James Goss, Juno Dawson, AK Benedict
Lead Cast: John Barrowman
(Captain Jack Harkness), Kai Owen
(Rhys Williams), Tom Price
(Sgt Andy Davidson), Paul Clayton
(Mr Colchester), Alexandria Riley
(Ng), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele)
, and Eve Myles
Supporting Cast: Stephen Critchlow (The Mayor), Rachel Atkins (Ro-Jedda), Ruth Lloyd (Vorsun), Sophie Colquhoun (Madrigal), Rhian Marston-Jones (Quenel), Lu Corfield (Brongwyn), Rhys Whomsley (Osian), Sharon Morgan (Mary Cooper), David Sibley (Vincent Parry), Sam Béart (Catrin Parry), Anthony Boyle (Hotel Manager), Sam Jones (Toobert Jailert), Wilf Scolding (Personal Trainer)
Released by Big Finish Productions - August 2017
In receiving the licensed green light to revive Doctor Who’s first full-fledged TV spin-off show, Torchwood, as an ongoing series of audio dramas in May 2015, Big Finish set themselves arguably their most daunting challenge since embarking upon a mission to do likewise for Who back in 1999. Like its mother show in the 1970s, the four season-strong, adult-geared BBC sci-fi drama had reached the height of its televisual powers by 2009, producing an award-winning miniseries in Children of Earth which suggested its writers had finally perfected their efforts to blend universe expansion with compelling, mature storylines capable of attracting newcomers alongside ever-devoted followers of the Doctor.
Just as the arrival of iconic figures like Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and John Nathan-Turner bred behind-the-scenes troubles which ultimately sealed Who’s 19-year hiatus, however, so too did Torchwood’s golden age of on-screen success reach a swift, turbulent crescendo just moments after its apex. The Starz-produced fourth season Miracle Day lacked the narrative momentum, multi-faceted supporting characters or overall British charm which had reaped Children of Earth such universal acclaim two years beforehand, once again prompting a previously beloved sci-fi saga to enter an indefinite purgatorial state, particularly as its showrunner Russell T Davies faced heartbreaking personal struggles not long after the run’s Summer 2011 broadcast.
But between their sensational opening trio of monthly runs featuring beloved characters like Gwen Cooper, Toshiko Sato, Ianto Jones and of course the indomitable Captain Jack Harkness (if you’ve yet to try The Conspiracy, Uncanny Valley, Zone 10, Broken or Corpse Day, then head to Big Finish’s website when you’re done here and remedy that error), the tremendous The Torchwood Archive serving as both a fitting series coda and 10th anniversary special, and box-sets like Before the Fall offering profound insights into the titular secret agency’s mysterious past, Big Finish have more than confirmed their status as the brand’s perfect gatekeepers for the foreseeable future. Next up on their agenda, then? Continuing the story where Miracle Day left off, albeit making a few welcome course corrections en route to ensure that Season Five doesn’t trigger another near-death experience for Torchwood.
Even with the support of the mighty Russell behind them, can the studio pull off such a Herculean feat, no longer simply hopping between eras of the show for standalone romps but instead conveying a whole new arc over the course of 12 episodes and three box-sets? Let’s begin the quest to find out with Aliens Among Us – Part 1, evaluating each of the four hour-long instalments in detail before ascertaining whether James Goss and company should ever have bothered embarking upon this audacious campaign…
“Torchwood is dead.”
There’s an unmistakable sense of irony about wright James Goss’ decision to invert the title of Torchwood’s pilot episode in naming Season Five’s opener. While the Cardiff of “Changes Everything” has undergone no shortage of transformations, between mass immigration, mass homelessness and mass alien infiltration, while Jack and Gwen were fighting to end the Miracle in the US of A, this compelling first chapter largely works to re-establish much of the show’s pre-Miracle Day status quo, from the shattered but still intact Hub to the team’s iconic SUV to Jack and Gwen back in business at Torchwood Three’s helm.
