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!






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…





Torchwood: Goodbye Piccadilly (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 7 July 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: Goodbye Piccadilly  (Credit: Big Finish )
Writer: James Goss
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Tom Price, Samuel Barnett, Lucy SheenRachel Atkins
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

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

“What’s your game, Norton? Who are you really working for?”

Stripped of his loyal Cardiff police force, his somewhat morally superior time-zone and above all his dignity, Sergeant Andy Davidson has but one option: explore the seedy underbelly of 1950s Soho with contemporary Torchwood (con) agent Norton Folgate. Throw conniving gangsters, scandalous sexual encounters and even some unashamed H.G. Wells allusions into the mix and what could possibly go wrong? Well, anything and everything which fans of Big Finish’s more NSFW additions to the show’s canon could possibly expect; depending on whether or not listeners count themselves among that group, that’s either Goodbye Piccadilly’s biggest selling point or shortcoming.

As the range’s overarching producer, there’s no denying that James Goss – more than any other playwright involved – understands the elements that make Torchwood tick. Its notably adult humour, for one, remains alive and thriving here as Norton fully exposes himself to Andy on numerous levels; from the pair initially finding themselves handcuffed in their bedroom suits to their exchanges with Norton’s similarly garment-devoid courtiers at regular intervals, the time-hopping copper gets rather more than he could’ve bargained for here. Tom Price’s earnest portrayal, as ever, works a treat in conveying Andy’s sheer bemusement and constant disorientation on this whistle-stop historical tour to hilarious effect, though Goss also thankfully enables him to flex the more dramatic muscles in his skeleton by interrogating Mr. Folgate more intricately than in 2016 team-up Ghost Mission.

Indeed, considering how many appearances Norton has made since Torchwood’s resurrection at Big Finish, one couldn’t help but notice up until now just how little we knew about this undercover Committee operative. What sparked his initial yearning to play both sides of the secret agency equation, manipulating the Torchwood Institute to his true employer’s ominous ends? How did he survive long enough to bring about The Torchwood Archive’s destruction in that masterful 10th Anniversary Special? And with rumblings of further sinister Time Vortex hijinks in recent releases such as Visiting Hours, are Norton’s machinations coming to a head? Whatever the truth of the matter, Samuel Barnett gleefully subverts our expectations further this time around. We’re shown a far more vulnerable character than that glimpsed before, with Barnett delicately peeling layer upon emotional layer from Norton’s exterior such that we’re just as captivated by his oft-reopened romantic scars as by his shifting allegiances, the latter of which Dirk Gently’s lead star still naturally pulls off with charismatic aplomb.

But for every character development there’s a half-baked supporting construct, for every madcap setting which our heroes plunge into – brothels-turned-body art studios, corruption-laden police stations, UFOs, they’re all here – a disappointingly pedestrian plot twist that we’ve heard recorded countless times before in the Big Finish studios. Such is the whirlwind nature of a comedy caper of Piccadilly’s ilk that there’s barely any time to flesh out the motivations of the tantalisingly ruthless Vicar running Torchwood One at present or the typically greed-intoxicated mobster who’ll seize any opportunity to carve her name across the Soho property ladder. The third act, almost inevitably, struggles to carry much real weight as a result, with both factions so superficially depicted beforehand that the only noteworthy stakes concern two characters who – what with this release presumably preceding Aliens Among Us in the range’s timeline – we know will reach the credits unscathed.

Might Piccadilly exhibit the pitfalls of Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood releases only opting for restrictive runtimes in the region of 45-60 minutes, in that case? Quite possibly. Contrast the range’s twenty-second instalment with Invaders from Mars, the 2002 Eighth Doctor tale from Mark Gatiss which earned itself roughly two hours’ worth of airtime to indulge in War of the Worlds-esque, gang warfare-infused tomfoolery not dissimilar to that which we’ve been discussing here, and it’s hardly absurd to wonder whether Goss might’ve benefitted from another hour in which to further illustrate his intrigue-laden world, characters and events. Much as Price and Barnett jest about the prospect of full-fledged Andy-Norton boxsets come the behind-the-scenes coda, then, this reviewer would wholeheartedly endorse any such pitch made over one of Big Finish’s now-legendary lunches.

