Big Finish Review: Torchwood – Aliens Among Us Vol 3
This month, Torchwood returned at Big Finish for the long awaited final volume of Aliens Among Us. Featuring Captain Jack, a possessed Gwen and a new team of characters in Mr Colchester, Tyler and Orr, the 'fifth series' of the Doctor Who spin-off has certainly captured the spirit of the TV series.
You can catch our reviews of volume one here and volume two here and this installment picks up immediately after the cliffhanger at the end of eighth story, The Empty Hand.
The third and final volume of Aliens Among Us has been released on digital download and CD box set exclusively though Big Finish and goes on general release from April 30th.
Here are the synopses for the four episodes that make up the set...
5.9 Poker Face by Tim Foley
Torchwood are in trouble. Terrorist attacks are rocking the city. Control of the police has been ceded to Cardiff's alien masters. And it looks like it's all been arranged by Captain Jack Harkness. Worse, there's a dead woman in the cells who says that Torchwood will be hers by dawn.
5.10 Tagged by Joseph Lidster
"I know what you've done. I know what you'll do." The phrase starts appearing everywhere around Cardiff. On posters. On the internet. It's just a prank, isn't it? Only a wave of vigilante crime spreads through the city. People are taking revenge. Suddenly everyone knows what you've done. And they know what you'll do.
5.11 Escape Room by Helen Goldwyn
Gwen Cooper, Rhys Williams, and the Colchester-Prices go to try out an escape room. They've heard a lot about them. Especially this one. People keep going into the game and not coming out. But Torchwood will be fine. After all - partners can trust each other. Can't they?
5.12 Herald of the Dawn by James Goss
It starts normally enough: a car park full of ramblers is incinerated by a thunderbolt. But the next day it's clear there's something very wrong. Something's changed. Something's coming. It's the end of the world. And that's what Torchwood are best at...
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 volumes one and two; Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester), Jonny Green (Tyler Steele), Sam Béart as shapeshifting alien Orr, Alexandria Riley as Ng, the presence impersonating Gwen. Joining them for volume three is Tracy-Ann Oberman as Yvonne Hartman, returning to play the Torchwood leader from 2006 Doctor Who episodes Army of Ghosts and Doomsday...
The final box set in Aliens Among Us really is a triumph. The return of Tracy-Ann Oberman's Yvonne Hartman brings a new lease of life to a series that didn't even need it. And while the characters of Jack and Tyler take more of a back seat this time, new team members Orr and Mr Colchester continue to flourish. The character of Ng meanwhile becomes an increasingly disturbing threat hanging over these stories.
Each installment is special in its own right, from intense, character-driven moments to bigger, explosive scenes, all directed with flair by Scott Handcock and performed masterfully by the cast involved. Comparing each volume, this stands above the rest and will leave you desperate for series six...
Poker Face succeeds both as an explosive opening to the final box set and an intimate character study of the core characters (minus Tyler) as they find themselves trapped in the Torchwood hub with the mysterious, presumed dead Yvonne Hartman (Tracy-Ann Oberman). Writer Tim Foley really gets under the skin of these characters and all the bubbling tension, feelings of betrayal and guilt that have slowly built over the course of 'series five' come to the boil.
Oberman is terrific throughout as Yvonne, locked in her cell but with all the power as she manipulates the mutiny against Jack Harkness with a sly comment or titbit of information. Yvonne might refer to Jack and his broken poker face, but she is the one that plays the better game, setting a great trap for Jack as she hints at the return of the anti-alien organisation Red Doors, offers up a terrorist member and the slowly reveals that Jack has been part of them all along.
But this story is far from just a tete-e-tete between Jack and Yvonne; all the characters get to shine. The frustration Mr Colchester has for Jack quickly becomes explosive and leads him to ally with Yvonne, providing some emotional heft to the conflict, particularly as Jack's secrecy makes Colchester's convictions all the more reasonable. There is a sweet moment early on where Jack and Ng (as Gwen) bond over the terrible things that have happened and Jack starts to notice there is something wrong; it makes her betrayal of Jack at the end all the more heart-breaking, shooting the man she cares about to get to the truth. Orr continues to evolve as a fascinating member of the new team, her role as the controlled voice of reason slowly coming round to Yvonne's way of thinking.
