Torchwood: The Death of Captain JackBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 4 April 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Death of Captain Jack (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: David Llewellyn
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: John BarrowmanJames MarstersEve MylesGareth David-LloydKai OwenTom PriceSamuel BarnettRowena Cooper
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

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

After two full seasons of monthly releases set in the lives of Cardiff's least covert secret agents, each entry packed with as much nostalgia as world-building, not to mention a wealth of box-sets taking place in the eponymous organisation's past, present and future, some might reasonably wonder just where Big Finish can take Torchwood next - at least without fulfilling the rule of diminishing returns. To date, we've spent hours in the company of not only every member of the Season One-Two team but also Yvonne Hartman, Suzie Costello, Torchwood America's Charlie's Angels-esque terrific trio, Rhys Williams, Sergeant Andy Davidson and undercover recruits in World War Two. Who else could the studio possibly hope to focus on, then, sans perhaps the elderly woman bemoaning "bloody Torchwood" in the Season Two premiere, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"?

The answer, coincidentally enough, lies in that exact same episode, albeit not in the form of Menna Trussler's brilliantly non-plussed Elspeth Morgan, but instead in the form of another oft-forgotten veteran of the show's televised tenure: Captain John Hart. Yes, everyone's other favourite Time Agent has returned for another round on the blood-soaked carousel in The Death of Captain Jack, a disorientating rollercoaster of a season premiere which delivers all of the raunchy setpieces, deliciously macabre humour, Steven Moffat-level time-travel paradoxes and further raunchy setpieces fans could possibly hope for. Every work of fiction has its flaws, of course, and we'll get to Death's blemishes later, but if nothing else, there's never been a Torchwood audio production quite like this one.

To quote Amy Pond, okay kids - this is where it gets complicated. Unlike most of these monthly vignettes, Death's place in its source material's continuity starts out sketchy and doesn't become much clearer the further we move through its running time. Suffice to say that any long-running franchise devotees will have their work cut out trying to ascertain quite when the narrative - or at least its framing device, which essentially serves as the crux of proceedings - occurs in relation to John and Jack's fractured romantic / anarchistic relationship across time and space, since there aren't many direct references to on-screen encounters between the pair such as "Kiss Kiss" or Season Two finale "Exit Wounds". What we do know, however, is that the former unashamed megalomaniac decides to finally bring their competition to best one another to an explosive end, causing a wealth of paradoxes destabilising enough to leave Jack on the brink of a permanent demise and John as the King of England.

If that sounds like a recipe for a glorious hour of unhinged science-fiction hysteria, then take comfort in the knowledge that your ears are working perfectly. If anything, the play's wright David Llewellyn takes those expectations and extrapolates them tenfold, his script gleefully embracing the explosive carnage that its two Time Agent protagonists bring to anyone caught - figuratively or often literally - between them, with the pair's at times lust-driven, at times hopelessly self-destructive relationship an empowering wildcard that keeps the hour refreshingly unpredictable. Whether he's having John compare Torchwood Three to Scooby Doo "without the cartoon dog or the lesbian" or depicting fan favourite characters like Ianto Jones or Rowena Cooper's Queen Victoria in hilariously risque new lights, Llewellyn takes evident delight in the audio range's producer, James Goss, giving him free reign to steer many of the show's core tenets totally off the rails with a chaotic, constantly expectation-subverting romp that can't fail to keep even the most emotionally apathetic listener entertained. Sure, we're left in almost no doubt that the events depicted here can't come to affect future Torchwood storylines, but who cares when the results are such visceral fun to consume through our earlobes?

That wouldn't necessarily have been the case, though, without two such accomplished lead performers at Death's helm. Enter John Barrowman and long overdue returnee James Marsters, both of whom wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to deliver a psychologically warped comedy-drama where the only rule is that there are no rules. In many ways Barrowman's gifted with the chance to play two roles - the good Captain whom we know and love as well as the aged soul who lies before John on seemingly the final day in their centuries-spanning conflict - and, naturally, does a stellar job on both fronts, as intoxicatingly charismatic and complacent ever in the former guise while the most vulnerable and morally crushed that we've seen him since Miracle Day in the latter. As for Mr. Masters, whereas some of Doctor Who and Torchwood's past cast members needed time to adjust to portraying their characters in audio form, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Marvel's Runaways star takes to Big Finish like a devilishly handsome duck to the Time Vortex's waters, his constant barrage of witty retorts, pop culture references, beguiling pick-up lines and pre-murder zingers voiced with the kind of unsettling enthusiasm that only an actor of his calibre can truly muster. Much as Big Finish are rightly striving to entice series regulars like Eve Myles and Burn Gorman to find time amidst their hectic schedules to record further Torchwood plays, this reviewer would suggest that the studio makes Masters another major priority in this regard whenever the right script and the necessary gap in his own calendar arise.

