Torchwood - Expectant (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 18 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Expectant (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Xanna Eve Chown
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Aaron Anthony (Jonty); Catherine Ayers (Paula); Meryn Davies (Resident); Jessica Hayles (Brigadier); Emily John (Resident)

Released by Big Finish Productions – December 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“I’ve gotta be honest – I’m really struggling with this.”


“Why? Why? Because two of our friends die and Jack goes off and I think he’s coming to terms with it but oh no, suddenly he’s pregnant!”

Were we to have compiled a checklist of unseen Torchwood moments craved by fans as of the show’s audio resurrection in 2015, then by now, Big Finish would’ve already ticked a remarkable number of those boxes. From the truth behind Jack’s predecessor at Torchwood Three taking his entire team’s lives in 1999 (The Torchwood Archive) to the conspirators behind the Miracle (ditto), from the inception of Jack and Ianto’s romance (Broken) to the agency’s international branches (The Dollhouse, The Dying Room), at this rate the studio will soon have plugged more holes than the good Captain has bullet wounds in his immortal body. And yet amongst the most obvious remaining gaps for many fans still has to be the show’s most ‘shipped’ coupling never raising any offspring before Ianto’s Shakespeare-calibre tragic downfall.

Until now, that is. For in honour of the festive season last December, Main Range freshwoman (and Doctor Who: Short Trips regular contributor) Xanna Eve Chown delivered the ultimate Christmas gift to the doomed lovers’ followers – but, to paraphrase the Eighth Doctor somewhat, “probably not the one that they were expecting”. On the bright side: Expectant affords the pair new purpose after the harrowing death toll of “Exit Wounds”, specifically in the form of a youngling to protect and nurture in its formative days. On the downside: said youngling is an extraterrestrial royal-to-be to whom Jack might give birth at any moment…so long as they’re not all slaughtered by alien bounty hunters or overzealous UNIT troopers beforehand. Cue a relentlessly zany, eclectic hour of audio drama which – much like October’s Smashed did for Eve Myles – lets its stars showcase dynamic new shades of their long-established characters, all the while providing ample chuckle-worthy moments for their listeners too.

This reviewer initially couldn’t help but fear the worst upon hearing of such a wish-fulfilling yet equally bonkers premise as that described above; what if the inevitably comic relief-fuelled concept failed to yield more than 15 minutes of half-hearted chortles, let alone sustain the usual 50-60 minute running time afforded to Big Finish dramas? And might the challenge only prove exacerbated by its scribe’s newcomer status on the Torchwood audio scene? Thankfully it took merely a few minutes for Eve Chown to lay those concerns to rest with some downright hilarious overblown action and comedic set-pieces, then another 10-20 minutes tops for her to confirm that – as per the quote which opened our review – there’s far more on her mind than cheap guffaws. Indeed, Expectant plays marvellously as both a sitcom pregnancy romp – hunger pangs, self-body-shaming, mood swings, frantic spouses and midwives, the works – and admirably intricate meditation on grief, Jack’s struggle to reconcile his supposed victories at the agency’s helm with his recent losses often bubbling to the surface at the most inopportune but poignant moments. It’d be a truly tough tonal line for any author to straddle regardless of their chosen medium so that our resident scribe achieves as much despite this outing marking her first Main Range ‘baby’ is all the more astounding a feat.

The same unsurprisingly goes for John Barrowman too, who’s clearly having just as riotous a whale of a time here as he did with his headline-grabbing Doctor Who return last month, yet likewise manages to inject further layers beyond mere farce. On the one hand, his uncharacteristically emotionally distraught and oft-irritable take on the knocked-up Jack represents a welcome breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the Time Agent’s usual endless array of raunchy one-liners and / or stoic attempts at leadership; on the other, having Barrowman poignantly reveal the cracks in his long-running antihero’s exterior, the newfound hormones prompting distraught outbursts over Owen and Toshiko’s deaths with Ianto’s encouragement, proves equally effective in depicting yet more shades for this oft-comic relief-driven protagonist. A lot of actors would doubtless feel content to simply phone their performances in once a role has been as well-established as Jack, so it’s reassuring to know that Barrowman (amidst all his other work on pantos, Holby City, the Arrow-verse and the like) shows no sign of following suit – quite the opposite based on his remarkably versatile contribution here.

As ever, though, virtually no audio drama (one-handers aside perhaps) can survive solely on the basis of its leading thespian’s performance. Luckily Gareth David-Lloyd (whose role essentially amounts to an extended cameo this time around) and Aaron Anthony seem to wholly recognise as much, their respective takes on an increasingly infuriated Ianto as well as Jack’s bewildered midwife Jonty inducing ample laughs along the way as the pair react desperately to their knocked-up friend’s pleas for food, aesthetic compliments and hugs alike. There’s inevitably not quite as much attention paid to each player’s individual character development in Expectant as, say, more personal drama-heavy affairs like Broken and The Last Beacon have afforded Ianto in recent years, but the intentionally comedy-thriller-style tone of the piece moreso demands a balance of gung-ho resilience and gags which the two undoubtedly strike in good measure throughout.

