Torchwood - Sargasso (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 4 September 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Sargasso (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Christopher Cooper
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Chloe Ewart (Captain Anika Banaczik), Sydney Feder (Kaitlin Russell), Robert Jezek (Yonich), Wilf Scolding (Sailor)

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

“We all had a hand in this – every damn human on Earth since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve poisoned the planet and opened the door to God knows what else…”

There’s one key rule to which the writers of practically any big-screen action blockbuster will tell aspiring newcomers to adhere, regardless of their chosen medium – end the adventure with a bang. Indeed, even having already mined classic Doctor Who villains such as the Fendahl, carnivorous maggots and the Slitheen to splendid effect in the past three instalments of their themed Torchwood monthly run, Big Finish undoubtedly saved their most ambitious such production for last. Not only does Christopher Cooper’s freshman Main Range contribution deliver a gripping return for another beloved Who adversary with deeply unsettling imagery – the audio drama furthermore plays powerfully into real-world environmental issues which tragically only grow in prominence with each passing day.

To see this month’s playwright tackling such weighty territory might justifiably come as a shock to anyone who’s heard his Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Part 2 effort “Love Rat”, a markedly more light-hearted affair embracing the show’s deliciously raucous side. Yet the premise with which he’s bestowed here is nothing short of a goldmine: trapped aboard a stranded freighter at sea, Rhys Williams must band together with a despondent environmental activist to overthrow a brewing Auton invasion, one incited by humanity’s daily tendency to discard countless plastic fragments in Earth’s waters. Cooper – if this review’s opening quotation didn’t make it clear – certainly pulls no punches when it comes to laying the blame for his narrative’s events (and naturally our planet’s non-fictional turmoil) solely at our Ugg-clad feet. From an early stage, his script forces Rhys to reckon with his own ignorance in prioritising extraterrestrial over all-too-human threats, delivering an impactful analogy for our own culpability in the process. This existentially troubling extended metaphor predictably only serves to worsen as events progress and the stakes mount too, building towards a genuinely shocking resolution whose open-ended ambiguity feels all too apt – particularly given how today’s headlines depict us being at such an existential crossroads.

That said, as with any accomplished Torchwood production at Big Finish or elsewhere, Sargasso has just as much in the way to offer of gloriously pulpy sci-fi chills as it does pointed socio-political commentary. Children of Earth threw in Hub explosions and Torchwood casualties amidst its haunting interrogation of our moral limits, God Among Us Part 2 segued from tales of homelessness to hilarious body-swapping and so Cooper’s high-seas one-off follows suit by regularly ramping up the fear factor at every turn. For every reference to the contaminated horrors glimpsed on David Attenborough’s documentaries, there’s a fantastical sighting like an armada of rubber ducks besieging the ship; for every fourth wall-targeted piece of dialogue surrounding our ethical callousness, an equally memorable visual concept like a Nestene creature with engulfing tentacles crafted wholly from discarded plastic bags. The task of presenting such inherently ridiculous imagery without disserving the vital subject matter might’ve easily overwhelmed a lesser writer, but fortunately Cooper’s shrewd command of the aural medium – coupled with the soundtrack’s eerie infusion of waves and pitch-perfect sound effects for said antagonists – means that we’re afforded enough linguistic detail to tremor, yet with enough restraint to afford our imaginations ample license for vivid interpretation.

And what of the lead star tasked with bringing this 28th Main Range episode to life in the Big Finish studios (after consuming one of their infamously delectable lunches, of course)? Seeing as Kai Owen did such a tremendous job holding the fort in 2017’s likewise horror-tinted hospital jaunt Visiting Hours, that he’s able to afford further depth to Rhys as a no-longer-side-lined Torchwood Three recruit here should hardly come as a surprise. His take on Mr. Williams, far from recycling the greatest hits of his fleeting TV appearances, evolves impressively over the course of the hour, the character’s ever-endearing earnestness and begrudging courageousness giving way to a newfound, all-too-pertinent despondency regarding our species’ future prospects. More inspiring still, though, is how Owen (at the behest of Cooper’s script) passionately pitches this not so much as a gateway to emotional hollowness but a trigger for his world-wearied father figure’s determination to win out, adapting his worldviews and tactics in the hope of enacting greater change – ideally starting with his survival!

