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From Fantasy to Comedy and Heart-Tugging Dogs: Revisiting Torchwood’s 2023 Range from Big Finish

The strength of Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood range means it could easily reach 150 releases. The 78th story in the range was only released last December, and we didn’t even get a full year of releases in 2023, but they were creative and entertaining and sometimes heart-tugging enough to want even more from the authors and actors in 2024.

The release of Torchwood Series 7, a Big Finish production, from May to July was the reason why there were 10 rather than 12 monthly range releases and the year kicked off with one story split into two. The first part of Double went on sale on 10th January, then part two came out 16 days later.

This story takes the show to a place it’s very rarely been before: the 1970s. We’ve seen the institute when its founder Queen Victoria was at the helm, and heard its antics in 1950s Soho, but know little of what happened between then and Torchwood One operating from Canary Wharf in the 2000s.

A new Torchwood era means a lovely 1970s version of the theme tune and a new crew: Louise Jameson – best known for playing the Fourth Doctor’s companion Leela – plays ex-MI5 operative Roberta Craven who now works for the London-based Torchwood and is trying to find out why the entire staff of the Libyan embassy went into St. James’ Square one morning and died.

Without learning much about Torchwood’s current responsibilities, we quickly build a picture of the type of person Roberta is and how complicated her life is as a former spy. The sound effects of city life and the Cold War-esque espionage that is focused on at first does make you wonder when the extraterrestrial will come into it (since the cover highlights who the big bad is), but then you don’t have to think too hard to figure out who might be behind the mysterious and corrupt-sounding Nessoil firm that is taking over the petrochemical market and therefore getting involved with the various governments who may or may not trust each other.

If 1970s international politics, and the spy dramas that it inspired, piques your interest then part one of Double is for you (and the covers for parts one and two should have been swapped around). Guy Adams adds lots of details in the script to help you build a literal map of who’s who and what is happening, all while the situation evolves with the death of the managing director of UK petroleum and other suspicious violent events. Sometimes, Roberta is heavily involved, but sometimes she’s on the investigative trail in the background while the listener is privy to more information via Auton sound effects as action happens elsewhere.

Eventually, we get that recognisable Torchwood jingle as Roberta gets drunk during her investigating, and we’re shown how heavily flawed she is as a leader, like a proto-Captain Jack Harkness. The choice to put this down, in part, to her being a hyperkinetic (which would have been ADHD if this were set in the modern day) individual with Asperger’s Syndrome is a risk but Adams knows what he’s writing about. It can also make Roberta annoying when rubbing her own ego, just like Captain Jack, particularly without a Torchwood team to bounce off.

I know someone very similar to this characterisation, so I wouldn’t call it a stereotype but it’s certainly something I wouldn’t attempt in any other Doctor Who spin-off. The key here is the decision to give these traits and complexity to a female lead rather than male one, as we’ve seen that done before in the Doctor Who world and beyond.

And a hungover Roberta actually gets more into the action of the story, with the personal, political, and extraterrestrial stakes being raised.

Part 2 does not pick up from the end of Part 1, instead relocating the story and placing Roberta firmly into the political sphere. It’s a great performance from Jameson from the off, but she’s playing it very differently as she goes for calm and calculated rather than chaotic. It’s James Bond-esque at first, then properly heads into thriller territory once we realise Roberta’s position is even more compromised than it was in Part 1. In fact, is she with rather than against the Autons?

There’s lots of questions being raised for the listener, particularly once it becomes clear some of the cast could be Auton duplicates, and once Roberta’s drunk perspective of events comes back into play there’s even more uncertainty about what’s happening. Particularly in the last month, the political landscape of today’s world has started to look very much like the 1970s again and it actually makes Double an even more vibrant story to listen to now than when it was released a year ago. Sometimes, the tension comes not from the plot itself, but because it reflects painfully on what is happening today, and the ending packs in a lot of twists and open-ended teases that leave the door open for many a follow-up story.

Next up is The Last Love Song of Suzie Costello, set in the 2000s. It also has a bit of a Bond vibe as it begins with Torchwood Three operative Suzie Costello crawling out of the sea. Looking like a concerned scientist rather than in swimwear though.

An island appeared near Iceland after a volcanic eruption, and 40 years on, there are scientists still looking for answers behind its existence and the unusual way the natural world operates both on and below it. Suzie takes it upon herself to find out what’s below in a submersible diving suit fitted with AI, and boy does she find answers in the form of what seems to be an empty spaceship – but with a breathable air supply inside – on the seabed.

Cue the often sceptical Suzie spending the rest of her time having her trust tested as she finds out the ship is not as empty as she thought and there is a danger outside swimming in the water as well as a potential threat to her in the ship itself.

It’s a typical Suzie story in that it pushes the character and highlights how she treats others, and Indira Varma is given plenty of despair-filled dialogue that always marks her out against her colleagues, but it’s far from a typical Torchwood story in setting and the science-fiction tropes and influences it leans on. In fact. it feels more like Doctor Who, or to be more specific the kind of short story that the official website would occasionally publish in 2008 and 2009, with her scientific understanding being relied upon to get her out of trouble… until a big twist comes in and the atmosphere gets far, far darker.

The final act is superb, with the music accompanying the drama very well and the audience being given the extra bit of knowledge needed for the whole episode to make sense. Varma meanwhile is given even more brilliant dialogue and an ending that somehow tugs at the heart. What a fitting title for a story about a cold and tragic woman.

One of the best ways you can follow up gritty and emotionally mature Torchwood is a story that tries to be the opposite. Thirst Trap centres around PC Andy Davidson, Rhys Williams, and the launch of the Now or Never dating app in Cardiff.

