“Not mentioning how raw your wife’s home-cooked lasagne is, I can do; apologizing to the Home Office because you’ve left a dead squid thing in the middle of St Mary’s –“
“You said you loved my lasagne!”
In an ever-fluctuating world where political regimes collapse as fast as they emerge, where once-indestructible business behemoths perish like wanton flies and where the fate of any TV show hangs by a knife-edge daily, only one immutable truth is certain – nothing lasts forever. Just ask the original production team behind Torchwood’s TV run; the first proper Doctor Who spin-off show rapidly grew from strength to strength between 2006 and 2009, only for its divisive – to say the least – fourth season Miracle Day to abruptly bring about its on-screen demise. Big Finish’s intervention couldn’t have come soon enough, then, delivering fans with gripping new adventures that reveal both unexplored missions for Torchwood Three and never-before-seen facets of the wider secret agency. However, as with the show’s televised tenure, surely the studio’s luck will run out eventually?
After several superb boxsets and almost 20 standalone instalments in the range, not least March’s riotously entertaining The Death of Captain Jack and April’s rib-tickling country getaway The Last Beacon, that question weighed heavily on this reviewer’s mind as he hit Play on the monthly range’s latest instalment, We Always Get Out Alive. It couldn’t have come to the fore at a more opportune time, however, since for all his experimentation with haunting horror-esque setpieces, Guy Adams’ focus lies squarely on the matter of mortality and for how long those bold – or reckless – enough to risk it as part of their profession can hope to outrun the tentacles of fate. Of course, many civil servants do beat the odds every day, returning home to their loved ones and living to fight the next battle, but those of us looking in from the outside can only imagine the intense emotional strain that such an unpredictable, risk-laden lifestyle would place on those relationships as time passes.
Indeed, between facing down drug-addled aliens demanding 10% of Earth’s younglings as a gift, cannibalistic guests at their own wedding and at times the very worst of humanity, Gwen Cooper and Rhys Williams have amassed their fair share of emotionally traumatic baggage over the years. While we’ve seen their inevitable resultant tension bubble to the surface in fleeting moments of the show to date, nowhere has the subject been explored in greater detail than with Alive’s psychodrama-driven narrative. Adams manipulates the pair’s growing anxieties with magnificent aplomb; as they deal with the fallout of a recent mission-gone-wrong, his script masterfully reveals how, through Rhys’ fears surrounding his wife’s nonchalant attitude to brushes with death, even arguments over the right turn to take on a near-deserted rural road could pose just as substantial a threat to their challenged marriage as the mysterious forces manifesting in their vicinity. It’s as cunning a metaphor as any for the ongoing struggle surely faced by soldiers, firefighters or the like in relationships, delicately deconstructing this fraught dynamic while seemingly revealing huge admiration on Adams’ part for those couples whose love and loyalty endures regardless.
This mounting tension extends far beyond the couple itself, their obligatory alien pursuer sure to unsettle even the most steeled listener on their own travels. As with many of the great antagonists in fiction and especially within the horror genre, it’s to Adams’ credit that he wisely leaves much of the nameless foe’s facets up to our imagination, cunningly keeping it just outside of our heroes’ field of perception while having its influence gradually rise through lost memories, spontaneous outbursts of rage from Rhys and Gwen as well as fleeting thuds from the Cooper car’s boot. The latter element is also aided in no small part by Alive’s brilliantly subtle sound design, which keeps us completely on edge to the extent that moments of silence ratchet up the fear factor just as much as the distant howls, ominous rustling and increasingly audible footsteps somewhere nearby the vehicle. A word of warning: don’t listen in the dead of night unless you’re well-versed enough in the realms of horror to endure Alive’s eerie gothic atmosphere. Suffice to say that this reviewer scarcely regretted his decision to hit Play in the broad daylight of his train journey to London.
But as much as it goes without saying at this late stage, beyond its chilling script and technical strengths, by far Alive’s finest assets are the two performers tasked with delivering each and every line on this occasion: Eve Myles and Kai Owen. Gwen and Rhys’ tempestuous yet heartfelt dynamic has long served as the franchise’s emotional core thanks to the pair’s grounded performances and nothing changes here in this respect; Owen recapturing Rhys’ risk-averse approach – from tackling missions to heeding the highway code – perfectly, while Eve’s portrayal recalls Clara Oswald’s arc in Doctor Who Season Nine, her relentless energy as this undaunted yet reckless heroine a simultaneously thrilling and worrying ‘sight’ to behold. Nor does it hurt that Alive offers both thespians the opportunity to display perhaps Torchwood Three’s sole surviving recruits – depending on whereabouts in the show’s timeline Alive is situated after Children of Earth – at their most personally vulnerable, albeit with plenty of well-timed jokes such as the lasagne gag above enabling vital catharsis for the players and audience alike.
Usually, you’d expect us to highlight one or two shortcomings holding the latest Torchwood release back from the Hall of Fame around about now, right? Well, think again – such is the scale of Adams and company’s magnificent achievement that almost no noteworthy flaws sprang to mind as the credits rolled. Similar to how Cascade left the door open regarding the eventual fate of Toshiko Sato’s consciousness, so too does Alive refuse to fully acknowledge whether the faceless threats – both extraterrestrial and psychological – besieging our ever-wearying protagonists have truly subsided come the play’s conclusion, particularly given Adams’ insistence upon subverting our sense of reality throughout. That ambiguity only serves to strengthen the play’s societal subtext though, speaking to the ongoing struggles inherent in any marriage and indeed the joint trauma that couples tested to the limit must learn to live with somehow, rather than finding any idyllic quick-fix solution to such woes.
In contrast, however, this reviewer can wholeheartedly lay any fears surrounding the longevity of Big Finish’s Torchwood range to rest. Between the outstanding opening half of this fourth monthly run of one-off outings, the long-awaited gratification of the original team's reunion in Believe as well as the exemplary note on which Aliens Among Us concluded in February, far from spreading itself too thinly across myriad strands, the show’s never been on better form than it is today. For those wondering where to start with exploring the franchise in audio form, Alive represents an ideal entry point, its captivating thrills making 45 minutes feel more akin to 15 and its standalone nature – no Committee mentions in sight here – preventing the need to pick up ten prior releases in order to stand any chance of understanding what’s occurring. As for the rest of us who’ve grown alongside Gwen and Rhys over the past 12 years, the harrowing setpieces, multi-layered performances, stunning sound design and stirring societal themes make We Always Get Out Alive nothing short of an essential purchase.
Next Time on Torchwood – Let’s do the time warp again as ex-Torchwood agent Norton Folgate invites us – along with Sergeant Andy Davies, doubtless as hopelessly confounded as ever – to 1950s Soho, where raunchy encounters, gun-slinging gangsters and an all manner of seedy dealings apparently lie in wait. What could possibly go wrong, eh? The pair’s initial encounter in Ghost Mission didn’t quite hit the mark for this reviewer back in 2015, but considering how Andy’s subsequent clash with Owen Harper in Corpse Day resulted in one of the range’s strongest hours to date, anything could happen later this month…