By now you’re probably wondering who our heroes must face off against before reaching the play’s metaphorical finishing line. Well, there’s a reason why we hadn’t mentioned as much up until now – whereas Torchwood audio dramas (and indeed action dramas generally) usually feature a pretty transparent antagonist for the agent at hand to best, in Eve Chown’s script the threat moreso lies in the overall challenge at hand than any of the foes revealed as events progress as a conspicuous food clinic hotel in Act 3. It’s an approach which pays off for the most part in terms of allowing the heightened yet ever-developing core character dynamics breathe in a 1-hour runtime, albeit with the trade-off of the ‘true’ villains’ outing and motivations feeling somewhat rushed come the last 20 minutes or so as a result. How detrimental that aspect feels to your overall satisfaction with the play will, at the end of the day, largely depend on whether its storyline’s / performances’ banter-driven nature start to grate for you as a listener beforehand.

Regardless, the further that we move into the Torchwood Main Range’s more standalone, arc-detached output (notably the Committee don’t even get a mention here, perhaps signalling their end of days seeing as God Among Us wrapped up their ongoing story arc), the more confidences its wrights instil in leaving the show’s interconnected storylines to its yearly three-part ‘season’ boxsets. Releases as gloriously bonkers as Expectant continue to uphold the wide breadth of storylines which the TV series always offered on a weekly basis (contrast this with the haunting circus affair From Out of the Rain and it’s night and day), thereby demonstrating their sustained potency in the franchise’s audio-resurrected form. Would we necessarily want every instalment produced at Big Finish to take such an outrageous and laugh-laden direction? Probably not, but so long as Eve Chown’s back at the helm whenever the studio next opts for such a refreshing narrative approach, this reviewer will have no qualms whatsoever about coming along for the ride.

Torchwood - Dead Man's Switch (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 16 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Dead Man's Switch (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: David Llewellyn
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Murray Melvin (Bilis Manger), Timothy Blore (Piers), Maxine Evans (Rowena), Mali Ann Rhys (Zoe)

Released by Big Finish Productions – November 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“I know this music – what is it?”
“Beethoven. Do you like it?”
“Dunno, sounds it like should be in a horror film or something…”

Three doomed souls trapped aboard a potentially Hell-bound train, with the seemingly innocuous carriage guard Bilis Manager their sole companion – nothing says classic Torchwood chiller quite like a premise along those (railway) lines. Add to that the reliably sterling quality of Manger’s Big Finish appearances to date (his deliciously sinister tones elevating the Psycho-esque hotel horror Deadbeat Escape and Aliens Among Us’ own holiday romp “A Kill to a View” exponentially), as well as the general strength of playwright David Llewellyn’s audio output so far, and the stage seemed set for another winner in the Main Range’s thirty-third instalment Dead Man’s Switch. But have Llewellyn, Manger’s formidable vocal channel Murray Melvin, their three-strong supporting cast and the studio’s behind-the-scenes wizards found greatness once more, or have we finally – rather fittingly – reached the end of the line?

Certainly, Switch’s chosen narrative format should come as a welcome surprise to any late-20th century horror devotees, since we’re firmly in portmanteau (better known today in the Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 era as “anthology”) territory here. As the aforementioned track-trailing vessel progresses along its seemingly eternal path, each of its passengers gets their own segment in which to relate the haunting events which somehow landed them a ticket to this carriage-shaped purgatory. By far the play’s most valuable asset comes in its slow-burn, deeply unsettling generation of old-school suspense from here on out, its trio of chamber-house tales subtly piling on the tension to the point that the more dread-susceptible listeners among us might want to switch extra lights on if they’re courageously attempting a late-night playthrough. This palpable manipulation of our inner fears is achieved magnificently via a number of key contributory pillars involved with the release, many of which / whom are often all too easily overlooked when we’re busy heaping praise on Big Finish’s ever-accomplished audio dramas.

Case in point: the sound designers and composers whose taut deployment of understated aural effects and perfectly-timed musical cues over the course of the hour both work immensely in its favour. At some points it’ll only take the silence of a supposedly empty household to put us at unease, as an anxious woman fills the bathtub with the creeping sense that she’s not alone in the building; at others, more blatant jump scares do the trick marvellously, a man’s sudden encounter with roof-dwelling bats every inch as quake-inducing as any big-screen scare conjured up by today’s myriad horror remakes, sequels and soft reboots. As if these vividly realistic moments weren’t enough to worm their way under the skin, the fear factor only deepens towards the end of each narrator’s account with the deviously understated injection of classical Beethoven melodies, always ominously building to a thrilling crescendo as their fate becomes apparent in grisly, macabre fashion.