Much of the real change, then, comes with Goss’ introduction of two deliciously morally and psychologically complex new – potential in one case – recruits to the team this time around. Enter the irritable but courageous civil servant Mr. Colchester and the intrepid but concerningly ruthless ex-paparazzi Tyler Steele, the former of whom comes off as initially closed-minded yet has plenty more to him than meets the eye and the latter - brought brilliantly to life as an unashamedly slimy rogue by Jonny Green - bound to rile most listeners with his self-serving rationale as much as he does the rest of the team. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of the hour, Russell’s influence upon the characterisation of these two new players is as clear as daylight, lending them the same dramatically layered but equally realistic personalities that one would expect of any of the Doctor’s 2005-2009 companions or indeed any employee at Torchwood until the Miracle.
It’s thanks to this pair of ever-evolving characters largely taking centre-stage – especially in Tyler’s case – here that a somewhat necessarily by-the-books set-up storyline revealing the existence of an unseen alien community pulling the strings in Cardiff remains thoroughly engaging to sit through, though that’s not to say the plot doesn’t pack any dramatic heft in its own right. Much as we’ve encountered plenty such shady organisations such as those behind Season Four’s Miracle or indeed the Committee at the heart of Big Finish’s Torchwood monthly range to date, that the latest foes to emerge from the Rift provoke racist sentiments and terror attacks across Wales’ capital city gives “Changes” a disturbingly relevant edge, the depiction of bombings taking countless lives sure to unsettle anyone following today’s headlines but all the more relevant a subject matter for the show to tackle.
As with most season premieres aiming to kick-start a season-spanning arc, the extra narrative legwork “Changes” must perform ultimately robs the opening outing of the chance to become a stellar standalone outing, but even so, by injecting the show with a fresh, volatile new team dynamic at Torchwood Three and harrowing poignancy via its topical real-world ties, Goss sets Aliens Among Us off on a promising trajectory indeed.
Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy:
“Right then, let’s go to a hen night.”
Has any episode title ever served to summarised the core tenants of Torchwood as a work of mature yet oft-hilarious drama than the epithet Goss attributes to Season Five’s sophomore outing? Probably not, but thankfully the man responsible for helming the brand at Big Finish doesn’t get complacent off the back of this unparalleled achievement, instead finding time to devise a largely isolated storyline which dedicates almost an hour’s worth of time to developing bothEve Myles’ Gwen and Paul Clayton’s Colchester, not to mention exploring the fascinating interplay between these two world-wearied soldiers as they march into one of their most unlikely – not to mention hugely comedic – missions yet.
Laden with outrageous set-pieces – from absurd hostage situations to drunken car chases – and unsubtle but warranted politico-religious commentary, Goss’ script follows these veteran crime-fighters in their efforts to determine how young Madrigal’s upcoming wedding nuptials are connected to the still-mysterious powers manipulating Cardiff for their own ends, only for their investigation to result in the increasingly inebriated Maddie causing them no shortage of explosive grief throughout the night. One does admittedly get the sense as “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy” progresses that Goss thought this delightfully disbelief-uprooting premise was entertaining enough to fuel an entire hour of audio drama, since the second act of proceedings feels rather padded, throwing in convoluted further plot developments and additional characters who don’t add a great deal to proceedings beyond further exposition surrounding the nature of Madrigal’s betrothal.
All the same, with Myles and Clayton on top form as they explore how their respective characters deal with leading lives of near-total dishonesty when balancing work with family ties, with Sophie Colquhoun’s Madrigal serving up a veritable array of painfully chuckle-worthy one-liners with each successive pint consumed, and with Goss even finding time to resolve loose plot threads from Titan Comics’ Torchwood strip by revealing the fate of the Ice Maiden’s crew, “Gravy” achieves more than enough in its running time – and builds more than enough intrigue for what’s to come – to stave off any occasional sense of plot tedium. Most importantly of all, that Episode 2 gave yours truly the joy of writing out its pitch-perfect title in full for this review is reason enough for its existence.
“Who knew there was an alien black market right in the middle of Cardiff city centre?”
