“Gwen! You look like you’ve had a rough night…”
Certain ideas hold such rich potential that, once conceived, they become impossible to ignore by their respective freethinkers, inevitably cascading into fruition from there. For Thomas Edison (as seen recently in Doctor Who’s “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”) the lightbulb moment came with, well, the lightbulb; for Steve Jobs, it was the iPod and its litany of successors/rivals; and for Russell T. Davies (thank goodness) in the early 21st century came the revival of a certain legendary British sci-fi series – at which point, in Torchwood terms, “everything changed”. In the case of James Goss and Eve Myles, however, evidently, the lightning-in-a-bottle concept for their next Big Finish collaboration took the form of having the ever-stoic, ever-determined, ever-painstakingly focused Gwen Cooper face off against legions of undead approximations…albeit horrendously inebriated all the while.
After all, that’s exactly where we find ourselves with Smashed, a Main Range entry whose initially familiar premise of investigating strange occurrences at a gas fracking-wrought town named Glynteg soon descends into far more gleefully uncharted territory. Newcomers unaware of the general plot synopsis might at first expect something along the lines of last April’s superb Jack-Jo Jones team-up adventure The Green Life, seeing as that instalment similarly saw the pair vying against corrupt chemical corporations ruthlessly wreaking havoc upon rural communities for monetary gain. Yet whereas Green Life balanced comedy and environmental pathos, Jack and Jo’s tempestuous dynamic contrasted with their situation’s all-too-pertinent real-world significance, Goss and Myles here opt for a decidedly black comic tone instead, their storyline merely the catalyst for the latter actress to experiment with her wilder side on the audio airwaves.
And experiment Ms. Myles most certainly does over the course of the hour running time, her performing versatility on laudable display throughout. Whether it’s a case of Gwen desperately struggling to maintain some semblance of her police force-imbued authoritative edge whilst slurring her words, racking her dysfunctional head around the pulp sci-fi effects of mined extraterrestrial substances upon Glynteg’s already-impoverished community or trading wits with the chillingly unrepentant Drilltek staff responsible, the Keeping Faith thespian effortlessly does so with such exuberant bravado that you can’t help but be convinced even amidst the most ridiculous circumstances. These days she’s rightly booked up with an all-manner of prestigious cultural gigs, but for as long as Myles remains open to Big Finish’s recording studios (not least for their legendary lunches), the Torchwood team would be utter fools to pass up any opportunity for such returns.
Admittedly whenever Myles next opts to take up the microphone in arguably her most culturally beloved role to date, it’d perhaps also further sweeten the deal if her co-stars had the simultaneous opportunity to sink their teeth into meatier dramatic/comedic material. Smashed by its very nature places Gwen front-and-centre whilst most of Glynteg’s residents either succumb mindlessly to the nearby fracking’s fantastical products or attempt to keep Cooper focused on / away from the mission at hand as it develops as a rollicking rate. Although Helen Griffin must’ve had a blast with playing the relentlessly heartless Rhian – loyal to Drillpak through-and-through as she oversees operations from Glynteg’s community centre (i.e. a shipping container) – for the most part she’s as much a shallow caricature of accountability-devoid business leaders as Rick Bradnum’s briefly-glimpsed slimy Drillpak Manager in the opening moments. Omar Austin’s crucial citizen bystander Martyn similarly lacks much chance to leave a meaningful impression as he’s mostly aghast at Gwen’s deteriorating condition and indeed that of the entire town – a costly omission in the script’s balancing act which frustratingly robs key moments in the play’s third act of much dramatic tension surrounding his survival odds.
Indeed, there’s a wider nagging sense at times in Smashed that the aforementioned potent plot premise might’ve been so (understandably) alluring from the outset to the scribe and star that less thought was given to the piece’s finer details as a result. Despite his occasional commentary on how towns like Glynteg become collateral damage when the oft-unmonitored activities of fracking firms cause environmental/economic chaos, and the plot unashamedly echoing Who’s Warriors of the Deep in its didactically nihilistic trajectory, much of that promising material is seemingly content to take a backseat to Gwen’s madcap drunken antics as they (and the threat facing her) escalate to peak bombastic insanity by journey’s end. Maybe the chance to hear Myles take an otherwise unshakably serious heroine to more light-hearted places will paper over the cracks so to speak for many listeners, but for this listener, the above-discussed glimpses of something deeper beneath the script’s surface were all the more vexing in their tantalising brevity.
Not every Torchwood storyline has to pack as much sociological weight or layered characterisation as the likes of Adrift or Children of Earth, however, and Goss’ latest contribution to the Main Range still houses more than enough entertaining elements to warrant a look; Eve’s supremely multi-faceted turn on Gwen Cooper at her most unhinged, the brief yet unmissable moments of cutting social/industrial satire and the play’s necessarily whirlwind pace collectively ensure that you’ll barely notice the hour having passed come its denouement. Might Goss and company benefit from fleshing out their supporting characters and underlying narrative themes when their next collaboration at Big Finish comes around? Quite possibly, though provided that the team continues to brainstorm narrative premises as creative and tonally innovative as that presented in Smashed almost five years on from the Torchwood range’s audio debut, there’s every reason to believe that said range will easily survive another half-decade or more on-air. See (or rather hear) for yourself whether the studio’s latest insatiable concoction tickles your taste-buds anyway, then maybe we’ll catch you down at the local pub to discuss as much furthermore – ideally with less cataclysmic results!