wonder, a sentiment which holds doubly true with their overdue coupling., Both stars hit it off from the moment that we hit Play, with Manning’s passionate energy imbuing Jo with the same moral righteousness as ever and offering a perfect counter foil to Barrowman’s lovably infuriating take on Jack at his most self-important. Indeed, if Manning’s ever around the Big Finish studios at the same time as another Torchwood recording, then one can hardly imagine James Goss and company resisting the opportunity to pair her with another member of the team in light of Life’s electrifying results.

So will the naysayers find any excuses to pick nits this time around? The only notable blemish in Life’s structural integrity (at least to our minds) lies in its somewhat rushed introduction of Stewart Bevan’s mysterious behind-the-scenes string-puller. Rest assured that we shan’t reveal their identity here so as to preserve the enigmatic nature of his cast-list billing, but even once you’re fully up to speed, Bevan has scarcely received sufficient time to flesh out his character in any great depth, such that the outcome of our heroes’ inevitable stand-off with them fails to land with the dramatic weight that it arguably would’ve in a serial closer to the 150-minute runtime of “Death”. It’s a recurring issue which we’ve raised before in our Torchwood Main Range reviews and might well warrant the range producers’ consideration at some stage going forward, or alternatively necessitate writers like Llewellyn hastening their future scripts’ first acts somewhat to avoid a last-minute race to the finish line.

With that being said, this reviewer’s greatest concern with Life had long been whether pairing the grimmest and, well, campest aspects of the Doctor Who universe was a step too far, even for a string of releases so accomplished as these one-hour standalone Torchwood missions. What an immense relief it is, then, to confirm that any such reservations on other listeners’ parts are entirely unwarranted, since the above-mentioned minor character issues barely leave a scratch on this riotous crossover’s sturdy armour. There’s nostalgia aplenty for long-term Who fans, a formidable introduction to Jo Jones in all her glory for newcomers unfamiliar with her non-Torchwood antics and tonnes to chew on from a societal perspective as well – in short, the Doctor Who crossover’s undying appeal remains alive and kicking!

NEXT TIME ON TORCHWOOD – Just when you thought that the Torchwood team had expended every ounce of their creative juices brainstorming inspired Doctor Who-mashing plot premises, Lisa McMullin proposes yet another match made in heaven (or possibly Hell) for Sync: Suzie Costello and short-lived Cardiff mayor Margaret Blaine. Sparks will fly, towns will boom, and we’d wager that not even the God Among Us can save Wales’ capital city from the devastating carnage that awaits…

Torchwood - Night of the Fendahl (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 6 May 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Night of the Fendahl (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Guy Adams (Ged), Bradley Freeguard (Phil), Gavin Swift (Derek), Gerald Tyler (Marco)

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2019
Order from Amazon UK​​

“We have lived for one thing and one thing alone – we are cattle, mere morsels for our masters…”

A startling confession before we begin: this reviewer’s recent first experience with “Image of the Fendahl” didn’t exactly go according to plan. The intriguing supernatural mythology’s conveyance through rushed exposition dumps, the potent gothic imagery early on giving way to noticeably budget-constrained CGI, the minimal role afforded to the TARDIS team (albeit to far lesser impact than say “Blink”) – so many elements of this supposed 1970s Doctor Who classic seemed within touching distance of greatness yet, for yours truly at least, somehow missed the mark. So with Big Finish’s Torchwood Main Range kicking off once more with a spiritual successor, Night of the Fendahl, came a considerable sense of trepidation, not least since writer Tim Foley had already made clear his intent to tackle female-exploiting horror flicks and thus #MeToo issues alongside the titular classic foes.

That said, as with many of the stronger Main Range entries to date, Foley instantly recognises the value of a focused, intimate narrative which astutely balances its homages to both Torchwood and its mother show with the former’s grislier tone and resultantly morally complex characters. Far from aping Who’s necessarily more family-friendly take on the Fendahleen community for “Image” fans hoping for more of the same, the long-running range contributor offers up a no-holds-barred take on Gwen’s (seemingly unwitting) descent into the underworld of Fetch Priory. Whether we’re privy to lecherous director Marco’s unashamed ogling of Gwen as she turns her hand at acting in a quasi-pornographic slasher, discovering the grim secrets which make crew members like Gavin Swift’s Derek tick, or envisioning certain haunting demises as they’re depicted graphically before our ears, few could accuse “Night” of shying from its franchises’ most disturbing recesses.

