For all Captain Jack Harkness’ weekly proclamations that “the 21st century is when everything changes”, one immutable curse seems to dog his Cardiff team throughout every mission, team roster and entertainment medium – they simply can’t catch a break. So it is that Big Finish’s latest Torchwood boxset, God Among Us Part 2, finds his comrades besieged at all sides from new threats, some outrageously supernatural like Season Seven’s titular self-professed deity, others far closer to home for listeners in the form of resonant societal ordeals.
The agency’s ever-intensifying struggle for survival works to our immense benefit once again, though, resulting in another thrilling run of storylines which avoids Part 1’s confounding tonal repetition and – better yet – builds to a truly epic crescendo that’ll have fans pre-ordering Part 3 faster than they can say “bring back Ianto”…
“Everything about this plane feels wrong.”“Wrong is where Torchwood lives…”
Eagle-eared listeners will doubtless have noticed a number of tantalising plot strands bubbling under the surface of Big Finish’s various Torchwood releases so far (across the Main Range, these post-Miracle Day boxsets and the 10th Anniversary Special The Torchwood Archive), arguably the most intriguing of which comes in the form of one Norton Folgate. Part-Torchwood Three recruit, part-Committee conspirator, part-infuriating enigma, Folgate’s various encounters with the likes of Andy Davidson, Jack and their teammates seldom fail to throw more perplexing questions into the mix as to his true agenda.
That God Among Us Part 2 plunges headfirst into the psyche of Samuel Barnett’s fast-beloved rogue agent should come as a welcome relief to many, then, with scribe Lou Morgan’s “Flight 405” kicking off said interrogation in grandiose fashion via a madcap plane heist above Cardiff. As with the most compelling Folgate-centred entries to date (see Outbreak and Goodbye Piccadilly for two prime examples), it’s clear that Morgan recognises the value of balancing the character’s secrets with his sexually-charged banter; her script delicately injects ample mystery surrounding his presence aboard a fast-plummeting airplane, while simultaneously delivering regular riotous hysteria thanks to his heated-at-best interactions with Andy and Yvonne Hartman as they race to avoid citywide destruction.
Maintaining this fine tonal balance of high-stakes (not to mention high-altitude) drama with cathartic comic relief must inevitably present the cast with quite the challenge in terms of how to approach their performances; yet – as always – our accomplished players are more than up to the task at hand. With Alexandria Riley and John Barrowman mainly relegated to the background here, we’ve instead got a divine three-hander in Tracy-Ann Oberman, Tom Price and Samuel Barnett; the former pair simultaneously ground their piece via some supremely awkward romantic tension whilst also offering a perfect counterfoil with their stoic by-the-books determination to Barnett’s relentless energy and gleeful recklessness. Little wonder, then, that Big Finish have just commissioned a six-part Torchwood Soho boxset chronicling Andy and Folgate’s 1950s hijinks, since the plentiful comedic mileage waiting to be gleaned from their dynamic (and potential Yvonne cameos) is still absolutely plain to see.
“Can’t anyone see me?”“No, Tyler – no-one sees you.”
As much as Torchwood often thrives with whirlwind sci-fi heist outings such as “Flight 405”, the show (in both its televisual and audio mediums) can equally feel just at home when tackling delicate subject matters which continue to grow in pertinence for its contemporary audience by the day. Just look at how devastatingly impactful “Adrift” proved in its harrowing think-piece on missing children, or the extent to which “Poker Face” blurred the lines between secret agencies and the terrorist cells they’re trying to undo, not to mention the poignant study on personal and professional trauma conducted by God Among Us’ understated season premiere, “Future Pain”.
With all that being said, any listener approaching Ash Darby’s frankly unforgettable range debut should still brace themselves – regardless of whether they’ve experienced the above thought-provoking tales – for a deeply unsettling hour, one which is sure to intentionally test your definition of the term “entertainment” to its very limits. Events might start out ordinarily enough, as the ever-inquisitive (and ever-infuriating) Tyler takes to the streets to uncover the truth behind a new GPS app linked to homeless disappearances, yet that’s merely the plot trigger for a remarkably intricate societal interrogation. Far from simply having her protagonist come to the rescue of the missing souls, Darby forces him – and consequently us – to confront his own prejudices as the ex-journalist becomes similarly destitute, thus witnessing our species’ disturbing willingness to render these circumstantial victims of fate as pariahs simply owing to their insufficient bank balance.
Any potent humanitarian issue of this ilk always makes for challenging listening when placed under the microscope, but for Darby to buckle under the weight of what she’s trying to achieve in a mere hour by rounding off with an optimistic message would’ve seemed disingenuous at best, especially when we see the evidence of the countless lives affected by homelessness just by roaming the high street on a daily basis. Quite to the contrary, though, her script pulls no punches throughout its runtime, prompting Jonny Green’s best performance to date as he gradually deconstructs Tyler’s brazen confidence to reveal his capacity for broken hopelessness, unprecedented endurance and ultimately haunting self-preservation come the heartbreaking denouement. Look out for a similarly stunning turn from newcomer Jessica Hayles as Kirsty, yet another forgotten innocent whose sly charm fast gets under your skin to the extent that her ultimate fate lingers in the memory long after the credits.