Let’s avoid finishing on a sour note, though, since despite this reviewer’s initial reservations with a follow-up to the tepid Ghost Mission, Piccadilly has far more elements working in its favour than its predecessor. Beyond the two exemplary lead performances, the sound design team’s authentic rendition of Soho’s constant hustled-and-bustled nightlife, the rambunctious score and dizzying array of sexually-charged setpieces almost never fail to capture the listener’s attention. And, credit where credit’s certainly due, the latter risqué moments also confidently incorporate LGBTQ+ participants in a way that perfectly befits this release’s close proximity to Pride Week – not that you’d expect any less of Torchwood by this point, in fairness! – to the point where it’s likely a must-listen for anyone walking the streets in celebration this month.

While hardly the range’s finest hour, then, Goodbye Piccadilly offers a little something for everyone – London-bound hysteria for fans of classic comedy capers, plenty of explosive Andy / Norton action for Ghost Mission’s proponents, impressive technical workings behind-the-scenes for those of us who appreciate such pivotal minutiae and a script laden with LGBTQ+ representation for those who so deeply crave it elsewhere. If only every TV / film / audio drama franchise’s off-days could remain as riotously satisfying as this one, then the internet masses would find themselves left with far fewer matters to complain about.

Just kidding, of course, but we can always dream…

Next Time on Torchwood – We’re due another double dose of Torchwood in the coming weeks; as if it wasn’t enough for Toshiko to find herself beset by seemingly super-powered ne’er do wells capable of psychological assassinations in Instant Karma, the pre-“Army of Ghosts” Yvonne Hartman has her hands just as full in Torchwood One: Machines. Before the Cybermen, before her timely rejuvenation to face down Ro-Jedda in Aliens Among Us, another indomitable force threatened to bring her reign to an untimely conclusion. Its name? Will Operating Thought Analogue – WOTAN for short.






Torchwood: We Always Get Out Alive (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 18 June 2018 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
We Always Get Out Alive (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Guy Adams
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Eve Myles, Kai Owen
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

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

“Not mentioning how raw your wife’s home-cooked lasagne is, I can do; apologizing to the Home Office because you’ve left a dead squid thing in the middle of St Mary’s –“

“You said you loved my lasagne!”

In an ever-fluctuating world where political regimes collapse as fast as they emerge, where once-indestructible business behemoths perish like wanton flies and where the fate of any TV show hangs by a knife-edge daily, only one immutable truth is certain – nothing lasts forever. Just ask the original production team behind Torchwood’s TV run; the first proper Doctor Who spin-off show rapidly grew from strength to strength between 2006 and 2009, only for its divisive – to say the least – fourth season Miracle Day to abruptly bring about its on-screen demise. Big Finish’s intervention couldn’t have come soon enough, then, delivering fans with gripping new adventures that reveal both unexplored missions for Torchwood Three and never-before-seen facets of the wider secret agency. However, as with the show’s televised tenure, surely the studio’s luck will run out eventually?

After several superb boxsets and almost 20 standalone instalments in the range, not least March’s riotously entertaining The Death of Captain Jack and April’s rib-tickling country getaway The Last Beacon, that question weighed heavily on this reviewer’s mind as he hit Play on the monthly range’s latest instalment, We Always Get Out Alive. It couldn’t have come to the fore at a more opportune time, however, since for all his experimentation with haunting horror-esque setpieces, Guy Adams’ focus lies squarely on the matter of mortality and for how long those bold – or reckless – enough to risk it as part of their profession can hope to outrun the tentacles of fate. Of course, many civil servants do beat the odds every day, returning home to their loved ones and living to fight the next battle, but those of us looking in from the outside can only imagine the intense emotional strain that such an unpredictable, risk-laden lifestyle would place on those relationships as time passes.

Indeed, between facing down drug-addled aliens demanding 10% of Earth’s younglings as a gift, cannibalistic guests at their own wedding and at times the very worst of humanity, Gwen Cooper and Rhys Williams have amassed their fair share of emotionally traumatic baggage over the years. While we’ve seen their inevitable resultant tension bubble to the surface in fleeting moments of the show to date, nowhere has the subject been explored in greater detail than with Alive’s psychodrama-driven narrative. Adams manipulates the pair’s growing anxieties with magnificent aplomb; as they deal with the fallout of a recent mission-gone-wrong, his script masterfully reveals how, through Rhys’ fears surrounding his wife’s nonchalant attitude to brushes with death, even arguments over the right turn to take on a near-deserted rural road could pose just as substantial a threat to their challenged marriage as the mysterious forces manifesting in their vicinity. It’s as cunning a metaphor as any for the ongoing struggle surely faced by soldiers, firefighters or the like in relationships, delicately deconstructing this fraught dynamic while seemingly revealing huge admiration on Adams’ part for those couples whose love and loyalty endures regardless.