Such unsettling thematic explorations as these naturally serve the additional purpose of feeding into the piece’s irrefutable investigation into the entertainment industry’s gender politics, an issue which has, of course, come into the limelight in the last couple of years (after tragically lingering in the shadows for far longer than that). Indeed, it’s little wonder that Eve Myles – who departed Big Finish’s ongoing post-Miracle Day Big Finish to pursue other projects – returned to tackle meaty material of this ilk, with her character subjected to an all-manner of emotional horrors that render subsequent proceedings all the more empowering as a result. Myles should, if anything, consider adding “Night” to her next audition portfolio (not that she likely needs one at this point!), since the manner in which she’ll effortlessly flit from chillingly willing sexual victim to a possessed force of nature to a more familiar Gwen – albeit in a still harrowing context – produces a show-stopping performance which stands alongside any of her superb work in Broadchurch, Victoria or the like of late.

The only downside to Foley’s exploration of said weighty subject matter with Myles, though, is that he might’ve bitten off more than the Fendahleen can chew here. Where the much-lauded “Adrift” sacrificed Torchwood’s traditional monster-of-the-week entirely to directly confront the issue of missing children to heartbreaking effect, “Night” only has the opportunity to follow suit for #MeToo issues to a certain extent, its hands inevitably tied between this and gradually building up the fear factor of its titular supernatural entity’s return. Thankfully, the two narrative strands do eventually intertwine satisfyingly come the hour’s denouement, leaving those listeners considering a career in screen entertainment with a justifiably definitive – if slightly pressed-for-time – note on the fate which could befall them repeating past generations’ representational mistakes. Yet whether this nostalgia vs. societal discussion balancing act will hinder any of the next three Who villain-featuring Main Range entries, particularly when May’s outing features such a purposely laughable foil for Suzie Costello as Slitheen refugee Margaret Blaine, remain to be seen.

Even so, the level of effort invested into ensuring “Night” does justice to its talking point and classic Who hook remains unmistakable across the board, especially in those tertiary elements which we all so often overlook such as its supporting cast players and sound design. Approaching a play of this ilk must’ve seemed an intimidating prospect to say the least for Swift, Gerald Tyler, Gerald Tyler and even regular Torchwood scribe Guy Adams, all of whom portray unsavoury individuals brought face-to-face with their corrupt vices, but each player shows an admirably staunch commitment to ensuring that the tale’s deeply flawed human antagonists stay with us just as long as its visceral set-pieces. The latter elements wouldn’t be possible either, of course, without the behind-the-scenes team’s integrating subtle shrieks of wind enveloping Fetch Priory, blood-soaked death blows and a menagerie of other aural effects to immerse us in proceedings – a challenge which they meet with such remarkable success that future audio dramatists would do well to take note.

For all this reviewer’s reservations before hitting Play, then, and despite Foley overreaching himself in the cramped space of a single hour, here lies another thoroughly impressive audio Torchwood entry sizzling with gothic scares, topical themes at their most disturbing and psychologically nuanced characters who’ll frequently leave you utterly terrified. Whether you’re craving more time in the Fendahl’s sinister (now CGI constraints-free) presence, a Gwen-centric episode which takes her character in a bold new trajectory, or proof that we’re in for another thrilling year of standalone adventures, “Night of the Fendahl” excels itself in all of those respects; consider the resurrection gauntlet well and truly thrown down for the next eleven Main Range storylines.

