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.






Torchwood: The Last BeaconBookmark and Share

Saturday, 28 April 2018 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: The Last Beacon (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: Gareth David-Lloyd
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Burn Gorman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Laura Dalgleish, Daniel Hawksford, Rick Yale, Marilyn Le Conte
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

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

“I can’t go in there – it’s got a hygiene rating of 1!”
“Could be worse.”
“How?”
“Could be 0!”

Since Big Finish acquired their prized license to continue the missions of Torchwood Three beyond their 2010 televised expiry date, we’ve seen their resultant monthly range deliver myriad unlikely character groupings: Captain Jack and Queen Victoria, Sergeant Andy and an enigmatic long-dead secret agent, Yvonne Hartman and Wales’ nightclubbing community, the list goes on. That trend of subversive matchmaking continues this month with The Last Beacon, wherein Cardiff’s famed coffee brewing extraordinaire Ianto Jones and its infamous soon-to-be eternal antihero Owen Harper must embark on the road trip to end all road trips. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we’re glad that you asked.

Such circumstances could’ve never come about without sufficient incentive for both participants, of course, and indeed the pair has their work cut out locating the source of the elusive signal which endows Beacon with its name. Containing the language of an alien species long thought extinct, the sudden transmission brings Ianto and Owen out to the Welsh countryside for a makeshift bonding exercise-turned-trial by fire – the former equipped with his trusty coffee kit, mittens and years of camping experience, the latter only his wits and trademark bitter sense of humour. By now any Torchwood devotee should already have sensed the rife potential for fraught inter-team dynamics and rural satire just waiting for the play’s writer to exploit, and the scribe’s name? Gareth David-Lloyd.

If the gamble of allowing one of the show’s lead stars to try his hand at penning their latest script, particularly with no prior writing credits to his name, seems a step too far even for a company as prone to risk-taking as Big Finish, then worry not; the studio couldn’t possibly have selected a more suitable custodian for this utterly spectacular buddy comedy. Whether he’s sending our heroes into pubs for spontaneous – if inevitable – brawls, eerie forests containing sinister visions of the past or abandoned clubhouses which Owen wryly brands as being “frozen in the ‘80s”, David-Lloyd evidently recalls transparently how the original series thrived on juggling humorous and horrific elements throughout its four-season run, straddling those contrasting tones with the same enviable ease as any of his fellow range wrights.

Less surprising, however, is the man’s ability to brilliantly capture Ianto’s complex personality – on the printed page and in the recording studio – as if TV’s second most iconic butler after Jeeves had never departed from our screens or airwaves. It’s easy to forget at times how impressively multi-faceted a character Mr. Jones became over the course of 30 episodes, his quiet sense of humour belying intense romantic passion, psychological vulnerability and strained familial ties which then came to the fore in Children of Earth. Fair play to David-Lloyd, then, for placing this emotionally versatile character’s internal struggles front-and-centre in Beacon, with his struggle to reconcile the innocent tyke who adored visiting the Welsh mountains to see his gran with the oft-isolated man that we see today a core thematic and narrative element that lends vital gravitas to the mission and to his dynamic with Owen.

Enter Burn Gorman, the return of whom to Torchwood marked by far one of the audio range’s biggest breakthroughs in 2017’s deeply unsettling masterpiece Corpse Day. Unsurprisingly Gorman – who successfully sent shivers down this viewer’s spine in the role of Oliver’s Bill Sykes on the West End a few years back – carries the performing mettle to simultaneously evolve Owen’s intricate relationship with Ianto, as the former discovers how the latter’s childhood experiences still inform his modern-day decisions, while also providing much of the tale’s pitch-perfect comic relief as Owen finds himself totally out of his element. Indeed, David-Lloyd confirms in Beacon's interview tracks that he and Goss conspired to bring Owen aboard what the former calls a spiritual successor to "Countrycide", knowing that he'd truly seem a fish out of water when met with the prospect of conversing with amicable bus drivers and alien badgers or indulging Ianto's newfound passopn for geocaching treasure hunts. That Gorman shares such obvious chemistry with David-Lloyd, particularly thanks to their hilarious good cop / bad cop approach, couldn’t have been predicted before recording, though; let’s hope that this month’s long-awaited team-up boxset Torchwood: Believe offers plenty more of this superb dynamic.

Beyond the fine tonal balancing and gripping character drama, there’s even time for some provocative thematic exploration of communities and species straying from their traditional roots along the way. Guest star Ellie Darvill does an utterly tremendous job conveying her character’s underlying yearning for our species return to simpler times before our gothic pursuit of technology at all costs, a return to the rare community spirit which anyone who’s ever camped near rural villages will attest pervades that refreshing escapist experience. Once again, though, that David-Lloyd effortlessly integrates this increasingly topical talking point into the context of a sci-fi narrative – and indeed Ianto’s personal arc over the course of hour – speaks wonders for his previously untapped literary talents, to the remarkable extent that even Big Finish’s veteran scribes could learn a thing or three for future reference.

Regular readers of our Torchwood audio verdicts might recall this reviewer previously calling out the range’s inconsistent approach to arc-building, but ultimately, if its – seemingly – standalone recent entries such as this one and last month’s brilliantly off-the-wall The Death of Captain Jack are even marginally indicative of what’s to come in future releases, then consider those qualms completely laid to rest. In The Last Beacon, Gareth David-Lloyd has delivered not only the definitive take on his still beloved character of Ianto Jones, but more importantly an incredible distillation of everything which made the show so successful on-air and which continues to ensure its hallowed place in fans’ hearts today.

Next Time on Torchwood – We’re off for another road trip, this time of the psychological horror variety, as the Cooper family test their longstanding theory that We Always Get Out Alive to its nerve-wracking limits. First, though, who fancies attending Torchwood Three’s much-vaunted reunion party, the guest list for which includes immortal Time Agents, space pig-hunting medics and a certain renowned butler? Apparently securing an invitation to this prestigious three-hour event doesn’t take much effort for those in the know – all one has to do is Believe





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.