As we approach the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who, revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

Torchwood - The Hope (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 10 January 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Hope (Credit: Big Finish)
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

“It’s gone.”
“What’s gone?”
“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!


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...

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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.


“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.


Torchwood - Sargasso (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 4 September 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Sargasso (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Christopher Cooper
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Chloe Ewart (Captain Anika Banaczik), Sydney Feder (Kaitlin Russell), Robert Jezek (Yonich), Wilf Scolding (Sailor)

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

“We all had a hand in this – every damn human on Earth since the Industrial Revolution. We’ve poisoned the planet and opened the door to God knows what else…”

There’s one key rule to which the writers of practically any big-screen action blockbuster will tell aspiring newcomers to adhere, regardless of their chosen medium – end the adventure with a bang. Indeed, even having already mined classic Doctor Who villains such as the Fendahl, carnivorous maggots and the Slitheen to splendid effect in the past three instalments of their themed Torchwood monthly run, Big Finish undoubtedly saved their most ambitious such production for last. Not only does Christopher Cooper’s freshman Main Range contribution deliver a gripping return for another beloved Who adversary with deeply unsettling imagery – the audio drama furthermore plays powerfully into real-world environmental issues which tragically only grow in prominence with each passing day.

To see this month’s playwright tackling such weighty territory might justifiably come as a shock to anyone who’s heard his Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Part 2 effort “Love Rat”, a markedly more light-hearted affair embracing the show’s deliciously raucous side. Yet the premise with which he’s bestowed here is nothing short of a goldmine: trapped aboard a stranded freighter at sea, Rhys Williams must band together with a despondent environmental activist to overthrow a brewing Auton invasion, one incited by humanity’s daily tendency to discard countless plastic fragments in Earth’s waters. Cooper – if this review’s opening quotation didn’t make it clear – certainly pulls no punches when it comes to laying the blame for his narrative’s events (and naturally our planet’s non-fictional turmoil) solely at our Ugg-clad feet. From an early stage, his script forces Rhys to reckon with his own ignorance in prioritising extraterrestrial over all-too-human threats, delivering an impactful analogy for our own culpability in the process. This existentially troubling extended metaphor predictably only serves to worsen as events progress and the stakes mount too, building towards a genuinely shocking resolution whose open-ended ambiguity feels all too apt – particularly given how today’s headlines depict us being at such an existential crossroads.

That said, as with any accomplished Torchwood production at Big Finish or elsewhere, Sargasso has just as much in the way to offer of gloriously pulpy sci-fi chills as it does pointed socio-political commentary. Children of Earth threw in Hub explosions and Torchwood casualties amidst its haunting interrogation of our moral limits, God Among Us Part 2 segued from tales of homelessness to hilarious body-swapping and so Cooper’s high-seas one-off follows suit by regularly ramping up the fear factor at every turn. For every reference to the contaminated horrors glimpsed on David Attenborough’s documentaries, there’s a fantastical sighting like an armada of rubber ducks besieging the ship; for every fourth wall-targeted piece of dialogue surrounding our ethical callousness, an equally memorable visual concept like a Nestene creature with engulfing tentacles crafted wholly from discarded plastic bags. The task of presenting such inherently ridiculous imagery without disserving the vital subject matter might’ve easily overwhelmed a lesser writer, but fortunately Cooper’s shrewd command of the aural medium – coupled with the soundtrack’s eerie infusion of waves and pitch-perfect sound effects for said antagonists – means that we’re afforded enough linguistic detail to tremor, yet with enough restraint to afford our imaginations ample license for vivid interpretation.

And what of the lead star tasked with bringing this 28th Main Range episode to life in the Big Finish studios (after consuming one of their infamously delectable lunches, of course)? Seeing as Kai Owen did such a tremendous job holding the fort in 2017’s likewise horror-tinted hospital jaunt Visiting Hours, that he’s able to afford further depth to Rhys as a no-longer-side-lined Torchwood Three recruit here should hardly come as a surprise. His take on Mr. Williams, far from recycling the greatest hits of his fleeting TV appearances, evolves impressively over the course of the hour, the character’s ever-endearing earnestness and begrudging courageousness giving way to a newfound, all-too-pertinent despondency regarding our species’ future prospects. More inspiring still, though, is how Owen (at the behest of Cooper’s script) passionately pitches this not so much as a gateway to emotional hollowness but a trigger for his world-wearied father figure’s determination to win out, adapting his worldviews and tactics in the hope of enacting greater change – ideally starting with his survival!