So, with all of these glowing remarks, how could we possibly smell a fault in the framework of this undoubtedly successful new chapter for the only team ready for that key moment when "everything changes"? Well, kindly juxtapose that iconic quote from the show's opening sequence with our comments above and you'll ideally start to notice that despite subverting many of the show's tropes, The Death of Captain Jack does incorporate a heck of a lot of previously explored character dynamics, cameos from familiar faces, What If paradoxes and the like which we've seen done to death - many times over in Jack's eternal case - countless times before on Torchwood and elsewhere in the so-called Whoniverse (though feel free to substitute this term with any other epithets for the wider franchise that you see fit). Indeed, Llewellyn, Goss, and company could easily have gotten away with rebranding this release as Torchwood: Greatest Hits, since rather than taking us into any particularly new territory that no-one could have seen coming, the intention seems to have been to simply spend more time with the admittedly electric Jack-John pairing which only got 2 full episodes in which to shine during 2008's Season Two. That's a noble gesture to fans clamoring for further such antics to be sure but does inevitably result in a storyline which - for all its rib-tickling one-liners - will rarely catch veteran fans off-guard.

That, in turn, plays into the matter of continuity which we discussed briefly earlier when summarizing Death's basic premise. On a superficial level, to call out the script for refusing to explicitly confirm whereabouts in Jack and John's timelines these events take place - a tricky business to discuss fully in this review without spoiling the exact nature of certain happenings we see play out here - may seem a prime example of nitpicking, but given that we last witnessed Masters' character wanting to understand Jack's passionate zest for Earthbound life by exploring the planet himself, having his return to his tricksome ways this time around explained by the outcome of those travels might've afforded an additional layer of depth to his character arc as well as fuel for future storylines at Big Finish. Does John's manipulative, self-serving outlook on life inevitably mean that he'll never remain content with a universe out for anyone's gain but his? Is his psyche comparable to Missy's in "Death in Heaven", whereby the pair both "wanted their friends back" no matter how devastating the circumstances? Factoring questions like these into Death just might have made the key difference between the latest Torchwood range outing coming off as a satisfying or game-changing listen.

Anyway, enough grimacing for the time being - to do so for longer than necessary would be to stray far from the central fact of the matter. Even if The Death of Captain Jack doesn't necessarily start 'Season Three' of Big Finish's monthly Torchwood releases with quite the same intriguing arc threads as The Conspiracy did in 2015 or never-before-seen crossover hijinks between Jack and Queen Victoria (a total newcomer to the show) as The Victorian Age did the following year, its raw appeal as a tour de force in time-bending, romantically charged and at times unexpectedly violent storytelling can't possibly be denied. Anyone who's long craved a reunion between the only two surviving Time Agents depicted in Doctor Who and its spin-offs will almost certainly have a whale of a time with Death between its jet-black comedy, its protagonists' never-ending duel of wits and sexual prowess and its scribe's dedication to uprooting Torchwood tropes by the dozen at every turn with hilarious results. Everything mightn't change here, then, but everything's at least looking up in terms of the studio's ability to keep producing memorable monthly outings for Harkness and company.






Torchwood: Aliens Among Us - Part 3Bookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 February 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Part 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Tim Foley, Joseph Lidster, Helen Goldwyn, James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Cast: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), Alexandria Riley (Ng), Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Samantha Béart (Orr), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Tom Price (Sgt. Andy Davidson), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Rachel Atkins (Ro-Jedda), Ramon Tikaram (Colin Colchester-Price), Terrence Hardiman (Escape), Sanee Raval (Xander), Kezrena James (Serena), Laura Dalgleish (Newsreader), Kerry Joy Stewart (Waitress), Garnon Davies (Rory), Joseph Tweedale (Assassin), Richard Elfyn (Inspector Bernstein), Aly Cruickshank (God Botherer), Marilyn Le Conte (Sue), Rick Yale (Darren), Luke Williams (Hywel), Charlotte O’Leary (News Reporter).

Released By Big Finish Productions - February 2018​
Order from Amazon UK

If there’s one crime of which reviewers can’t possibly accuse Big Finish’s first full season of Torchwood missions, it’s conforming to fans’ expectations.

