Written By: Xanna Eve Chown
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Aaron Anthony (Jonty); Catherine Ayers (Paula); Meryn Davies (Resident); Jessica Hayles (Brigadier); Emily John (Resident)
Released by Big Finish Productions – December 2019
Order from Amazon UK
“I’ve gotta be honest – I’m really struggling with this.”
“Why? Why? Because two of our friends die and Jack goes off and I think he’s coming to terms with it but oh no, suddenly he’s pregnant!”
Were we to have compiled a checklist of unseen Torchwood moments craved by fans as of the show’s audio resurrection in 2015, then by now, Big Finish would’ve already ticked a remarkable number of those boxes. From the truth behind Jack’s predecessor at Torchwood Three taking his entire team’s lives in 1999 (The Torchwood Archive) to the conspirators behind the Miracle (ditto), from the inception of Jack and Ianto’s romance (Broken) to the agency’s international branches (The Dollhouse, The Dying Room), at this rate the studio will soon have plugged more holes than the good Captain has bullet wounds in his immortal body. And yet amongst the most obvious remaining gaps for many fans still has to be the show’s most ‘shipped’ coupling never raising any offspring before Ianto’s Shakespeare-calibre tragic downfall.
Until now, that is. For in honour of the festive season last December, Main Range freshwoman (and Doctor Who: Short Trips regular contributor) Xanna Eve Chown delivered the ultimate Christmas gift to the doomed lovers’ followers – but, to paraphrase the Eighth Doctor somewhat, “probably not the one that they were expecting”. On the bright side: Expectant affords the pair new purpose after the harrowing death toll of “Exit Wounds”, specifically in the form of a youngling to protect and nurture in its formative days. On the downside: said youngling is an extraterrestrial royal-to-be to whom Jack might give birth at any moment…so long as they’re not all slaughtered by alien bounty hunters or overzealous UNIT troopers beforehand. Cue a relentlessly zany, eclectic hour of audio drama which – much like October’s Smashed did for Eve Myles – lets its stars showcase dynamic new shades of their long-established characters, all the while providing ample chuckle-worthy moments for their listeners too.
This reviewer initially couldn’t help but fear the worst upon hearing of such a wish-fulfilling yet equally bonkers premise as that described above; what if the inevitably comic relief-fuelled concept failed to yield more than 15 minutes of half-hearted chortles, let alone sustain the usual 50-60 minute running time afforded to Big Finish dramas? And might the challenge only prove exacerbated by its scribe’s newcomer status on the Torchwood audio scene? Thankfully it took merely a few minutes for Eve Chown to lay those concerns to rest with some downright hilarious overblown action and comedic set-pieces, then another 10-20 minutes tops for her to confirm that – as per the quote which opened our review – there’s far more on her mind than cheap guffaws. Indeed, Expectant plays marvellously as both a sitcom pregnancy romp – hunger pangs, self-body-shaming, mood swings, frantic spouses and midwives, the works – and admirably intricate meditation on grief, Jack’s struggle to reconcile his supposed victories at the agency’s helm with his recent losses often bubbling to the surface at the most inopportune but poignant moments. It’d be a truly tough tonal line for any author to straddle regardless of their chosen medium so that our resident scribe achieves as much despite this outing marking her first Main Range ‘baby’ is all the more astounding a feat.
The same unsurprisingly goes for John Barrowman too, who’s clearly having just as riotous a whale of a time here as he did with his headline-grabbing Doctor Who return last month, yet likewise manages to inject further layers beyond mere farce. On the one hand, his uncharacteristically emotionally distraught and oft-irritable take on the knocked-up Jack represents a welcome breath of fresh air, especially when compared to the Time Agent’s usual endless array of raunchy one-liners and / or stoic attempts at leadership; on the other, having Barrowman poignantly reveal the cracks in his long-running antihero’s exterior, the newfound hormones prompting distraught outbursts over Owen and Toshiko’s deaths with Ianto’s encouragement, proves equally effective in depicting yet more shades for this oft-comic relief-driven protagonist. A lot of actors would doubtless feel content to simply phone their performances in once a role has been as well-established as Jack, so it’s reassuring to know that Barrowman (amidst all his other work on pantos, Holby City, the Arrow-verse and the like) shows no sign of following suit – quite the opposite based on his remarkably versatile contribution here.
As ever, though, virtually no audio drama (one-handers aside perhaps) can survive solely on the basis of its leading thespian’s performance. Luckily Gareth David-Lloyd (whose role essentially amounts to an extended cameo this time around) and Aaron Anthony seem to wholly recognise as much, their respective takes on an increasingly infuriated Ianto as well as Jack’s bewildered midwife Jonty inducing ample laughs along the way as the pair react desperately to their knocked-up friend’s pleas for food, aesthetic compliments and hugs alike. There’s inevitably not quite as much attention paid to each player’s individual character development in Expectant as, say, more personal drama-heavy affairs like Broken and The Last Beacon have afforded Ianto in recent years, but the intentionally comedy-thriller-style tone of the piece moreso demands a balance of gung-ho resilience and gags which the two undoubtedly strike in good measure throughout.
By now you’re probably wondering who our heroes must face off against before reaching the play’s metaphorical finishing line. Well, there’s a reason why we hadn’t mentioned as much up until now – whereas Torchwood audio dramas (and indeed action dramas generally) usually feature a pretty transparent antagonist for the agent at hand to best, in Eve Chown’s script the threat moreso lies in the overall challenge at hand than any of the foes revealed as events progress as a conspicuous food clinic hotel in Act 3. It’s an approach which pays off for the most part in terms of allowing the heightened yet ever-developing core character dynamics breathe in a 1-hour runtime, albeit with the trade-off of the ‘true’ villains’ outing and motivations feeling somewhat rushed come the last 20 minutes or so as a result. How detrimental that aspect feels to your overall satisfaction with the play will, at the end of the day, largely depend on whether its storyline’s / performances’ banter-driven nature start to grate for you as a listener beforehand.
Regardless, the further that we move into the Torchwood Main Range’s more standalone, arc-detached output (notably the Committee don’t even get a mention here, perhaps signalling their end of days seeing as God Among Us wrapped up their ongoing story arc), the more confidences its wrights instil in leaving the show’s interconnected storylines to its yearly three-part ‘season’ boxsets. Releases as gloriously bonkers as Expectant continue to uphold the wide breadth of storylines which the TV series always offered on a weekly basis (contrast this with the haunting circus affair From Out of the Rain and it’s night and day), thereby demonstrating their sustained potency in the franchise’s audio-resurrected form. Would we necessarily want every instalment produced at Big Finish to take such an outrageous and laugh-laden direction? Probably not, but so long as Eve Chown’s back at the helm whenever the studio next opts for such a refreshing narrative approach, this reviewer will have no qualms whatsoever about coming along for the ride.