The added drama of the 'bombs' set to go off around the city and the race to stop Red Doors only heightens the tension, leading to that climatic rebellion and the moment Yvonne takes the crown and literally casts Jack aside. As for her return from the dead, it was perhaps the weakest aspect of the story, but the most believable. Overall Poker Face emerged as one of the strongest episodes of 'series five' yet, a bottle episode of sorts with plenty of great character drama.
The replacement of Jack with Yvonne Hartman certainly shakes up the dynamic of the series and Tagged really has fun with the new woman in charge. Not only does she (literally) clean out the Torchwood hub, she brings a focus to the group not seen for some time. This does relegate Jack to a cameo in the end of the episode, where Mr Colchester continues to rebuff his assertions of innocence, but it does allow for greater focus on the rest of the cast while developing the Ng / Gwen storyline with disturbing consequences.
The circumstances surrounding the death of Gwen's mother have been vague since the start of Aliens Among Us last summer, but Tagged makes it clear she got to close to the truth and was murdered by her own possessed daughter. The purpose of Ng has also been a bit of an enigma to this point, but this episode showed that she is ruthless and ready to kill without hesitation, putting everyone in danger, particular Rhys and their daughter Anwen. Critically injured (which I'll come to in a moment) we saw the battle between personalities and she threatened to murder the man who aided her and then coldly executed the character of Serena for discovering the truth about her identity.
Talking of Serena (guest star Kezrena James), writer Joseph Lidster uses her character, an administrative assistant at the police who works with Sergeant Andy, to tell the story of mysterious cards that have flooded the city with ominous messages of knowing what people have done. It adds an interesting dynamic to the story - a woman who kills a man who dated raped her - while under the control of a psychic work hidden with the cards. Interestingly she is presented not as a pure innocent victim, even though her mind is not her own. The moment she shockingly runs Gwen down and leaves her for dead is is a huge twist that leads to the aforementioned development of Ng's personality.
There is also an interesting narrative on the obsessive nature of social media as Yvonne forces Orr to force out the presence infecting Cardiff with the cards. She might start off as an empowering boss, but characters like Mr Colchester are soon faced with just how dangerous she is and how far she will go, setting the stage for the end of the series.
Escape rooms are the latest team building craze; lock a group of people in a room and force them to work together to find their way out. Writer Helen Goldwyn uses this idea to have Gwen and Rhys and Mr Colchester and his husband Colin go on a double date to the latest Cardiff attraction at the suggestion of Yvonne. Of course this is the escape room straight from Hell, complete with an evil servant of a mysterious dark god (Terrence Hardiman), making this less a romantic comedy and more an installment of the gruesome Saw franchise.
Scott Handock really directs the hell (pun intended) out of this script; in some ways it is the weakest of the box set (though not necessarily in the complete Aliens Among Us) but it is full if atmosphere and tension for a number of reasons. In splitting up the characters, there is an added threat to giant buzz saws, spears and trap doors; Colin is partnered with Gwen and given her actions through Ng in the last story, you are always wondering if she would willingly let him die to achieve her own ends.
Interesting it is Colchester and Rhys that are pitted against each other, manipulated separately by the chilling voice of Hardiman's Escape; the story plays a great double bluff at the end but for a while you do wonder if Colchester really did let Rhys die. It makes his attempt to commit a noble sacrifice himself at the end all the more emotional.
Given that we already had one story set in one night in Poker Face, I felt the placement of Escape Room so close to it suffered; it was the most simplest of the stories and didn't really progress the characters, great as it was to see more of Colin and Colchester together. Gwen / Ng taking revenge at Escape at the end was oddly satisfying. But the bigger mystery was why Yvonne sent them there in the first place and whether this evil god was the force Billis Manger released from the void at the end of volume two's A Kill to a View. But packed full of atmosphere and tension, it certainly maintained the high standard set by the rest of Aliens Among Us so far...
