Torchwood - Dissected (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 20 April 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood: Dissected  (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: Tim Foley
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Starring: Freema Agyeman (Martha Jones), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper)

Released by Big Finish Productions – February 2020
Order from Amazon UK

“There’s due diligence and then there’s…I dunno, the UNIT way.”

“Yeah, whereas you bung a body into the boot of your car, drive all the way to Hereford, ask a friend to do an autopsy on the sly. That’s what – the Torchwood way?”

For the legions of Doctor Who fans who’ve long been craving Freema Agyeman’s maiden Big Finish voyage, their main question was less whether she’d ever frequent the company’s hallowed studios than when her crammed schedule would afford any opportunity to do so. And yet – with the benefit of hindsight – even that might’ve been the wrong dilemma for everyone to contemplate; instead our focus should’ve been on which audio range would play host to her “voice of a Nightingale” first, not least given her beloved modern Who character’s appearance in both the main show and one of its modern spin-off series. Indeed, rather than returning directly into the world of the Doctor (as still seems inevitable), for now Martha Jones is long overdue a reunion with another familiar face from her time-and-space-travelling past – the emotionally-fraught results of which prove utterly spectacular.

Admittedly an initial glance at Torchwood: Dissected’s plot synopsis, with its detail-lite teasing of Gwen Cooper dragging an enigmatic corpse to Martha’s UNIT lab for a late-night autopsy, might lead unsuspecting viewers to expect nought more than a continuity box-ticking fest. Surely writer Tim Foley’s decision to set what should be a landmark Main Range entry amidst Martha’s post-“A Day in the Death”, pre-“The End of Time” days limits his scope, creating clear narrative boundaries in which his script must fit lest it displease the Gods of Canon? Quite to the contrary, though, like any of Big Finish’s most accomplished writers today, Foley unmistakeably perceives the piece’s in-between-quel nature as a creative opportunity rather than a constraint, as evidenced by his script’s cunning transition from a nostalgic retrospective for fans to something far more personal and pivotal for his dual protagonists.

At the heart of our wright’s supreme success in this regard lies his decision to parallel Gwen and Martha’s seemingly short-lived professional friendship with those of anyone who’s vowed to maintain such ties even after moving onto other workplaces. Naturally in the early days you’re intent on keeping in touch via catch-up phone calls, pub sessions and the like, but one missed event here, a handful of other accidentally-ignored voicemails there and before too long, both parties find they’ve moved on in juxtaposing life directions. It’s a wholly resonant social situation which Foley clearly comprehends profoundly; the unspoken remorse and resentment peppered into Martha and Gwen’s dialogue as they examine their deceased subject’s remains starts subtle, only manifesting in offhand apologies for skipped parties or unacknowledged passings at Torchwood Three at first, yet tangibly escalates over time as their now-divergent respective work ethics threaten to destroy any remaining goodwill between the pair. Without going into spoilerific detail, perhaps the most brilliantly apt sequence has our ideologically-bipolar heroines questioning whether their friends haven’t been swapped with alien duplicates prior to this encounter – a cunning moment of dramatic irony given their past identity crises as well as tragicomedy for listeners recalling their similarly overblown reckonings with past workmates.

So there’s all the more pressure on Agyeman and her more Big Finish-savvy co-star Eve Myles, then, to do this poignant extended metaphor of a storyline justice, not least since Foley structures Dissected solely as a two-hander; think “Heaven Sent” but with a more talkative foil for Agyeman than Peter Capaldi’s in 2015. Whether as a result of this pressure or Myles’ format familiarity emboldening them, luckily there’s no sign of doubt whatsoever in either performance. At first the pair seamlessly recapture their characters’ old selves, Myles’ Gwen as ferociously energetic and brazenly commanding as ever and Agyeman’s Martha sternly regimented under her UNIT guise but prone to bouts of earnest sorrow whenever referring to Torchwood’s recent collateral damages. Once the play progresses into the aforementioned more adversarial territory, though, they’re equally capable of running the requisite emotional gamut, the former’s bravado fading to reveal recent events’ psychological damage and the latter’s job-mandated objectivity amidst autopsies in reality a front for her passion and longing to return to her world-saving days. Witnessing this evolution from a bittersweet reunion of old friends to two flawed but determined heroines finding paths forward consequently makes for fascinating listening, easily as compelling as Torchwood’s more high-stakes explosive affairs – if not considerably moreso!

