Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Burn Gorman (Owen Harper), Tom Price (Sergeant Andy), Siân Phillips (Megwyn Jones), Laura Dalgleish (Reporter), Nia Roberts (Sally), Ian Saynor (Colbourne), Kerry Joy Stewart (Ginny)
Released by Big Finish Productions - August 2019
Order from Amazon UK
“Life. I felt alive. More than ever before…”
Time eventually takes its toll on even the most resilient of bastions, yet ask anyone whether Big Finish’s twenty years of cultural service have remotely diminished their audacity in committing to bold narrative concepts (or indeed unparalleled lunch platters by all reports) and they’ll tell you quite the contrary. From resurrecting Star Cops to giving “The Doctor’s Daughter” her own spin-off, from casting Dracula showrunner Mark Gatiss as the Count years before his show’s inception to rewriting the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration, reciting the full list of their bold gambits would take Captain Jack Harkness’ whole lifespan and then some.
That said, their 2017 announcement of plans to bring arguably Torchwood’s least suitably-matched protagonists, Burn Gorman’s Owen Harper and Tom Price’s Andy Davidson, had even this long-term devotee wondering whether they’d mislaid a marble or two at the time. How much mileage could possibly be gleaned from a coupling who’d barely spent 20 minutes together during the show’s TV run? Come that May, however, James Goss’ Corpse Day yet again proved those concerns wholly unfounded, excelling thanks to the pair’s sardonic black comedy-fuelled dynamic alongside a deeply unsettling kidnapping storyline which rivalled even Children of Earth in its grim portrayal of Stockholm syndrome victims.
None of us can, therefore, blame Goss for casting the pair’s second joint mission in The Hope in a far more upbeat, philosophically comforting light…just kidding, of course. If anything, the range producer would’ve seemingly told any peers proposing as much to “hold his beer” at the bar, promptly darting off to pen a script just as laden with moral paradoxes and psychological chills as its predecessor – perhaps even more so. Our focus this time around lies on convicted child-killer Megwyn Jones who, nearing the end of her mortal coil, offers to reveal her alleged victims’ decaying whereabouts – and indeed the true nature of their demises – provided that the Cardiff police force lend their assistance to the dig at a long-decrepit children’s home called The Hope.
And few Torchwood Three recruits are better equipped (in moral or thematic terms) to deal with such deplorable merchants of death than the already half-deceased Owen Harper. After all, coming back from the grave (an event which the script confirms to have occurred not long prior to Hope kicking off) lends a rather fresh perspective on mortal matters such as murder prosecutions and whether society rushes to conclusions so as to find instant scapegoat for such atrocities. Over the course of the hour, Goss instigates a fascinating character study concerning Owen’s evolving post-mortem ideals; his internal conflict gradually builds to gripping effect as he’s forced to tackle prison riots, potential extraterrestrial threats and grieving families in the pursuit of closure for Jones’ case while also searching for some hope for human redemption – hence the play’s multi-layered title.
Enter the ever-reliable Gorman, whose performing credentials remain predictably undiminished here as he straddles the line between intense disgust at the casualties incurred by some heartless foe or another, breathless recklessness in searching for some light at the end of the tunnel and rare human earnestness as events shift in a manner that could change his eternal life forever. That he’s up against such formidable supporting talent only sweetens the deal, of course, with Tom Price displaying an uncharacteristic cynicism – largely based on his past experience of criminals – which sheds Andy in a compelling new light. Meanwhile, Phillips constantly leaves us guessing as to her character’s true nature with a by turns sympathetic, emotionally detached and ever-unnerving portrayal that will surely bear itself to repeat listens for those with the stomach, whereas Nia Roberts (who the Doctor Who fans here might remember as Ambrose from "The Hungry Earth" / "Cold Blood") evokes hugely powerful grief as one of the mothers still reeling from Jones' alleged actions.
Naturally, the play’s structure hinges on its slow-burn unravelling of Jones’ true motives – each sequence involving Jones, the relatives of her victims or those capitalising on the ongoing new story casts newfound doubt on our preconceptions surrounding the situation at hand and how events may reach their denouement. Yet as an inevitable by-product of this mystery-driven framework approach, whether you’ll want to hit Play on The Hope again after its first playthrough will depend primarily on the cathartic satisfaction (or lack thereof) that Act 3 brings as Goss reveals his hand. With any luck, many will find themselves stunned enough by the final revelations to retry earlier sequences and recognise their foreshadowing moments, but for this reviewer, said twists, unfortunately, served only to cast the tale in a far more philosophically limited light than Acts 1-2 implied. Where hallmark Torchwood harrowers like Children of Earth left almost every key player (‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ alike) in extremely morally dubious territory as the credits rolled, Goss contrastingly appears hesitant to commit to the same level of ambiguity here, which might raise the question for some listeners as to whether it’s worth experiencing the mystery again for a lukewarm conclusion.
Stepping back from the brink of despair (as Owen and Andy must often do through the narrative), though, in reality, there’s more than enough of great merit to warrant Main Range followers giving this latest instalment a look as well. Too often we’ll overlook the technical prowess of Big Finish’s behind-the-scenes sound design team, all of whom bring their A-game and then some here with both tangibly chaotic renditions of the aforementioned prison riots which break out upon Jones’ temporary release then atmospherically haunting winds, unknown footsteps and other horror-esque chamber chills as our protagonists set about exploring the Hope’s surroundings. Add to this all of the strong performances and initial narrative suspense built by Goss, not to mention one particularly riveting set-piece – which we alluded to earlier but still shan’t spoil here – involving Owen’s supposed immortality and we can’t possibly deny that Goss, the cast et al clearly wanted to enhance Torchwood canon with bold new storytelling rather than playing it safe.
So even if The Hope has its structural shortcomings, taken as a whole it’s another promising chapter in the show’s thriving audio saga which fittingly offers hope aplenty for the future moving into 2020 and beyond. A Happy New Year and New Decade should definitely lie ahead for the series which changed the 21st century for Doctor Who fans – and incidentally wishing the best 2020s possible to all of you at home too!