Few would’ve blamed the studio for playing their cards safe with Aliens Among Us, particularly considering how straying from the beaten track to Stateside waters terminated the mature Doctor Who spin-off’s televised tenure. Yet rather than erasing Miracle Day from canon and resurrecting past teammates like Ianto and Toshiko for the sake of restoring the show’s original status quo, producer James Goss and his intrepid team of scribes have boldly committed to a new team, an embattled new incarnation of Cardiff ruled by alien mobsters and numerous emotionally devastating twists with series-altering ramifications.

What’s more, with Part 3 – comprising the final four instalments of Season Five – Goss and company don’t so much rein in their lofty ambitions as raise the benchmark ever further, delivering a truly memorable quartet of similarly pivotal adventures which, short of any major retcons next time around, promise to redefine Torchwood Three’s future for the better. The team’s eternal leader Captain Jack Harkness opened every episode of the show’s first few TV runs with the assertion that “the 21st century is where everything changes” and, judging by the events of this captivating boxset, perhaps he was referring to February 2018…

“Poker Face”:

Prepare for a disorientating dive into the deep end of recent Torchwood mythology with this fast-paced mid-season premiere as the Red Skies plot arc developed over the course of Season Five comes to a head. With the terrorist group seemingly plotting a number of violent attacks across the city so as to rid Cardiff of its extraterrestrial immigrants, it’s up to Jack, Gwen, Orr and Mr. Colchester to fend off these plots or at least minimize their blast radius before it’s too late. The only problem? They’re a team divided thanks to Jack’s recent sinister activities, not to mention the return of one Yvonne Hartman in the Hub’s vaults.

Indeed, that reports of Ms. Hartman’s demise in“Doomsday” were seemingly exaggerated comes as a welcome surprise by the end of “Poker Face”, since MVP Tracy-Ann Oberman’s presence injects the episode with as much grim humour and ruthless energy as it does unpredictability surrounding the nature of Yvonne’s survival. Better yet, whereas Torchwood often left its titular organisation’s long-running history shrouded in ambiguity on-screen, Oberman and John Barrowman’s electrifying rapport as their righteous commanders-in-chief vie for supremacy also allows for new insight into their shared history and the secret agency’s various teams interacted prior to the Battle of Canary Wharf.

It’s testament to playwright Tim Foley’s focused script that its headline act doesn’t overshadow the fascinating internal conflicts rife amongst the team in the wake of Part 2’s “The Empty Hand” either; quite to the contrary, just as much of its running time is dedicated to exploring whether the ends justify the means when it comes to Jack’s alignment with Red Skies to save Cardiff. Can the team possibly move forward knowing that its leader would willingly fuel hate crime and risk thousands of lives to best Ro-Jedda’s Sorvix hordes? As with much of Part 3 and of Aliens Among Us as a whole, the answer may shock listeners just as it did this reviewer, not least given its profound implications for what comes next.  

“Tagged”:

A real Orr de force, this one – pun fully intended. Clearly Goss well understands the need for series plot arcs to take a backseat, since here he tasks Joseph Lidster with tackling an issue largely separated from Ro-Jedda’s mayoral scheming but no less potent as a source of narrative inspiration: social media. Predictably letting Orr loose online to solve the mystery of fate-bearing cards spreading across the city isn’t the wisest of ideas but doing so affords Samantha Béart the rare opportunity to showcase her actorial mettle as the character is tested to her limits by the raw vitriol, prejudice and hatred that she must channel to discover why otherwise innocuous civilians are taking lives without almost any remorse.

As always, that’s not the only problem facing Torchwood Three in this instance – still reeling from the – spoilerific but suffice to say monumental – cliffhanger left by “Poker Face”, they’re dealing with a volatile new status quo which again forces each team member to consider the lengths to which they’re willing to go to keep Cardiff from tearing itself apart. Such quandaries only work in Paul Clayton’s favour as Colchester, whose increasingly close friendship with Orr makes the experience of watching her endure immense psychological pain to crack the case that much more harrowing – and thus dramatically satisfying – as a result.

Great performances usually necessitate a great script to provide worthy dialogue, though. Let’s give credit where credit’s due to Lidster, then, without whom “Tagged” might lack the emotional poignancy found in Serena’s topical plight as a sexually abused police officer, or the cathartic moments of levity granted by Gwen and Sergeant Andy Davidson’s bemusement at events on the streets, or the harrowing final scene which casts one of Torchwood’s most loyal stalwarts in a chillingly unsettling light. From his TV contribution to the franchise with 2008’s “A Day in the Death” to today, Torchwood remains safe whenever it lies in Lidster’s capable hands.  

