Written By: Lisa McMullin
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Indira Varma (Susie Costello), Annette Badland (Margaret Blaine), Raj Ghatak (Pilot)
Released by Big Finish Productions - May 2019
Order from Amazon UK
“I’m the thrilling demonstration of what happens when you don’t exercise your democratic right!”
How could Margaret Blaine’s return to the worlds of Doctor Who for the first time since 2005 possibly go wrong with a line of dialogue as perfect as that? The Slitheen-turned-politician-turned-Cardiff mayor’s timely demise in “Boom Town” would’ve ruled out the re-introduction of Annette Badland’s delightfully sadistic character in any other narrative continuity, but the timeline-hopping nature of Big Finish’s Torchwood range enables the Who spin-off to continually visit just about any moment in either show’s shared history. Enter Sync, yet another indisputable hit for both franchises which brings together two unashamedly self-obsessed renegades for a fatal road trip quite unlike any other cultural production – to quite simply hilarious effect.
Lisa McMullin (now penning her fourth script after contributions to Gallifrey: Time War 2, The Eighth of March and UNIT Incursions) delivers a relatively straightforward sales pitch this time around compared to many overstuffed audio dramas: take Mayor Blaine, thrust her into the trajectory of a pre-death Susie Costello covertly hunting alien technology, strap a time-bomb to their wrists and watch the gleeful havoc ensue. Indeed, her Big Finish peers should absolutely take heed of her success in implementing such a concise precis, since doing so keeps Sync astutely focused on its central characters and in particular the development of their ruthless psyches. So often we’re prone to write off corrupted antiheroes like Margaret or Susie as doomed loose cannons whose one-dimensional worldviews seal their undoing, yet McMullin digs far deeper into her unlikely protagonists than their TV outings ever managed, deconstructing their joint familial isolation and how these formative personal experiences inevitably influenced their animosity (to say the least) towards wider society in later life.
Admittedly, the risk that always comes with team-up scripts of this accomplished ilk is the two like-minded lead stars feeling indistinguishably of a piece with their respective portrayals, yet that’s scarcely true in Sync’s case. Fresh off her audio appearances in Moving Target and The Torchwood Archive, Indira Varma tangibly channels a resigned bitterness at her Torchwood Three teammates’ timeline-preserving MO, such that you buy Susie's overall disillusionment with humanity, whereas Badland’s carefully-seeded moments of vulnerability deepen her portrayal as they did in “Boom Town”, suggesting her malicious gusto to be more of a necessary front than anything else. It’s saying something when a pair of constructs who made such a compelling impression on-screen – in no small part thanks to Russell T. Davies’ character-driven approach to storytelling for Who and Torchwood alike – can continue to reveal unexpected facets in subsequent off-screen storylines, so credit where credit’s due to the playwright and thespians alike on that front.
At the same time, however, this morally complex instalment deftly balances its psych-studies with plenty of the fatalities, frivolities and, naturally, farts which Susie and Margaret collectively leave in their wake – much to the audible entertainment of Badland and Varma (not to mention the sound team emulating those gaseous exchanges!). Hearing the pair relentlessly squabble over hailing taxis, local politics, the debatable allure of Cardiff’s skyline by night and countless other trivial matters works wonders, keeping their high-stakes race against time grounded and ensuring that Sync never gets too bogged down with emphasising the mortal peril that awaits the pair and the city alike should they fail. Indeed, that Big Finish opted to – whether due to time constraints or creative decisions – exclude Badland from their Slitheen-featuring outing in their The Tenth Doctor Chronicles boxset last year seems a surprising oversight with the hindsight of her splendid work alongside Varma here, to the extent that they’d be fools to repeat the mistake going forward if they can still find ways to integrate the late Mayor into Who storylines.
Perhaps it’s telling of Sync’s myriad scripting and performance strengths, then, that a recurring gripe with these recent Torchwood / Doctor Who returning villain crossovers almost falls entirely under the radar despite its residual presence. For all of McMullin’s truly impressive efforts to keep her first Main Range contribution moving at a feral Slitheen’s pace, only taking detours for the occasional bout of well-timed comic relief and mostly integrating character development seamlessly along the way, there remains the pervasive sense that Raj Ghatak’s succinctly-named Pilot was a structural afterthought. While the weighting of supporting players clearly forms a core part of any playwright’s thought-process, when the play in question places said Pilot fairly centre-stage late on, you can’t help wishing that it’d dedicate more time to portraying them as anything other than a hapless victim in events beyond their control, or at least making a meaningful thematic point if that was the intention of said depiction.
But given the aforementioned minimal prominence which that quibble had in our mind come the end credits (especially compared to last month’s hurriedly-concluded The Green Life), the odds of it affecting your listening experience seem borderline astronomical. Chances are that you’ll instead leave Sync having cackled heartily throughout at its dizzying array of razor-sharp one-liners, having formed a remarkably fresh outlook on its two far-from-B-list rogues and, most importantly, having barely noticed 60 minutes passing all the while. If Lisa McMullin wasn’t already on your writers-to-watch list after her potent Gallifrey offering earlier this year, then trust us – simply give her superb Torchwood debut a go and you’ll join us in counting down the days until her sophomore storyline follows suit.
NEXT TIME ON TORCHWOOD – From the moment that David Attenborough discovered plastic debris littering the ocean floor, the clock immediately started clicking on whether Big Finish or Chris Chibnall would snag the rights to base an Auton storyline around this all-too-disturbing subject matter. Well, evidently the former party won out in the bidding war, leaving Rhys Williams with the rather undesirable task of battling the Nestene Consciousness’ countless duplicates on the high seas – sans his wife or any Torchwood colleagues at that. See you back here for our verdict on the next Main Range instalment Sargasso – as well as the sure-to-be apocalyptically eventful God Among Us 3 – in the weeks ahead…