He’s not alone in this metatextual quest either: Kaitlin Russell, the aforementioned young environmental campaigner who finds herself in a sudden life-or-death struggle, lies in truly capable hands thanks to Sydney Feder’s righteous performance alongside Owen. Whether she’s angrily relating her efforts to depart from her father’s nature-wrecking commercial exploits, brazenly rebuffing Rhys’ initial assumptions surrounding her generation’s social media obsessions or taking on other roles entirely which we shan’t spoil here, Feder brings a constant ferocious energy to the role which results in a tempestuous yet consistently captivating dynamic between the pair. It’s perhaps a grand testament to the Main Range team’s stellar track record in casting terms that this reviewer would gladly see just about any of the couplings devised so far (or triplets in the case of The Dollhouse), but the extent to which Cooper leaves the door open for Sargasso entries down the line should really prompt range producer James Goss and company to consider the prospect this time around as they set about planning future runs for 2020 and beyond.

Regardless of whether our advice gets heeded, however, for now Sargasso offers more than enough in the way of philosophical substance, shiver-inducing old-school scares from classic Who foes – making only their second Big Finish appearance here but hopefully not their last – and superb performing to bear numerous repeat listens while Goss makes up his mind. By melding Night of the Fendahl’s atmospheric tension with The Green Life’s politically-charged tone and Sync’s sizzling humour (in Rhys and Kaitlin’s dynamic), Cooper rounds out what’s been anything but a quartet of Doctor Who-tied cash-in releases in sensational style, once again raising the bar for his successors to match in future Torchwood instalments. The only question now, both for the Main Range and humanity as a whole – where the hell do we go next?

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Torchwood - Serenity (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 2 September 2019 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: Serenity (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Moran
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Ellie Darvill (Vanessa); Deidre Mullins (Kelly); Joe Shire (Bob)

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

“Maybe we’re so used to doing this that we don’t even want a normal life anymore.”
“Maybe. Kinda sad, isn’t it?”

For never was a story of more woe than this of Captain Jack and his Ianto. Through the ages we’ve seen our fair share of romantic tragedies, both on stage and screen – you-know-which doomed Shakespeare couple, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Titanic’s Jack and Rose, Smallville’s Clark and Lana (no Twitter DM replies necessary, thanks), the list goes on. Despite the menagerie of choices on offer, though, ask Torchwood devotees which dramatic parting of the ways hit them hardest in the history of fiction and their response will doubtless prove instantaneous – the heartbreaking ballad of the eternal Time Agent and the butler-turned-hero whose time ran out in 2009. One only need take a stroll along Cardiff Bay to encounter the shrine in Ianto Jones’ memory still standing tall a whole decade later, or – if they dare – search the couple’s names on any fan fiction site for an enlightening glimpse at the insatiable fervour which this once-rare same-sex sci-fi relationship continually inspires.

So when Big Finish announced their intention to dedicate a whole Torchwood Main Range release, Broken, to Jack and Ianto way back in July 2016, naturally their ‘shippers’ lost their collective minds in anticipation and seemingly turned out in their droves to support the play come release day. This reviewer can’t even begin to imagine, then, just how rabid the reaction must’ve been in some circles to the subsequent news that Serenity, the Range’s 29th-and-counting chapter, would take this focus a step further, envisioning the pair as an official couple living in domestic bliss. Surely such a premise must inevitably yield audio perfection, especially when the lucky scribe injected some hysterical sci-fi setpieces a la “Something Borrowed” or Aliens Among Us’ “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy” for good measure? Well, the answer to that seemingly obvious enquiry – and thus your overall mileage – will depend on your expectations surrounding the franchise’s tone, specifically in regards to the prominence (or lack thereof) of its science-fiction trappings.

A word of warning before we progress any further, though: whilst most of the time Big Finish’s marketing team will proudly trumpet their upcoming releases’ respective USPs from atop the Shard, featuring returning villains on their cover art or hinting at the outrageous sci-fi concepts in store via their tantalising synopses, that’s not quite the case here. Returning TV Torchwood writer James Moran clearly discussed with the promotional department which elements of Serenity to shout about from the rooftops and which to keep hidden if possible, meaning that our description of what this entry has to offer will be necessarily limited so as to preserve the surprises for first-time listeners. What we’re able to say without hesitation is that events centre on Jack and Ianto’s induction into Serenity Plaza, a supposedly idyllic gated community where residents banter harmlessly over who’ll win the Best Kept Lawn competition, bake each other delightful sweet treats and occasionally, just occasionally, go astray for reasons unknown; so begins our tag-team’s covert investigation amidst their lovesick façade.