NEXT TIME ON TORCHWOOD – Battling one of the Doctor’s bygone adversaries would usually seem enough of an ordeal in and of itself; doing so while sparring wits with none other than Jo Jones in an increasingly confined underground space, however, is another matter entirely. Who better to juggle both challenges in The Green Life than the always calm and compassionate Time Agent known to us as Captain Jack Harkness, then? Who indeed – not even the God Among Us knows for certain whether either of these cantankerous rebel spirits will escape Llanfairfach alive and / or with their respective sanities intact!

Torchwood: God Among Us Part 1Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 28 March 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
God Among Us Part 1 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Goss, Guy Adams, John Dorney, Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Alexandra Riley (Ng), Samantha Béart (Orr), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson), Rachel Atkins (Ro-Jedda)

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

When Big Finish chose “Changes Everything” as the title for the first instalment of Torchwood: Aliens Among Us, that might as well have served as the mission statement for their entire range’s future; after all, the three boxsets comprising the show’s audio-bound fifth season threw an all-manner of game-changing plot curveballs in fans’ directions, from the resurrections of Torchwood Cardiff and one Yvonne Hartman to the ill-timed departure of Gwen Cooper just as hell descended upon her city.

Yet what with full-team release Believe, various boxsets chronicling Torchwood One’s pre-Battle of Canary Wharf endeavours and numerous one-hour solo outings, the studio gleefully delivered so much content in the interim between Aliens and Season Six that the latter’s work seemed cut out for it in terms of recapping past events while pushing the franchise forward. Does this considerable workload prove a cumbersome burden for the ominously-dubbed God Among Us, then, or can its opening salvo overcome such trials to deliver dramatic excellence worthy of Zeus himself?

“Future Pain”

Alien mayors imprisoned beneath Cardiff Bay, makeshift deities interrupting local funerals and explosive shoot-outs set to the unlikely backdrop of a car park – so far, so Torchwood. As with many US TV season premieres, James Goss finds himself tasked with recapping and developing a host of ongoing plot elements from Season Five in God’s freshman instalment, between Mr. Colchester’s seemingly fatal wounds, Gwen impostor Ng sticking around after her source material’s departure and – lest we forget – the hardly trivial matter of God him- or herself running rampant across the city.

By now, though, we should already know better than to doubt the range producer’s remarkable ability to balance such plot/character arcs with satisfying standalone storylines; indeed, “Future Pain” delivers quite the emotional gut-punch at times for spoilerific reasons, delving into the fallout of “Herald of the Dawn” for certain characters whose losses extend far beyond the physical damage wrought on Cardiff by Orr’s destructive transformation. Seeing the human impact that the terrors faced by Earth’s least covert secret agents have always formed much of the core of Torchwood’s appeal compared to oft-soulless big-budget sci-fi blockbusters, an admirable trait which continues here thanks to Goss’ writing and the understated, grief-ridden performances from John Barrowman, Ramon Tikram as Colin Colchester-Price and particularly Paul Clayton throughout.

Oh, and in case you’d expected Goss to largely maintain the status quo of Aliens Among Us given its myriad hanging plot threads this time around, rest assured that nothing could be further from the truth…

“The Man Who Destroyed Torchwood”:

Another noteworthy aspect of Torchwood’s infrastructure (both on TV and now in audio form) which often sets it apart from the genre crowd lies in its willingness to investigate heavy socio-political topics such as humanity’s increasingly disturbing instincts for self-preservation, Government accountability (or lack thereof) and, in the case of the Main Range’s recent Toshiko-led outing Instant Karma, even the rise of far-right activism. That Guy Adams similarly refuses to pull its punches on its chosen topical subject matter should thus come as no surprise, although the extent to which “The Man Who Destroyed Torchwood” interrogates the dangers of social media conspiracy theories might well split audiences more than they’d usually expect from a Big Finish production.