So too are Llewellyn and his concise quartet of performers clearly cognisant of the power with which dialogue (both in its scripting and tonal delivery) can reflect – and better yet enhance – the escalating terror of such supernatural (though metaphorically relatable) circumstances. The former’s carefully-paced script affords each tale ample space to breathe, allowing us sufficient time to understand the extent of auction-scammer Rowena’s conniving schemes before she’s forced to (literally) reflect upon herself in uncanny fashion; to shiver at ruthless estate agent Piers’ inhumanity when banishing doomed edifices’ residents before he realises these edifices’ secrets, and detect the harrowing backstory which fuels hair stylist Zoe’s efforts to deter drug addicts from ruining her homestead. As such, portrayers Maxine Evans, Timothy Blore and Mali Ann Rhys respectively have time aplenty too to nuancedly depict their constructs’ descent from (misplaced) moral righteousness to (not-at-all-misplaced) near-complete nervous breakdowns, leaving us (in The Great Gatsby’s words) “simultaneously enchanted and [moreso] repelled by the inexhaustible varieties of life” before those lives come startlingly close to extinguishment.

And what of the corporeal yet somehow transcendental watchman standing guard over our protagonists? Even in the wake of his turns in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera film adaptation or his countless theatrical and Ken Russell-directed roles, Bilis Manger nonetheless seems the part which Murray Melvin was born to play – a sentiment that holds doubly true in Dead Man’s Switch. Manger’s deceptively kind voice of elderly wisdom of course belies the intricate emotional torment through which he’s dragging his unwitting victims, the unmistakable pride which manifests all the while behind his words a joy to behold for Torchwood fans (and doubtless for Melvin to express based on the sinister energy which he yet again brings to the table). The only inherent risk involved with reprising such an unashamedly malevolent and self-assured foil as Manger, though, is that of the audience’s growing sense of dramatic irony. Through no fault of Melvin's own, such has become our familiarity with the time-hopping schemer since his debut in Season One’s “Captain Jack Harkness” / “End of Days” that his modus operandi of twisting humans to his own (along with his godly master’s) ends risks rendering standalone storylines such as that presented in Switch as somewhat predictable if they’re all heading in the same fatal direction (as Deadbeat Escape and “A Kill to a View” did to a certain extent). Perhaps that’s also a by-product of the portmanteau / anthology horror format in fairness, with the aforementioned abundance of shows like Black Mirror in 2020 also setting us up to expect last-minute deadly twists from these affairs.

All the same, the extent to which Llewellyn, his cast and the wider sound design team deflect from any minor sense of déjà vu bears huge congratulations indeed – as does the seamless manner in which director Scott Handcock shepherds each vital contributory element. Releases like Dead Man’s Switch consequently enable us to better appreciate the painstaking time invested by everyone at Big Finish team to reward listeners for their commitment, thereby shining further light towards the end of the metaphorical train tunnel as we glimpse at what lies in store for Torchwood and its various agents going forward. Between run-ins with the Doctor’s wife (or one of them at least), old UNIT allies rearing their heads, Sir Michael Palin taking on recording duties and even Andy Davidson’s first encounter with Theta Sigma themselves, there’s no reason whatsoever to alight the train just yet.

Torchwood - Smashed (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 9 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Smashed (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper); Omar Austin (Martyn); Dick Bradnum (Drillpak Manager); Helen Griffin (Rhian); Kezrena James (Elwyn)

Released by Big Finish Productions – October 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“Gwen! You look like you’ve had a rough night…”

Certain ideas hold such rich potential that, once conceived, they become impossible to ignore by their respective freethinkers, inevitably cascading into fruition from there. For Thomas Edison (as seen recently in Doctor Who’s “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”) the lightbulb moment came with, well, the lightbulb; for Steve Jobs, it was the iPod and its litany of successors/rivals; and for Russell T. Davies (thank goodness) in the early 21st century came the revival of a certain legendary British sci-fi series – at which point, in Torchwood terms, “everything changed”. In the case of James Goss and Eve Myles, however, evidently, the lightning-in-a-bottle concept for their next Big Finish collaboration took the form of having the ever-stoic, ever-determined, ever-painstakingly focused Gwen Cooper face off against legions of undead approximations…albeit horrendously inebriated all the while.

After all, that’s exactly where we find ourselves with Smashed, a Main Range entry whose initially familiar premise of investigating strange occurrences at a gas fracking-wrought town named Glynteg soon descends into far more gleefully uncharted territory. Newcomers unaware of the general plot synopsis might at first expect something along the lines of last April’s superb Jack-Jo Jones team-up adventure The Green Life, seeing as that instalment similarly saw the pair vying against corrupt chemical corporations ruthlessly wreaking havoc upon rural communities for monetary gain. Yet whereas Green Life balanced comedy and environmental pathos, Jack and Jo’s tempestuous dynamic contrasted with their situation’s all-too-pertinent real-world significance, Goss and Myles here opt for a decidedly black comic tone instead, their storyline merely the catalyst for the latter actress to experiment with her wilder side on the audio airwaves.

And experiment Ms. Myles most certainly does over the course of the hour running time, her performing versatility on laudable display throughout. Whether it’s a case of Gwen desperately struggling to maintain some semblance of her police force-imbued authoritative edge whilst slurring her words, racking her dysfunctional head around the pulp sci-fi effects of mined extraterrestrial substances upon Glynteg’s already-impoverished community or trading wits with the chillingly unrepentant Drilltek staff responsible, the Keeping Faith thespian effortlessly does so with such exuberant bravado that you can’t help but be convinced even amidst the most ridiculous circumstances. These days she’s rightly booked up with an all-manner of prestigious cultural gigs, but for as long as Myles remains open to Big Finish’s recording studios (not least for their legendary lunches), the Torchwood team would be utter fools to pass up any opportunity for such returns.

