Written by Joseph Lidster
Directed by Barnaby Edwards
Starring: Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), Gareth Armstrong (Barry Jackson), Rebecca Lacey (Helen Evans), Dan Starkey (Ross Bevan), Catrin Stewart (Meredith Bevan)
Released by Big Finish Productions - December 2015
For better or for worse, the quirky premise powering the fourth instalment in Big Finish's first season of Torchwood initially sounds more akin to that of a parody take on the original series as opposed to a respectful continuation of what came before; after all, can you really imagine one of the intrepid Torchwood Three team ever spending almost an entire episode roaming the intoxicated (both metaphorically and literally, in this case) streets of Cardiff in the hope of protecting local mayoral candidates from a series of grisly demises? Either way, that's precisely the situation which Yvonne Hartman, the short-lived commander in chief of Canary Wharf's Torchwood One who had both her entrance and exit in 2006's two-part Doctor Who serial "Army of Ghosts / Doomsday", finds herself in as she travels over from England's capital to Cardiff Bay just three weeks after both cities fell under siege from the Nestene Consciousness' Auton armies in March 2005.
It perhaps shouldn't come as a great surprise to any keen follower of the Whoniverse that far from the aforementioned extraterrestrial attack seeming to have had any noteworthy impact on Welsh society's apparently universal (at least if the manner in which One Rule depicts England's neigbours is any indication) appetite for an extravagant, no holds barred nightlife, life appears to have moved on in such a way that Cardiff's residents regard the attempted invasion more as a running joke than anything else. Indeed, in a similar vein, this reviewer couldn't help but gain the suspicion that whereas The Conspiracy and in particular last month's Forgotten Lives were intended to serve as reminders that the darker, often more enticing elements of Torchwood as a franchise still live on in aural form, Joseph Lidster hoped to demonstrate that much of the humour which came to define the show over the course of its five-year tenure still resides in Big Finish's adaptation, even if doing so meant crafting a more simplistic, inconsequential piece of drama than its recent predecessors.
In case any readers are wondering based on that sweeping assertion whether Lidster's latest addition to the history of the organisation which still insists on branding itself as being "outside the government, beyond the police" doesn't deserve their time, rest assured that whilst it's far from the series' finest hour to date (either in terms of its newly-conceived audio incarnation or in terms of the overall saga which began life way back in 2006 with the aptly-named "Everything Changes" on BBC Three), One Rule still provides its listeners with more than enough in the way of laughs, memorably exaggerated set-pieces (most of which brilliantly play on Yvonne's undisguised disdain for the working class by placing the character in an all manner of situations where social etiquette is immediately thrown out of the window) and intelligent references to the programme's now less than recent history - look out in particular for an unexpected development with regards to Ianto's burgeoning romantic relations with a certain soon-to-be "Cyberwoman" - to warrant its asking price. There's no doubting that Lidster still holds just as keen an understanding of what the Torchwood fan-base was surely looking for from this quasi-prequel tale (not least some insight into Torchwood One's perspective on everyone's favourite ragtag team of Welsh secret agents) and better yet, how best to exploit Tracey-Ann Oberman's character so as to ensure she reaches her full potential here.
Of course, had Oberman not brought the trademark wit, droll outlook on the so-called British Empire in its current state and vengeful charisma which rendered her somewhat tragic construct as such an instantaneous hit in the eyes of fans in 2006, then Lidster's efforts to resurrect Yvonne in style might well have been fruitless at best. As was the case with John Barrowman in September, Gareth David-Lloyd in October and the dynamic duo of Eve Myles and Kai Owen just two short months ago, however, the Eastenders star brings with her all of those qualities and so much more, infusing One Rule with a relentless sense of energy and momentum even when its central plot arc - which rarely taps into themes much deeper than surface-level political corruption or the needlessly selfish aspects of human nature - grinds to a halt for no other reason than to have her character down another pint or find herself the subject of social ridicule as a result of the state in which her increasingly digressive mission leaves her. This isn't to say that Lidster and / or Big Finish need necessarily hurry to invite Oberman back for further appearances in the role, but rather that if they elect to take this approach, then even if Ms. Hartman's next outing falls similarly short in terms of overall narrative ambition, then at least we can breathe a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that having her at the reins will at least guarantee the audience a hilarious (albeit low-octane) ride.
Yet if Oberman represents this oft-uninspiring fourth chapter's saving grace, then unfortunately, her co-stars can easily be singled out as one of the primary factors behind its failure to captivate: neither Gareth Armstrong nor Rebecca Lacey afford their respective councillors any more enthusiasm or political / emotional nuances than the script asks of them, instead simply casting both constructs as wholly one-dimensional Welsh citizens, with only Lacey's Helen Evans coming anywhere close to representing an empathetic construct as she enters into a brief discussion with Yvonne on the subject of her somewhat empowering approach to politics late in the day. Worse still, whilst one could arguably have relied upon the Paternoster Gang's own Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart to elevate proceedings to a certain extent in most cases, the married couple the pair portray barely make it through a single scene before taking their leave, meaning that neither of the two talented thespians receive more than the briefest of moments to leave an impact despite them having more than proved their joint ability to hold their own in recent Who serials such as "The Crimson Horror" and "Deep Breath". Naturally, some characters in an action-driven storyline must inevitably exist only to progress said narrative with their untimely departures, yet to have Starkey and Stewart fulfil such menial roles when they might well have served the release as a whole better had they traded places with Armstrong and Lacey seems a counter-productive move on either Lidster or the studio's part(s) at best.
Nevertheless, even if Torchwood: One Rule won't likely go down as a prime example of what makes Big Finish the strongest possible candidate to carry the show's legacy in its hands now that its televisual days are seemingly done, that it's still a far superior effort to many of the studio's monthly main Who releases (at least from this reviewer's modest perspective) should at least instil fans with a fair degree of confidence about the programme's immediate future on the airwaves. Oberman still presents the audience with an authentic, laugh-out-loud take on her character a decade on from her memorable on-screen debut, Lidster's script - while lacking in meaty thematic material - undeniably achieves its goal of taking the series in a more light-hearted, casual direction than was the case with the overly melodramatic Miracle Day (the less said about which, the better!) in 2011, and for what it's worth, despite their contributions only amounting to cameos, both Starkey and Stewart do a fine job of attempting to redeem the title's otherwise wholly underwhelming supporting cast ensemble. David Llewellyn's masterful season opener The Conspiracy still doesn't have anything to worry about in terms of maintaining its place on Big Finish's recently-erected Torchwood throne, but all the same, thanks in no small part to Oberman's return to the role, devotees of the British Empire's most dedicated servant will still find plenty to love this time around.