Who better to head up Adams’ politically turbulent script, then, than perhaps Aliens’ most controversial character, Torchwood candidate turned journalist turned alien conspirator Tyler Steele? Practically any actor would salivate at the prospect of deconstructing the YouTube v-log phenomenon, so it’s little wonder that Jonny Green completely embraces Tyler’s ruthless quest to investigate Brett Hayden’s video-streamed anti-Torchwood campaign, not to mention the disconcerting worldviews which he spouts to huge audiences every day. The search for answers predictably yields disturbing results at times which force listeners on all sides to consider how their seemingly trivial actions online can send unintentional ripples across society. Indeed, Green cunningly highlights this through Steele’s disgust at Hayden’s activities and also his paradoxical fervour at manipulating Hayden in much the same way as the blogger guides his audiences, with

Despite delving so far into the limitless rabbit hole of moral ambiguity that we commonly know as the World Wide Web, Adams inevitably has to draw the line somewhere – few Torchwood fans would likely share this reviewer’s rabid enthusiasm to see an entire season dedicated to Jack, Tyler et al finding their places in a digital age where covert military missions or terrorist attacks are regularly “leaked” for the sake of Likes and Follows. It’s for that reason “The Man Who Destroyed Torchwood” understandably stops short of truly contemplating Tyler’s culpability in the harrowing events that unfold or whether simply defaming ‘alternative’ political activists solves the problem, and for this reason that the play struggles to attain masterpiece status. Nevertheless, whereas certain thematically-shallow Torchwood romps can come and go with minimal impact, this one – along with another unsettling Tyler outing which we’ll discuss in our Part 2 review soon – will undoubtedly stay with listeners long after its final track wraps up.

“See No Evil” and “Night Watch”

In a break from our usual story-by-story review format for these Torchwood boxsets, God Among Us Part 1’s third and fourth episodes actually warrant a joint critique – namely since the two instalments bear such an uncanny resemblance to one another in terms of concepts, themes and character beats. In the case of “See No Evil”, John Dorney enshrouds Cardiff’s citizens in a chaos-inducing state of near-universal blindness, prompting the only (broadly) unaffected members of the team to hunt down the source of and cure for this rather inconvenient affliction. Meanwhile in the case of “Night Watch”, Tim Foley enshrouds almost all of Cardiff’s citizens in a state of near-universal slumber, prompting the only unaffected members of the team to hunt down…wait a minute. Was it just us or did that last sentence evoke some serious déjà vu?

Doctor Who fans who’ve followed the modern revival’s production may recall that Steven Moffat once juggled the ordering of Series Six (2011) to avoid its Spring-aired first half featuring too many horror-esque chamber pieces, hence Mark Gatiss“Night Terrors” airing as Episode 9 rather than in its original intended Episode 6 slot. Well, as much as Torchwood has barely put a foot wrong since coming under Big Finish’s confident stewardship, a similar level of structural consideration might’ve benefitted God Among Us’ opening boxset. Upon reaching the halfway point of “Night Watch” with its semi-philosophical exploration of humanity’s physical limits and how crises can lay our brutal nature bare for all to see, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Foley was aware that his predecessor’s script covered much the same territory, or alternatively why the pair didn’t devise a more direct two-parter where either the citywide black-out or slumber party remained the solitary threat.

At least the boxset’s second half does its job of raising substantial intrigue for future instalments: both “Evil” and “Watch” continually subvert our expectations of twists delivered in the Aliens Among Us saga, call Jack in particular to task for some questionable – if spontaneous – romantic decisions made in recent weeks with hilarious reactions from Barrowman, and most importantly offer a fascinating insight into the warped benevolence of Season Six’s titular God ready for her schemes to play out in Part 2 and beyond. Sure, their uncanny tonal resemblance tragically robs much of the set’s momentum, but combine their potent revelations with the brilliant “Future Pain” and provocative “Man Who Destroyed Torchwood” and you’ve got a promising start to God Among Us which will certainly entice fans back for more.

Next Time on Torchwood – Familiar faces predict (or perhaps engineer) the end of the world, Tyler takes to the streets with heart-wrenching consequences and we see Yvonne Hartman like never before in God Among Us Part 2. What’s more, the Main Range kicks off its bombastic run of Doctor Who villain crossovers in style, namely by transporting aspiring thespian Gwen Cooper to a now-decrepit scientific institution called Fetch Priory – what could possibly go wrong…?

