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!