“What is this place?”
“I would’ve thought that was abundantly clear by now – it’s a trap.”
One of the first unspoken laws that critics learn, while blissfully perched upon their infinitely extravagant ivory towers, is to keep an open mind. No matter whether you’re consuming a miraculously uncovered tome from literary royalty such as Shakespeare or the twentieth instalment in the most monotonous TV show known to man (our thoughts and prayers go out to anyone still recovering from Australia’s traumatic take on K-9), casting past biases and – if possible – contextual controversies to the wind usually offers the best opportunity to consume and evaluate the work in question as objectively as possible. Who knows? The end product could rank among your most hallowed viewing, reading or listening experiences of the year come its final shot, page or track.
It’s with this fundamental professional goal in mind that we’ve got an admission to make; after More Than This, Made You Look and The Dying Room each wrapped up Big Finish’s first three monthly Torchwood runs with predictable thrillers, devoid of their predecessors’ thematic weight or profound character development, we couldn’t help but worry that this year’s mini-season would follow suit with its final chapter. But if Goodbye Piccadilly defied this reviewer’s expectations in July with a thoroughly entertaining hour for our most maligned protagonist paring, then the frankly magnificent Deadbeat Escape blows them out of the water – we’ve no reason to ever doubt productions in the range again after this unforgettable denouement.
Think Torchwood meets Psycho and you’ll only scratch the surface of the glory that awaits. Delivering a devilishly chilling chamber piece brimming with gothic suspense and disturbing sci-fi conceits, James Goss reintroduces one of the original TV show’s finest antagonists, Bilis Manger, as our Norman Bates, his concealed intentions every inch as terrifying to unravel, his self-centred but far from self-deifying worldview just as thought-provoking and his history no less deliciously open to interpretation than in “Captain Jack Harkness” or “End of Days”. As with Marion Crane and her post-mortem entourage, the further that the Traveller Halt’s latest misfortunate occupant, Hywel Roberts, delves into the hotel’s temporal mysteries, the greater our understanding of its enigmatic new manager – and the oncoming emotional turmoil that awaits Hywel – deepens with tragic gravity. Few scribes could truly claim to match the careful precision with which Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece gradually stokes our curiosity while still leaving us dreading the consequences, yet Goss’ perfectly-paced script undoubtedly manages this structural flourish with spectacular aplomb.
And yet where lesser writers might’ve been content with prioritising these archetypal horror elements of intrigue, morally indecipherable foils and deadly foreshadowing above all else, it’s the unashamedly equal weighting afforded to Bilis and Hywel’s intertwined journeys that truly separates Goss from the pack. Naturally any innocent bystanders unlucky enough to find themselves in the former’s deceptively kindly crosshairs mark themselves out as lambs to the slaughter, but there’s so much more to Mr. Roberts than that – his effortlessly moving familial plight regularly thrusts the narrative into unexpected but no less riveting territory, with Bilis’ subtle interrogations and infrequent appearances by a haunting third player bringing his raw insecurities to the fore in heartrending fashion. It’s not often that one-off newcomers to the Torchwood franchise simply beg further appearances down the line, but just as The Dollhouse’s electrifying Los Angeles agents and Bilis himself were crying out for reprisals from the moment of their conception, so too would this reviewer leap at the chance to discover Hywel’s next steps – however inevitably morbid – beyond Escape’s end credits.
Of course, as much as it’s hugely welcome to see all of these constituent components ensuring that Escape bests previous Torchwood audio finales, not every trend needed bucking; regular readers of our range reviews will hopefully recall our continual praise for virtually every voice actor tasked with leading the plays, an enduring tradition which Murray Melvin and Gareth Pierce uphold via their superb two-hand act. In rendering Hywel’s escalating paranoia so hauntingly, yet still finding time to layer in emotional subtleties during his tender exchanges with Bilis’ other victim, Pierce offers up the perfect audition tape for the future Big Finish roles which he’s surely guaranteed to acquire going forward. Indeed, given that Melvin apparently departed his recording booth bellowing “revenge, revenge, I shall have my revenge!” and given how his gleefully malicious portrayal as Bilis takes on new dramatic layers as the pair’s tempestuous dynamic evolves, Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite their talents at the earliest convenient opportunity.
Scratch that last sentence, actually – Big Finish could do far worse than to re-unite the talents of everyone involved with Deadbeat Escape at the earliest possible opportunity, convenient or otherwise. Such are the play’s myriad strengths that we could easily dedicate just as many words to the matter as you’d find contained in its script, but whether you’re examining broader elements such as Goss’ stunningly-structured storyline and the Peabody-worthy two-hander powering proceedings, or (still vital) minutiae like the sound design’s unsettling manipulation of background ambience to induce near-constant tension, even the most sceptical listeners would be hard pressed to come away with any points of contention. Our advice? Dive in with an open mind, then allow Bilis to expand your mind to the vast possibilities of time travel with no ill intent whatsoever – why, he wouldn’t even hurt a fly…
Next Time on Torchwood – Chances are that our paths will cross with Bilis again before too long, particularly given the apocalyptic note on which Aliens Among Us concluded earlier this year and the impending arrival of God Among Us from this October onwards. Whatever happens, though, we know for certain that Torchwood’s monthly adventures will resume in March 2019 for twelve months on end – join us then for prison escapes with Owen, domestic drama with Jack and Ianto, underground excursions with Cardiff celebs and plenty more of the globe-trotting hysteria that we’ve come to expect from the century where everything changes!