“Escape Room”:

Yet what of Helen Goldwyn, whose only contribution to the range until now has been a cameo in last year’s throwback boxset Torchwood One: Before the Fall? Like Lidster, Goldwyn aims to explore another renowned facet of modern-day society, specifically the puzzle-based communal pastime which gives “Escape Room” its name. The difference here lies in said setting’s acting as a metaphorical springboard for this relative newcomer to examine the states of the Cooper and Colchester-Price families, with both relationships coming under greater strain as Alexandria Riley's Ng strives to keep her possession of Gwen’s body a closely-guarded secret.

This approach in turn once again allows Clayton, Riley, Kai Owen and Ramon Tikaram as Colin Colchester-Price to take advantage of their increased airtime and remind fans why the series remains at its best when challenging and evolving its relationships rather than always pitting characters against Earth-threatening challenges. Over the course of the hour each player of this explosive game-turned-death trap must test their loyalties against their desire for self-preservation, with no-one’s fate guaranteed and Goldwyn’s intelligent integration of red herrings here and there ensuring the lister remains either at the edge of their seat or fascinated to discover how the true last-minute twists will affect future episodes.

Perhaps the only noteworthy shortcoming which this reviewer could detect in “Escape Room” connects more-so to its context within the grander scheme of Aliens Among Us than its compelling semi-standalone tale. Steering clear of spoiler territory, the knowledge of Ng’s true identity as well as the overall Sorvix / Red Skies arc taking priority in Season Five’s final outing mean that a couple of seemingly irreversible watershed moments aren’t explored in as substantial depth going forward as one might hope, serving as devices to push said arcs towards their climax more than anything else. While that seems something of a missed opportunity, though, as a standalone piece Goldwyn’s Torchwood debut provides an utterly gripping hour of tension and emotionally wrought drama which no fan will soon forget.

“Herald of the Dawn”:

Among the most heinous clichés in the marketing book is proclaiming that a TV drama’s protagonists will “never be the same again” once the credits have rolled on its latest season finale. Too often we’re promised as much only to discover that the supposedly groundbreaking changes instigated by that show’s writing team are nothing of the sort or will inevitably be retconned come the next season premiere, for fear of the brand losing followers by axing key characters, leaving plot threads hanging or delivering near-impossible cliffhangers to resolve.

That’s not remotely the case with “Herald of the Dawn”, however. As well as reintroducing Jonny Green’s increasingly besieged ex-journalist Tyler Steele and Jack – who’s absent for much of this boxset with good reason – into the fray, James Goss’ magnificent season capper places myriad other responsibilities on its plate, from resolving Ng’s arc to revealing the rationale behind Bilis Manger’s mysterious Part 2 appearance to confirming that Ro-Jedda and her Sorvix clan aren’t going anywhere either. If manipulating so many pivotal chess pieces at once seemed an impossible task, then Goss makes the endeavour look enviably simple, both providing satisfying closure on many fronts and revealing that other elements are but the tip of the iceberg in a far more audacious multi-season game-plan.

Yes, you read that last sentence correctly – as if there were ever any doubt, Goss and director Scott Handcock confirm their intentions for more regular Torchwood chapters beyond Aliens Among Us in the accompanying behind-the-scenes tracks, although to think otherwise would’ve been ridiculous after the infuriatingly tantalising note on which “Herald” concludes. It’s not often that this reviewer finds himself completely breathless at the end of a Big Finish production, but I’ll gladly confess to yelling in exasperation at the top of my voice in a crowded Tottenham Court Road tube station as the series’ iconic theme tune kicked in to signal Season Five’s end credits. How we’ll endure such an unbearable wait between now and Season Six given the colossal cliffhanger left here – and a particularly poignant coda by Russell T. Davies leaving a Torchwood icon’s future uncertain – is beyond yours truly.

That’s a sure-fire sign of a tremendously successful season finale, though, and a wholehearted reaffirmation of Torchwood’s undoubtedly prosperous future at Big Finish. Between the studio’s half-year runs of monthly adventures situated in Torchwood Three’s past (our reviews of which will resume in March with The Death of Captain Jack), their delightful Torchwood One boxsets with Oberman at their firm helm and April’s long-awaited team-up boxset Torchwood Believe set to reunite the show’s original cast, this once-tarnished brand couldn’t lie in safer hands today, hence why this reviewer can’t wait to see what Goss and company have next up their sleeves.