If all of this initially sounds like a fun recipe for entertaining social satire, rom-com-riffing chaos and the odd action-packed bout of alien intervention, then you’d largely be correct in that assumption; hilarity frequently ensues courtesy of Ianto’s growing infuriation at his neighbours’ constant sexual innuendos, an all-manner of saucy mischief occurs courtesy of Jack’s irrepressible charisma and ultimately Torchwood’s trademark extraterrestrial carnage brings proceedings to an explosive head come Act 3. Yet that last point illustrates the issue which may arise for listeners (as it did yours truly) who seldom came to the show in search of its take on domestic comedies with a limited number of sets and ample romantic tension like Gavin & Stacey, Friends or Benidorm; much as the premise brings its own inevitable call-backs to classic horrors like Stepford Wives or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, virtually two-thirds of the running time here becomes dedicated to the aforementioned mistaken identity humour rather than building up any of those hit films’ supreme underlying tension. Such a trade-off feels all the more ironic in this case too given that Moran picks up the threads of a past Torchwood tale from its TV run, one which was wrought with the intense suspense and escalating mortal challenges from which Serenity – while naturally a different beast given its setting – could’ve sorely benefitted at times.

Let’s revert back into examining the brighter side of Serenity Plaza anyway for now, since it’s downright impossible to miss how much of a madcap joy the recording sessions for this month’s Main Range play must’ve been in May 2018. As if either of them needed to prove their astounding versatility at this point, both John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd effortlessly run the full gamut here between strained household flirtations (with CCTV capturing their constructs’ exchanges at every moment); poignant, dramatic irony-steeped reflections on their love-life’s prospects in this deadly line of work; vulnerable envy on Ianto’s part at Jack’s constant bedroom dalliances and steeled determination as their chances of survival once again start diminishing. Equal credit should nonetheless go to their co-stars Ellie Darvill, Deidre Mullins and Joe Shire, whose residents’ frequently chuckleworthy one-liners and near-constant efforts to court Mr. Harkness must have tested their capacity to stifle unscripted laughs, yet instead add a huge degree of risqué charm throughout the play.

But arguably the most promising aspect of Serenity’s framework within the wider Torchwood Main Range comes with the content which we’ve sworn not to discuss in any spoiler-provoking detail. What with Big Finish’s remarkable focus on breadthening the franchise’s considerable lore via new recurring threats like the malevolent Committee, or plot strands like the God Among Us’ benevolent efforts wreaking havoc in Cardiff, you could easily forget – despite the continual presence of the old guard like our lead stars here – that the show ran for five full seasons on our televisual airwaves between 2007-2010, each crammed with similarly potent foes and concepts from the 456 to Captain John Hart, who’s now excitingly due a full-fledged comeback in his own boxset next January. Indeed, if they’re to take away one key lesson from Serenity, then we’d wager that future Main Range contributors could do worse than to see the value of mining the show’s TV mythology more-so than before, since at their best, the results of resurrecting said lore with new twists are genuinely thrilling.

Perhaps Torchwood: Serenity will consequently mark one of the few missteps from Big Finish’s Torchwood output for you, as was the case for this reviewer, or perhaps not. Therein lies the infinite subjectivity which makes consuming culture so enriching…when we’re not busy tearing each other’s hair out over which studio should own a fictional superhero character’s film rights, that is. Even so, the assembly of hilarious talent gathered here for a riotous laugh and the increasingly tantalising forays into the show’s past for loose plot threads still serve to demonstrate just how ideally suited the studio was to take this once-deceased franchise’s reins a few short years ago – a romantic entanglement that seems anything but doomed in hindsight.

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Torchwood - Sync (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 26 June 2019 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
Sync (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Lisa McMullin
Directed By: Scott Handcock

Featuring: Indira Varma (Susie Costello), Annette Badland (Margaret Blaine), Raj Ghatak (Pilot)

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

“I’m the thrilling demonstration of what happens when you don’t exercise your democratic right!”

How could Margaret Blaine’s return to the worlds of Doctor Who for the first time since 2005 possibly go wrong with a line of dialogue as perfect as that? The Slitheen-turned-politician-turned-Cardiff mayor’s timely demise in “Boom Town” would’ve ruled out the re-introduction of Annette Badland’s delightfully sadistic character in any other narrative continuity, but the timeline-hopping nature of Big Finish’s Torchwood range enables the Who spin-off to continually visit just about any moment in either show’s shared history. Enter Sync, yet another indisputable hit for both franchises which brings together two unashamedly self-obsessed renegades for a fatal road trip quite unlike any other cultural production – to quite simply hilarious effect.

