Ghost Mission (Credit: Big Finish / Lee Binding)
Written by James Goss
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Tom Price (Sergeant Andy Davidson), Samuel Barnett (Norton Folgate), David Warner (OAP), Lisa Bowerman (Quite Anxious Shopper), Laura Doddington and Aaron Neil (The Graces)
Released by Big Finish Productions - May 2016

Building momentum over the course of a season’s first half rarely tends to be difficult for skilled writing teams, yet maintaining that momentum poses a far greater challenge.

Take Ghost Mission, the James Goss-penned, Scott Handcock-helmed third instalment of Big Finish’s second series of Torchwood storylines, which undertakes the unenviable mission of not only following up the thrilling capers of TheVictorianAge along with the more nuanced mysteries of Zone10, but equally striving to ensure that Season Two doesn’t lose any of the traction gained so far moving into its latter three instalments. Try as he might, Goss seems to struggle under the weight of the task at hand, presenting more of a filler instalment with only the shallowest of impacts on the run’s wider plot arc that, despite its mildly intriguing premise and competent characterisation, unfortunately doesn’t quite leave as noteworthy an impact as its esteemed forebears.

Before we come onto those contributory elements which hold the piece back from greatness, however, it’s worth noting that there’s plenty here to keep dedicated fans of Torchwood’s most unsung defender of humanity, Tom Price’s ever-lovable Sergeant Andy Davidson, more than content until this month’s fourth chapter – MovingTarget, featuring the return of Indira Varma as the not-so-late Suzie Costello – hits the Big Finish website. For one, Price couldn’t have slipped back into his long-running role with greater ease judging by his hilarious yet sympathetic performance here, easily an aspect of the play which ensures that even when Goss’ script takes a turn for the mundane – more on which later – listeners are all but guaranteed a laugh or two in the meantime, if not a teary eye or two judging by the surprisingly poignant way in which Andy’s latest solo adventure reaches its conclusion.

Don’t take our use of the term “solo” to describe this Cardiff-set excursion as meaning that Andy’s alone in discovering how out-of-the-ordinary chemical slippages connect to the ongoing schemes of the Committee, however: as has been the format of virtually all of the range’s releases so far, Ghost Mission essentially takes the form of a two-hander, with Price’s occasionally bumbling, occasionally authoritative policeman matching wits with Norton Folgate, a ghostly apparition from the 20th Century who’s supposedly come to assess Andy’s viability as a candidate for Gwen Cooper’s newly-resurrected incarnation of Torchwood Three. Samuel Barnett takes on voicing duties here, and a great job he does of it too – not only does he capture the understated charisma which Goss endows the character with perfectly, but he also manages to give the construct enough emotional sincerity to ensure that Andy’s belief in Norton’s convincing account of his connections to the Torchwood organization feels genuine rather than the pair’s partnership seeming like nothing more than a contrived, unrealistic plot device unbefitting of Price’s oft-dubious character.

In a similar vein to past instalments in the series, Price and Barnett are joined fleetingly by a handful of co-stars such as David Warner as a delightfully sinister OAP to whom there may well be more than initially meets the eye, Lisa Bowerman as a Welsh shopper who has the misfortune of coming into contact with one of the previously-mentioned chemical spillages as well as both Laura Doddington and Aaron Neil as the deadly alien Graces whose only real narrative purpose is to serve as a sudden physical obstacle for Andy to overcome as best as he can. This in turn brings us back to this occasionally forgettable third outing’s flaws, however – whereas in April’s Zone 10, both Ella Garland and Geoffrey Breton made sizable impacts during their brief time on air as traumatised astronaut Anna Volokova and an unrelentingly aggressive FSB agent respectively, none of Ghost Mission’s supporting cast members receive any dialogue from Goss that could bring them anywhere close to matching their predecessors, hence why they’re unlikely to be the members of the cast ensemble who leave a tangible impact on the listener’s memory come the credits. Admittedly it’s probably more a case of the inclusion of esteemed thespians like Warner and Bowerman – both of whom shine elsewhere in Big Finish’s catalogue, for example in the Doctor Who Unbound series – raising this reviewer’s expectations of their characters’ presences further than usual, yet even so, that only the two leading players get a true chance to impress here certainly represents a severe missed opportunity on the playwright’s part.

That said, gripes like this one would be far more forgivable if Goss’ central, fairly standalone narrative didn’t leave so much to be desired. It’s fine and dandy for the range’s scribes to divert somewhat from the overarching tale of Torchwood’s centuries-spanning mission to bring down the Committee every now and then, as evidenced by the wholly enjoyableFalltoEarth last October, yet in order for this approach to pay dividends, the procedural plot which said scribe thinks up needs to be just as compelling as its Committee-centred counterparts, if not more-so. Quite to the contrary, though, barring a brilliantly tense exchange between Andy and Warner’s OAP which does lightly tie events back into the Committee’s ever-increasing influence on the lives of Torchwood Three and its allies – even shedding unexpected further light on the events of Zone 10 by revealing how the red key which Tosh was given found its way back through the timelines when Andy first encountered it long after Ms. Sato’s demise – the central plotline feels remarkably pedestrian, rarely developing many themes beyond Andy’s enduring longing to fulfil his own potential or uninspired ‘action’ sequences – such as his attempts to avoid the Graces by hiding in the nearest garbage container – in any great detail, thereby resulting in a rather hollow listening experience that seems all but doomed to be forgotten in a few months’ time judging by the relative dramatic strength of the recently-released trails for both the Season Two finale Made You Look and November’s team-up box-set Outbreak.

Ultimately, then, Ghost Mission can’t quite warrant as wholehearted a recommendation as the opening two instalments of Torchwood’s second series in the hands of Big Finish, owing mainly to the disappointingly unambitious nature of Goss’ latest contribution to the studio’s array of licensed storylines along with the unfulfilled promise of layered performances from studio legends like David Warner and Lisa Bowerman. To its credit, Price and Barnett’s accomplished performances – as well as Goss’ entertaining portrayal of their two constructs – just about serve to keep the play engaging enough to prevent listeners from switching off their CD or MP3 players, but even so, most listeners will all but definitely come away thinking Season Two has lost some of its earlier momentum here rather than maintaining it as hoped; unfortunately, they’re not wrong either.