Torchwood: The Culling #3Bookmark and Share

Friday, 22 December 2017 - Reviewed by Dustin Pinney
Torchwood #3 - Cover A (Credit: Titan )
Writers: John Barrowman, Carole Barrowman 
Artist: Neil Edwards
Publisher: Titan Comics 
FC - 32pp
On sale: December 20, 2017 

In this third issue of the Culling miniseries, Jack, Gwen, Shelley, and the Pilot, crashland in a cabin surrounded by dying Earth - courtesy of Sladen, who happens to kill whatever she touches. Unable to go outside without being instantly aged, the Torchwood team divides their time between formulating a plan and observing the possible benefits of having sex to keep warm. The banter is of the dull and obvious variety Torchwood, the television series, was always best at. If there were a cheeky charm to characters within Doctor Who having blunt discussions about sex, it wore off a long time ago.

 The centerpiece of the issue is Captain Jack testing his regenerative abilities by stepping into the dying path left behind by Sladen. He is instantly aged while simultaneously being connected with the Vervoids tool of destruction somehow.

This alerts Sladen not only to Torchwood’s survival of the crash but also her relation to Captain Jack. In a classic Torchwood scene of unwarranted emotion erupting from a character we hardly know, Sladen vows to kill Jack and Docilis. This promises an epic, but empty, confrontation to come.

The Culling is a big story with a small scope stretched across too many issues. Instead of taking advantage of the format to burrow into these characters, finding out how all of this is affecting them, what failure would mean to them personally, why they will push so hard to succeed, the focus is on humor that doesn’t land and spectacle that fails to propel the story forward.

Torchwood #3 knows its audience. The television series had a specific if uneven, voice that never wavered. That voice has carried over to the limited comic book series seamlessly. For a fan, it must feel like diving right back into this unique corner of the Doctor Who universe. To non-fans, it most likely feels like more of the same.

 




Torchwood #2Bookmark and Share

Friday, 8 December 2017 - Reviewed by Dustin Pinney
Torchwood #2 (Credit: Titan)
The Culling Part 2 (of 4) 
Writers: John Barrowman, Carole Barrowman 
Artist: Neil Edwards 
Publisher: Titan Comics 
FC - 32pp
 On sale: November 22, 2017

Torchwood has always struggled with a consistent tone. It’s adult, dark, violent, and sexual, but at the same time it’s a spinoff of Doctor Who, humorous and fairly immature. The characters are bursting with emotion and conflict, while somehow lacking genuine drama. The stakes are constantly high, without anyone being in actual peril. Children of Earth Aside, the quality of Torchwood is all over the place.

 

That troublesome tone is only present in Torchwood #2 in very small doses. There’s still a lot going on, without communicating a great deal of danger. Captain Jack and Gwen have a clone daughter running around in the ice, killing everything she touches, and this is a big deal because the Vervoids are planning a culling. While that is certainly very threatening, the drama of it doesn’t come through.

 

To be fair, this is the second part of a miniseries. The authors, John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman, are building a story, providing details when the audience needs it, rather than giving you all the goods up front only to burn out by the end. The entire story can not be judged by a single chapter.

 

What is remarkable is the authenticity of voice coming through the characters. Captain Jack reads like Captain Jack, Gwen is Gwen, and the same goes for Captain John Hart. Possibly unfamiliar characters like Shelley, Dana, James Sterling, and Gilly fit snuggly into the Torchwood comic book mold. A lot of that credit must go to Mr. Barrowman’s history with Torchwood and the excellent talent of Carole E. Barrowman. If nothing else, this feels like proper Torchwood, imperfections and all.

 




Torchwood One: Before the FallBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 November 2017 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Torchwood One: Before the Fall (Credit: Big Finish)
Director: Scott Handcock
Script Editor: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Tracy-Ann ObermanGareth David-Lloyd
Big Finish
First Released: Tuesday 31st January 2017

With every new Big Finish boxset, there’s the same question as to just what format the narrative will take. Some sets tell one complete story across all their discs, others contain an episode series of separate tales, and some lie somewhere in between, with individual episodes but a story arc running through them. Sometimes huge arcs will even stretch over multiple boxsets. But the one thing you can be sure of is that the official description never seems to quite match the reality (I don’t think anyone would say Doom Coalition felt like one sixteen part story, for instance).

Before the Fall tells two parallel tales of Torchwood One’s newest recruit, Rachel Allan (a name quite distracting if you’re in Ireland, where there’s a celebrity chef called Rachel Allen), and queen bee Yvonne Hartman, and the balance between them – one rising as the other falls. But each of the three installments also tells its own story of this new Torchwood team as the arc elements percolate in the background. It creates a great window into an alternative version of Torchwood and a team we’ve never gotten to see on TV. Introduced in Joseph Lidster’s brilliant opener New Girl through the eyes of eponymous recruit Rachel they’re an appropriately motley crew.

