Big Finish Review: Torchwood – Aliens Among Us Vol 2
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In August Torchwood returned for a fifth series in audio form at Big Finish, continuing the story of what happened to Jack, Gwen and Rhys after the events of Miracle Day.
Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Vol 1 was great reintroduction to the series and brought the show back to its gritty, violent, sexualised roots in Cardiff. It's tone matched that of its first two seasons, full of confidence and an abundance of new characters, the fantastic Mr Colchester being the star of the show. It also introduced the presence of the Sorvix, aliens that infiltrated Cardiff through the rift. You can read my review of the first box set here.
The second volume of Aliens Among Us has been released on digital download and CD boxset exclusively though Big Finish and goes on general release from December 31st.
Here are the synopses for the four episodes that make up the set...
Big Finish picks up the events after Miracle Day with Torchwood: Aliens Among Us...
Captain Jack and Gwen Cooper have restarted Torchwood. But it's in a very different Cardiff. Something terrible's happened to the city. With every day getting darker, will Torchwood need to adopt a whole new approach?
5.5 Love Rat by Christopher Cooper
Captain Jack Harkness is dead, and that’s the simplest thing that’s happened to him in the last few days. Even the manner of his death is surprisingly complex, especially when it turns out that he hasn’t come back alone.
While Torchwood try and cope with a new mayor and a terrorist cell, they also have to deal with what, at first, looks to be a plague, and then turns out to be something far, far worse.
5.6 A Kill to a View by Mac Rogers
Ritz Towers is a luxury tower block so exclusive not even aliens can get a place there. Mr Colchester has somehow secured a flat at the Ritz. With the streets increasingly troubled, his husband feels safe there. The problem is that Ritz Towers is anything but safe.
For a start, the building has more tenants than it has flats. Then there are the endless dinner parties. The whole new definition of upwardly mobile. And finally, there is the very mysterious caretaker.
5.7 Zero Hour by Janine H Jones
Welcome to Deliverables. Thanks to us, Cardiff is enjoying an economic miracle. We have created thousands of jobs. We have wiped out homelessness.
More importantly, there are so many benefits to you. Deliverables will deliver your post, your packages, your meals. We are Deliverables, and we never stop.
Deliverables – we always know where to find you. Deliverables – put your life in our hands.
5.8 The Empty Hand by Tim Foley
An innocent refugee has been shot point-blank on the streets of Cardiff. It causes an upsurge in terrorist attacks.
An innocent refugee has been shot point-blank on the streets of Cardiff by a policeman. It’s a catalyst for protests in the streets.
An innocent refugee has been shot point-blank on the streets of Cardiff by Sergeant Andy Davidson. It’s the end of Torchwood as we know it.
All four episodes are directed by Scott Handcock, produced by James Goss and script edited by Scott Handcock. Original cast members John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Kai Owen (Rhys Williams) and Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper) are joined by returning cast member Sgt. Andy Davidson (Tom Price).The cast is made up by new main characters from volume one; Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), and Sam Béart as shapeshifting alien Orr. Rounding up in Alexandria Riley as Ng, the presence impersonating Gwen.
These will contain spoilers for all four episodes so if you haven't listened to them, read on at your own peril or scroll down to my final thoughts...
First up, some thoughts on Ng / Gwen. I must admit, I was a little confused as to who Ng was in the first box set though it is now clear that Ng is impersonating Gwen (Riley does a great job) while Gwen herself seems disposed. I feel a little bad not referencing Riley's role in the 'fifth series' but perhaps that's the point is that she almost shouldn't be. With audio, voices can sound different to television and the lack of visuals can be a blessing as much as a disguise. So while my continuing reviews may reference Gwen, it is clear that this mystery is wrapped up in two performances and I'm intrigued to see how this is resolved...
On to the episodes themselves...
With this episode, Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Vol 2 certainly opens with a bang as Jack hooks up with a hot date before being horribly murdered mid-coitous. In fact the whole premise of the first story is crude, fun and Torchwood to a tee as Jack subsequently hooks up with Tyer and [surprise!] Gwen and infects them all with an alien sex virus transmitted by alien rates that came through the rift with the Sorvix.