This mounting tension extends far beyond the couple itself, their obligatory alien pursuer sure to unsettle even the most steeled listener on their own travels. As with many of the great antagonists in fiction and especially within the horror genre, it’s to Adams’ credit that he wisely leaves much of the nameless foe’s facets up to our imagination, cunningly keeping it just outside of our heroes’ field of perception while having its influence gradually rise through lost memories, spontaneous outbursts of rage from Rhys and Gwen as well as fleeting thuds from the Cooper car’s boot. The latter element is also aided in no small part by Alive’s brilliantly subtle sound design, which keeps us completely on edge to the extent that moments of silence ratchet up the fear factor just as much as the distant howls, ominous rustling and increasingly audible footsteps somewhere nearby the vehicle. A word of warning: don’t listen in the dead of night unless you’re well-versed enough in the realms of horror to endure Alive’s eerie gothic atmosphere. Suffice to say that this reviewer scarcely regretted his decision to hit Play in the broad daylight of his train journey to London.

But as much as it goes without saying at this late stage, beyond its chilling script and technical strengths, by far Alive’s finest assets are the two performers tasked with delivering each and every line on this occasion: Eve Myles and Kai Owen. Gwen and Rhys’ tempestuous yet heartfelt dynamic has long served as the franchise’s emotional core thanks to the pair’s grounded performances and nothing changes here in this respect; Owen recapturing Rhys’ risk-averse approach – from tackling missions to heeding the highway code – perfectly, while Eve’s portrayal recalls Clara Oswald’s arc in Doctor Who Season Nine, her relentless energy as this undaunted yet reckless heroine a simultaneously thrilling and worrying ‘sight’ to behold. Nor does it hurt that Alive offers both thespians the opportunity to display perhaps Torchwood Three’s sole surviving recruits – depending on whereabouts in the show’s timeline Alive is situated after Children of Earth – at their most personally vulnerable, albeit with plenty of well-timed jokes such as the lasagne gag above enabling vital catharsis for the players and audience alike.

Usually, you’d expect us to highlight one or two shortcomings holding the latest Torchwood release back from the Hall of Fame around about now, right? Well, think again – such is the scale of Adams and company’s magnificent achievement that almost no noteworthy flaws sprang to mind as the credits rolled. Similar to how Cascade left the door open regarding the eventual fate of Toshiko Sato’s consciousness, so too does Alive refuse to fully acknowledge whether the faceless threats – both extraterrestrial and psychological – besieging our ever-wearying protagonists have truly subsided come the play’s conclusion, particularly given Adams’ insistence upon subverting our sense of reality throughout. That ambiguity only serves to strengthen the play’s societal subtext though, speaking to the ongoing struggles inherent in any marriage and indeed the joint trauma that couples tested to the limit must learn to live with somehow, rather than finding any idyllic quick-fix solution to such woes.

In contrast, however, this reviewer can wholeheartedly lay any fears surrounding the longevity of Big Finish’s Torchwood range to rest. Between the outstanding opening half of this fourth monthly run of one-off outings, the long-awaited gratification of the original team's reunion in Believe as well as the exemplary note on which Aliens Among Us concluded in February, far from spreading itself too thinly across myriad strands, the show’s never been on better form than it is today. For those wondering where to start with exploring the franchise in audio form, Alive represents an ideal entry point, its captivating thrills making 45 minutes feel more akin to 15 and its standalone nature – no Committee mentions in sight here – preventing the need to pick up ten prior releases in order to stand any chance of understanding what’s occurring. As for the rest of us who’ve grown alongside Gwen and Rhys over the past 12 years, the harrowing setpieces, multi-layered performances, stunning sound design and stirring societal themes make We Always Get Out Alive nothing short of an essential purchase.

Next Time on Torchwood – Let’s do the time warp again as ex-Torchwood agent Norton Folgate invites us – along with Sergeant Andy Davies, doubtless as hopelessly confounded as ever – to 1950s Soho, where raunchy encounters, gun-slinging gangsters and an all manner of seedy dealings apparently lie in wait. What could possibly go wrong, eh? The pair’s initial encounter in Ghost Mission didn’t quite hit the mark for this reviewer back in 2015, but considering how Andy’s subsequent clash with Owen Harper in Corpse Day resulted in one of the range’s strongest hours to date, anything could happen later this month…






Torchwood: Believe (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Tuesday, 8 May 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood; Believe (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Guy Adams
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring:John Barrowman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Eve Myles, Naoko Mori, Burn Gorman, Arthur Darvill
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 3 hours

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

"We're responsible for everything we do, Val. Every book you've written for money that tells people what to think, every DVD you've produced for money that tells people what to change about their lives. Every speech, every assembly, every word - you don't get to do that and shrug away the responsibility."