Does the praise-heaping nature of this verdict so far mean that Foley and company have completely sidestepped the chasm-wide trap of filling continuity gaps for gap-filling’s sake that we discussed earlier? Not quite – certainly a key sequence in the tale’s latter stages seems primarily intended to help pave the way for where we find Martha come her “End of Time” cameo, as do some love life references scattered here and there to sate fans wondering what became of her ex-fiancée Tom Milligan in the interim. But it’d be downright churlish to begrudge Foley’s innocuous efforts towards tying up the odd loose end in canon here; much of the joy involved with Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise output over the years has, after all, come from their freedom to right past missteps like the Sixth Doctor’s regeneration or explore uncharted territory such as the Time War’s infinite battlegrounds. To be fair, so long as said continuity-alignment continues to only supplement releases with such innovative story approaches, universally-resonant messages (amidst their universal conflicts) and deeply intimate, personal performances as those found in Dissected, then frankly that’s an ideal state of affairs which this reviewer can wholeheartedly endorse.

Oh, and notice too Martha’s forceful insistence that Gwen washes her hands thoroughly whilst in the midst of their not-so-delicate autopsy. Yet another didactic message of which every listener would do well to take heed (regardless of their scientific or otherwise profession) in these troubling times of globally-shared strife. Stay safe to that end everyone!


Torchwood - Fortitude (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 10 April 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Fortitude (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria); Paul Bazely (Maharaja Duleep Singh); David Sterne (Colonel Crackenthorpe)

Released by Big Finish Productions – January 2020
Order from Amazon UK

“Just remember she’s behind all this. Even free, we’re her slaves.”

Now there’s a statement which you don’t hear uttered in every pulp sci-fi audio drama. Indeed, whilst Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise output oft comes under scrutiny for its depiction of controversial real-world figures such as Winston Churchill, in Torchwood: Fortitude lies a marked rebuttal to any accusations of political archaism, along with a confident mission statement for future such works. If you’ve long craved an entry in the Main Range which builds upon God Among Us’ disturbing odyssey into homelessness and Children of Earth’s harrowing satire on global crises and the leaders forced to tackle them –  rather than simply dipping its toe into political waters as Who does sometimes with episodes like “Arachnids in the UK” – then you’ve definitely come to the right place.

Ever the master of misdirection and deception, Torchwood range producer James Goss, has cunningly seeded this philosophically-charged storyline within an otherwise quintessential premise for the TV show-turned-audio saga; the good Queen Victoria, accompanied by one of her completely devout servants, finds herself trapped aboard a seemingly haunted prison, prompting no shortage of supernatural hijinks as she, her aide as well as the prison’s increasingly-unhinged warden battle demons both internal and external. So just another day at the office for our 19th-century monarch in other words, especially seeing as the play takes place after Who’s 2006 period outing “Tooth & Claw” and thus after her establishment of the Torchwood Institute to investigate unearthly incursions precisely along these lines.

Unfortunately for the British Empire’s leading lady, and fortunately for us listeners in contrast, her troubles here extend far beyond any run-of-the-mill alien encounter, with her truly greatest threats potentially lying closer to home. In fact, Goss’ gripping chamber piece of a tale delights in playing with our expectations. Mysterious locked rooms house less in the way of predictable jump-scares and more in the way of psychological insight into Colonel Crackenthorpe after guarding the prison for untold decades; said military veteran’s covert machinations might speak to alien possession or to far more human goals and regrets; while the traditional third-act confrontation takes a wholly different form as Indian Maharaja-turned-servant Duleep Singh finds a potential answer to his plight in another tormented soul. No accomplished script should present a completely shock-free storyline, of course, but it’s genuinely humbling to see Fortitude’s wright so gracefully subvert ghost story (and his franchise’s) tenets in order to explore Victoria’s moral spectres – namely those countless victims who suffered grievously under her Empire’s ruthless global expansion.

Just as Big Finish evidently realised this multi-faceted yarn’s huge promise upon Goss’ original pitch, so too must the piece’s Three Performing Musketeers have been all too aware of the potential for a distinguished gem to emerge provided that their own contributions delivered. And deliver they most certainly do: the tonally-understated egotism, ferocious stubbornness and dryly-pitched biting wit which Rowena Cooper has brought to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent ever since her rambunctious debut in The Victorian Age remains just as entertaining here, albeit lying in stark contrast to Paul Bazely’s part-tragic, part-inspiring take on Singh. His effortless progression through time-worn heartbreak, bubbling resentment and passionate cultural defiance as the character gathers long-lost confidence will – in combination with the script’s no-holds-barred interrogation of those responsible for his torture – surely evoke poignant emotions aplenty for any listeners whose ancestors endured the Empirical era. Arguably Fortitude’s finest actorial feat, though, comes in David Sterne’s more concise but no less impactful work as Crackenthorpe, the heartfelt pathos which he inspires in the Colonel’s sorrowful contemplations of past mistakes doubly praiseworthy considering that Cooper and Bazely share far more airtime in comparison.