He’s not alone in this metatextual quest either: Kaitlin Russell, the aforementioned young environmental campaigner who finds herself in a sudden life-or-death struggle, lies in truly capable hands thanks to Sydney Feder’s righteous performance alongside Owen. Whether she’s angrily relating her efforts to depart from her father’s nature-wrecking commercial exploits, brazenly rebuffing Rhys’ initial assumptions surrounding her generation’s social media obsessions or taking on other roles entirely which we shan’t spoil here, Feder brings a constant ferocious energy to the role which results in a tempestuous yet consistently captivating dynamic between the pair. It’s perhaps a grand testament to the Main Range team’s stellar track record in casting terms that this reviewer would gladly see just about any of the couplings devised so far (or triplets in the case of The Dollhouse), but the extent to which Cooper leaves the door open for Sargasso entries down the line should really prompt range producer James Goss and company to consider the prospect this time around as they set about planning future runs for 2020 and beyond.

Regardless of whether our advice gets heeded, however, for now Sargasso offers more than enough in the way of philosophical substance, shiver-inducing old-school scares from classic Who foes – making only their second Big Finish appearance here but hopefully not their last – and superb performing to bear numerous repeat listens while Goss makes up his mind. By melding Night of the Fendahl’s atmospheric tension with The Green Life’s politically-charged tone and Sync’s sizzling humour (in Rhys and Kaitlin’s dynamic), Cooper rounds out what’s been anything but a quartet of Doctor Who-tied cash-in releases in sensational style, once again raising the bar for his successors to match in future Torchwood instalments. The only question now, both for the Main Range and humanity as a whole – where the hell do we go next?

Torchwood - Serenity (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 2 September 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: Serenity (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Moran
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Ellie Darvill (Vanessa); Deidre Mullins (Kelly); Joe Shire (Bob)

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

“Maybe we’re so used to doing this that we don’t even want a normal life anymore.”
“Maybe. Kinda sad, isn’t it?”

For never was a story of more woe than this of Captain Jack and his Ianto. Through the ages we’ve seen our fair share of romantic tragedies, both on stage and screen – you-know-which doomed Shakespeare couple, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Titanic’s Jack and Rose, Smallville’s Clark and Lana (no Twitter DM replies necessary, thanks), the list goes on. Despite the menagerie of choices on offer, though, ask Torchwood devotees which dramatic parting of the ways hit them hardest in the history of fiction and their response will doubtless prove instantaneous – the heartbreaking ballad of the eternal Time Agent and the butler-turned-hero whose time ran out in 2009. One only need take a stroll along Cardiff Bay to encounter the shrine in Ianto Jones’ memory still standing tall a whole decade later, or – if they dare – search the couple’s names on any fan fiction site for an enlightening glimpse at the insatiable fervour which this once-rare same-sex sci-fi relationship continually inspires.

So when Big Finish announced their intention to dedicate a whole Torchwood Main Range release, Broken, to Jack and Ianto way back in July 2016, naturally their ‘shippers’ lost their collective minds in anticipation and seemingly turned out in their droves to support the play come release day. This reviewer can’t even begin to imagine, then, just how rabid the reaction must’ve been in some circles to the subsequent news that Serenity, the Range’s 29th-and-counting chapter, would take this focus a step further, envisioning the pair as an official couple living in domestic bliss. Surely such a premise must inevitably yield audio perfection, especially when the lucky scribe injected some hysterical sci-fi setpieces a la “Something Borrowed” or Aliens Among Us’ “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy” for good measure? Well, the answer to that seemingly obvious enquiry – and thus your overall mileage – will depend on your expectations surrounding the franchise’s tone, specifically in regards to the prominence (or lack thereof) of its science-fiction trappings.