Torchwood One: Machines (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 26 October 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood One: Machine (Credit: Big Finish)
Writers: Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd, Tim Foley
Director: Barnaby Edwards
Featuring: Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Jane Asher, Adjoa Andoh, Daniel Anthony, Paterson Joseph, Nicholas Pegg
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 3 hours

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

From 3D printers to 4D cinemas, from smartphones to smart houses, from HDMI to AI, the march of technological progress hastens by the day, presenting us inferior mortal beings with quite the existential dilemma all the while – give it another ten years and the human workforce might just find itself rendered obsolete. Admittedly long-running fans of Doctor Who’s longest-running spin-off, Torchwood, might justifiably expect the eponymous covert agency to remain steadfastly unfazed by such developments; surely after tackling extraterrestrial deities, zealous religious cults with aspirations to intergalactic stardom and even the odd “Cyberwoman” (good times!), humanity’s increasingly intertwined flirtation with artificial ‘life-forms’ would scarcely offer cause for concern?

Well, they’re not entirely wrong – Big Finish’s latest foray into the organization’s past confirms that its London-based branch had no qualms about embracing this new era of mechanical innovation. Yet as just about any Gothic writer from Mary Shelly to Charlie Brooker will attest, that leap of faith can – and indeed does – soon prove deadly if the individuals responsible fail to understand its implications before leaving the ground. Indeed, as evidenced by the two century-spanning gap between Frankenstein’s publication and Black Mirror’s launch, there’s been no shortage of literary or screen contemplations on the man-machine dynamic over the years, so ever since its inception, Torchwood One: Machines faces such a considerable uphill battle to distinguish itself from the pack.

While the Thirteenth Doctor sprints brazenly into the technological future with her Sheffield steel-clad sonic screwdriver in hand, then, let’s see whether Yvonne Hartman and company’s Earth-bound exploits warrant as much global attention as Season Eleven has received to date, or whether this ever-compelling Torchwood saga will soon join cassette players and dial-up internet connections as yet another relic of the past…

“The Law Machines”:

“Yvonne Hartman is dead? But she was required.” “Oh yes, by so many…”

Had you asked Torchwood devotees which classic or modern Who antagonists they’d love to see the agency – in any of its endless guises – battle upon the show’s 2015 revival at Big Finish, chances are that WOTAN wouldn’t have come anywhere near the top of the list compared to Sontarans, the Master or proper Cybermen.  That said, Doctor Who’s HAL-9000 precursor proves an ideal narrative fit for Machines’ first instalment, the formless AI entity’s defeat in 1966’s “The War Machines” leaving its hardware susceptible to Hartman’s goals as she introduces a wave of seemingly hacking-immune robo-cops onto the streets at the Mayor of London’s cost-driven request. How could anything possibly go amiss?

Laden with explosive setpieces across England’s capital and more quips about London life than commuters could imagine (look out for Hartman’s especially seething one-liner on the hindrance that empty Oyster cards pose in a hurry), “Law Machines” barely lets up for a second, introducing new players by the half dozen only to off plenty of them with scarce remorse over the course of its running time. Unfortunately, taking such a whirlwind structural approach does arguably limit scribe Matt Fitton’s capacity for intricate character arcs somewhat; Daniel Anthony’s intriguing tech whiz-turned-WOTAN disciple Julian, for instance, only receives scarce airtime to convey his basic plot purpose, despite the Sarah Jane Adventures star’s admirable efforts to imbue him with simultaneously endearing innocence and underlying sinister malice along the way, while the deliciously corrupt Mayor barely gets time to register either.

What “Law” perhaps lacks in sophisticated characterisation, though, the opener more than compensates for with a sense of scale often absent from the franchise’s TV or audio outings. Whereas we only caught glimpses of how Miracle Day’s titular phenomenon affected the planet Earth at large via brief fictional news footage, Hartman, Ianto Jones and their comrades bear direct witness to WOTAN’s heartless rampage across London, the carnage unleashed by their hubris brought home as the sound design team depict shootouts, resultant demises and other terrors with brutal realism – no wonder Fitton peppers in the aforementioned moments of satirical wit to keep his script from feeling too morose. Nevertheless, his efforts (alongside everyone else working behind-the-scenes) to showcase the franchise’s grimmer tone certainly pay off in full force, hopefully encouraging more writers to follow his lead with mature contributions of their own going forward.