Herald of the Dawn
Those expecting everything to be wrapped up in a nice neat bow, are probably going to be disappointed. Herald of the Dawn is an explosive finale that brings to a head many sub plots while setting up new possibilities for the future. By the end of Aliens Among Us, the Sorvix are still in Cardiff, Yvonne is still around and the Red Doors terrorist group have not been eliminated. But that isn't to say that this story is disappointing in the least; it packs so much in that you feel like you have gone through an emotional rollercoaster by the end while still hungry for more.
Epic is one way to describe Herald of the Dawn; it reminded me of the Torchwood season two finale Exit Wounds with explosions tearing through the city and each member of the team under dire threat. The fact that the airport and City hall - two big Cardiff landmarks - are targeted, shows just how big this story is. The realisation that Jack has been unable to stop Red Doors from the inside adds an air of tragedy that puts everyone in danger while contrasting with the brilliant work ethic by Yvonne as she systematically takes down each cell almost singlehandedly (on a site note, I really hope she stick around because this level of competency is really starting to show the Torchwood organisation at its best!).
Yvonne's interactions with the villainous Ro-Jedda were also a delight; I'm intrigued to see if the alien mayor will survive this story. The storyline with Mr Colchester and Tyler hunted down by the assassin Ro-Jedda sent after him was also amusing and thrilling in equal measure and I just pray that Mr Colchester survives this cliff-hanger because he really is my favourite character on the series. The arrival of the 'god', which I presume the Sorvix have been running from also ups the game for a presumed series six (I say presumed because it can't end here).
And finally we have the climax to Gwen / Ng's story. Jack and Mr Colchester finally clued on to the fact that they couldn't trust her and forcing the alien host into the void was an exciting twist. But even then I wasn't expecting the departure of Gwen from Torchwood itself. The scene, scripted by series creator Russell T Davies himself was a very bittersweet moment. While Alexandria Riley was great in the role as the Gwen imposter, Eve Myles brought such warmth to her role when she was Gwen once more that her decision to give up Jack and Torchwood in favour of a new life with Rhys and her daughter was lovely and sad in equal measure.
This time we get some great interviews with the cast and crew, making up for the lack on previous box sets. The interviews at the end of Poker Face begin with conversation between James Goss, who produced (and co-wrote) the overall series five story and Scott Handcock who directed them as they delve into the making of Aliens Among Us and Russell T Davies' involvement (something I explore further in my interview with Scott Handcock here). There is also a nice flashback to the first day of filming as Handcock interviews the new members of the cast - Jonny Green (Tyler), Alexandria Riley (Ng), Paul Clayton (Mr Colchester) about their involvement in the series and hopes for the future.
The extras at the end of Tagged is a great exploration of the ideas for Aliens Among Us as James Goss and Scott Handcock talk about the inspiration of the Red Doors terrorist group in real racist historical events, the idea of Cardiff's ever-expanding property market forging the idea of aliens invading the city by stealth and how they brought new writers in and the ideas they brought to the set. The final interview sees Handcock interview Billis Manger himself Murray Melvin, who delights in playing the truly evil character once again and is a genuine delight to listen to.
The extras that follow Escape Room give an in depth interview with composer Blair Mowat as he discusses the many themes running throughout the series and how he approached new ideas for Torchwood: Aliens Among Us.
Finally, James Goss and Scott Handcock wrap up the interviews at the end of Herald of the Dawn with a great discussion of the ending of Aliens Among Us, Russell T Davies' involvement and a promise of more to come...
Some Final Thoughts...
Aliens Among Us was a success, reigniting the story of Torchwood and taking it in exciting new directions It recaptured the style and passion of series two and brought a new team just as diverse and engaging as the old. It was also an epic, unexpected swansong for Gwen, giving her that deserved happy ending; the creation of Ng made great use of Eve Myles' absence while still leading to a natural end to the character.
It has been a pleasure reviewing these stories and I hope there are more. Just make sure Mr Colchester survives...