A word of warning before we progress any further, though: whilst most of the time Big Finish’s marketing team will proudly trumpet their upcoming releases’ respective USPs from atop the Shard, featuring returning villains on their cover art or hinting at the outrageous sci-fi concepts in store via their tantalising synopses, that’s not quite the case here. Returning TV Torchwood writer James Moran clearly discussed with the promotional department which elements of Serenity to shout about from the rooftops and which to keep hidden if possible, meaning that our description of what this entry has to offer will be necessarily limited so as to preserve the surprises for first-time listeners. What we’re able to say without hesitation is that events centre on Jack and Ianto’s induction into Serenity Plaza, a supposedly idyllic gated community where residents banter harmlessly over who’ll win the Best Kept Lawn competition, bake each other delightful sweet treats and occasionally, just occasionally, go astray for reasons unknown; so begins our tag-team’s covert investigation amidst their lovesick façade.

If all of this initially sounds like a fun recipe for entertaining social satire, rom-com-riffing chaos and the odd action-packed bout of alien intervention, then you’d largely be correct in that assumption; hilarity frequently ensues courtesy of Ianto’s growing infuriation at his neighbours’ constant sexual innuendos, an all-manner of saucy mischief occurs courtesy of Jack’s irrepressible charisma and ultimately Torchwood’s trademark extraterrestrial carnage brings proceedings to an explosive head come Act 3. Yet that last point illustrates the issue which may arise for listeners (as it did yours truly) who seldom came to the show in search of its take on domestic comedies with a limited number of sets and ample romantic tension like Gavin & Stacey, Friends or Benidorm; much as the premise brings its own inevitable call-backs to classic horrors like Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, virtually two-thirds of the running time here becomes dedicated to the aforementioned mistaken identity humour rather than building up any of those hit films’ supreme underlying tension. Such a trade-off feels all the more ironic in this case too given that Moran picks up the threads of a past Torchwood tale from its TV run, one which was wrought with the intense suspense and escalating mortal challenges from which Serenity – while naturally a different beast given its setting – could’ve sorely benefitted at times.

Let’s revert back into examining the brighter side of Serenity Plaza anyway for now, since it’s downright impossible to miss how much of a madcap joy the recording sessions for this month’s Main Range play must’ve been in May 2018. As if either of them needed to prove their astounding versatility at this point, both John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd effortlessly run the full gamut here between strained household flirtations (with CCTV capturing their constructs’ exchanges at every moment); poignant, dramatic irony-steeped reflections on their love-life’s prospects in this deadly line of work; vulnerable envy on Ianto’s part at Jack’s constant bedroom dalliances and steeled determination as their chances of survival once again start diminishing. Equal credit should nonetheless go to their co-stars Ellie Darvill, Deidre Mullins and Joe Shire, whose residents’ frequently chuckleworthy one-liners and near-constant efforts to court Mr. Harkness must have tested their capacity to stifle unscripted laughs, yet instead add a huge degree of risqué charm throughout the play.

But arguably the most promising aspect of Serenity’s framework within the wider Torchwood Main Range comes with the content which we’ve sworn not to discuss in any spoiler-provoking detail. What with Big Finish’s remarkable focus on breadthening the franchise’s considerable lore via new recurring threats like the malevolent Committee, or plot strands like the God Among Us’ benevolent efforts wreaking havoc in Cardiff, you could easily forget – despite the continual presence of the old guard like our lead stars here – that the show ran for five full seasons on our televisual airwaves between 2007-2010, each crammed with similarly potent foes and concepts from the 456 to Captain John Hart, who’s now excitingly due a full-fledged comeback in his own boxset next January. Indeed, if they’re to take away one key lesson from Serenity, then we’d wager that future Main Range contributors could do worse than to see the value of mining the show’s TV mythology more-so than before, since at their best, the results of resurrecting said lore with new twists are genuinely thrilling.

Perhaps Torchwood: Serenity will consequently mark one of the few missteps from Big Finish’s Torchwood output for you, as was the case for this reviewer, or perhaps not. Therein lies the infinite subjectivity which makes consuming culture so enriching…when we’re not busy tearing each other’s hair out over which studio should own a fictional superhero character’s film rights, that is. Even so, the assembly of hilarious talent gathered here for a riotous laugh and the increasingly tantalising forays into the show’s past for loose plot threads still serve to demonstrate just how ideally suited the studio was to take this once-deceased franchise’s reins a few short years ago – a romantic entanglement that seems anything but doomed in hindsight.