Admittedly whenever Myles next opts to take up the microphone in arguably her most culturally beloved role to date, it’d perhaps also further sweeten the deal if her co-stars had the simultaneous opportunity to sink their teeth into meatier dramatic/comedic material. Smashed by its very nature places Gwen front-and-centre whilst most of Glynteg’s residents either succumb mindlessly to the nearby fracking’s fantastical products or attempt to keep Cooper focused on / away from the mission at hand as it develops as a rollicking rate. Although Helen Griffin must’ve had a blast with playing the relentlessly heartless Rhian – loyal to Drillpak through-and-through as she oversees operations from Glynteg’s community centre (i.e. a shipping container) – for the most part she’s as much a shallow caricature of accountability-devoid business leaders as Rick Bradnum’s briefly-glimpsed slimy Drillpak Manager in the opening moments. Omar Austin’s crucial citizen bystander Martyn similarly lacks much chance to leave a meaningful impression as he’s mostly aghast at Gwen’s deteriorating condition and indeed that of the entire town – a costly omission in the script’s balancing act which frustratingly robs key moments in the play’s third act of much dramatic tension surrounding his survival odds.

Indeed, there’s a wider nagging sense at times in Smashed that the aforementioned potent plot premise might’ve been so (understandably) alluring from the outset to the scribe and star that less thought was given to the piece’s finer details as a result. Despite his occasional commentary on how towns like Glynteg become collateral damage when the oft-unmonitored activities of fracking firms cause environmental/economic chaos, and the plot unashamedly echoing Who’s Warriors of the Deep in its didactically nihilistic trajectory, much of that promising material is seemingly content to take a backseat to Gwen’s madcap drunken antics as they (and the threat facing her) escalate to peak bombastic insanity by journey’s end. Maybe the chance to hear Myles take an otherwise unshakably serious heroine to more light-hearted places will paper over the cracks so to speak for many listeners, but for this listener, the above-discussed glimpses of something deeper beneath the script’s surface were all the more vexing in their tantalising brevity.

Not every Torchwood storyline has to pack as much sociological weight or layered characterisation as the likes of Adrift or Children of Earth, however, and Goss’ latest contribution to the Main Range still houses more than enough entertaining elements to warrant a look; Eve’s supremely multi-faceted turn on Gwen Cooper at her most unhinged, the brief yet unmissable moments of cutting social/industrial satire and the play’s necessarily whirlwind pace collectively ensure that you’ll barely notice the hour having passed come its denouement. Might Goss and company benefit from fleshing out their supporting characters and underlying narrative themes when their next collaboration at Big Finish comes around? Quite possibly, though provided that the team continues to brainstorm narrative premises as creative and tonally innovative as that presented in Smashed almost five years on from the Torchwood range’s audio debut, there’s every reason to believe that said range will easily survive another half-decade or more on-air. See (or rather hear) for yourself whether the studio’s latest insatiable concoction tickles your taste-buds anyway, then maybe we’ll catch you down at the local pub to discuss as much furthermore – ideally with less cataclysmic results!

Torchwood One - Latter Days (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 20 January 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood One - Latter Days (Credit: Big Finish)Written By: Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tim Foley
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Featuring: Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Nathan Amzi (John); Timothy Bentick (Tommy); Barbara Flynn (Anne); Derek Griffiths (Dave); Michael Maloney (William); Ony Uhiara (Kara)

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

No matter whether we’re working at minimum wage to provide for ourselves and loved ones, at the head of monolithic corporations as billionaires or anywhere in-between, one immutable truth remains the same regardless: death comes to everyone eventually. All the world’s a stage as a certain Bard once accurately proclaimed – its endless production comprises countless human entrances followed inextricably by countless exits.

If this sounds like a rather ominous note on which to begin our next Torchwood audio verdict, then rest assured that it’s with good reason; Latter Days, the third (and ironically potential final) boxset in Big Finish’s Torchwood One prequel series, directs its attention away from immortal beings like Captain Jack Harkness and instead onto far more short-lived humans facing their end of days while the titular Canary Wharf-based agency nears its own collapse.

Unless you’ve anything better to get on with during your Earthly days, then, let’s delve once more unto the mortal breach, plunging headfirst into arguably the most tragicomic entry in the franchise’s pantheon to date. Time’s a-wasting after all, and no-one knows that better than the employees whose contracts carry a retcon clause for retirement age – provided that they even survive long enough to contemplate retirement, of course.

“Retirement Plan”:

“Who the hell is Travis?”
“My talking Italian sports car – I just made him up.”

(Now there's a dialogue exchange which we never expected to transcribe!)

