Written By: Tim Foley, Joseph Lidster, Helen Goldwyn, James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Cast: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Tracy-Ann Oberman (Yvonne Hartman), Alexandria Riley (Ng), Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Samantha Béart (Orr), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams), Tom Price (Sgt. Andy Davidson), Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), Rachel Atkins (Ro-Jedda), Ramon Tikaram (Colin Colchester-Price), Terrence Hardiman (Escape), Sanee Raval (Xander), Kezrena James (Serena), Laura Dalgleish (Newsreader), Kerry Joy Stewart (Waitress), Garnon Davies (Rory), Joseph Tweedale (Assassin), Richard Elfyn (Inspector Bernstein), Aly Cruickshank (God Botherer), Marilyn Le Conte (Sue), Rick Yale (Darren), Luke Williams (Hywel), Charlotte O’Leary (News Reporter).
Released By Big Finish Productions - February 2018
Order from Amazon UK
If there’s one crime of which reviewers can’t possibly accuse Big Finish’s first full season of Torchwood missions, it’s conforming to fans’ expectations.
Few would’ve blamed the studio for playing their cards safe with Aliens Among Us, particularly considering how straying from the beaten track to Stateside waters terminated the mature Doctor Who spin-off’s televised tenure. Yet rather than erasing Miracle Day from canon and resurrecting past teammates like Ianto and Toshiko for the sake of restoring the show’s original status quo, producer James Goss and his intrepid team of scribes have boldly committed to a new team, an embattled new incarnation of Cardiff ruled by alien mobsters and numerous emotionally devastating twists with series-altering ramifications.
What’s more, with Part 3 – comprising the final four instalments of Season Five – Goss and company don’t so much rein in their lofty ambitions as raise the benchmark ever further, delivering a truly memorable quartet of similarly pivotal adventures which, short of any major retcons next time around, promise to redefine Torchwood Three’s future for the better. The team’s eternal leader Captain Jack Harkness opened every episode of the show’s first few TV runs with the assertion that “the 21st century is where everything changes” and, judging by the events of this captivating boxset, perhaps he was referring to February 2018…
Prepare for a disorientating dive into the deep end of recent Torchwood mythology with this fast-paced mid-season premiere as the Red Skies plot arc developed over the course of Season Five comes to a head. With the terrorist group seemingly plotting a number of violent attacks across the city so as to rid Cardiff of its extraterrestrial immigrants, it’s up to Jack, Gwen, Orr and Mr. Colchester to fend off these plots or at least minimize their blast radius before it’s too late. The only problem? They’re a team divided thanks to Jack’s recent sinister activities, not to mention the return of one Yvonne Hartman in the Hub’s vaults.
Indeed, that reports of Ms. Hartman’s demise in“Doomsday” were seemingly exaggerated comes as a welcome surprise by the end of “Poker Face”, since MVP Tracy-Ann Oberman’s presence injects the episode with as much grim humour and ruthless energy as it does unpredictability surrounding the nature of Yvonne’s survival. Better yet, whereas Torchwood often left its titular organisation’s long-running history shrouded in ambiguity on-screen, Oberman and John Barrowman’s electrifying rapport as their righteous commanders-in-chief vie for supremacy also allows for new insight into their shared history and the secret agency’s various teams interacted prior to the Battle of Canary Wharf.
It’s testament to playwright Tim Foley’s focused script that its headline act doesn’t overshadow the fascinating internal conflicts rife amongst the team in the wake of Part 2’s “The Empty Hand” either; quite to the contrary, just as much of its running time is dedicated to exploring whether the ends justify the means when it comes to Jack’s alignment with Red Skies to save Cardiff. Can the team possibly move forward knowing that its leader would willingly fuel hate crime and risk thousands of lives to best Ro-Jedda’s Sorvix hordes? As with much of Part 3 and of Aliens Among Us as a whole, the answer may shock listeners just as it did this reviewer, not least given its profound implications for what comes next.
A real Orr de force, this one – pun fully intended. Clearly Goss well understands the need for series plot arcs to take a backseat, since here he tasks Joseph Lidster with tackling an issue largely separated from Ro-Jedda’s mayoral scheming but no less potent as a source of narrative inspiration: social media. Predictably letting Orr loose online to solve the mystery of fate-bearing cards spreading across the city isn’t the wisest of ideas but doing so affords Samantha Béart the rare opportunity to showcase her actorial mettle as the character is tested to her limits by the raw vitriol, prejudice and hatred that she must channel to discover why otherwise innocuous civilians are taking lives without almost any remorse.
As always, that’s not the only problem facing Torchwood Three in this instance – still reeling from the – spoilerific but suffice to say monumental – cliffhanger left by “Poker Face”, they’re dealing with a volatile new status quo which again forces each team member to consider the lengths to which they’re willing to go to keep Cardiff from tearing itself apart. Such quandaries only work in Paul Clayton’s favour as Colchester, whose increasingly close friendship with Orr makes the experience of watching her endure immense psychological pain to crack the case that much more harrowing – and thus dramatically satisfying – as a result.