Upon learning of Big Finish’s successful acquisition of the Torchwood licence back in 2015, fans the world over – this reviewer included – immediately began drafting their personal wish-lists for the franchise’s impending audio continuation. What happened next after Miracle Day? Could Owen and / or Tosh return to the fold despite their demises in 2008’s “Exit Wounds”? Was it time to learn the fabled secrets of Torchwood Two? And no, seriously, when were we moving on from Miracle Day so as to get that failed US soft reboot’s sour taste out of our palettes?

Perhaps the most pressing point on the agenda, however, was just how swiftly the studio could reunite Captain Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones, Toshiko Sato and Owen Harper for any lost missions beyond those we witnessed on-screen in Seasons One and Two. Well, we’ve waited three years – the Owen-less 10th anniversary celebration The Torchwood Archive notwithstanding – to discover the answer, but it comes in the form of perhaps the range’s most satisfying boxset to date, Torchwood: Believe.

Isolating his latest scripts from both the sinister activities of the Committee in Big Finish’s monthly releases and Cardiff’s present apocalyptic state in Aliens Among Us proves a genuine masterstroke on Guy Adams’ part. Rather than forcing newcomers enticed by the return of all five Torchwood Three members to hit pause and purchase past releases in order to decipher what’s occurring here, the regular range contributor delivers a totally standalone affair, albeit one which still packs no shortage of emotional punches thanks to further exploring many thematic and character strands first established in the original show.

Part of what makes this approach so successful from the outset is how comfortably familiar Believe’s opening moments will seem to those fans who’ve followed the show in all its forms since Day One (episodic pun fully intended). At first, we’re presented with a run-of-the-mill debrief led by Owen into the ongoing exploits of the Church of the Outsiders, a seemingly innocuous religious cult whose efforts to hasten humanity’s ascent to meet – and interbreeding with – alien species include stealing classified UNIT data, dabbling in illegal cyber augmentation as well as setting up their own TV channel, community centres and full-fledged indoctrinatory academy.

It’s a quintessential sequence that feels ripped straight out of the TV show, with each cast member helping to remind us of the lead ensemble’s witty rapport: Owen (Gorman) righteously assured of his every move’s necessity, Toshiko (Mori)’s reserved tendency to serve as the voice of reason, Ianto (David-Lloyd)’s still-growing confidence within the team dynamic, Gwen (Myles)’s often gung-ho attitude tempered by the personal grounding that she brings to the agency and Jack (Barrowman) as enigmatic as he is charismatic. So far so Torchwood, then? Clearly, we’re in for three hours’ worth of Avengers: Infinity War-style crossover banter, right?

Not exactly. As Adams and producer James Goss accurately highlighted in the midst of Believe’s pre-release marketing campaign, the show – in its on-screen incarnation – would often split up the team to achieve different goals within the context of the wider mission, thereby allowing time to explore how each character’s individual passions and flaws affected their outlook on increasingly hostile situations. Indeed, the same rings true here as Ianto pairs himself with one of the Church’s devoted disciples to further investigate their goals, Tosh pursues the sect’s resident accountant Frank Layton (brought to life with self-titled and loathsomely complacent aplomb by ex-Doctor Who companion Arthur Darvill) and Gwen meets Church leader Val’s introverted daughter Andromeda, all while Owen oversees operations from the Hub and Jack heads off to pastures unknown.

Yet to simply describe Believe as but a scattershot collection of plot threads which eventually converge would severely undermine the scale of Adams’ achievement, not least in challenging each member of the team with dilemmas the likes of which they’ve arguably never faced before. The Church’s interstellar ambitions resonate in extremely different ways for each of our protagonists, with Jack for instance earnestly admitting his yearning to travel the stars as he once did with the Doctor, Ianto – as with The Last Beacon in April – once again forced to consider whether his ties with Torchwood Three threaten to rob him of any soul, hope or life meaning, and most notably the show’s beloved unrequited romance between Owen and Tosh taking the most disturbing detour imaginable.