Torchwood - Sync (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 26 June 2019 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Sync (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Lisa McMullin
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: Indira Varma (Susie Costello), Annette Badland (Margaret Blaine), Raj Ghatak (Pilot)

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

“I’m the thrilling demonstration of what happens when you don’t exercise your democratic right!”

How could Margaret Blaine’s return to the worlds of Doctor Who for the first time since 2005 possibly go wrong with a line of dialogue as perfect as that? The Slitheen-turned-politician-turned-Cardiff mayor’s timely demise in “Boom Town” would’ve ruled out the re-introduction of Annette Badland’s delightfully sadistic character in any other narrative continuity, but the timeline-hopping nature of Big Finish’s Torchwood range enables the Who spin-off to continually visit just about any moment in either show’s shared history. Enter Sync, yet another indisputable hit for both franchises which brings together two unashamedly self-obsessed renegades for a fatal road trip quite unlike any other cultural production – to quite simply hilarious effect.

Lisa McMullin (now penning her fourth script after contributions to Gallifrey: Time War 2, The Eighth of March and UNIT Incursions) delivers a relatively straightforward sales pitch this time around compared to many overstuffed audio dramas: take Mayor Blaine, thrust her into the trajectory of a pre-death Susie Costello covertly hunting alien technology, strap a time-bomb to their wrists and watch the gleeful havoc ensue. Indeed, her Big Finish peers should absolutely take heed of her success in implementing such a concise precis, since doing so keeps Sync astutely focused on its central characters and in particular the development of their ruthless psyches. So often we’re prone to write off corrupted antiheroes like Margaret or Susie as doomed loose cannons whose one-dimensional worldviews seal their undoing, yet McMullin digs far deeper into her unlikely protagonists than their TV outings ever managed, deconstructing their joint familial isolation and how these formative personal experiences inevitably influenced their animosity (to say the least) towards wider society in later life.

Admittedly, the risk that always comes with team-up scripts of this accomplished ilk is the two like-minded lead stars feeling indistinguishably of a piece with their respective portrayals, yet that’s scarcely true in Sync’s case. Fresh off her audio appearances in Moving Target and The Torchwood Archive, Indira Varma tangibly channels a resigned bitterness at her Torchwood Three teammates’ timeline-preserving MO, such that you buy Susie's overall disillusionment with humanity, whereas Badland’s carefully-seeded moments of vulnerability deepen her portrayal as they did in “Boom Town”, suggesting her malicious gusto to be more of a necessary front than anything else. It’s saying something when a pair of constructs who made such a compelling impression on-screen – in no small part thanks to Russell T. Davies’ character-driven approach to storytelling for Who and Torchwood alike – can continue to reveal unexpected facets in subsequent off-screen storylines, so credit where credit’s due to the playwright and thespians alike on that front.

At the same time, however, this morally complex instalment deftly balances its psych-studies with plenty of the fatalities, frivolities and, naturally, farts which Susie and Margaret collectively leave in their wake – much to the audible entertainment of Badland and Varma (not to mention the sound team emulating those gaseous exchanges!). Hearing the pair relentlessly squabble over hailing taxis, local politics, the debatable allure of Cardiff’s skyline by night and countless other trivial matters works wonders, keeping their high-stakes race against time grounded and ensuring that Sync never gets too bogged down with emphasising the mortal peril that awaits the pair and the city alike should they fail. Indeed, that Big Finish opted to – whether due to time constraints or creative decisions – exclude Badland from their Slitheen-featuring outing in their The Tenth Doctor Chronicles boxset last year seems a surprising oversight with the hindsight of her splendid work alongside Varma here, to the extent that they’d be fools to repeat the mistake going forward if they can still find ways to integrate the late Mayor into Who storylines.

