Written By: Guy Adams
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Cast: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Matthew Gravelle (Darkness), Marilyn Le Conte (Mrs Rhodes),
Ross Ford (James)
Produced By: James Goss
Script Edited By: Steve Tribe
Released By Big Finish Productions – August 2016
Back on October 22nd, 2006, when Torchwood made its momentous televised debut via BBC Two’s airwaves, the show carried one hell of a tagline: “the twenty-first century is when everything changes”; indeed, some members of the fan-base would undoubtedly argue that “everything changed” for them on that precise date with the series’ arrival. For a second, though, it seemed as if February 13th, 2016 would prove just as pivotal a moment, if not infinitely more-so, as Eve Myles posted the following words on Twitter not long after recording her second Torchwood audio, MoreThanThis, for Big Finish:
“Thank you. Massive goodbye GC.”
Considering that the studio’s official licensed continuation of the ever-acclaimed Doctor Who spin-off programme had barely gotten underway, having produced just five one-hour dramas as of this February and with plenty of time still to go until its ownership of the licence terminated in 2025, the revelation that easily one of the show’s most dedicated stalwarts, the woman responsible for bringing the immortal Gwen Cooper to life on screen, seemingly wouldn’t be returning for more recordings predictably sent shockwaves through the fan-base at the time.
Thankfully everything didn’t change in this instance, since the cunning minds at Big Finish evidently convinced Ms. Myles to rethink her future with the range, prompting her to sign on for not only this month’s Season Two finale, Made You Look, but additionally a fully-fledged ensemble box-set, Torchwood: Outbreak, due to unite her with John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd for a pre-Children of Earth mission this November. Unfortunately, however, the former of these two new entries doesn’t exactly justify her decision to reprise the role for more outings, instead offering up a predictable one-off horror storyline which suffers from an overwhelming lack of both compelling secondary performances and, worse still, any real sense of the fear factor writer Guy Adams clearly wanted to evoke.
In fairness, the first few minutes of this flawed standalone chapter do a fine job of convincing regular listeners that all’s well here, with Adams crafting an atmospheric, horror-esque opening as Gwen arrives at the near-deserted seaside town of Talmouth to investigate the mass disappearances of its residents, only to find herself subsequently stalked by a seemingly omnipresent extra-terrestrial creature which can turn our most basic sense of sight against her, slaying her where she stands if she takes but three looks at its visage. It’s a quintessential Torchwood premise to be sure, one which wouldn’t have felt at all out of place had it formed the set-up for an episode of the original TV show either on BBC One or BBC Two.
Yet had Made You Look been transmitted on the small screen, its critics would almost certainly have called it out for coming up severely lacking from a structural perspective, with the whole narrative simply centring on Gwen’s encounters with town’s two survivors and above all the so-called ‘Darkness’ tracking her every step. In theory, there would be nothing wrong with such a basic approach if Adams made this race for Gwen’s life a thrilling, oft-terrifying rollercoaster ride packed with cinematic chills to send shivers up the spine, but herein lies the real problem, since barring a somewhat Hitchcockian seagull attack and one or two haunting hallucinatory sequences, virtually none of the chase set-pieces contained within the hour manage to ramp up the fear factor in the slightest, instead deploying clichéd tropes of the genre such as ghostly mists, mysteriously re-animated fairground rides and the like as if we’ve never seen them before on screen or heard them re-enacted in audio form. If anything, rather than having trouble getting to sleep after hearing the final track, listeners will be in danger of dropping off before the third act even kicks off as a result of the astounding lack of narrative innovation here, with the only truly effective moment coming in the form of a pleasingly ambiguous epilogue that for once leaves our heroine’s fate– and that of the oft-forgotten Committee, absence for the third time running here – wholly up in the air.
This almost complete absence of the injection of any real tension on Adams’ part isn’t helped at all by the similarly lacklustre performances given this time around by Myles’ esteemed co-stars. Ross Ford charms somewhat as the paranoid but innocently endearing homeless youngster James, yet not so much that he can make anywhere near a noteworthy impact in his minimal airtime, while Marilyn Le Conte renders her blind hotel manager Mrs Rhodes as every bit as comedic and quirky as the script aims for her to be, only to fail to tug at the heartstrings in her fleeting moments of peril and thus limit our sympathy towards her character. Most notable of all, though, is Matthew Gravelle’s brave but ultimately flat turn as the Darkness – the Broadchurch thespian attempts to channel the understated, sinister malice of recent TV villains like Toby Jones’ Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice or Lars Mikkelsen’s Charles Augustus Mangnussen in Sherlock Season Three, yet ends up robbing the piece’s antagonist of any genuine sense of threat in the process. Whilst there’s certainly something to be said for trying to avoid a farcical, pantomime-style turn as Gwen’s latest foil - especially when the manner in which the Darkness approaches pursuing its prey feeds into a topical message on Adams’ part regarding how the world’s bullies manipulate their victims despite having no real power of their own - given how wanting Made You Look’s supposedly unsettling narrative is for fully-fledged scares, that Gravelle opts to restrain himself in terms of showcasing the potentially terrifying extents of the sinister omnipresence of his character’s voice across Talmouth represents a sizable missed opportunity more than anything else.
As with virtually all of Big Finish’s output, however, Made You Look isn’t completely devoid of genuine merits by any means. Fans of Eve Myles who cried out in sorrow at her aforementioned short-lived departure from the range can at least use her third solo Torchwood audio as evidence of the actress’ talents – not least as she outclasses everyone else in the play by reprising the character’s confident swagger, effortless leadership capabilities and underlying personal vulnerability within moments of her first appearance – and anyone with an ear for accomplished sound design or any devotees of the overall horror genre should well appreciate Scott Handcock’s effective use of seaside sound effects like fairground melodies and arcade game blips to enable the audience to better visualise Adams’ – admittedly uninspired – setting for themselves.
There’s no denying that the range’s lead performances and technical elements have remained top notch throughout its first two runs, in fact, but twelve releases in, there’s no denying how much of a shame it is to see certain members of the revived Torchwood franchise’s writing team struggling to produce narratives which are anywhere near as philosophically rich, atmospheric or generally engaging as the likes of TheConspiracy, UncannyValley, Zone10 or particularly last month’s phenomenal Jack-Ianto team-up Broken. That those four tales were such instant, undisputable hits with fans that put their protagonists to such great use does Made You Look no favours whatsoever, since rather than following suit, Adams has simply endowed Myles and company with a generically clichéd, philosophically shallow and completely arc-light script that, like February’s More Than This before it, rounds off a season’s worth of fine drama in disappointingly low-key fashion. Season Two’s much-anticipated denouement could otherwise have been the moment that everything changed for the range, with Eve Myles’ return representing a triumphant statement of the franchise’s longevity, yet in reality, Outbreak and the show’s well-earned – albeit still to be announced – third season of Big Finish audios will have to aim far higher in order to guarantee that the brand keeps thriving rather than putting the studio’s acquisition of the show’s licence at risk.