It had to happen at some point, we suppose. Just as Chris Chibnall dabbled in the realms of James Bond-style undercover espionage with his two-part opener for Doctor Who Season Twelve,“Spyfall”, so too has Gareth David-Lloyd taken a similar tact with his sophomore Torchwood script (after his excellent debut with The Last Beacon in 2018). Unlike Chibnall’s TV episodes, though, which could only go so far with the pastiche’s scale and ambition owing to budgetary limitations (admittedly doing a superb job on that basis), “Retirement Plan” carries no such stipulations, leaving David-Lloyd free to deliver as ridiculously over-the-top and unashamedly campy an affair as he saw fit.

And deliver on those fronts he most certainly does. The sheer glee which must’ve ensued as the star-turned-playwright drafted his script immediately leaps off the page/soundtrack, with Ianto’s unwitting traversal into a virtual reality utopia-of-sorts opening the door for an all-manner of vividly-rendered comic delights from Yvonne’s transformation into a not-so-PC exotic maid to Agent Jones’ madcap snowmobile chase across the Alps and regular sexual encounters throughout his high-stakes mission. Not since the Kingsman films entered cinemas or Killing Eve took TV by storm have we seen 007’s half-century-spanning antics lovingly sent up in such bombastic, downright hilarious fashion as that of “Retirement”, a trait which easily distinguishes the piece as the most memorable of this well-rounded collection.

More impressive still is the fine balance which David-Lloyd and his co-stars nevertheless maintain between farcical frivolity and – where the former’s storytelling demands as much – contrastingly profound pathos. Suffice to say that long-running Torchwood One recruit Tommy has no intentions of going gentle into that good retcon-laden night, hence his intent to spend retirement amidst innocuous VR servants. Timothy Bentick’s performance in the role oozes poignancy as a result, the character’s futile longing to remain in this prolonged nostalgic state only becoming more heartbreaking as events inevitably take a turn for the worst. Witnessing his friend’s age-induced downward spiral only serves to deepen Ianto’s ongoing conflict over his line of work to boot, prompting his own metaphoric contemplation of whether a life lived in escapist VR bliss outweighs an early death among comrades. Cue some painful dramatic irony for any fans still mourning his Children of Earth demise which will doubtless ensure the play’s repeat value for far more than its gloriously insane action.

“Locker 15”:

"Dave Cook was the last person to access Locker 15, and now he can't remember how it's secured!"

Whereas the set’s first and final instalments primarily depict Torchwood recruits contemplating or in the early midst of retirement, Matt Fitton’s contribution instead centralises an underappreciated employee with years of post-work experience already under his belt. Trouble is that, even for a cleaner with minimal exposure to the company’s alien dealings like Dave, such dealings often come back to haunt you. “Locker 15” consequently draws the now-almost amnesiac Dave back to service as his ex-teammates desperately mine the depths of his psyche for any clues on how to stop a deadly artefact sealed within their vaults from potentially destroying Canary Wharf, then London, then the world (no pressure though).

By far the most straightforward action-led storyline of the trio, Fitton’s script – for better and for worse – seems far less fussed with exploring didactic themes (beyond the central message on the dangers of letting class divides fester in the workplace) and moreso with aping J.J. Abrams’ mystery box-style manner of storytelling; the play’s non-linear structure, prompted by Dave slowly regaining his memories, affords us frequent clues as to how Locker 15’s explosive contents got loose and whether the former blue-collar worker holds any responsibility for the crisis at hand. It’s a perfectly engaging storyline on its lonesome which keeps ramping up the stakes and holding the listener’s attention. However, given the extent to which David-Lloyd and (as we’ll discuss momentarily) Tim Foley successfully tap into deeper issues elsewhere in the set, whether by utilising Bond pastiches as an extended metaphor for late-life nostalgia or interrogating Yvonne Hartman’s defining life-choices, the lack of meaningful character development – beyond Dave’s role as a plot cypher – presented here at the midway point stands out markedly as a result.

Going forward Fitton (a Big Finish regular who’s done superb work on Doctor Who ranges like Ravenous and The Eighth Doctor: The Time War) might benefit from relistening to his counterparts’ slightly superior contributions to Latter Days, if only to recall the benefits of prioritising the character drama at which the studio often excels over sci-fi spectacle which can eventually grate when sustaining audio dramas by itself.

“The Rockery”:

“Let it be known that I hate the countryside!”

But whose time within the soon-to-be-devastated offices of Torchwood One holds greater tragic weight than that of its commander-in-chief, Yvonne Hartman? Lest we forget given the rich abundance of Torchwood audio plays in which Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beloved character (or her Pete’s Earth counterpart) has since starred, her debut appearance in 2006’s Doctor Who season finale “Army of Ghosts / Doomsday” saw the head honcho meet a bittersweet end, holding back the Cybermen long enough for the Doctor to overcome them, only to sacrifice her humanity – and ultimately her life – in the process.

With a title like Latter Days, then, the series’ 2019 boxset was virtually obligated to deal with Yvonne’s fate (which in turn predicated the entire London agency’s downfall) in some capacity. Indeed, Tim Foley’s closing instalment “The Rockery” places the Hartman dynasty centre-stage in order to explore the fleeting nature of mortality – albeit in a rather different way than we might’ve initially expected. For in this instance Yvonne’s mission concerns not so much the fate of the cosmos, nor of her staff, but rather her mother’s post-retirement wellbeing as she settles begrudgingly into a life of rural tranquillity…with inevitably bumpy results once her daughter’s (usually benevolent) grand schemes come into play.