Yvonne is of course, front and centre and perfectly captured again by Lidster as in his earlier One Rule as a splendid mix of intelligence, charm, ruthlessness and menace, and vulnerability. Meanwhile, while we were actively given the impression on TV that Ianto was a low-level drone at Canary Wharf, here he’s promoted to being Yvonne’s right-hand man – an improbability that can be excused for the strong role it gives him in the drama. Nicely, though there’s a callback to his later persona when he audibly bristles at being asked to lower himself to fetching coffee by the head of HR. Alongside these returning favourites, we get that gossipy HR expert Pippa, professional heavies Dean and Kieran and scientific advisor Thomas. Thomas is probably the breakout star here. Effectively a cross between the Third Doctor and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars he’s an unreconstructed sweary, politically incorrect Northern curmudgeon with little respect for authority but given a lot of latitude because, frankly, he’s brilliant. There’s a particularly neat bit of homage in his relationship with his new assistant Rachel – when she blunders into his lab, messing things up, he’s only short of calling her a ‘ham-fisted bun vendor’ and she quickly becomes the Jo to his Doctor. Rachel herself cuts such a sweet, insecure figure that one of New Girl’s great achievements is how it manages to completely wrong-foot the listener – lots of references to the speed of promotion at Torchwood being the result of a high mortality rate and to Yvonne’s very final way of dealing with betrayal or incompetence makes it seem we’re getting a swift encapsulation of how Torchwood can eat up and destroy the unwary. But the final sting sends us in a surprising and intriguing new direction instead.

The following two-thirds of the set sees Rachel finding her feet as the improbable new leader of Torchwood One, and establishing the tenor of her reign, while a fugitive Yvonne, wanted for treason and murder, tries to keep one step ahead of her own agents. Through the Ruins sees the latter at her lowest ebb, couch surfing and calling in every favour she can to try and figure out what’s really going on and how she was framed. Meanwhile, on the Torchwood One team-building Away Day exercise, the sunny, cheerful Rachel has everyone messing about building highly unstable alien weapons in what’s clearly a thinly disguised cull of the slow, the dim and the unlucky. Caught between the two is Ianto. Now romantically involved with Rachel (the Jones boy sure can pick them) but secretly helping Yvonne evade capture, he can all too easily believe almost anything of Yvonne and the evidence seems conclusive, yet he can’t shake the sense that she didn’t actually do this particular horrible thing.

By the concluding Uprising, the stakes have been raised and the fightback begun. With a massive alien fleet about to enter Earth’s atmosphere and lay waste to all, the possibilities as to why it’s all happening are kept convincingly multiple choice until late in the day. Is Rachel a traitor in league with the aliens, or is she just incompetent? The ultimate answer to why Rachel has been making the decisions she has turns out to be very Torchwood – simultaneously grand and tragic, yet kind of petty and pathetic and all too human at the same time. If the essence of Torchwood, as a series, is deeply damaged people trying to rise to challenges that they’re not actually quite up to, then Before the Fall is a fine continuation of that tradition. Yvonne’s ultimate turning of the table on her adversary, meanwhile, is also very Torchwood in its way. Cynical and twisted, but nothing so straightforward as revenge.

Of the mirroring plot strands, Yvonne’s escapades are by far the more successful. Three parts Jason Bourne to one part Mean Girl, she crisscrosses London, getting in car chases and gunfights, while pressing her contracts and hunting leads, all while severely irked that thanks to all this she hasn’t had her hair blown out in days. It also underlines that she’s probably the only unambiguously hyper-competent Torchwood agent we’ve ever had. Rachel’s rapid transformation from naïve newbie to chirpy autocrat is a great deal less successful. We’re regularly told the secret of her success is that she’s a “people person,” adept at making everyone feel she’s their best friend and earning their loyalty. Yet with the entire boxset taking place over the course of a single month, it strains belief that she can command such good faith from her team of agents even as her decisions very, very quickly become hugely suspect.

So, Before the Fall, despite the three episodes, is very much a game of two halves. It’s at its strongest during the initial setup and introductions and New Girl, on its own strengths, is one of the finest hours of Torchwood Big Finish have yet produced. But, despite some nice character work and one or two killer twists, the resulting battle for control of Torchwood all too often feels contrived and just a bit silly. The result overall is a boxset that includes some great stuff but, as a whole proves rather average. However, perhaps its legacy will be this fully fleshed out Torchwood One team. They’re an engaging bunch, and practically worth the price of admission all by themselves. Return visits to Canary Wharf to spend more time with them would be extremely welcome.



