It’s been a long time coming, but Toshiko Sato is back. And it’s so great to have her with us again.
Big Finish is making its mark on Torchwood – or more accurately, the audio company is showing off the drama’s flexible format greater than the TV show ever did. Last time, we had Queen Victoria chasing down an alien alongside Captain Jack; this time, Tosh, a character largely confined to the Hub during working hours, takes a trip on her own to Russia.
She’s investigating a signal, on a loop broadcast 62 miles above Siberia, which the Russians call “Pulse.” Scientists have tried to decipher it for 40 years. But Tosh is smart, and she’s worked it out. It’s a message: a woman’s voice saying, “Toshiko Sato, the truth is in Zone 10.” Yep, that should be enough to grab you. It’s a wonderful pre-titles sequence, establishing the intrigue that continues throughout the following hour-or-so.
Torchwood was largely confined to Wales, so it’s fantastic to get a tale set in Russia, somewhere the series has never gone before, and the premise of Zone 10 is unusual for Torchwood too. The titular zoned-off area is a place no one leaves: Tosh is warned about that by Maxim Ivanov (Krystian Godlewski), who works at the KVI, Russia’s equivalent of Torchwood. Naturally, that doesn’t put her off, so she and Ivanov head off.
They could easily have argued on their trip, but writer, David Llewellyn is smarter than that: he makes sure these characters get along, and there’s a genuine warmth between Mori and Godlewski (Tosh was always the most approachable of the Torchwood team).
This honesty means listeners get a better insight into Sato’s life, and quite early on, two conversations really stand out, one about how much they both love Tetris – a lovely little character moment, binding them together despite their differences – and the other about Tosh wanting in on the action herself. She’s been obsessed with the Pulse since even before she worked for Torchwood, and she feels like she has some claim on it. She worries that her work would be undermined by her colleagues rushing in, all guns blazing.
And it is good to hear Tosh out in the field. The TV stories largely focused on her were always very strong – To The Last Man particularly comes to mind – so we know she’s more than up to the task. Indeed, she handles this mission better than any other team member could, thanks to one of her creations we see working in Journey’s End: the time lock, which dampens local disturbances in space-time. It’s this resourcefulness that finds Tosh getting to the very heart of the matter.
Yes, the tale has so-called “timey wimey” elements, but if you’re weary of such things, it’s not to the audio’s detriment. In fact, it’s not used enough for my liking. Nonetheless, this timely notion is so great, you’d think the Doctor would be aware of this. Perhaps he does. That idea is quite fascinating in itself, that the Doctor refuses to get involved with Zone 10.
So that leaves Tosh and Ivanov, drawn into a mystery that takes them back to the 1960s and the early days of space travel. While exploring the attitudes of these pioneers makes the central premise even more interesting, Zone 10 is let-down slightly by its reliance on the Committee, aliens that feel too much like the 456 from Children of Earth. I encourage story arcs, but if you’ve not heard The Conspiracy and Uncanny Valley, Zone 10 won’t be as engaging as it should be.
This is clearly not the last we’ve heard of the Committee. A shocking revelation throws more questions into the mix, and I’ve faith in the pay-off – whenever that may be.
While the story gets a tad lost, there are two brilliant things Zone 10 has going for it: the first is a gentle but incredibly effective sound design. And the other is the cast. Naoko Mori really pulls the tale along, giving it real heart. “If I didn’t have work,” Tosh admits in an understated yet weighty conversation, “I’d have nothing else.” It’s easy to forget how good she really is. In a joyous interview afterwards, Mori says, “This is so exciting… I love Torchwood dearly,” and that love comes across beautifully. (That interview also includes a great memory of Aliens of London, the first scene shot of revived Doctor Who – well worth the price of admission alone.)
Naoko Mori wants to do more audios, and after listening to the flawed but enjoyable Zone 10, we want her back for more too.
Torchwood: Zone 10 is out now from Big Finish, £9.99 for a CD or £7.99 as a download.