Torchwood - The Vigil (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Torchwood: God Among Us Part 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 10 November 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood - God Among Us - Part 3  (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Alexandria Riley, Robin Bell, Tim Foley, James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock

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

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

After facing city-wide comas, plummeting planes, homeless-hunting apps, body swaps and even the odd far-right conspiracist, in any other mission Torchwood Three might’ve already put the worst behind them. Trouble is that the rather gripping final instalment of God Among Us Part 2 only exacerbated their escalating grievances further, namely thanks to Season Six’s titular deity failing to prevent the scheming Committee from sending a cataclysmic tidal wave in Cardiff’s direction. Such a devastating set of affairs inevitably presents a monumental challenge not only for the fictious team, but also the real-world writing team tasked with picking up the pieces in Part 3; how best to deliver on these unprecedented stakes while also ensuring that the show’s beloved status quo somehow remains intact amidst the carnage?

Our answer comes in the form of another tonally wide-ranging quartet of missions from (star and newfound scribe) Alexandria Riley, Robin Bell, Tim Foley and James Goss, each of whom explore different aspects of the city’s environmental crisis, from its tragic effects on individual families to its far-reaching implications across the universe. Sure, some stories hit their intended marks with greater accuracy than others, yet as you’ll discover below, Part 3 should once again quell any fears that Big Finish’s Torchwood offerings might start to lose momentum a few years into the range – quite the opposite appears true from the evidence presented in this formidable boxset…

“A Mother’s Son”:

“They keep lists here – lists of the missing. That’s why I came here, soon as I heard. I got in my car and drove all the way from Chorley. To find Anthony – to find my son.”

Regular readers of our Torchwood audio reviews will recall our observation that the show, for all its overblown graphic action and outrageous sci-fi conceits, often peaks when revealing the consequences of the team’s escapades for bystanders caught in the crossfire. Just look at “Adrift”, which used the ever-prevalent societal plight of missing children as a catalyst for Gwen’s emotionally wrought investigation, or more recently God Among Us Part 2’s “Hostile Environment”, where Tyler Steele’s rite of passage as the latest team-member involved the harrowing and life-threatening trials of modern homelessness. Indeed, it’s Riley’s dedication to depicting human suffering on such an intimate level – along with her impeccable lead star – that elevates her contribution to become Part 3’s staggering highlight.

Whereas the likes of Captain Jack, Ng, Tyler and the gang are scrambling in various capacities to support the city-wide recovery efforts and unveil the disaster’s true culprits, Bethan’s objective is a far more personal one: track down her lost child amidst the hordes of refugee camps established since the tidal wave struck. Riley’s deeply moving script somehow effortlessly captures the vast array of emotions which these turbulent circumstances would evoke for any parent; initial hope and conviction give way to self-resentment, fury at the authorities’ ignorance, hollow cunning when manipulating the media to promote her search, then inevitably the deafening sense of helplessness when one is forced to consider whether their courageous efforts may ultimately yield no results.

Credit where credit’s also due to the range’s casting team, though, for mining the Doctor Who universe’s past – specifically The Sarah Jane Adventures and Season Ten’s “Smile” – to position the quite simply breathtaking Mina Anwar in this challenging role. Whether she’s standing up to the likes of Sergeant Andy (whose recast allegiances force us to reconsider a character we’ve known since 2006) over their inability to save the city, or wrestling with her psychological isolation in a car seat, Anwar can’t help but endear herself to listeners and directly relay her character’s inner turmoil at every turn. Whilst there’s no easy answer to the events that plague her and countless fractured families across the world today, Riley and Anwar’s dual production has a vital role to play in bringing this oft-overlooked issue to our undivided attention – that it also produces one of the franchise’s most powerful one-off supporting characters in years is but an entirely welcome bonus.

“ScrapeJane”:

“Why are you still doing this?”
“I guess I still believe in Torchwood.”

Strangely for a series which dabbled so much in the fantastical, Torchwood rarely took urban myths as its inspiration, only fleetingly delving into such territory with ancient artefacts in “Greeks Bearing Gifts” or time-hopping circus troupes in “From Out of the Rain”. The dearly-missed late Robin Bell, however, opted to tackle the matter head-on in his final contribution to the range, bringing to life a much-rumoured voracious creature that supposedly now stalks Cardiff’s underbelly. In “ScrapeJane” therefore comes an unsettling hour of conspiracy meeting reality, as Mr. Colchester and Ng join forces with said myth’s innocuous author to hunt down her creation and put an end to the bloodbath left in its wake.

Admittedly the above premise may sound like a rather marked detour from the boxset’s overarching apocalypse at first, so Bell quickly works to prove otherwise of his tale, his study of the simultaneous escapism and fears of the dark which fuel mythological terrors tying seamlessly into this season’s wider take on belief-driven deities. The story particularly shines when leaving Colchester and Ng alone to confront said manifested fears in the dead of night, their increasingly strained breaths amidst fleeting moments of silence clashing with the creature’s subsequent haunting screeches and vicious attacks – a true feat of horror-style sound design from the range’s immeasurably accomplished technical artists.

So too does the play’s character drama work brilliantly in continuing to further our understanding of Torchwood Three’s most recent recruits, not least thanks to stars Paul Clayton and Alexandra Riley’s accomplished balancing of survivalist tension with moments of humour and pathos. To see how the two constructs’ dynamic has progressed from tempestuous cooperation – after Ng’s actions across the Aliens Among Us saga – to joint understanding of godly interference has been a real delight in recent episodes; indeed, Bell’s script affords them time to hilariously prove their equal ruthlessness to one another again, open up about the near-hopeless odds against Cardiff and in the process realise how such doubts only serve to further fuel their drive to succeed no matter what.