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Torchwood: Aliens Among Us - Part 2Bookmark and Share

Monday, 30 October 2017 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Aliens Among Us - Part 2 (Credit: Big Finish)Written By: Christopher Cooper, Mac Rogers, Janine H Jones, Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Cast: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Alexandria Riley (Ng), Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Sam Béart (Orr), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Tom Price (Sgt. Andy Davidson), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Murray Melvin (Bilis Manger), Rachel Atkins (Ro-Jedda), Ramon Tikaram (Colin Colchester-Price), Ewan Bailey (Duncan), Kerry Joy Stewart (Maddy), Diveen Henry (Sandra), Ellie Heydon (Andrea), Marilyn Le Conte (Patricia), Luke Rhodri (Rowan), Charlotte O'Leary (Poppy), Sacha Dhawan (Hasan), Sarah Annis (P.C. Nicki Owen), Rick Yale (Lorry Driver), Laura Dalgleish (Newsreader), Kristy Phillips (Stacey), Aly Cruickshank (Student), Richard Elfyn (Takeaway Man), Sanee Raval (Xander)

​Released by Big Finish Productions - October 2017

After an eclectic opening boxset pitting its titular team of ‘secret’ agents up against sentient hotels, vengeful brides, increasingly destructive terrorist cells and an extraterrestrial gangster newly appointed as Cardiff’s mayor, what could Big Finish possibly have up its sleeve next for their self-proclaimed fifth season of Torchwood? That’s a fair question, and with Aliens Among Us – Part 2 comes the adrenaline-fuelled, alien STD-carrying answer.

“Love Rat”:

If James Goss’ brilliantly-named sophomore instalment of Season Five, “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy”, didn’t seem enough like a quintessential Torchwood outing, then “Love Rat” more than fits the bill. From its unashamedly risqué opening moments, involving Captain Jack’s not-so-romantic run-in with an unknown courter, to its hilariously absurd consequences witnessed throughout the hour, “Love Rat” is about as adult, gag-ridden and downright ridiculous as the show’s ever been under Big Finish’s stewardship.

As one would expect at this point, though, the play’s ever-delightfully energetic cast take the increasingly bonkers events depicted here in their stride, with John Barrowman naturally relishing the opportunity to transform Jack into the ultimate sexual provocateur for one hour only, while Eve Myles’ bemused Gwen and Jonny Green’s stern yet susceptible PR agent Tyler both suffer the consequences with gut-wrenchingly comedic results.

Those hoping for scribe Chris Cooper to push on with Season Five’s underlying secret invasion plot arc might need to take a chill pill here, since barring a cameo or two from Rachel Atkins’ still gloriously malevolent arch-foe Ro-Jedda, there’s little in the way of narrative substance or deep thematic exploration to be found amidst all the coital antics. But even so, complaining seems churlish when, by letting its hair down for once, one of Doctor Who’s darkest offshoots to date offers up such a constantly entertaining hour as this.

“A Kill to a View”:

That said, anyone concerned that Torchwood’s latest run might follow the traditional US TV model – and indeed arguably Miracle Day’s approach – of marginalising any major plot arcs until its final instalment, especially as we reach its halfway point, can breathe easy as they stick on Aliens Among Us’ sixth chapter. As teased by his familiar silhouette gracing Part 2’s cover, Season One antagonist Bilis Manger has returned to wreak havoc upon the lives of the Torchwood team, his intentions no less sinister than before.

Murray Melvin, true to form, once again injects this mysterious adversary with all the understated menace and enigmatic omniscience for which fans knew and loved him back in 2007. It’s thanks to his accomplished performance that as Bilis adopts the role of a kindly Caretaker at the tower block where Mr. Colchester and his partner have coincidentally moved in of late, listeners can’t help but perch themselves at the edge of their seat in nervous anticipation of the turbulent conflict and inevitable tragedies to come.

Placing Colchester centre-stage doesn’t do “Kill” any harm either, affording Paul Clayton’s constantly courageous yet endearingly vulnerable – and, thanks to his rather unique work-life balance, multi-faceted – civil servant with some much-needed development, as he realises to a harrowing extent the devastating personal consequences which come with taking the deadliest career path available to Welsh job-seekers. How this compelling character arc will resolve itself by season’s end remains to be seen, but we’re just as curious to see this develop as we are to discover what ominous teases of another old foe’s arrival portend for the second half of Season Five.