“Blind Summit”:

“Ianto Jones, my name is Yvonne Hartman – and I work for an organisation called Torchwood.”

If there’s one area wherein Big Finish truly excel, it’s filling those niggling continuity gaps which Doctor Who and its various spin-offs never found time to properly address on-screen: just ask the Time War’s participants, the Committee, the Valeyard, Coal Hill Academy’s alumni network or Paul McGann for ample evidence. Sometimes these middle man storylines focus on long-awaited plot threads like those above, other times – as in the case of “Blind Summit” – the writer involved crafts connective tissue that catches us off guard, further enriching underappreciated constructs even when it appeared as if their journey had already played out in its entirety. This time around it’s the turn of Ianto Jones to plummet through the ringer yet again in a tale which (barring one or two modern interludes) occurs long before the days of WOTAN’s resurgence, instead chronicling his first meetings with Yvonne Hartman and the morally overwhelming transformation that these soon triggered.

As if to answer the cries of anyone like yours truly for meatier character drama after “Law Machines”, Gareth David-Lloyd – back on dual writing / performing duties after his stellar debut with The Last Beacon in April – delves deeper than ever before into Ianto’s psyche with a minimalistic yet extremely powerful script, unfolding hitherto unseen layers in the Torchwood Three agent’s past. Remember the strained father-son dynamic teased in Children of Earth? That’s explored in harrowing fashion, along with his consequential yearning for greater professional fulfilment and reckless willingness to thrust himself into unknown territory so as to achieve this goal, all of which the newfound writer handles with the utmost touching sincerity even as the threat of a deadly drug-testing company escalates over the piece’s second half.

Better yet, David-Lloyd’s contributions clearly didn’t diminish in the slightest upon departing his office and entering the recording studio, his sizzling chemistry with Tracy-Ann Oberman proving equally potent whether they’re deciphering each other’s secrets over coffee, on the run from alien onslaughts or coming to terms with the personal demons that will ultimately define their partnership in the years ahead – for better or for worse. We’ll keep our take on Machines spoiler-lite as always to preserve your listening experience, but suffice to say that even the most hardcore Torchwood devotees won’t predict every emotional twist that “Summit” has up its spacious sleeve, not least thanks to David-Lloyd’s stirring performance as a far more vulnerable incarnation of his yet-to-be world-wearied butler. Never mind the 21st century as a whole – when it comes to re-visiting past Ianto-focused stories, “Summit” might well represent the moment where “everything changes” for your perspective.

“9 to 5”:

“See you in the morning!” “Sure, 9am – like clockwork…”

Whilst robotics and pharmaceuticals mark some of the more tangible technical developments for society in recent years, there’s another aspect of mechanical ‘progress’ which has increasingly come to dominate the headlines of late – that of the corporate machine and its oft-exploited human cogs. One only need gaze at recent reports surrounding video gaming behemoth Rockstar North’s supposed enforcement of 100 hour weekly work cycles in order to wonder whether the situation’s getting out of hand in some circles, with the banking / legal sectors particularly notorious in this regard too, hence why the matter’s rife for contemplation in Machines’ aptly-titled final instalment, “9 to 5”.

Returning us to the ‘present day’ (as much as is possible for a miniseries set years before the events of Torchwood Seasons One-Six), Tim Foley’s pertinent denouement depicts Hartman and Jones’ not-so-coincidental run-in with a temp-reliant firm that takes the term “worker drones” to rather horrific new levels. At first glance, those of us who’ve been around the block several times with the sci-fi genre might fret that we’ve seen it all before: secret agents recruit insider employee to unravel a mystery, employee gets in over her head then office-wide chaos ensues. But Niky Wardley’s dramatically charged performance as the manipulated employee in question, Stacey, easily keeps the format fresh enough to avoid fatigue, her relatable curiosity begetting her initial naivety such that we’re just as fascinated as her to discover the truth behind his latest temp employer’s true machinations (in every sense of the word), even in spite of the growing tension surrounding her fate as a result.