Lisa McMullin (now penning her fourth script after contributions to Gallifrey: Time War 2, The Eighth of March and UNIT Incursions) delivers a relatively straightforward sales pitch this time around compared to many overstuffed audio dramas: take Mayor Blaine, thrust her into the trajectory of a pre-death Susie Costello covertly hunting alien technology, strap a time-bomb to their wrists and watch the gleeful havoc ensue. Indeed, her Big Finish peers should absolutely take heed of her success in implementing such a concise precis, since doing so keeps Sync astutely focused on its central characters and in particular the development of their ruthless psyches. So often we’re prone to write off corrupted antiheroes like Margaret or Susie as doomed loose cannons whose one-dimensional worldviews seal their undoing, yet McMullin digs far deeper into her unlikely protagonists than their TV outings ever managed, deconstructing their joint familial isolation and how these formative personal experiences inevitably influenced their animosity (to say the least) towards wider society in later life.

Admittedly, the risk that always comes with team-up scripts of this accomplished ilk is the two like-minded lead stars feeling indistinguishably of a piece with their respective portrayals, yet that’s scarcely true in Sync’s case. Fresh off her audio appearances in Moving Target and The Torchwood Archive, Indira Varma tangibly channels a resigned bitterness at her Torchwood Three teammates’ timeline-preserving MO, such that you buy Susie's overall disillusionment with humanity, whereas Badland’s carefully-seeded moments of vulnerability deepen her portrayal as they did in “Boom Town”, suggesting her malicious gusto to be more of a necessary front than anything else. It’s saying something when a pair of constructs who made such a compelling impression on-screen – in no small part thanks to Russell T. Davies’ character-driven approach to storytelling for Who and Torchwood alike – can continue to reveal unexpected facets in subsequent off-screen storylines, so credit where credit’s due to the playwright and thespians alike on that front.

At the same time, however, this morally complex instalment deftly balances its psych-studies with plenty of the fatalities, frivolities and, naturally, farts which Susie and Margaret collectively leave in their wake – much to the audible entertainment of Badland and Varma (not to mention the sound team emulating those gaseous exchanges!). Hearing the pair relentlessly squabble over hailing taxis, local politics, the debatable allure of Cardiff’s skyline by night and countless other trivial matters works wonders, keeping their high-stakes race against time grounded and ensuring that Sync never gets too bogged down with emphasising the mortal peril that awaits the pair and the city alike should they fail. Indeed, that Big Finish opted to – whether due to time constraints or creative decisions – exclude Badland from their Slitheen-featuring outing in their The Tenth Doctor Chronicles boxset last year seems a surprising oversight with the hindsight of her splendid work alongside Varma here, to the extent that they’d be fools to repeat the mistake going forward if they can still find ways to integrate the late Mayor into Who storylines.

Perhaps it’s telling of Sync’s myriad scripting and performance strengths, then, that a recurring gripe with these recent Torchwood / Doctor Who returning villain crossovers almost falls entirely under the radar despite its residual presence. For all of McMullin’s truly impressive efforts to keep her first Main Range contribution moving at a feral Slitheen’s pace, only taking detours for the occasional bout of well-timed comic relief and mostly integrating character development seamlessly along the way, there remains the pervasive sense that Raj Ghatak’s succinctly-named Pilot was a structural afterthought. While the weighting of supporting players clearly forms a core part of any playwright’s thought-process, when the play in question places said Pilot fairly centre-stage late on, you can’t help wishing that it’d dedicate more time to portraying them as anything other than a hapless victim in events beyond their control, or at least making a meaningful thematic point if that was the intention of said depiction.

But given the aforementioned minimal prominence which that quibble had in our mind come the end credits (especially compared to last month’s hurriedly-concluded The Green Life), the odds of it affecting your listening experience seem borderline astronomical. Chances are that you’ll instead leave Sync having cackled heartily throughout at its dizzying array of razor-sharp one-liners, having formed a remarkably fresh outlook on its two far-from-B-list rogues and, most importantly, having barely noticed 60 minutes passing all the while. If Lisa McMullin wasn’t already on your writers-to-watch list after her potent Gallifrey offering earlier this year, then trust us – simply give her superb Torchwood debut a go and you’ll join us in counting down the days until her sophomore storyline follows suit.

NEXT TIME ON TORCHWOOD – From the moment that David Attenborough discovered plastic debris littering the ocean floor, the clock immediately started clicking on whether Big Finish or Chris Chibnall would snag the rights to base an Auton storyline around this all-too-disturbing subject matter. Well, evidently the former party won out in the bidding war, leaving Rhys Williams with the rather undesirable task of battling the Nestene Consciousness’ countless duplicates on the high seas – sans his wife or any Torchwood colleagues at that. See you back here for our verdict on the next Main Range instalment Sargasso – as well as the sure-to-be apocalyptically eventful God Among Us 3 – in the weeks ahead…

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