For make no mistake, the scribe who showed us Suzie’s darkest inhibitions in Moving Target and took Gwen on a high-octane car chase with her local counsellor in More Than This has no qualms about taking further bold risks this time around either. Much as Gorman and Mori looked overjoyed to reunite their wayward almost-lovers when posting about their recording experiences on Twitter, the pair – both as actors and characters – are put through the dramatic ringer and then some here, Tosh’s efforts to extract any key intel possible from Layton about his supposedly selfless church-turned-charity soon developing into Children of Earth-level territory which could uproot her budding romantic tension with Mr. Harper forever. Think of a fall from grace on the scale of a Greek tragedy and you'll only just scratch the surface what's in store, as one of the pair colossally oversteps their reach to devastating effect.

Thank goodness, then, that both stars knock the ball out of the metaphorical park with captivating, psychologically intricate and often downright heartbreaking performances. We’ll avoid spoilers here for the sake of preserving your listening experience, save for that the Tosh-Layton storyline builds to an extremely unsettling crescendo, to a place where this reviewer isn’t entirely sure even the TV show would’ve dared to tread on BBC One / Two / Three. Heck, Big Finish themselves rarely tend to stray into territory as macabre as this, barring some of their early Doctor Who Main Release excursions like Colditz or the Doctor Who: Unbound range, but when the results are so painstakingly powerful and haunting as this, one almost wishes that they’d take the leap of faith more often.

Such narrative ambition on Adams’ part doesn’t end there – it pervades Believe on a conceptual level as well. Ever since juggling verbose duck companions with religious satire in The Holy Terror, Big Finish have shown their complete willingness to interrogate faith, its cathartic and chaos-inducing consequences for its followers / opponents, as well as whether anyone has the right to brazenly dispel theistic beliefs. Believe takes this contemplation to another level altogether, as Jack’s met with the profound existential dilemma of knowing that the Church’s desire to have humanity mingle with aliens will eventually come to pass, while Owen considers whether he’s fuelling the mission out of mere ego or indignation at religious groups’ naivety surrounding the afterlife, and Ianto undergoes an epiphany surrounding that aforementioned intervention by Torchwood into the beliefs of others without any consideration for the victims left behind come the mission’s denouement. Rhian Blundell's superb work as Ianto's endearingly sincere and passionate guide Erin helps immeasurably in the latter regard, with her and David-Lloyd's characters striking up a quaint college romance of sorts that won't fail to take even the biggest Jones-Harkness shippers off guard.

Two questions might justifiably have occurred to readers of this review by now: why didn’t Torchwood Season Two’s final episodes make mention of these character moments if they’re so pivotal, and where does the inevitable alien antagonist factor into processes? Let’s tackle those in linear order – unlike Believe’s refreshingly non-linear structure, with Episode 1 in particular zipping cleverly between Owen’s initial debrief and each teammate’s consequent mission. Considering that Adams’ exemplary three-part tale situates itself explicitly between the events of “A Day in the Death” and “Fragments”, that it’s so intent on progressing arguably unresolved threads from the show such as the extents of Tosh’s loyalty, Ianto’s increasingly challenged worldview and Jack’s tendency to withhold the truth even from his comrades might stretch the credibility of its status as a ‘canonical’ in-between-quel for some.

Nevertheless, just as some of Big Finish’s finest Who productions took slight liberties with continuity in the name of ambitious storytelling, so too does Believe admirably follow that route so as to truly test our perceptions of these evolving characters in fascinating, often remarkably unsettling ways. That also brings us onto its aforementioned extraterrestrial presence – again, staying clear of spoilers, Torchwood’s finest hours frequently arose from dealing with the worst of humanity rather than alien foes, which affords Adams the creative licence here to pit the team against fallible but equally rational members of their species whose sympathetic motivations only further the personal stakes for both factions.

So in spite of bringing together the Famous Five as well as temporarily restoring classic elements from the show such as the fully-operational Hub and – of course – the SUV, Torchwood: Believe fast cements itself as anything but your average all-guns-blazing detective drama. There’s no denying that its audacious character arcs, unspeakably heartrending performances from Gorman and Mori, and realistic shades of moral greyness will result in a challenging listening experience for long-term fans, but those elements also set the boxset apart as an awards-worthy tour de force in truly provocative science-fiction. Between the masterful Beacon and the game-changing Believe, 2018 could be the year where everything changes for Big Finish’s Torchwood range; if that’s the case, then one thing’s for sure – Guy Adams and his entire lead cast are ready.