“Zero Hour”:

And what of Ro-Jedda’s doubtless sinister machinations behind-the-scenes? Evidently unwilling to allow Aliens Among Us to lose the gratifying plot momentum gained by Episode 6, Janine H. Jones dives headfirst into this mystery via a topical tale of exploitable employees forced to work inhumane hours just to earn a living. Enter Tyler Steele, whose work at the mayor’s office – and intrigue at noticing the peculiar habits of a delivery worker – sets him on a collision course with the unsettling truths behind Cardiff’s otherwise welcome upsurge in employment rates.

Just as Green’s undeniably flawed wannabe journalist served as our entryway back into the covert, casualty-laden world of Torchwood in the season premiere, “Changes Everything”, so too does “Zero Hour” offer listeners the opportunity to experience the latest weekly threat to the Welsh capital’s fragile sanctity from the perspective of a relative outsider, as Tyler soon finds himself in treacherous waters with little-to-no help available from Gwen while she tackles toddler troubles or Jack while he investigates matters further afield. Thus we’re afforded a far deeper insight into a morally complex rogue who’ll cross almost any line to survive, yet shows visible dismay at witnessing his city on the brink of societal collapse.

Meanwhile Gwen’s familial woes at home highlight another ongoing character arc which could so easily get forgotten amidst all of Part 2’s other hi-jinks – namely her possession by a still ambiguous alien entity driving Mrs. and Mr. Cooper further apart by the day. No doubt tensions will come to a head in the final four episodes of Season Five due for release next February, but it’s rather frustrating how frequently such a pivotal journey for one of the show’s longest standing protagonists ends up side-lined so as to allow other plot threads to breathe. At this rate, the true feisty heroine whom Myles usually portrays to great effect might not re-surface for most of the run, a crying shame given how Aliens Among Us supposedly marks Torchwood’s triumphant full-scale comeback.

“The Empty Hand”:

Last but by no means least, Aliens’ second mid-season finale takes the underlying political messages seeded within the previous seven episodes and amplifies them tenfold, namely by bringing ideas such as #BlackLivesMatter and hate crime to the fore as Sergeant Andy Davidson appears to gun down an innocuous immigrant worker in cold blood. As ever in a series whose mother show straddles the line between sci-fi and fantasy, there’s far more than meets the eye in this instance, but the increasingly relevant issues at hand lend “The Empty Hand” a greater sense of moral gravitas than most Torchwood romps can muster.

Writer Tim Foley admirably never trivialises his weighty subject matter, allowing his characters to discuss the implications of Andy’s actions at length and affording Tom Price’s oft-befuddled police officer a long overdue extra layer of moral nuance in the process. Thankfully, though, he’s similarly aware that such intricate discussion points can scarcely receive closure over the course of a single one-hour drama, his focus primarily on how the Torchwood team’s struggle to resolve what soon becomes a citywide crisis feeds into Ro-Jedda’s long-term game-plan, and – after a belated intervention from the eternal Time Agent – the lengths to which Jack will go to protect humanity at all costs.

Any fan will attest that the latter thematic strand has often proved a narrative goldmine for the series, particularly as Children of Earth drove the man who’d bested gas-mask zombies, Daleks and the son of Satan himself to take the life of his own grandson in the process. Similar to how that fateful decision carried major ramifications for Jack’s role in Miracle Day, so too do the actions taken here by the once and future Face of Boe indicate that life at the Hub might never truly be the same again. Of course, anyone who’s finished the boxset will know a further crucial reason why Part 3 promises to potentially uproot our understanding of Torchwood’s past, presence and future, and anyone who hasn’t will need to pick Part 2 up to discover as much for themselves.

Speaking of which, in case it’s not already glaringly obvious by now, Aliens Among Us is fast shaping up as one of Torchwood’s finest hours to date, making the series a must-listen for any devotees who’ve longed for the show’s return to TV. It’s safe to say that Season Five has a hell of a lot of dangling plot threads to tie up in Part 3, from Gwen and Rhys’ fractured relationship to Ro-Jedda’s endgame to that plot twist awaiting listeners at the end of “Empty Hand”, but based on the opening two-thirds of Season Five, finding out how events reach their climax will doubtless prove one of the biggest early highlights of next year. February 2018 is apparently where everything changes, and we’re certainly ready.



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Released 31 Dec 2017
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Torchwood - Aliens Among Us: Part 2