“Just remember she’s behind all this. Even free, we’re her slaves.”
Now there’s a statement which you don’t hear uttered in every pulp sci-fi audio drama. Indeed, whilst Big Finish’s Doctor Who franchise output oft comes under scrutiny for its depiction of controversial real-world figures such as Winston Churchill, in Torchwood: Fortitude lies a marked rebuttal to any accusations of political archaism, along with a confident mission statement for future such works. If you’ve long craved an entry in the Main Range which builds upon God Among Us’ disturbing odyssey into homelessness and Children of Earth’s harrowing satire on global crises and the leaders forced to tackle them – rather than simply dipping its toe into political waters as Who does sometimes with episodes like “Arachnids in the UK” – then you’ve definitely come to the right place.
Ever the master of misdirection and deception, Torchwood range producer James Goss, has cunningly seeded this philosophically-charged storyline within an otherwise quintessential premise for the TV show-turned-audio saga; the good Queen Victoria, accompanied by one of her completely devout servants, finds herself trapped aboard a seemingly haunted prison, prompting no shortage of supernatural hijinks as she, her aide as well as the prison’s increasingly-unhinged warden battle demons both internal and external. So just another day at the office for our 19th-century monarch in other words, especially seeing as the play takes place after Who’s 2006 period outing “Tooth & Claw” and thus after her establishment of the Torchwood Institute to investigate unearthly incursions precisely along these lines.
Unfortunately for the British Empire’s leading lady, and fortunately for us listeners in contrast, her troubles here extend far beyond any run-of-the-mill alien encounter, with her truly greatest threats potentially lying closer to home. In fact, Goss’ gripping chamber piece of a tale delights in playing with our expectations. Mysterious locked rooms house less in the way of predictable jump-scares and more in the way of psychological insight into Colonel Crackenthorpe after guarding the prison for untold decades; said military veteran’s covert machinations might speak to alien possession or to far more human goals and regrets; while the traditional third-act confrontation takes a wholly different form as Indian Maharaja-turned-servant Duleep Singh finds a potential answer to his plight in another tormented soul. No accomplished script should present a completely shock-free storyline, of course, but it’s genuinely humbling to see Fortitude’s wright so gracefully subvert ghost story (and his franchise’s) tenets in order to explore Victoria’s moral spectres – namely those countless victims who suffered grievously under her Empire’s ruthless global expansion.
Just as Big Finish evidently realised this multi-faceted yarn’s huge promise upon Goss’ original pitch, so too must the piece’s Three Performing Musketeers have been all too aware of the potential for a distinguished gem to emerge provided that their own contributions delivered. And deliver they most certainly do: the tonally-understated egotism, ferocious stubbornness and dryly-pitched biting wit which Rowena Cooper has brought to Alexandrina Victoria of Kent ever since her rambunctious debut in The Victorian Age remains just as entertaining here, albeit lying in stark contrast to Paul Bazely’s part-tragic, part-inspiring take on Singh. His effortless progression through time-worn heartbreak, bubbling resentment and passionate cultural defiance as the character gathers long-lost confidence will – in combination with the script’s no-holds-barred interrogation of those responsible for his torture – surely evoke poignant emotions aplenty for any listeners whose ancestors endured the Empirical era. Arguably Fortitude’s finest actorial feat, though, comes in David Sterne’s more concise but no less impactful work as Crackenthorpe, the heartfelt pathos which he inspires in the Colonel’s sorrowful contemplations of past mistakes doubly praiseworthy considering that Cooper and Bazely share far more airtime in comparison.
Similarly instrumental to Fortitude’s success while immersing us in its seabound escapades are, well, the instruments involved with bringing said escapes to aural life. Through a combination of hauntingly atmospheric oceanic noises ever-present in the background, painfully jarring door creaks or ill-disguised footsteps as Queen Vic and Singh attempt to traverse the gaol unnoticed and vividly-rendered images like a Woman in Black-esque rocking chair moving of its own hostless accord, the sound design team work tirelessly to ensure that we’re every inch as unsettled as the fictitious constructs whom we’re following via headphones, laptop speakers or other means. What’s more, this superb sensory barrage has a vital role to play from a genre storytelling perspective, ultimately furthering our disbelief-suspending capabilities to the point that we’re no less invested once events take a turn for the Lovecraftian come Act 3 than we were in exploring the prison’s more tangible corridors beforehand – not something to which many of Fortitude’s sci-fi counterparts on audio or TV can always attest.
With all of that being said, one comparatively minor but still noticeable blemish may rob Fortitude of its otherwise undisputed place amongst the Crown Jewels of the Torchwood franchise. Sherlock’s Jim Moriarty once famously professed that “every fairy-tale needs a good old-fashioned villain” and indeed, this fantastical-esque romp to the high seas comes equipped with a fittingly overblown foil for our already-conflicted ‘heroes’ to reckon with in varying ways. Yet despite Goss’ remarkable efforts to seamlessly weave said foe into the piece’s thematic path-web of slavery-induced trauma, so much time passes before we’re properly introduced that it can’t help but resemble an afterthought versus the fascinating moral voyages taken by each of the other key players involved. Perhaps that comes down to the oft-discussed Main Range limitation of a one-hour narrative format, perhaps Goss consciously upheld the classic horror trope of leaving the relentless monstrosity up to our imagination; either way, the piece’s Big Bad remains in hindsight a somewhat untapped reservoir which his successors should seriously consider revisiting in greater detail.
Admittedly when the only real caveats levelled at your latest production represent but minor nitpicks in context, that’s a surefire sign of the piece’s success in virtually every other aspect. In no way did the above-mentioned gripe impinge upon Fortitude’s phenomenal performances, crucially-immersive sound effects or its script’s rarely-matched juggling act of classic Torchwood elements with challenging philosophical debates for listeners to contemplate; quite to the contrary, it only served to highlight the staggering extent to which the play’s strengths outweigh any such trivial shortcomings. As modern civilisation shelters from you-know-which crisis and shows its true colours, there has seldom been a better time for James Goss’ scathing, brilliant warning against choosing greed over human compassion – all the more reason to give his latest winning effort a try ASAP.