Perhaps it’s telling of Sync’s myriad scripting and performance strengths, then, that a recurring gripe with these recent Torchwood / Doctor Who returning villain crossovers almost falls entirely under the radar despite its residual presence. For all of McMullin’s truly impressive efforts to keep her first Main Range contribution moving at a feral Slitheen’s pace, only taking detours for the occasional bout of well-timed comic relief and mostly integrating character development seamlessly along the way, there remains the pervasive sense that Raj Ghatak’s succinctly-named Pilot was a structural afterthought. While the weighting of supporting players clearly forms a core part of any playwright’s thought-process, when the play in question places said Pilot fairly centre-stage late on, you can’t help wishing that it’d dedicate more time to portraying them as anything other than a hapless victim in events beyond their control, or at least making a meaningful thematic point if that was the intention of said depiction.

But given the aforementioned minimal prominence which that quibble had in our mind come the end credits (especially compared to last month’s hurriedly-concluded The Green Life), the odds of it affecting your listening experience seem borderline astronomical. Chances are that you’ll instead leave Sync having cackled heartily throughout at its dizzying array of razor-sharp one-liners, having formed a remarkably fresh outlook on its two far-from-B-list rogues and, most importantly, having barely noticed 60 minutes passing all the while. If Lisa McMullin wasn’t already on your writers-to-watch list after her potent Gallifrey offering earlier this year, then trust us – simply give her superb Torchwood debut a go and you’ll join us in counting down the days until her sophomore storyline follows suit.

NEXT TIME ON TORCHWOOD – From the moment that David Attenborough discovered plastic debris littering the ocean floor, the clock immediately started clicking on whether Big Finish or Chris Chibnall would snag the rights to base an Auton storyline around this all-too-disturbing subject matter. Well, evidently the former party won out in the bidding war, leaving Rhys Williams with the rather undesirable task of battling the Nestene Consciousness’ countless duplicates on the high seas – sans his wife or any Torchwood colleagues at that. See you back here for our verdict on the next Main Range instalment Sargasso – as well as the sure-to-be apocalyptically eventful God Among Us 3 – in the weeks ahead…

Torchwood: God Among Us Part 2 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 June 2019 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
God Among Us - Part 2 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Lou Morgan, Ash Darby, Tim Foley and David Llewellyn
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman); Paul Clayton (Mr. Colchester); Alexandria Riley (Ng); Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Tom Price (Andy Davidson); Samuel Barnett (Norton Folgate)

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

For all Captain Jack Harkness’ weekly proclamations that “the 21st century is when everything changes”, one immutable curse seems to dog his Cardiff team throughout every mission, team roster and entertainment medium – they simply can’t catch a break. So it is that Big Finish’s latest Torchwood boxset, God Among Us Part 2, finds his comrades besieged at all sides from new threats, some outrageously supernatural like Season Seven’s titular self-professed deity, others far closer to home for listeners in the form of resonant societal ordeals.

The agency’s ever-intensifying struggle for survival works to our immense benefit once again, though, resulting in another thrilling run of storylines which avoids Part 1’s confounding tonal repetition and – better yet – builds to a truly epic crescendo that’ll have fans pre-ordering Part 3 faster than they can say “bring back Ianto”…

“Flight 405”:

“Everything about this plane feels wrong.”“Wrong is where Torchwood lives…”

Eagle-eared listeners will doubtless have noticed a number of tantalising plot strands bubbling under the surface of Big Finish’s various Torchwood releases so far (across the Main Range, these post-Miracle Day boxsets and the 10th Anniversary Special The Torchwood Archive), arguably the most intriguing of which comes in the form of one Norton Folgate. Part-Torchwood Three recruit, part-Committee conspirator, part-infuriating enigma, Folgate’s various encounters with the likes of Andy Davidson, Jack and their teammates seldom fail to throw more perplexing questions into the mix as to his true agenda.

That God Among Us Part 2 plunges headfirst into the psyche of Samuel Barnett’s fast-beloved rogue agent should come as a welcome relief to many, then, with scribe Lou Morgan’s “Flight 405” kicking off said interrogation in grandiose fashion via a madcap plane heist above Cardiff. As with the most compelling Folgate-centred entries to date (see Outbreak and Goodbye Piccadilly for two prime examples), it’s clear that Morgan recognises the value of balancing the character’s secrets with his sexually-charged banter; her script delicately injects ample mystery surrounding his presence aboard a fast-plummeting airplane, while simultaneously delivering regular riotous hysteria thanks to his heated-at-best interactions with Andy and Yvonne Hartman as they race to avoid citywide destruction.