That’s not to say “9 to 5” instantly courts consideration for the Big Finish Hall of Fame, however – as well as mostly conforming to the familiar story beats discussed above, Foley (perhaps at the studio’s behest) seems all too keen to tie together Machines’ various disparate plot strands as rapidly as possible come the third act, when in reality we’d have preferred a standalone affair which took its time in bringing events to a conclusion. Luckily the way in which he wraps up proceedings does still successfully deliver an inevitable yet undeniably impactful gut-punch that’s sure to stay with listeners long after the credits, but with Foley set to pen half of the War Master’s third boxset next year as well as further scripts for Torchwood: God Among Us, there’s still plenty of room for this promising writer to develop his skills ever further in the next 12 months.

The Verdict:

As ever, exactly whether Machines lies up your alley will depend on the extent to which you’re intrigued by the notion of exploring non-Cardiff Torchwood branches, particularly given the riskier investment of £20-25 rather than the £8-10 required for standalone monthly releases. Persevere through the mindless – albeit breathless entertaining – action of the London department’s clash with WOTAN, however, and listeners will reach two undoubtedly thought-provoking Gothic thrillers which intelligently investigate humanity’s obsession with technology to both hilarious and moving effect, echoing shows like Black Mirror but with Yvonne’s self-assured complacency adding a snarky, bitter-tongued edge in trademark Torchwood style. Sure, this latest boxset probably won’t garner awards come year’s end as this reviewer hopes Aliens Among Us Part 3 or Believe will, yet not every release needs to; with such remarkable consistency throughout the range’s 2018 output, what matters most is that there’s never been a better time for newcomers to hop aboard the show’s bandwagon.

Next Time on Torchwood – In the absence of any further news on her prequel outings’ longevity, Yvonne ‘returns’ via her Pete’s World counterpart this month for God Among Us Part 1, wherein she’ll need to promptly dust herself down after almost being crushed in Season Five if Torchwood Three is to stand any chance of overcoming the titular immortal being presently besieging Cardiff. Look out for our verdict on Part 1 in the coming days, as well as our ongoing coverage of Torchwood in all of its forms as the monthly range returns (alongside Parts 2-3 and presumably other boxsets) next Spring…

Torchwood: Deadbeat Escape (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 August 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Deadbeat Escape (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: James Goss
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Murray Melvin, Gareth Pierce, Cara Chase
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

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

“What is this place?”
“I would’ve thought that was abundantly clear by now – it’s a trap.”

One of the first unspoken laws that critics learn, while blissfully perched upon their infinitely extravagant ivory towers, is to keep an open mind. No matter whether you’re consuming a miraculously uncovered tome from literary royalty such as Shakespeare or the twentieth instalment in the most monotonous TV show known to man (our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone still recovering from Australia’s traumatic take on K-9), casting past biases and – if possible – contextual controversies to the wind usually offers the best opportunity to consume and evaluate the work in question as objectively as possible. Who knows? The end product could rank among your most hallowed viewing, reading or listening experiences of the year come its final shot, page or track.

It’s with this fundamental professional goal in mind that we’ve got an admission to make; after More Than This, Made You Look and The Dying Room each wrapped up Big Finish’s first three monthly Torchwood runs with predictable thrillers, devoid of their predecessors’ thematic weight or profound character development, we couldn’t help but worry that this year’s mini-season would follow suit with its final chapter. But if Goodbye Piccadilly defied this reviewer’s expectations in July with a thoroughly entertaining hour for our most maligned protagonist paring, then the frankly magnificent Deadbeat Escape blows them out of the water – we’ve no reason to ever doubt productions in the range again after this unforgettable denouement.