“Another Man’s Shoes”:
“Yvonne Hartman speaking…”
What better way to lighten up proceedings after one of Big Finish’s grimmest (yet equally most remarkable) productions in recent years than with a risqué body-swapping caper? Torchwood premises don’t get much more quintessential than that. Sure enough, “Another Man’s Shoes” serves up a delightful antidote to its predecessor’s maudlin themes, largely thanks to scribe Tim Foley letting his players loose with some delightfully wild material.
Tyler and Norton, for instance, find themselves whisked off in each other’s physical vestiges for yet another of the latter’s trademark raucous nights out. Cue a deliciously strained buddy comedy dynamic which Green and Price exploit to glorious effect, their respective takes on Folgate’s rambunctious sexual provocations towards anyone available and Tyler’s initial bewilderment then growing scepticism towards Folgate’s time-travelling motives all the more impressive when you consider that they’re playing each other’s roles for one night only. The situation’s no less ridiculous with Yvonne and Andy either since the former – now inhabiting her sergeant lover’s tightly-strung uniform – must answer for the latter’s recent staged crimes in Aliens Among Us Part 3 via a disciplinary hearing, much to Andy’s palpable horror. It’s of course another gleeful disaster waiting to happen, with Price’s take on Ms. Hartman / Andy as she desperately strives to win her interviewer over a beauty to behold and Oberman no less sensational in her uncharacteristically flustered portrayal of the displaced Andy.
The only main risk which “Another’s Man Shoes” (by its unashamedly jovial and fairly plot-lite nature) faced from the outset was its potential to come off as filler in the grand scheme of God Among Us. Although Foley’s script delivers enough in the way of crudely effective gags and intrigue surrounding the hints of a wider scheme at play with the soul transfers to mostly keep any such reservations out of the listener’s mind, looking back on Part 2 as a whole, we’d wager that the lack of meaningful character development or narrative depth might rob it of a place in the Torchwood Hall of Fame when such shortlists are inevitably drawn up someday. All the same, there’s scarce point in complaining too much right now when everyone involved is clearly having such a riot of a time – the listener included.
“Eye of the Storm”:
“With a hey, a ho, the wind and the rain, and the rain it raineth every day.”
And you thought Aliens Among Us’ season finale, “Herald of the Dawn”, upped the stakes for our heroes to extents that we’d seldom seen from the TV show. Well, if David Llewellyn’s utterly gripping mid-season capper “Eye of the Storm” represents even the slightest mission statement as to the final God Among Us boxset and beyond, then apparently, we’ve barely gotten started. From mounting tidal waves to old enemies’ centuries-spanning conspiracies, from Yvonne’s long-teased past finally surfacing to the titular God choosing a side as apocalypse dawns, Big Finish writers take heed: this is how you tee up the concluding instalments of your season-long narrative in style.
However, as he escalates the odds against Torchwood Three with each epic action sequence, so too does Llewellyn mercifully recognise the value of allowing listeners moments to breathe – even when the chances of Cardiff’s residents ever breathing again look increasingly bleak. Hearing Jacqueline King’s enigmatic God square off with David Warner’s equally (if not more so) mysterious Committee character proves every inch as captivating as any of the city-threatening set-pieces, not only since Llewellyn pays off so many developing strands from Big Finish’s Torchwood storylines, but thanks to the thespians applying such delicate warmth and humour to their otherwise lofty exchanges on human evolution, nihilism and capacity for good or self-destruction, all of which grounds the piece as a whole exponentially.
If, on the other hand, listeners are craving more time in the company of Jack, the newly-resurrected Mr Colchester and Ng after the likes of Andy, Tyler and Yvonne took centre-stage for much of Part 2’s four episodes, then they’ll take comfort in knowing that Llewellyn seems only too keen to please on this front as well. A reckoning of sorts between Jack and Ng in particular – given how the latter hitched Gwen Cooper’s body for much of Aliens Among Us – was always going to be on the cards at some stage, so to hear the prolonged exchange occur now (albeit in the worst timed of circumstances as the trio reckon with a malfunctioning borderline-nuclear power station near Cardiff) will provide much-needed catharsis for Torchwood fans, the outcome setting Ng on an especially promising trajectory for Part 3.
Speaking of what’s on the horizon for God Among Us, one or two hitherto untapped goldmines are still rife for the taking in this month’s climactic boxset. That Orr plays next-to-no role in Part 2, barely even warranting a mention by her teammates until Ng raises the issue with God in “Another Man’s Shoes”, might well rub any of her fandom devotees the wrong way as a rare continuity oversight, while the Norton / Committee timelines could equally benefit from some form of clarification next time around, since both run the risk of becoming convoluted for convolution’s sake if no closure lies around the corner.
All that’s for the future, though; for now, Torchwood: God Among Us Part 2 confidently dispels any reservations which we might’ve otherwise held about this latest audio season’s capacity to match its immediate predecessor, the sheer tonal range of consistently compelling (and oft-provocative) storylines on offer truly ensuring that there’s something to keep just about every listener satisfied. Maybe, just maybe, the Cardiff team’s inability to catch a break after all these years is for the best after all.