“Day Zero”:

“Cardiff has seen all manner of crises over the years, but the people are wondering: is this the one?”

She’s got a point, you know. Considering all of the existential perils they’ve faced in the 21st century alone – Abbadon, the 456, the Miracle, you name the menace and it has probably laid siege to the city at some stage – the irony that water merely running out might foreshadow the Welsh capital’s destruction can’t have been lost on the Torchwood team. Tim Foley’s latest chosen subject matter for the range will surely hold a profound resonance for listeners in regions which have undergone (or continue to experience) such devastating droughts, their day-to-day lives thrown up in the air by the question of when and where a clean source of water may emerge for sustenance, hygiene and other basic life functions. No pressure whatsoever on Foley’s part, then, in terms of doing justice to the issue at hand…

In a similar vein to Riley’s stellar “A Mother’s Son”, the scribe wisely opts to put his focus on a select ensemble of characters dealing with the fallout of the city’s newfound dehydration, specifically Colin Colchester-Price, Tyler (both of whom must wrestle with the distraught human communities desperate for water sources no matter how potentially toxic) and most of all Orr. Strangely the latter character faded into the background for much of God Among Us Part 2, seemingly forgotten by her teammates after God accidentally transformed her into a puddle in Part 1, yet she’s back centre-stage in “Day Zero”, her eternal desire to please enabling Samantha Béart to powerfully showcase the character’s physical limitations as society stretches a selfless benefactor to her very limits. Each experience, while to some extent rooted in fantastical events given Torchwood’s genre, tangibly demonstrates the disturbing ease with which our self-preservationist nature as a species can come to the forefront in times of peril, in turn forcing us to question whether we’d act any differently to the nameless citizens metaphorically and literally tearing others apart if this bought us more time.

It’s a shame that, partly owing to the need for our lead characters to endure and battle the boxset’s core threat in its finale versus in Riley’s piece, Foley doesn’t have as much room to interrogate the full societal implications of such events were they to go unresolved (as is tragically the case for countless LEDCs worldwide at the time of writing). Where Bethan’s story is all the more poignant thanks to its capturing the lifelong struggle for meaning which families with lost souls endure, that this instalment serves as the penultimate outing of an ongoing storyline inevitably robs some of its potential for the same ambiguous pathos. All the same, as a thought-provoking look at the darker aspects of our psyches in the midst of environmental conflicts suffered across the world today, “Day Zero” remains a compelling enough set-up for Part 3’s finale to be sure.

“Thoughts and Prayers”:

“Oh, well it would appear that you are no longer dead.”
“No. Excuse me, but…are you God?”

Never let it be said that James Goss lacks ambition when it comes to pitching his season finales. As well as bringing the season-spanning God arc and character journeys to their timely denouement, the range producer also tasks himself with achieving much the same feat for the Committee – who’ve appeared in countless instalments of Big Finish’s Torchwood continuation since 2015 – and setting the show off on another bold trajectory for the surely soon-to-be-announced Season Seven. So can a single hour-long script possibly hope to weave together such disparate strands in a manner that’ll satisfy both those who’ve only hopped aboard for the adventure this year and those of us who’ve experienced every audio episode since Jack’s fateful first Committee encounter in The Conspiracy?

Where listeners stand on the subject will, more than anything, depend on what they’re looking for from a season finale. Go into “Thoughts and Prayers” seeking a bombastic, high-octane resolution to the Committee arc which brings events to a head with a literal bang and you’ll doubtless come away content with the final product – Goss injects ample grandiose set-pieces featuring nightmarish alien threats and whirlwind races against time into his explosive tale, pulling a far more definitive curtain on God and the Committee’s machinations than Aliens Among Us’ tantalising cliffhanger did four boxsets ago. On the other hand, for fans like this reviewer who’ve followed said maleficent organisation’s machinations across four years’ worth of Torchwood releases, that their ultimate purpose is revealed to be a somewhat cliched pulp sci-fi conceit will come as something of a disappointment – almost begging the question of why so much time was invested in these antagonists in hindsight.

Thankfully, though, more of the storyline’s appeal comes in the way that Goss skilfully pays off 1-2 season arcs, with Tracy-Ann Oberman’s parallel-universe Yvonne finally earning triumphant redemption for her misplaced Committee support and Jacqueline King turning in a crestfallen-then-uplifting performance as an aged leader who’s found some purpose in a universe which seemingly had no further need of her services. No doubt the former’s journey still has new twists to come in future seasons while the latter’s appears at its end for now, but both developments feel completely organic and rewarding rather than the rushed attempts at closure / forward momentum respectively that they could’ve been in the wrong set of hands.

That said, we should know better than to expect Goss and company to cap off proceedings without at least leaving us a hint of what’s to come when Torchwood returns. To say too much on the subject of where “Thoughts and Prayers” leaves the team would be to spoil the rollercoaster ride of shocks that awaits listeners upon first viewing, but Episode 12 certainly opens the door for the show to enter unexpected new territory come Season Seven, perhaps even in a Miracle Day-esque globe-trotting manner depending on Goss’ plans for the next major arc. Hopefully we’ll see more of Captain Jack in future runs, since John Barrowman’s ceaselessly charming bravado only features in fits and starts across Part 3 before “Prayers” – perhaps due to the actor’s increasingly packed schedule – and focus on the intimate style of character-driven storylines which made “A Mother’s Son” so especially memorable. Whatever the future holds, we can say this much – the worst is probably still ahead of the team and the best undoubtedly always ahead of us as avid listeners.