Jack's primary state has certainly been playful and horny across the fifth series so far. But the Jack here is at the very extreme, seducing Tyler in the morgue he finds himself in and then taking advantage of a vulnerable Gwen who hasn't been in the best headspace since the death of her mother and possession by Ng prior to the beginning of Aliens Among Us. For a series as bold as this one, it's quite a shocking turn of events, changing the relationship between the two lead heroes and impacting on her marriage with Rhys.
So far Rhys has been been a sidelined character in the fifth series and this story does attempt to address the rift that has formed between Gwen and her husband. There's a real sense of tragedy too in what is happening with her and it continues to be the most intriguing mystery at play in Aliens Among Us.
Of course, there are plenty of other threads at play too; not only do we get the long awaited return of Sgt. Andy Davidson but Tyler also remains the pawn in chief villain Ro-Jedda's game. Even confiding in Jack after they are cured, he still doomed to suffer in this battle between Torchwood and the Sorvix. But these are small parts in this introductory story, which is as graphic and shocking as the fifth series has been yet.
A Kill to a View
The second episode of the box set was my favourite of the Aliens Among Us releases this year. It takes a welcome break from the Sorvix thread to focus on two very successful elements; the return of season one villain Bilis Manger (Murray Melvin) and the focus on the series most valuable player, Paul Clayton's Mr Colchester.
It's the episode where we finally meet Colchester's husband Colin Colchester-Price (Ramon Tikaram) a man who is deeply uncomfortable living in Cardiff with the rise in hate crimes but still deeply committed to his marriage. Living in a new luxury tower block, his flat has become his luxury prison and it adds to the understandable frustration at Colchester who is continually pulled away to Torchwood, the latest incident involving two Sorvix who had begun feasting on a pair of elderly commuters on a Cardiff bus.
Tikaram imbues Colin with great intelligence and warmth and plays well off Paul Clayton; this story really conveys their love for eachother, which sets the same for something more tragic. Enter the mysterious caretaker Bilis, who has been cleverly setting up resident dinner parties which have led to a number of sudden disappearances. Melvin delivers a great, subtle villainy, just the right side of creepy without being hammy. There's something insidious in his plan, to feed on hatred to open a rift and this is amplified by Jack's concerns when he learns that the servant of season one villain Abaddon (remember the giant demon stomping through the streets of Cardiff?) is back.
This sets the scene for a tense and shocking finale as fellow neighbours Sandra (Diveen Henry) and Andrea (Ellie Heydon) are revealed to be sadistic killers, hunting their way through the local residents and feeding on Billis's plan. The two actresses delight in their character's ruthless and manic killing spree and Mr Colchester's timely arrival cannot stop them from their hunt. It's great to see Colchester play the hero, taking out one of the deranged neighbours and then playing the other enough to stop her from killing Colin before throwing her off the roof in a rage. Of course, this is where the real twist succeeds; it isn't just his murder of both women but sticking in the knife by revealing that he killed the latter's wife that fulfils Billis's plan and opens the rift to signal the very thing the Sorvix have been running from. The emotional of the music and the performances from Tikaram and Clayton as Colin lies bleeding in the rain ends A Kill to a View on a bleak note while setting up a bigger threat to come.
The third episode is probably the weakest of the four, but not without merit either. It continues the theme of A Kill to a View by building on the growing resistance against the Sorvix and the impact of Billis opening the rift as patterns begin to grow across the city, influenced by the more supernatural events at play. The political commentary is great - a dig at zero hour contracts and experienced people forced to work menial jobs.
The focus this time is on Tyler; while Jonny Green continues to deliver a strong performance, I still can't find his character engaging in the same way I do Mr Colchester. Despite his predicament, forced into working for the villainous Ro-Jedda, nothing really changes here to change that perception. It's also rather jarring that Zero Hour doesn't pick up from what happened in the dramatic and emotional events of the previous story.
