Being a fan of Torchwood in summer 2021 wasn’t about Absent Friends, but the ones we made on the way.
The planned 50th release from Big Finish’s Torchwood Main Range included the Tenth Doctor, Captain Jack Harkness, and Ianto Jones, but was pulled from the release schedule due to allegations of misconduct by Harkness’s actor John Barrowman.
After the gap in the release schedule in May, the range resumed with Yvonne Hartman-focused tale The Five People You Kill in Middlesbrough, and then five tales that each had us spending time with a friend… or an enemy.
A man called Adam has taken over the Torchwood Institute. Or he’s Norton Folgate’s secret boyfriend. Or he’s about to stop the world being invaded by a fleet of alien spaceships. But who is Adam?
The world of 1950s Soho plays host to Adam’s second (or first) appearance in Torchwood and despite it being the same ‘enemy within’ basis of his character as when he appeared in the self-titled television episode, Madam, I’m takes his immersion into the world in a very different direction.
It’s a story that reintroduces the Torchwood One crew of Folgate and Lizbeth Hayhoe, arguably the most complete pairing this franchise now has with the rest of the range’s releases usually focusing on one key member of the Cardiff-based team at a time. The title of this story shows how Adam has immersed himself into Norton’s life in particular, with “Madam, I’m” being almost a catchphrase of his, and there are lots of references both in the script and structurally to old science-fiction movies.
For those who love this 20th Century take on Torchwood, it’s a well constructed and executed story that used Adam in a way that doesn’t feel like a repeat of the TV episode. But maybe he’s the friend within rather than the enemy.
First seen in the Doctor Who Series 2 two-parter The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit, Zachary Cross Flane returned to action in August’s Empire of Shadows. And he was accompanied by the synthetic human, and possibly his friend, Chloe.
This episode captures Torchwood’s atmosphere from the very off, despite the far future of the second Great and Bountiful Human Empire being very distant from the era of the TV show. And the music to depict this far future is absolutely sublime.
Flane and Chloe have a prickly but bouncy relationship, with both holding prejudices against the other and Flane preferring the company of an Ood. They have gone to the opening of the late Empress’s Library upon the invite of her son to provide security (given Torchwood still works for empire above anything else) as he thinks the conspiracy that toppled her will topple him too. But very quickly, Torchwood are shuffled to the waiting rooms, with their jobs at risk.
That proves a uniting force for the two main characters, as suspicious activities then turn the opening into an Indiana Jones-style race for survival. There’s some twists and turns, but the relationship between Flane and Chloe remains at the centre of the tale and is key to its conclusion.
The behind the scenes on this release delves into another relationship, between Flane’s actor Shaun Parkes and Doctor Who.
Bilis… or Jill
The Torchwood Archive has been placed deep in a Welsh coal mine, and Jill Anderson has been sent there to catalogue its artefacts. While she’s there, she bumps into Bilis Manger. Welcome to Torchwood.
A dark mine isn’t the most comfortable place, but Murray Melvin plays Bilis as if he’s lounging in his front room. He appears to Jill so casually, as if he owns the space, and soon builds up a slightly spooky rapport with her.
Jill is a really solid lead character, and brilliantly brought to life by Rosie Baker. As the story goes on, she has to work with Bilis, whose line delivery (which on occasion comes to just one word or an utterance) too frequently gives away this was a remote recording and not a piece where the two actors were sharing a booth. But it doesn’t detract entirely from the performance because the charisma carries it still.
There’s some continuity to the Soho-based audios, and a really good scene where 20th Century misogyny and male predatory characteristics are confronted. In a story that is a slow-moving horror, this is arguably the darkest scene of them all. It can make for uncomfortable listening for those who have been in similar situations, but the scene is dissipated nicely rather than tipping over the line of horror.
This part of the story really links into the key theme of Curios, which is confronting your demons and haunting yourself. It’s central to both Bilis and Jill’s arcs, particularly in finding out why they’re both really down in the mine, and as it moves towards its climax, the episode is a really, really enjoyable listen.