Maintaining this fine tonal balance of high-stakes (not to mention high-altitude) drama with cathartic comic relief must inevitably present the cast with quite the challenge in terms of how to approach their performances; yet – as always – our accomplished players are more than up to the task at hand. With Alexandria Riley and John Barrowman mainly relegated to the background here, we’ve instead got a divine three-hander in Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tom Price and Samuel Barnett; the former pair simultaneously ground their piece via some supremely awkward romantic tension whilst also offering a perfect counterfoil with their stoic by-the-books determination to Barnett’s relentless energy and gleeful recklessness. Little wonder, then, that Big Finish have just commissioned a six-part Torchwood Soho boxset chronicling Andy and Folgate’s 1950s hijinks, since the plentiful comedic mileage waiting to be gleaned from their dynamic (and potential Yvonne cameos) is still absolutely plain to see.

“Hostile Environment”:

“Can’t anyone see me?”“No, Tyler – no-one sees you.”

As much as Torchwood often thrives with whirlwind sci-fi heist outings such as “Flight 405”, the show (in both its televisual and audio mediums) can equally feel just at home when tackling delicate subject matters which continue to grow in pertinence for its contemporary audience by the day. Just look at how devastatingly impactful “Adrift” proved in its harrowing think-piece on missing children, or the extent to which “Poker Face” blurred the lines between secret agencies and the terrorist cells they’re trying to undo, not to mention the poignant study on personal and professional trauma conducted by God Among Us’ understated season premiere, “Future Pain”.

With all that being said, any listener approaching Ash Darby’s frankly unforgettable range debut should still brace themselves – regardless of whether they’ve experienced the above thought-provoking tales – for a deeply unsettling hour, one which is sure to intentionally test your definition of the term “entertainment” to its very limits. Events might start out ordinarily enough, as the ever-inquisitive (and ever-infuriating) Tyler takes to the streets to uncover the truth behind a new GPS app linked to homeless disappearances, yet that’s merely the plot trigger for a remarkably intricate societal interrogation. Far from simply having her protagonist come to the rescue of the missing souls, Darby forces him – and consequently us – to confront his own prejudices as the ex-journalist becomes similarly destitute, thus witnessing our species’ disturbing willingness to render these circumstantial victims of fate as pariahs simply owing to their insufficient bank balance.

Any potent humanitarian issue of this ilk always makes for challenging listening when placed under the microscope, but for Darby to buckle under the weight of what she’s trying to achieve in a mere hour by rounding off with an optimistic message would’ve seemed disingenuous at best, especially when we see the evidence of the countless lives affected by homelessness just by roaming the high street on a daily basis. Quite to the contrary, though, her script pulls no punches throughout its runtime, prompting Jonny Green’s best performance to date as he gradually deconstructs Tyler’s brazen confidence to reveal his capacity for broken hopelessness, unprecedented endurance and ultimately haunting self-preservation come the heartbreaking denouement. Look out for a similarly stunning turn from newcomer Jessica Hayles as Kirsty, yet another forgotten innocent whose sly charm fast gets under your skin to the extent that her ultimate fate lingers in the memory long after the credits.

“Another Man’s Shoes”:

“Yvonne Hartman speaking…”

What better way to lighten up proceedings after one of Big Finish’s grimmest (yet equally most remarkable) productions in recent years than with a risqué body-swapping caper? Torchwood premises don’t get much more quintessential than that. Sure enough, “Another Man’s Shoes” serves up a delightful antidote to its predecessor’s maudlin themes, largely thanks to scribe Tim Foley letting his players loose with some delightfully wild material.

Tyler and Norton, for instance, find themselves whisked off in each other’s physical vestiges for yet another of the latter’s trademark raucous nights out. Cue a deliciously strained buddy comedy dynamic which Green and Price exploit to glorious effect, their respective takes on Folgate’s rambunctious sexual provocations towards anyone available and Tyler’s initial bewilderment then growing scepticism towards Folgate’s time-travelling motives all the more impressive when you consider that they’re playing each other’s roles for one night only. The situation’s no less ridiculous with Yvonne and Andy either since the former – now inhabiting her sergeant lover’s tightly-strung uniform – must answer for the latter’s recent staged crimes in Aliens Among Us Part 3 via a disciplinary hearing, much to Andy’s palpable horror. It’s of course another gleeful disaster waiting to happen, with Price’s take on Ms. Hartman / Andy as she desperately strives to win her interviewer over a beauty to behold and Oberman no less sensational in her uncharacteristically flustered portrayal of the displaced Andy.