Similarly instrumental to Fortitude’s success while immersing us in its seabound escapades are, well, the instruments involved with bringing said escapes to aural life. Through a combination of hauntingly atmospheric oceanic noises ever-present in the background, painfully jarring door creaks or ill-disguised footsteps as Queen Vic and Singh attempt to traverse the gaol unnoticed and vividly-rendered images like a Woman in Black-esque rocking chair moving of its own hostless accord, the sound design team work tirelessly to ensure that we’re every inch as unsettled as the fictitious constructs whom we’re following via headphones, laptop speakers or other means. What’s more, this superb sensory barrage has a vital role to play from a genre storytelling perspective, ultimately furthering our disbelief-suspending capabilities to the point that we’re no less invested once events take a turn for the Lovecraftian come Act 3 than we were in exploring the prison’s more tangible corridors beforehand – not something to which many of Fortitude’s sci-fi counterparts on audio or TV can always attest.

With all of that being said, one comparatively minor but still noticeable blemish may rob Fortitude of its otherwise undisputed place amongst the Crown Jewels of the Torchwood franchise. Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty once famously professed that “every fairy-tale needs a good old-fashioned villain” and indeed, this fantastical-esque romp to the high seas comes equipped with a fittingly overblown foil for our already-conflicted ‘heroes’ to reckon with in varying ways. Yet despite Goss’ remarkable efforts to seamlessly weave said foe into the piece’s thematic path-web of slavery-induced trauma, so much time passes before we’re properly introduced that it can’t help but resemble an afterthought versus the fascinating moral voyages taken by each of the other key players involved. Perhaps that comes down to the oft-discussed Main Range limitation of a one-hour narrative format, perhaps Goss consciously upheld the classic horror trope of leaving the relentless monstrosity up to our imagination; either way, the piece’s Big Bad remains in hindsight a somewhat untapped reservoir which his successors should seriously consider revisiting in greater detail.

Admittedly when the only real caveats levelled at your latest production represent but minor nitpicks in context, that’s a surefire sign of the piece’s success in virtually every other aspect. In no way did the above-mentioned gripe impinge upon Fortitude’s phenomenal performances, crucially-immersive sound effects or its script’s rarely-matched juggling act of classic Torchwood elements with challenging philosophical debates for listeners to contemplate; quite to the contrary, it only served to highlight the staggering extent to which the play’s strengths outweigh any such trivial shortcomings. As modern civilisation shelters from you-know-which crisis and shows its true colours, there has seldom been a better time for James Goss’ scathing, brilliant warning against choosing greed over human compassion – all the more reason to give his latest winning effort a try ASAP.

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Torchwood - Expectant (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Wednesday, 18 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Expectant (Credit: Big Finish)

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.

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Torchwood - Dead Man's Switch (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 16 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Dead Man's Switch (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: David Llewellyn
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Murray Melvin (Bilis Manger), Timothy Blore (Piers), Maxine Evans (Rowena), Mali Ann Rhys (Zoe)

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.

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Torchwood - Smashed (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 9 March 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Smashed (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper); Omar Austin (Martyn); Dick Bradnum (Drillpak Manager); Helen Griffin (Rhian); Kezrena James (Elwyn)

Released by Big Finish Productions – October 2019
Order from Amazon UK

“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!


Torchwood One - Latter Days (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Monday, 20 January 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
Torchwood One - Latter Days (Credit: Big Finish)Written By: Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tim Foley
Directed By: Barnaby Edwards
Featuring: Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman); Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto Jones); Nathan Amzi (John); Timothy Bentick (Tommy); Barbara Flynn (Anne); Derek Griffiths (Dave); Michael Maloney (William); Ony Uhiara (Kara)

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

No matter whether we’re working at minimum wage to provide for ourselves and loved ones, at the head of monolithic corporations as billionaires or anywhere in-between, one immutable truth remains the same regardless: death comes to everyone eventually. All the world’s a stage as a certain Bard once accurately proclaimed – its endless production comprises countless human entrances followed inextricably by countless exits.