Great performances usually necessitate a great script to provide worthy dialogue, though. Let’s give credit where credit’s due to Lidster, then, without whom “Tagged” might lack the emotional poignancy found in Serena’s topical plight as a sexually abused police officer, or the cathartic moments of levity granted by Gwen and Sergeant Andy Davidson’s bemusement at events on the streets, or the harrowing final scene which casts one of Torchwood’s most loyal stalwarts in a chillingly unsettling light. From his TV contribution to the franchise with 2008’s “A Day in the Death” to today, Torchwood remains safe whenever it lies in Lidster’s capable hands.
Yet what of Helen Goldwyn, whose only contribution to the range until now has been a cameo in last year’s throwback boxset Torchwood One: Before the Fall? Like Lidster, Goldwyn aims to explore another renowned facet of modern-day society, specifically the puzzle-based communal pastime which gives “Escape Room” its name. The difference here lies in said setting’s acting as a metaphorical springboard for this relative newcomer to examine the states of the Cooper and Colchester-Price families, with both relationships coming under greater strain as Alexandria Riley's Ng strives to keep her possession of Gwen’s body a closely-guarded secret.
This approach in turn once again allows Clayton, Riley, Kai Owen and Ramon Tikaram as Colin Colchester-Price to take advantage of their increased airtime and remind fans why the series remains at its best when challenging and evolving its relationships rather than always pitting characters against Earth-threatening challenges. Over the course of the hour each player of this explosive game-turned-death trap must test their loyalties against their desire for self-preservation, with no-one’s fate guaranteed and Goldwyn’s intelligent integration of red herrings here and there ensuring the lister remains either at the edge of their seat or fascinated to discover how the true last-minute twists will affect future episodes.
Perhaps the only noteworthy shortcoming which this reviewer could detect in “Escape Room” connects more-so to its context within the grander scheme of Aliens Among Us than its compelling semi-standalone tale. Steering clear of spoiler territory, the knowledge of Ng’s true identity as well as the overall Sorvix / Red Skies arc taking priority in Season Five’s final outing mean that a couple of seemingly irreversible watershed moments aren’t explored in as substantial depth going forward as one might hope, serving as devices to push said arcs towards their climax more than anything else. While that seems something of a missed opportunity, though, as a standalone piece Goldwyn’s Torchwood debut provides an utterly gripping hour of tension and emotionally wrought drama which no fan will soon forget.
“Herald of the Dawn”:
Among the most heinous clichés in the marketing book is proclaiming that a TV drama’s protagonists will “never be the same again” once the credits have rolled on its latest season finale. Too often we’re promised as much only to discover that the supposedly groundbreaking changes instigated by that show’s writing team are nothing of the sort or will inevitably be retconned come the next season premiere, for fear of the brand losing followers by axing key characters, leaving plot threads hanging or delivering near-impossible cliffhangers to resolve.
That’s not remotely the case with “Herald of the Dawn”, however. As well as reintroducing Jonny Green’s increasingly besieged ex-journalist Tyler Steele and Jack – who’s absent for much of this boxset with good reason – into the fray, James Goss’ magnificent season capper places myriad other responsibilities on its plate, from resolving Ng’s arc to revealing the rationale behind Bilis Manger’s mysterious Part 2 appearance to confirming that Ro-Jedda and her Sorvix clan aren’t going anywhere either. If manipulating so many pivotal chess pieces at once seemed an impossible task, then Goss makes the endeavour look enviably simple, both providing satisfying closure on many fronts and revealing that other elements are but the tip of the iceberg in a far more audacious multi-season game-plan.
Yes, you read that last sentence correctly – as if there were ever any doubt, Goss and director Scott Handcock confirm their intentions for more regular Torchwood chapters beyond Aliens Among Us in the accompanying behind-the-scenes tracks, although to think otherwise would’ve been ridiculous after the infuriatingly tantalising note on which “Herald” concludes. It’s not often that this reviewer finds himself completely breathless at the end of a Big Finish production, but I’ll gladly confess to yelling in exasperation at the top of my voice in a crowded Tottenham Court Road tube station as the series’ iconic theme tune kicked in to signal Season Five’s end credits. How we’ll endure such an unbearable wait between now and Season Six given the colossal cliffhanger left here – and a particularly poignant coda by Russell T. Davies leaving a Torchwood icon’s future uncertain – is beyond yours truly.
That’s a sure-fire sign of a tremendously successful season finale, though, and a wholehearted reaffirmation of Torchwood’s undoubtedly prosperous future at Big Finish. Between the studio’s half-year runs of monthly adventures situated in Torchwood Three’s past (our reviews of which will resume in March with The Death of Captain Jack), their delightful Torchwood One boxsets with Oberman at their firm helm and April’s long-awaited team-up boxset Torchwood Believe set to reunite the show’s original cast, this once-tarnished brand couldn’t lie in safer hands today, hence why this reviewer can’t wait to see what Goss and company have next up their sleeves.