The only main risk which “Another’s Man Shoes” (by its unashamedly jovial and fairly plot-lite nature) faced from the outset was its potential to come off as filler in the grand scheme of God Among Us. Although Foley’s script delivers enough in the way of crudely effective gags and intrigue surrounding the hints of a wider scheme at play with the soul transfers to mostly keep any such reservations out of the listener’s mind, looking back on Part 2 as a whole, we’d wager that the lack of meaningful character development or narrative depth might rob it of a place in the Torchwood Hall of Fame when such shortlists are inevitably drawn up someday. All the same, there’s scarce point in complaining too much right now when everyone involved is clearly having such a riot of a time – the listener included.

“Eye of the Storm”:

“With a hey, a ho, the wind and the rain, and the rain it raineth every day.”

And you thought Aliens Among Us’ season finale, “Herald of the Dawn”, upped the stakes for our heroes to extents that we’d seldom seen from the TV show. Well, if David Llewellyn’s utterly gripping mid-season capper “Eye of the Storm” represents even the slightest mission statement as to the final God Among Us boxset and beyond, then apparently, we’ve barely gotten started. From mounting tidal waves to old enemies’ centuries-spanning conspiracies, from Yvonne’s long-teased past finally surfacing to the titular God choosing a side as apocalypse dawns, Big Finish writers take heed: this is how you tee up the concluding instalments of your season-long narrative in style.

However, as he escalates the odds against Torchwood Three with each epic action sequence, so too does Llewellyn mercifully recognise the value of allowing listeners moments to breathe – even when the chances of Cardiff’s residents ever breathing again look increasingly bleak. Hearing Jacqueline King’s enigmatic God square off with David Warner’s equally (if not more so) mysterious Committee character proves every inch as captivating as any of the city-threatening set-pieces, not only since Llewellyn pays off so many developing strands from Big Finish’s Torchwood storylines, but thanks to the thespians applying such delicate warmth and humour to their otherwise lofty exchanges on human evolution, nihilism and capacity for good or self-destruction, all of which grounds the piece as a whole exponentially.

If, on the other hand, listeners are craving more time in the company of Jack, the newly-resurrected Mr Colchester and Ng after the likes of Andy, Tyler and Yvonne took centre-stage for much of Part 2’s four episodes, then they’ll take comfort in knowing that Llewellyn seems only too keen to please on this front as well. A reckoning of sorts between Jack and Ng in particular – given how the latter hitched Gwen Cooper’s body for much of Aliens Among Us – was always going to be on the cards at some stage, so to hear the prolonged exchange occur now (albeit in the worst timed of circumstances as the trio reckon with a malfunctioning borderline-nuclear power station near Cardiff) will provide much-needed catharsis for Torchwood fans, the outcome setting Ng on an especially promising trajectory for Part 3.

Speaking of what’s on the horizon for God Among Us, one or two hitherto untapped goldmines are still rife for the taking in this month’s climactic boxset. That Orr plays next-to-no role in Part 2, barely even warranting a mention by her teammates until Ng raises the issue with God in “Another Man’s Shoes”, might well rub any of her fandom devotees the wrong way as a rare continuity oversight, while the Norton / Committee timelines could equally benefit from some form of clarification next time around, since both run the risk of becoming convoluted for convolution’s sake if no closure lies around the corner.

All that’s for the future, though; for now, Torchwood: God Among Us Part 2 confidently dispels any reservations which we might’ve otherwise held about this latest audio season’s capacity to match its immediate predecessor, the sheer tonal range of consistently compelling (and oft-provocative) storylines on offer truly ensuring that there’s something to keep just about every listener satisfied. Maybe, just maybe, the Cardiff team’s inability to catch a break after all these years is for the best after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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