Think Torchwood meets Psycho and you’ll only scratch the surface of the glory that awaits. Delivering a devilishly chilling chamber piece brimming with gothic suspense and disturbing sci-fi conceits, James Goss reintroduces one of the original TV show’s finest antagonists, Bilis Manger, as our Norman Bates, his concealed intentions every inch as terrifying to unravel, his self-centred but far from self-deifying worldview just as thought-provoking and his history no less deliciously open to interpretation than in “Captain Jack Harkness” or “End of Days”. As with Marion Crane and her post-mortem entourage, the further that the Traveller Halt’s latest misfortunate occupant, Hywel Roberts, delves into the hotel’s temporal mysteries, the greater our understanding of its enigmatic new manager – and the oncoming emotional turmoil that awaits Hywel – deepens with tragic gravity. Few scribes could truly claim to match the careful precision with which Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece gradually stokes our curiosity while still leaving us dreading the consequences, yet Goss’ perfectly-paced script undoubtedly manages this structural flourish with spectacular aplomb.

And yet where lesser writers might’ve been content with prioritising these archetypal horror  elements of intrigue, morally indecipherable foils and deadly foreshadowing above all else, it’s the unashamedly equal weighting afforded to Bilis and Hywel’s intertwined journeys that truly separates Goss from the pack. Naturally any innocent bystanders unlucky enough to find themselves in the former’s deceptively kindly crosshairs mark themselves out as lambs to the slaughter, but there’s so much more to Mr. Roberts than that – his effortlessly moving familial plight regularly thrusts the narrative into unexpected but no less riveting territory, with Bilis’ subtle interrogations and infrequent appearances by a haunting third player bringing his raw insecurities to the fore in heartrending fashion. It’s not often that one-off newcomers to the Torchwood franchise simply beg further appearances down the line, but just as The Dollhouse’s electrifying Los Angeles agents and Bilis himself were crying out for reprisals from the moment of their conception, so too would this reviewer leap at the chance to discover Hywel’s next steps – however inevitably morbid – beyond Escape’s end credits.

Of course, as much as it’s hugely welcome to see all of these constituent components ensuring that Escape bests previous Torchwood audio finales, not every trend needed bucking; regular readers of our range reviews will hopefully recall our continual praise for virtually every voice actor tasked with leading the plays, an enduring tradition which Murray Melvin and Gareth Pierce uphold via their superb two-hand act. In rendering Hywel’s escalating paranoia so hauntingly, yet still finding time to layer in emotional subtleties during his tender exchanges with Bilis’ other victim, Pierce offers up the perfect audition tape for the future Big Finish roles which he’s surely guaranteed to acquire going forward. Indeed, given that Melvin apparently departed his recording booth bellowing “revenge, revenge, I shall have my revenge!” and given how his gleefully malicious portrayal as Bilis takes on new dramatic layers as the pair’s tempestuous dynamic evolves, Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite their talents at the earliest convenient opportunity.

Scratch that last sentence, actually – Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite the talents of everyone involved with Deadbeat Escape at the earliest possible opportunity, convenient or otherwise. Such are the play’s myriad strengths that we could easily dedicate just as many words to the matter as you’d find contained in its script, but whether you’re examining broader elements such as Goss’ stunningly-structured storyline and the Peabody-worthy two-hander powering proceedings, or (still vital) minutiae like the sound design’s unsettling manipulation of background ambience to induce near-constant tension, even the most sceptical listeners would be hard pressed to come away with any points of contention. Our advice? Dive in with an open mind, then allow Bilis to expand your mind to the vast possibilities of time travel with no ill intent whatsoever – why, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly…

Next Time on Torchwood – Chances are that our paths will cross with Bilis again before too long, particularly given the apocalyptic note on which Aliens Among Us concluded earlier this year and the impending arrival of God Among Us from this October onwards. Whatever happens, though, we know for certain that Torchwood’s monthly adventures will resume in March 2019 for twelve months on end – join us then for prison escapes with Owen, domestic drama with Jack and Ianto, underground excursions with Cardiff celebs and plenty more of the globe-trotting hysteria that we’ve come to expect from the century where everything changes!

Associated Products

Released 31 Oct 2018
Torchwood - 24 Deadbeat Escape

Torchwood: Instant Karma (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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