If this sounds like a rather ominous note on which to begin our next Torchwood audio verdict, then rest assured that it’s with good reason; Latter Days, the third (and ironically potential final) boxset in Big Finish’s Torchwood One prequel series, directs its attention away from immortal beings like Captain Jack Harkness and instead onto far more short-lived humans facing their end of days while the titular Canary Wharf-based agency nears its own collapse.

Unless you’ve anything better to get on with during your Earthly days, then, let’s delve once more unto the mortal breach, plunging headfirst into arguably the most tragicomic entry in the franchise’s pantheon to date. Time’s a-wasting after all, and no-one knows that better than the employees whose contracts carry a retcon clause for retirement age – provided that they even survive long enough to contemplate retirement, of course.

“Retirement Plan”:

“Who the hell is Travis?”
“My talking Italian sports car – I just made him up.”

(Now there's a dialogue exchange which we never expected to transcribe!)

It had to happen at some point, we suppose. Just as Chris Chibnall dabbled in the realms of James Bond-style undercover espionage with his two-part opener for Doctor Who Season Twelve,“Spyfall”, so too has Gareth David-Lloyd taken a similar tact with his sophomore Torchwood script (after his excellent debut with The Last Beacon in 2018). Unlike Chibnall’s TV episodes, though, which could only go so far with the pastiche’s scale and ambition owing to budgetary limitations (admittedly doing a superb job on that basis), “Retirement Plan” carries no such stipulations, leaving David-Lloyd free to deliver as ridiculously over-the-top and unashamedly campy an affair as he saw fit.

And deliver on those fronts he most certainly does. The sheer glee which must’ve ensued as the star-turned-playwright drafted his script immediately leaps off the page/soundtrack, with Ianto’s unwitting traversal into a virtual reality utopia-of-sorts opening the door for an all-manner of vividly-rendered comic delights from Yvonne’s transformation into a not-so-PC exotic maid to Agent Jones’ madcap snowmobile chase across the Alps and regular sexual encounters throughout his high-stakes mission. Not since the Kingsman films entered cinemas or Killing Eve took TV by storm have we seen 007’s half-century-spanning antics lovingly sent up in such bombastic, downright hilarious fashion as that of “Retirement”, a trait which easily distinguishes the piece as the most memorable of this well-rounded collection.

More impressive still is the fine balance which David-Lloyd and his co-stars nevertheless maintain between farcical frivolity and – where the former’s storytelling demands as much – contrastingly profound pathos. Suffice to say that long-running Torchwood One recruit Tommy has no intentions of going gentle into that good retcon-laden night, hence his intent to spend retirement amidst innocuous VR servants. Timothy Bentick’s performance in the role oozes poignancy as a result, the character’s futile longing to remain in this prolonged nostalgic state only becoming more heartbreaking as events inevitably take a turn for the worst. Witnessing his friend’s age-induced downward spiral only serves to deepen Ianto’s ongoing conflict over his line of work to boot, prompting his own metaphoric contemplation of whether a life lived in escapist VR bliss outweighs an early death among comrades. Cue some painful dramatic irony for any fans still mourning his Children of Earth demise which will doubtless ensure the play’s repeat value for far more than its gloriously insane action.

“Locker 15”:

"Dave Cook was the last person to access Locker 15, and now he can't remember how it's secured!"

Whereas the set’s first and final instalments primarily depict Torchwood recruits contemplating or in the early midst of retirement, Matt Fitton’s contribution instead centralises an underappreciated employee with years of post-work experience already under his belt. Trouble is that, even for a cleaner with minimal exposure to the company’s alien dealings like Dave, such dealings often come back to haunt you. “Locker 15” consequently draws the now-almost amnesiac Dave back to service as his ex-teammates desperately mine the depths of his psyche for any clues on how to stop a deadly artefact sealed within their vaults from potentially destroying Canary Wharf, then London, then the world (no pressure though).

By far the most straightforward action-led storyline of the trio, Fitton’s script – for better and for worse – seems far less fussed with exploring didactic themes (beyond the central message on the dangers of letting class divides fester in the workplace) and moreso with aping J.J. Abrams’ mystery box-style manner of storytelling; the play’s non-linear structure, prompted by Dave slowly regaining his memories, affords us frequent clues as to how Locker 15’s explosive contents got loose and whether the former blue-collar worker holds any responsibility for the crisis at hand. It’s a perfectly engaging storyline on its lonesome which keeps ramping up the stakes and holding the listener’s attention. However, given the extent to which David-Lloyd and (as we’ll discuss momentarily) Tim Foley successfully tap into deeper issues elsewhere in the set, whether by utilising Bond pastiches as an extended metaphor for late-life nostalgia or interrogating Yvonne Hartman’s defining life-choices, the lack of meaningful character development – beyond Dave’s role as a plot cypher – presented here at the midway point stands out markedly as a result.

