Released by Big Finish Productions – November 2019
Order from Amazon UK
“I know this music – what is it?”
“Beethoven. Do you like it?”
“Dunno, sounds it like should be in a horror film or something…”
Three doomed souls trapped aboard a potentially Hell-bound train, with the seemingly innocuous carriage guard Bilis Manager their sole companion – nothing says classic Torchwood chiller quite like a premise along those (railway) lines. Add to that the reliably sterling quality of Manger’s Big Finish appearances to date (his deliciously sinister tones elevating the Psycho-esque hotel horror Deadbeat Escape and Aliens Among Us’ own holiday romp “A Kill to a View” exponentially), as well as the general strength of playwright David Llewellyn’s audio output so far, and the stage seemed set for another winner in the Main Range’s thirty-third instalment Dead Man’s Switch. But have Llewellyn, Manger’s formidable vocal channel Murray Melvin, their three-strong supporting cast and the studio’s behind-the-scenes wizards found greatness once more, or have we finally – rather fittingly – reached the end of the line?
Certainly, Switch’s chosen narrative format should come as a welcome surprise to any late-20th century horror devotees, since we’re firmly in portmanteau (better known today in the Black Mirror and Inside No. 9 era as “anthology”) territory here. As the aforementioned track-trailing vessel progresses along its seemingly eternal path, each of its passengers gets their own segment in which to relate the haunting events which somehow landed them a ticket to this carriage-shaped purgatory. By far the play’s most valuable asset comes in its slow-burn, deeply unsettling generation of old-school suspense from here on out, its trio of chamber-house tales subtly piling on the tension to the point that the more dread-susceptible listeners among us might want to switch extra lights on if they’re courageously attempting a late-night playthrough. This palpable manipulation of our inner fears is achieved magnificently via a number of key contributory pillars involved with the release, many of which / whom are often all too easily overlooked when we’re busy heaping praise on Big Finish’s ever-accomplished audio dramas.
Case in point: the sound designers and composers whose taut deployment of understated aural effects and perfectly-timed musical cues over the course of the hour both work immensely in its favour. At some points it’ll only take the silence of a supposedly empty household to put us at unease, as an anxious woman fills the bathtub with the creeping sense that she’s not alone in the building; at others, more blatant jump scares do the trick marvellously, a man’s sudden encounter with roof-dwelling bats every inch as quake-inducing as any big-screen scare conjured up by today’s myriad horror remakes, sequels and soft reboots. As if these vividly realistic moments weren’t enough to worm their way under the skin, the fear factor only deepens towards the end of each narrator’s account with the deviously understated injection of classical Beethoven melodies, always ominously building to a thrilling crescendo as their fate becomes apparent in grisly, macabre fashion.
So too are Llewellyn and his concise quartet of performers clearly cognisant of the power with which dialogue (both in its scripting and tonal delivery) can reflect – and better yet enhance – the escalating terror of such supernatural (though metaphorically relatable) circumstances. The former’s carefully-paced script affords each tale ample space to breathe, allowing us sufficient time to understand the extent of auction-scammer Rowena’s conniving schemes before she’s forced to (literally) reflect upon herself in uncanny fashion; to shiver at ruthless estate agent Piers’ inhumanity when banishing doomed edifices’ residents before he realises these edifices’ secrets, and detect the harrowing backstory which fuels hair stylist Zoe’s efforts to deter drug addicts from ruining her homestead. As such, portrayers Maxine Evans, Timothy Blore and Mali Ann Rhys respectively have time aplenty too to nuancedly depict their constructs’ descent from (misplaced) moral righteousness to (not-at-all-misplaced) near-complete nervous breakdowns, leaving us (in The Great Gatsby’s words) “simultaneously enchanted and [moreso] repelled by the inexhaustible varieties of life” before those lives come startlingly close to extinguishment.
And what of the corporeal yet somehow transcendental watchman standing guard over our protagonists? Even in the wake of his turns in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera film adaptation or his countless theatrical and Ken Russell-directed roles, Bilis Manger nonetheless seems the part which Murray Melvin was born to play – a sentiment that holds doubly true in Dead Man’s Switch. Manger’s deceptively kind voice of elderly wisdom of course belies the intricate emotional torment through which he’s dragging his unwitting victims, the unmistakable pride which manifests all the while behind his words a joy to behold for Torchwood fans (and doubtless for Melvin to express based on the sinister energy which he yet again brings to the table). The only inherent risk involved with reprising such an unashamedly malevolent and self-assured foil as Manger, though, is that of the audience’s growing sense of dramatic irony. Through no fault of Melvin's own, such has become our familiarity with the time-hopping schemer since his debut in Season One’s “Captain Jack Harkness” / “End of Days” that his modus operandi of twisting humans to his own (along with his godly master’s) ends risks rendering standalone storylines such as that presented in Switch as somewhat predictable if they’re all heading in the same fatal direction (as Deadbeat Escape and “A Kill to a View” did to a certain extent). Perhaps that’s also a by-product of the portmanteau / anthology horror format in fairness, with the aforementioned abundance of shows like Black Mirror in 2020 also setting us up to expect last-minute deadly twists from these affairs.
All the same, the extent to which Llewellyn, his cast and the wider sound design team deflect from any minor sense of déjà vu bears huge congratulations indeed – as does the seamless manner in which director Scott Handcock shepherds each vital contributory element. Releases like Dead Man’s Switch consequently enable us to better appreciate the painstaking time invested by everyone at Big Finish team to reward listeners for their commitment, thereby shining further light towards the end of the metaphorical train tunnel as we glimpse at what lies in store for Torchwood and its various agents going forward. Between run-ins with the Doctor’s wife (or one of them at least), old UNIT allies rearing their heads, Sir Michael Palin taking on recording duties and even Andy Davidson’s first encounter with Theta Sigma themselves, there’s no reason whatsoever to alight the train just yet.