It works very well as a standalone, almost like Midnight, while also feeling like a key missing chapter in the Torchwood mythos that you would have as a mid-season episode. And, of course, Bilis and Jil are two great friends we make on the way.
On a fact-finding mission to Earth, Major Kreg of the Sontaran empire finds himself stuck at the Mumbles Bay Caravan Park under the observation of Ianto Jones.
As you can probably guess, The Great Sontaran War is a comedy.
Torchwood has given him a perception filter so he can fit, but his totally alien attitudes still cause hijinks and misunderstandings almost every day. And like a set of stylised scenes, it feels like it’s taken some inspiration from the works of unconventional Swedish film director Roy Andersson.
Kreg (which just happens to sound like Craig) doesn’t bond with too many people but quickly acquires a cat, who proceeds to eat his neighbour’s pet bird. From thereon, tensions are abound for Kreg and group marshal cat.
You can very much tell this is set in the 2000s, and it uses the alien perspective of Kreg to not only give a damning commentary on much of society and British attitudes (particularly on migrants, land ownership, and labour law) but also just tell a strong story on what it feels like to be an outsider. And at its heart, that’s a sad story.
Despite his errors and own Sontaran attitudes, Kregg becomes the hero of this episode while Ianto and Torchwood fade into the background until needed to explain a misunderstanding or why regrettably ‘capitalism is the best we have’.
There are moments like in Thin Ice where some unconventional methods are used to deliver the message of ‘racist people are bad’, but you can’t help but cheer for bad characters getting what they deserve.
While this is a very British story to tell, it does return to universal sci-fi territory eventually with a ‘if only these problems could be solved in the real world like this’ conclusion.
And visually, ‘Sontaran causes havoc in caravan park’ is a hoot to imagine all the way through.
Mr Colchester is in quarantine in a foreign country, while it’s being taken over by aliens. His hotel balcony door is sealed by a cable tie, and he’s been staring at the walls for several days. That already hits very close to home for those of us who travelled during the pandemic, because — our government is led by an Auton! No, it’s because many of us ended up in quarantine over the past two years.
Torchwood has been summoned to deal with the alien threat in this warmer part of the world, and in another hotel room is Dorothy McShane. Former friend of the Doctor, not a friend of Torchwood, but quick to try to make friends with Colchester once she finds her balcony and then his.
There’s masks, an out of his depth el presidente, and a hotel staff member called Javier to handle, all the while building trust with each other. When it comes to making friends, Colchester certainly isn’t the person you’d nominate for such a task.
Soon, the pair figure something isn’t quite right at the hotel, with televisions that only broadcast the president, unexplained noises from supposedly empty rooms, an apparent suicide, and hidden messages appearing in their rooms.
They’re really on their own though, with no communication to the outside world bar Javier, who is light on information and heavy on responding to guests’ complaints.
While the conflict between them should stem from Colchester working for an organisation that exists to hunt down McShane’s best friend, it instead comes from the increasingly testing scenarios they end up in that lead to them suspecting each other to be non-trustworthy. Is it a set up? Is it a naturally occurring dispute? Or something more alien?
The listener has to question as much as the characters do to get out of this one, and there’s almost an Alien-like atmosphere at times. It’s a horror story in more ways than one, although the usual aching reverse piano notes and other musical riffs Torchwood uses have been replaced by more Latino-sounding examples, and it’s one big mystery that is peeled back at the expense of more of that horror being exposed.
The final act moves The Red List from being a slowburner to a mega action movie, possibly one you’d watch at Christmas if it were Die Hard, and the big villain feels like it should be a returning threat but also is very close to a big bad from Doctor Who Christmas specials. The title is a direct reference to countries’ quarantine level during the pandemic, but is also the list of every Torchwood leader who killed all their operatives. Which I’ll leave as a closing thought, given this audio takes place after the yet-to-be resolved cliffhanger of Torchwood Series 6…