Going forward Fitton (a Big Finish regular who’s done superb work on Doctor Who ranges like Ravenous and The Eighth Doctor: The Time War) might benefit from relistening to his counterparts’ slightly superior contributions to Latter Days, if only to recall the benefits of prioritising the character drama at which the studio often excels over sci-fi spectacle which can eventually grate when sustaining audio dramas by itself.

“The Rockery”:

“Let it be known that I hate the countryside!”

But whose time within the soon-to-be-devastated offices of Torchwood One holds greater tragic weight than that of its commander-in-chief, Yvonne Hartman? Lest we forget given the rich abundance of Torchwood audio plays in which Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beloved character (or her Pete’s Earth counterpart) has since starred, her debut appearance in 2006’s Doctor Who season finale “Army of Ghosts / Doomsday” saw the head honcho meet a bittersweet end, holding back the Cybermen long enough for the Doctor to overcome them, only to sacrifice her humanity – and ultimately her life – in the process.

With a title like Latter Days, then, the series’ 2019 boxset was virtually obligated to deal with Yvonne’s fate (which in turn predicated the entire London agency’s downfall) in some capacity. Indeed, Tim Foley’s closing instalment “The Rockery” places the Hartman dynasty centre-stage in order to explore the fleeting nature of mortality – albeit in a rather different way than we might’ve initially expected. For in this instance Yvonne’s mission concerns not so much the fate of the cosmos, nor of her staff, but rather her mother’s post-retirement wellbeing as she settles begrudgingly into a life of rural tranquillity…with inevitably bumpy results once her daughter’s (usually benevolent) grand schemes come into play.

How much mileage you’ll glean from the collection’s most relaxed outing depends, in a similar vein to last year’s innuendo-laden Jack / Ianto release Serenity, on your investment in the previously-unexplored Hartman family drama as it develops here. Much of the runtime is spent in Anne’s company while she struggles with prioritising plants over professional projects, encountering selfless neighbours like Michael Maloney’s charming William rather than ruthless workplace rivals, so those Torchwood fans in favour of action-driven storylines a la Miracle Day might come away somewhat underwhelmed (and hence prefer Fitton's undeniably eventful effort "Locker 15" instead). To Foley’s credit, however, his regular injections of endearing senile humour (not least Anne’s aggravated reactions to human or animal intruders alike), escalating intrigue surrounding Yvonne’s housewarming gifts and world-wearied wisdom on family’s importance all endow “Rockery” with sufficient variety to keep proceedings from ever feeling stale.

One also cannot overstate, when it comes to intimate narratives of this ilk, the vital role which the players have in keeping listeners hooked through their chemistry and conviction. True to form, Oberman effortlessly channels Yvonne’s scathing wit as well as her unrelenting (and in many ways self-assuring) pragmatism, yet she equally goes a long way towards revealing the character’s rarely-glimpsed vulnerabilities too; that trademark bravado seemingly belies insecurities over her father’s passing, the growing distance between herself and Anne along with the legacy which she’ll leave when her time (soon enough) arrives, with the After Life actress’ sincere rendition of said transition greatly enhancing her fan-favourite heroine. Just as much applause, if not moreso, should similarly go in Barbara Flynn’s direction to boot, her capturing in Anne of the same ruthlessness, brazen practicality and hidden emotional scars as Yvonne’s all the more impressive given her freshman status as a Torchwood thespian here, as is the simultaneously ferocious yet heartfelt dynamic which the pair establish in only their first hour together.

Rather than showing any signs of a middle-age crisis or non-compos mentis tendencies, Torchwood One: Latter Days, therefore, speaks yet again to the enduring vitality of its franchise right now. With youth may well come innovation, but as the non-Shakespearean adage goes, with age comes wisdom; doubtless, that's a sentiment which will continue to hold true so long as Big Finish keep finding ways to explore weighty human themes amidst Torchwood’s outrageous sci-fi trappings, to remind us that there’s so much joy to be found through life’s thrills, friendships formed and cherishing loved ones that the end needn’t concern us nearly so much as the journey getting there.