How much mileage you’ll glean from the collection’s most relaxed outing depends, in a similar vein to last year’s innuendo-laden Jack / Ianto release Serenity, on your investment in the previously-unexplored Hartman family drama as it develops here. Much of the runtime is spent in Anne’s company while she struggles with prioritising plants over professional projects, encountering selfless neighbours like Michael Maloney’s charming William rather than ruthless workplace rivals, so those Torchwood fans in favour of action-driven storylines a la Miracle Day might come away somewhat underwhelmed (and hence prefer Fitton's undeniably eventful effort "Locker 15" instead). To Foley’s credit, however, his regular injections of endearing senile humour (not least Anne’s aggravated reactions to human or animal intruders alike), escalating intrigue surrounding Yvonne’s housewarming gifts and world-wearied wisdom on family’s importance all endow “Rockery” with sufficient variety to keep proceedings from ever feeling stale.

One also cannot overstate, when it comes to intimate narratives of this ilk, the vital role which the players have in keeping listeners hooked through their chemistry and conviction. True to form, Oberman effortlessly channels Yvonne’s scathing wit as well as her unrelenting (and in many ways self-assuring) pragmatism, yet she equally goes a long way towards revealing the character’s rarely-glimpsed vulnerabilities too; that trademark bravado seemingly belies insecurities over her father’s passing, the growing distance between herself and Anne along with the legacy which she’ll leave when her time (soon enough) arrives, with the After Life actress’ sincere rendition of said transition greatly enhancing her fan-favourite heroine. Just as much applause, if not moreso, should similarly go in Barbara Flynn’s direction to boot, her capturing in Anne of the same ruthlessness, brazen practicality and hidden emotional scars as Yvonne’s all the more impressive given her freshman status as a Torchwood thespian here, as is the simultaneously ferocious yet heartfelt dynamic which the pair establish in only their first hour together.

Rather than showing any signs of a middle-age crisis or non-compos mentis tendencies, Torchwood One: Latter Days, therefore, speaks yet again to the enduring vitality of its franchise right now. With youth may well come innovation, but as the non-Shakespearean adage goes, with age comes wisdom; doubtless, that's a sentiment which will continue to hold true so long as Big Finish keep finding ways to explore weighty human themes amidst Torchwood’s outrageous sci-fi trappings, to remind us that there’s so much joy to be found through life’s thrills, friendships formed and cherishing loved ones that the end needn’t concern us nearly so much as the journey getting there.

Torchwood - The Hope (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 10 January 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Hope (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy), Siân Phillips (Megwyn Jones), Laura Dalgleish (Reporter), Nia Roberts (Sally), Ian Saynor (Colbourne), Kerry Joy Stewart (Ginny)

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

“It’s gone.”
“What’s gone?”
“Life. I felt alive. More than ever before…”

Time eventually takes its toll on even the most resilient of bastions, yet ask anyone whether Big Finish’s twenty years of cultural service have remotely diminished their audacity in committing to bold narrative concepts (or indeed unparalleled lunch platters by all reports) and they’ll tell you quite the contrary. From resurrecting Star Cops to giving “The Doctor’s Daughter” her own spin-off, from casting Dracula showrunner Mark Gatiss as the Count years before his show’s inception to rewriting the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration, reciting the full list of their bold gambits would take Captain Jack Harkness’ whole lifespan and then some.

That said, their 2017 announcement of plans to bring arguably Torchwood’s least suitably-matched protagonists, Burn Gorman’s Owen Harper and Tom Price’s Andy Davidson, had even this long-term devotee wondering whether they’d mislaid a marble or two at the time. How much mileage could possibly be gleaned from a coupling who’d barely spent 20 minutes together during the show’s TV run? Come that May, however, James Goss’ Corpse Day yet again proved those concerns wholly unfounded, excelling thanks to the pair’s sardonic black comedy-fuelled dynamic alongside a deeply unsettling kidnapping storyline which rivalled even Children of Earth in its grim portrayal of Stockholm syndrome victims.

None of us can, therefore, blame Goss for casting the pair’s second joint mission in The Hope in a far more upbeat, philosophically comforting light…just kidding, of course. If anything, the range producer would’ve seemingly told any peers proposing as much to “hold his beer” at the bar, promptly darting off to pen a script just as laden with moral paradoxes and psychological chills as its predecessor – perhaps even more so. Our focus this time around lies on convicted child-killer Megwyn Jones who, nearing the end of her mortal coil, offers to reveal her alleged victims’ decaying whereabouts – and indeed the true nature of their demises – provided that the Cardiff police force lend their assistance to the dig at a long-decrepit children’s home called The Hope.