Clearly not content with allowing Goss to expand Torchwood’s core roster with Colchester and Tyler, Juno Dawson adds another player into the mix with Orr, a third RTD-endorsed recruit whose alien heritage affords her some, well, alluring abilities that play glorious havoc with each member of the team here. “Orr” once again marks a near-complete tonal departure from its immediate predecessor, returning to explore the haunting implications of extremist fanatics for a Cardiff already at economic war with itself, while also throwing in aspects of romance and series-changing tragedy for good measure along the way.
As one might well imagine, handling such a delicate balancing act – and having to carry the burden of progressing Aliens Among Us’ overall arc in a far more substantial manner than “Gravy” with the full-scale arrival of the season’s core antagonist – would prove a challenging at best prospect for even the most accomplished of scribes. Sure enough, what with tackling weighty concepts like housing shortages, illegal commercial transactions hidden in plain sight and shapeshifts forced to cater for their onlookers’ sexual fantasies, Dawson can’t quite avoid imbuing “Orr” with a lingering sense of tonal discontinuity at times, struggling to decide whether to focus on the hearty laughs Orr’s powers inspire, the aforementioned topicality of her plot or indeed setting up a twist set to inextricably alter Aliens Among Us’ trajectory for the next nine episodes.
Thank goodness, then, that the merits of those individual plot and character threads are strong enough to leave the listener suitably chortled, emotionally wrought and ultimately captivated to discover what lies around the corner as soon as the show’s iconic end credits sting kicks in. As shown by her sublime Torchwood one-off outing The Dollhouse back in April, when left to her own devices Dawson’s got more than enough comedic and dramatic chops to pull off a standalone storyline for the range, but even if “Orr” can’t quite match that entertaining Charlie’s Angels-riffing adventure’s lofty heights, as a penultimate instalment for Part 1 it’s got more than enough to keep fans and newcomers alike engaged.
“All life is equal – animal, mechanical and everything in-between.”
Those wanting Part 1’s concluding instalment to serve as a gripping mid-season finale which leaves one desperate to hear the next four episodes might need to restrain those expectations somewhat. Much as “Superiority Complex” affords the whole team plenty to do as they infiltrate a prospering alien hotel to determine the source of recent on-site murders, with John Barrowman clearly relishing Jack’s newfound role as a typically flirtatious barman and Orr’s abilities granting her unprecedented access to employees’ psyches, it’s certainly not concerned with resolving or substantially progressing many plot threads established so far, barring a last-minute cliffhanger which promises dire straits for Torchwood Three come October’s Part 2.
With that disclaimer out of the way, though, listeners can focus on simply enjoying the sheer lunacy of the team’s present situation, one member hiding a particularly juicy secret as she spars wits with disgruntled guests and Orr’s encounters with the hotel’s true management proving both ridiculous and tangible given the current exponential growth of artificial intelligence. Between uniting Jack with a British monarch in The Victorian Age and transforming Cardiff into a disease-ridden warzone in Outbreak, AK Benedict is no stranger to devising logic-eschewing premises anyway, but “Complex” tests the extent to which your disbelief can be suspended like never before, an experiment which if nothing else ensures an unpredictable listening experience presumably akin to watching an episode of the original TV series while under the influence of narcotic substances.
Better yet, come Episode 4’s credits we’re left with the unmistakable, gratifying sense of a truly reinvigorated Torchwood, one packing a familiar status quo but with revitalising new elements in the form of the team’s latest recruits, and the fresh, unstable dynamic between protagonists old and new ensuring that both the standalone and arc-orientated instalments compel. If Goss and company could work to justify Kai Owen and Tom Price’s top billings as Rhys and Andy – neither of whom get much in the way of dramatic meat until “Superiority” – next time around, and develop the elusive Ro-Jedda as a multi-dimensional antagonist for Jack et al to battle, then Part 2 could take the show to Children of Earth-rivalling heights once more, but for now, the show’s well and truly back on form, and long may it reign as such at Big Finish.