Encountering Sacha Dhawan's qualified engineer Hasan, Tyler discovers (through all the flirting) that this man is working for a mysterious company, helping to deliver packages throughout the city. There's something rather insidious in a Cardiff filled with people delivering packages, monitored through voices in their headsets, particularly when the futility is revealed through the discovery of sand in the packages. Despite being driven by lust, there is a glimmer of good in Tyler as he ventures into the organisation and learns of the 'twelve week HR program' which turns its employees into the very sand they are delivering. It's a shocking and cruel twist, particularly when Hasan falls victim, and for the first time in Aliens Among Us I actually felt sorry for Tyler. The idea that it is all part of Ro-Jedda's employment scheme only adds to her diabolical ways.
There's also some heartbreaking moments in the possessed Gwen failing to manage and care for her daughter, Anwen's behaviour has obviously manifested in the subconscious realisation that this isn't her real mother. The real Gwen continues to be trapped, calling out by unseen by everyone. But ultimately it is the weakest of the four and part of that is down to Tyler's behaviour. I have no issue with sex, but it seems to be an unnecessary central premise in Aliens Among Us and it feels as if Tyler's is almost sole driven by his libido. A little bit of subtlety would be nice; it's an issue which plagues Jack too. Torchwood is definitely an adult show but there are times where it feels this story - and elements are others - are falling into the same trap as season one. An adult show doesn't need to be a show obsessed with sex.
The Empty Hand
Finally, we have another very strong entry in The Empty Hand. Tom Price's Sgt. Andy Davidson takes centre stage here, waking up in police cell and facing arrest for murdering a refugee in cold blood on the streets of Cardiff. It's an intriguing premise, not only because it builds on the racial tensions and war on terror that has flooded the city, but it is unthinkable that Andy, surely the nicest character in Torchwood, would commit such a crime.
The pace of this story builds nicely, Andy facing isolation and seeking the aid of Gwen and Rhys even as news breaks of his involvement and his life becomes a media circus. It's a great character study for the three of them, Rhys taking a more active role again and Gwen and Andy reconnecting from the old days. The fact that he choses to quit the police seems to deliver on the promise that he might become part of the team. It's something I would like to see moving forward.
It's a great story for Andy, giving Price a much meatier role than perhaps he had on the show, Jack remains an ambiguous figure, working behind the scenes to try and defeat Ro-Jedda's nefarious scheme to manipulate the police force, Andy included, into killing and creating a conflict on the streets of the city. Sam Béart's Orr continues to be a welcome addition to the team, while Mr Colchester plays a more antagonistic role as he grudgingly helps Andy at the insistence of Gwen.
It's also an interesting finale in that it seems to bring to a head a conflict between the current team. Jack hasn't exactly been a relatable character this time round, which is a brave choice when Gwen is possessed and Tyler is a bit of an arrogant, sex-obsessed prick. But even so, the blow up at the end of the episode and the surprise reveal in the cliffhanger sets up some exciting moments to come in the final Aliens Among Us next February. It will be a long wait until the conclusion of season five...
Like last time, the boxset is sadly lacking any extras featuring the cast and crew. Though we do get a trailer for Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Vol 3, which is released by Big Finish next February.
Some Final Thoughts...
Torchwood: Aliens Among Us Vol 2 is a confident continuation of what has been a return to form. It continues to expand on the new characters of Mr Colchester and Tyler, though the former is clearly a much superior role. It's also great to see the impact of the Sorvix lead to other rogue elements fighting back, with the return of Billis setting up something much more terrible in the final box set. Ro-Jedda continues to be a formidable villain though. This story is extreme in places, relying too much on sex to define Jack and Tyler's characters, but there are some great political commentaries at play.
I felt vol 1 was probably the strongest of the two, but this is just as entertaining; A Kill to a View is certainly the best story of Aliens Among Us so far. Scott Handcock perfectly captures the essence of Torchwood in his taut direction - as a resident of Cardiff myself it is both relatable and horrifying - and the writing and performances are solid to brilliant throughout. This another worthy Big Finish release and I hope Aliens Among Us Vol 3 is not the end for this version of the Torchwood team...