And few Torchwood Three recruits are better equipped (in moral or thematic terms) to deal with such deplorable merchants of death than the already half-deceased Owen Harper. After all, coming back from the grave (an event which the script confirms to have occurred not long prior to Hope kicking off) lends a rather fresh perspective on mortal matters such as murder prosecutions and whether society rushes to conclusions so as to find instant scapegoat for such atrocities. Over the course of the hour, Goss instigates a fascinating character study concerning Owen’s evolving post-mortem ideals; his internal conflict gradually builds to gripping effect as he’s forced to tackle prison riots, potential extraterrestrial threats and grieving families in the pursuit of closure for Jones’ case while also searching for some hope for human redemption – hence the play’s multi-layered title.

Enter the ever-reliable Gorman, whose performing credentials remain predictably undiminished here as he straddles the line between intense disgust at the casualties incurred by some heartless foe or another, breathless recklessness in searching for some light at the end of the tunnel and rare human earnestness as events shift in a manner that could change his eternal life forever. That he’s up against such formidable supporting talent only sweetens the deal, of course, with Tom Price displaying an uncharacteristic cynicism – largely based on his past experience of criminals – which sheds Andy in a compelling new light. Meanwhile, Phillips constantly leaves us guessing as to her character’s true nature with a by turns sympathetic, emotionally detached and ever-unnerving portrayal that will surely bear itself to repeat listens for those with the stomach, whereas Nia Roberts (who the Doctor Who fans here might remember as Ambrose from "The Hungry Earth" / "Cold Blood") evokes hugely powerful grief as one of the mothers still reeling from Jones' alleged actions.

Naturally, the play’s structure hinges on its slow-burn unravelling of Jones’ true motives – each sequence involving Jones, the relatives of her victims or those capitalising on the ongoing new story casts newfound doubt on our preconceptions surrounding the situation at hand and how events may reach their denouement. Yet as an inevitable by-product of this mystery-driven framework approach, whether you’ll want to hit Play on The Hope again after its first playthrough will depend primarily on the cathartic satisfaction (or lack thereof) that Act 3 brings as Goss reveals his hand. With any luck, many will find themselves stunned enough by the final revelations to retry earlier sequences and recognise their foreshadowing moments, but for this reviewer, said twists, unfortunately, served only to cast the tale in a far more philosophically limited light than Acts 1-2 implied. Where hallmark Torchwood harrowers like Children of Earth left almost every key player (‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ alike) in extremely morally dubious territory as the credits rolled, Goss contrastingly appears hesitant to commit to the same level of ambiguity here, which might raise the question for some listeners as to whether it’s worth experiencing the mystery again for a lukewarm conclusion.

Stepping back from the brink of despair (as Owen and Andy must often do through the narrative), though, in reality, there’s more than enough of great merit to warrant Main Range followers giving this latest instalment a look as well. Too often we’ll overlook the technical prowess of Big Finish’s behind-the-scenes sound design team, all of whom bring their A-game and then some here with both tangibly chaotic renditions of the aforementioned prison riots which break out upon Jones’ temporary release then atmospherically haunting winds, unknown footsteps and other horror-esque chamber chills as our protagonists set about exploring the Hope’s surroundings. Add to this all of the strong performances and initial narrative suspense built by Goss, not to mention one particularly riveting set-piece – which we alluded to earlier but still shan’t spoil here – involving Owen’s supposed immortality and we can’t possibly deny that Goss, the cast et al clearly wanted to enhance Torchwood canon with bold new storytelling rather than playing it safe.

So even if The Hope has its structural shortcomings, taken as a whole it’s another promising chapter in the show’s thriving audio saga which fittingly offers hope aplenty for the future moving into 2020 and beyond. A Happy New Year and New Decade should definitely lie ahead for the series which changed the 21st century for Doctor Who fans – and incidentally wishing the best 2020s possible to all of you at home too!

Torchwood - The Vigil (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 19 November 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Vigil (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Lou Morgan
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman

Featuring: Naoko Mori (Toshiko Sato), Hugh Skinner (Sebastian Vaughn), Lucy Robinson (Madeline Vaughn), Alex Lowe (Roderick)

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

“Are you willing to die for Torchwood, Ms. Sato?”

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every single Torchwood story in possession of common sense must be in want of a good Toshiko Sato. 2016 saw Zone 10 showcasing the intrepid scientist’s wilder side on a Russian-bound spy mission, followed by 2017’s Cascade testing her hacking prowess to its breaking point, 2018’s Believe delivering one of Naoko Mori’s most disturbing adult sequences and that year’s Instant Karma subsequently plunging her headfirst into the unnerving world of populist political entitlement. As such, this reviewer’s expectations heading into The Vigil, Big Finish’s thirty-first Main Range entry and Mori’s third solo outing, were always going to ascend higher than most releases.

Returning Torchwood writer Lou Morgan’s narrative premise certainly sounded like a winner too: flash back to Toshiko’s early days at the agency, even before Gwen Cooper’s arrival on the scene in “Everything Changes”, to depict the defining moments which drove her to realise her true potential and become amongst the TV show’s most adored protagonists. And the catalyst for this transformative epiphany? One Sebastian Vaughn, a hitherto unknown teammate of hers whose attitude towards his colleagues, work-life balance and social privileges soon came to define Toshiko’s own career – both during his mortal lifespan and, as will become apparent from the play’s opening moments, beyond his untimely demise.