It’s comedic from the off, but does feature tension as the app says you have 20 minutes to get to your date, 20 minutes of date, and then you have to go separate ways. If you fall in love, you have to hope that the app matches you up again, and if you exceed the date time, then you are locked out of the app and your social media accounts are deleted. Very modern.

Almost all of Cardiff has been sucked into the high stakes dating games, leading to chaos, and Rhys being paired with women who aren’t Gwen…

The date rate speeds up, with Andy starting to have some suspicions and intercepting several dates while at work until he interrupts one of Rhys’s. They then team up, and Rhys has to give a sombre explanation as to why he is being unfaithful before the pair start following the trail of love back to the app’s business headquarters. Then love and the power of dating sucks them in once more.

Rhys is the one who gets to try saving the day this time while Andy is almost hypnotised by the prospect of a third date with his perfect match, but then there is a big twist and some really unexpected lovemaking. Even unexpected by Torchwood’s standards. The element of threat is hard to maintain when the comedy stakes are raised, and the story also ends with little in consequences or even resolution for the characters involved, but to be fair it is by a first-time writer… none other than Tom Price! According to the behind-the-scenes material, Andy’s actor had the idea for this story a long, long time ago.

The next story, Launch Date, puts Ianto Jones into the world of love too. It starts off with his friend Geraint failing to notice he’s being flirted with by a woman, and a triangle starts to form of the three of them trying to court, or set up, each other.

With each encounter, we learn that Geraint has a job almost as secretive as Ianto’s, but since both like going to the pub to drink together, they talk about it quite a bit. And once Geraint successfully brings a woman into his life, that information goes a little further. There are lots of cuts as we speed through the highs and lows of a new relationship, and Geraint’s job, while Ianto takes a back seat.

He’s thrust back into the action when a big incident happens at Geraint’s workplace, but there’s an unsatisfactory ending with not quite enough focus given to either emotions, motivations or a level of threat to make it feel like Torchwood. The author successfully makes Ianto manipulative — by setting his friend up — without being unlikable, but his inclusion in the story does not add much and the behind-the-scenes interviews highlight the main flaw that the Torchwood elements need to exceed the romcom formula for the story to be worth telling, and it’s something it fails to do.

The range heads back into darker territory four months later with Sigil, starring the late Murray Melvin as Bilis Manger and Gabrielle Brooks as the one-off character Sam. In similar fashion to recent Doctor Who television episode, The Giggle, the mystery of this story begins in a shop run by an enigmatic figure.

Sam visits Bilis’s shop to ask about about a bronze bird statue on show in the window. There is a pattern on the statue that she has been drawing her whole life, and even has tattooed on her arm. Has she been manipulated by forces beyond her understanding, or is she trying to trick Bilis?

The listener can make their guesses early on, with any bird-related interactions leading to immediate superstition and every visit to Bilis’s shop becoming more of a game for him. But she seems very comfortable with him; in fact, they become friendly, so perhaps the manipulation is going both ways. Between trips, she reunites with an actual friend to discuss the bird and Bilis, but doesn’t start feeling overly suspicious of him despite some very weird goings-on in her life that seem to be related to the bird. And when her friend takes action based on their suspicions, that annoys her. That is a key moment for the rest of the story.

The two leads do a great job of making their characters, their relationships and the mystery of the story believable, and the script never lets you get too cosy in thinking Bilis is ultimately behind everything. Because is he really?

There is a twist that brings Bilis and Sam even closer and relocates the story to bring a different element of horror and mystery to it in a very British way. And it’s all tied together by a pattern and a bird.

The final scenes may be open-ended, but it’s a far, far stronger resolution than the more light-hearted stories preceding it and Murray Melvin’s performance helps sell the level of threat that is faced at the end. As for the questions the listener may be asking at the beginning, they may still be asking them at the end and that’s probably a good thing.

Of course, however, in light of Melvin’s passing, and Sigil being released posthumously on what would have been his 91st birthday, it also serves as a possible, and very fitting, ending to Bilis’s story.

Andy is the main character once more in September’s release, Dog Hop, which after listening to I contacted its two writers to thank them “for creating possibly the most bizarre yet brilliant and emotional, and quintessentially Welsh, Torchwood story ever”.

It begins as a comedy police caper with Andy breaking a beer garden fence as he pursues a shoplifter, and he then heads into what is a very British pub to check if he is injured. He is not, and while he failed to catch his criminal, he does at least get to meet a friendly dog. The bar manager asks Andy if the dog seems normal to him. This is obviously hard to tell for the listener (unless they’re an expert on dog sound effects), but it inserts the idea that we need to pay attention to the dogs — even the sad one in the pub that “if it had thumbs would hang itself”.

Andy stays overnight at the pub to think about dogs some more, and then a conversation with the bar manager played very seriously — but written to produce chortling from the listener — sets up the concept at the heart (and title) of this story: dog hopping.

The pub and the police station are the main locations thereon as Andy delves deeper into a booze-fuelled idea that people are being put in dogs. It’s silly, the story knows it’s silly, but it sells it incredibly effectively and makes it feel like something that could genuinely happen in 21st Century Britain. And if something as silly as this were to happen, who would be behind it? Big tech? UNIT? Rogue scientists? A local yoga studio?

Or maybe none of the above because it’s a ridiculous idea and Andy knows it. You’ll have to listen to find out…

You can catch the complete Torchwood range over at the Big Finish website now.

Ida Wood

From Fantasy to Comedy and Heart-Tugging Dogs: Revisiting Torchwood’s 2023 Range from Big Finish

by Ida Wood time to read: 10 min
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