For a play whose immensely accomplished lead star and intriguing set-up hold so much premise, the end product’s more of a mixed bag than hoped, largely due to issues with structural and tonal familiarity that we’ll discuss in a bit. Let’s stick with The Vigil’s merits first and foremost, though, since – as ever with Torchwood’s Big Finish output – plenty of praiseworthy elements rear their heads here. Least surprising of the bunch is Mori’s trademark sterling work as Toshiko, whose journey from a conscientious worker whose self-doubt gets the better of her (particularly with Vaughn’s arrogant, oft-prejudice dismissal of her dedication) to the kernels of her heroic latter self is played out in elegant form via the script and her performance alike. The subtlety with which Mori has her beloved character dejectedly brush off Vaughn’s racist / sexist asides; the gradual transition from compassion for Vaughn’s grieving mother at their family home to disdain for her feeding Sebastian’s self-righteousness; the brutal severity with which she’s forced to distinguish humanity and inhumanity as events crescendo – all flourishes which the Humans and Patrick Melrose thespian takes in her stride to remarkable extents.

What’s more, The Vigil heralds a reunion for Mori not with one of her co-stars from the original series, but instead a fellow member of the jam-packed Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ensemble (wherein she starred as Yumiko last year). Fresh off his always scene-stealing work as Fleabag’s hapless ex-boyfriend Harry, Hugh Skinner makes his evidently long-overdue Torchwood debut here as young Sebastian. Director Lisa Bowerman chortles in the audio’s behind-the-scenes tracks when recalling how she insisted to casting agents that the search for a “mansplainy, just horrendous” performance was “no reflection on [their] client[s]”, yet Skinner doesn’t half sell the façade. He’s by turns brazenly impatient towards Toshiko’s pre-mission preparations at one point, oblivious as to the circumstances which bring about homelessness at another, painfully unapologetic in his medieval cultural stereotypes and only remotely vulnerable when anyone dares question his worldview, with Skinner’s conviction in each aspect fully enshrining Vaughn as the epitome of toxic masculinity.

Yet Eurythmics’ old saying goes that “behind every great man, there has to be a great woman”. It’s a sentiment which rings inversely true for Sebastian (a man as far from greatness as they come)’s relationship with his similarly flawed mother Madeline, so blinded by notions of patriotism, familial duty and societal superiority that it takes her son’s death to see their emotional fissure and how their egos, not Torchwood, sealed his fate. Just as Skinner hilariously depicts Vaughn’s egotism to toe-curling effect for the listener, so too does Robinson’s portrayal of Madeline succeed in revealing her numerous scarred dimensions, her voice initially channelling complacency and acceptance of Sebastian’s destined place in the Vaughn crypt, only for her all-too-belated yearning for a second chance with him to seep to the fore with pitiful desperation once proceedings inevitably go south.

For this reviewer, the operative word in the previous sentence was “inevitably”. Many of the best plays in the theatrical medium succeed thanks to dramatic irony, forecasting their respective endgames as early as the opening lines of dialogue (see Romeo & Juliet, Blood Brothers or more recently Hamilton for all of the necessary evidence), so perhaps that iconic technique prompted Morgan to render the Vaughn debacle in such a manner that listeners could predict Sebastian’s key mistakes, Madeline’s deceptive apathy and their overall trajectories from the outset. If that’s the case, though, with the aim being to convey a simple tale of how destructive familial and societal nepotism will only breed tragedy, then The Vigil might’ve been better suited to a collection of Torchwood 30-minute vignettes along the lines of Big Finish’s Doctor Who: Short Trips range, since the narrative doesn’t seem to have a great deal to say beyond showcasing the aforementioned damage wrought by such self-serving behaviour while the likes of Toshiko strive to be better. Such issues undeniably warrant discussion across all mediums in 2019, especially in the form of tragedies, but shows like The Good Place and BoJack Horseman are going further right now wrestling with the complexities of morally abhorrent individuals still existing within our lives. Vigil, on the other hand, seems content to put a clear footnote on a far more enduring social challenge.

Maybe that’s simply down to the Main Range format more than anything else – there’s only so much any writer can achieve in a single hour of audio drama, not least when Torchwood by its nature demands the integration of sci-fi elements like the alien leeches which plague Toshiko and Sebastian on their missions together here. All the same, past solo instalments like Uncanny Valley, The Last Beacon or indeed Cascade skilfully blended their more outlandish elements – clones, underground alien signals and sentient viruses – with intricate themes of identity, childhood nostalgia and the shades of grey involved in digital spheres, each packing enough twists to ensure their central message didn’t render the storyline as a whole too predictable. But if The Vigil represents even a stepping stone on Morgan’s path to the Big Finish Hall of Fame, then that she and Bowerman rounded up such a superb set of lead performers to delve into a challenging subject matter bodes promisingly indeed for her oncoming Torchwood output. Who knows - someday it may become a truth universally acknowleged that every Toshiko-led release must be in want of Lou Morgan...