Moving Target (Credit: Big Finish / Lee Binding)
Written by Guy Adams
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Indira Varma (Suzie Costello), Naomi McDonald (Alex), Nicholas Burns (The Referee)
Released by Big Finish Productions - June 2016

“The twenty-first century is when everything changes…and I should have been ready.”

Well, that’s one way to start a new instalment of Torchwood ten years on from the series’ debut, we suppose.

If nothing else, nine releases into their take on the four season-spanning Doctor Who spin-off show, it’s to the credit of James Goss and the rest of his writing team’s creative vision that they’re still able to offer up neat little surprises such as this on regular occasions, especially given the constraints placed upon them by having to limit the cast of each tale produced so far to but a handful of players at most. Take also the return of Indira Varma to the role of Suzie Costello; like Tracy Ann-Oberman’s feisty Yvonne Hartman before her, Varma’s complacent Torchwood Three agent met her on-screen demise – or rather whose first demise – almost just as speedily as the show’s itself. Yet far from giving Suzie equally minimal attention, the minds of Big Finish have instead opted to structure an entire one-hour drama around her pre-deathly days - this time going by the name MovingTarget - a development which it’s safe to say most fans of the original programme wouldn’t have easily predicted at first.

With that being said, however, much as the prospect of delving deeper into a morally ambiguous secret agent’s psyche than the show ever did in Everything Changes may have sounded like a sure-fire route to success for Big Finish, the piece’s surprises come to a halt almost as soon as the show’s iconic theme tune signals the end of its first track. That the core narrative driving Suzie’s actions forward feels so predictable from the outset doesn’t help its case; Varma’s still reckless, still trigger-happy character finds herself tasked with resolving a situation not unlike that posed in the 2007 Who serial Smith and Jones or 2010’s The Sarah Jane Adventures two-parter The Empty Planet as virtually all of the Earth’s inhabitants are frozen by extra-terrestrials, prompting her to join forces with the only other human being able to move a muscle as a band of other-worldy hunters recruited by the Committee give chase across Cardiff. Given the rather overly familiar nature of the premise as well as the fandom’s complete awareness of Suzie’s dark side, the hope would surely have been that writer Guy Adams could have subverted our perceptions of both the story format and Ms. Costello herself, but barring a rather charming interlude involving a bottle of vodka during the third act, Adams sticks to purely safe territory here, structuring most of the plot around a repetitive, overextended chase sequence before wrapping up in a manner which just about any long-term fan of the show’s televised incarnation will see coming from a mile off.

There are those academics who would argue, of course, that no one work of fiction can ever boast a truly original storyline, with the vast majority of tales conforming to one of seven predefined formats or genres such as the tragedy or the epic, but even so, we’ve already seen this range of audio dramas in particular regularly venture into unexpected territory, what with its dabbling with sexually provocative, existentially challenged androids in January’s UncannyValley as well as Queen Victoria’s final days in TheVictorianAge. The transition back into the more pedestrian, less shocking realms of storytelling here seems that much more jarring, then, as does the equal lack of effort invested in developing Suzie’s partner-in-crime of sorts, Alex, beyond the realms of ordinary expectation: as with the overall narrative, the trajectory of Naomi McDonald’s wayward citizen seems all but certain from the moment her role in the aforementioned hunt becomes explicitly clear, giving the listener a disappointing sense of inevitability in terms of how events play out, especially when compared to the unpredictable nature of recent Torchwood releases like February’s Zone10 or recent Big Finish box-sets such as their War Doctor compilations.

Yet one element which doesn’t betray this fourth outing of Season Two’s quality is the casting: despite the brevity of her on-screen appearances, Varma makes quite the impact as Suzie once more, bringing to the surface shades of sincerity, regret and a genuine hope of redemption that barely had chance to manifest themselves on the small screen. Arguably to a greater extent than was the case with Tom Price’s performance last month, there’s an inherent subtlety about the way in which the actress portrays this evidently morally apathetic, unashamedly selfish yet somehow almost tragic antihero as she attempts to cling to the path of righteousness, only for the more cold-hearted aspects of her personality – aspects which, it’s implied, might even be the result of a troubled upbringing – to re-emerge as the situation facing her and Alex takes a turn for the very worst. Her co-stars McDonald and Nicholas Burns – who plays an irksome android tasked with monitoring the last sentient humans’ progress – don’t suffer in the slightest from not having appeared in the TV series prior to now, though: if anything, they deserve just as much commendation for injecting their constructs with such sympathy-inducing innocence and charming malice respectively, with Alex in particular coming off as a refreshingly emotionally layered mother-to-be thanks in no small part to McDonald’s performance more-so than Adams’ somewhat clichéd characterisation and structuring of her arc. It’s often difficult to fully acknowledge the contribution of director Scott Handcock to the range’s strengths, but suffice to say that he and his players worked in fine unison this time around, producing a set of performances which just about warrant a listen from series devotees.

Beyond that more dedicated section of Torchwood fandom, though, it’s unlikely that Moving Target will come off as a true masterpiece to most casual listeners. Sure, it’s a more compelling listen than last October’s Oberman-starring OneRule, yet that both scripts were penned by Adams and both have ranked as the range’s weakest outings to date on account of their uninspiring chase-driven storylines, shallow characterisation of their supporting constructs and overall lacklustre quality could suggest that Goss and Adams might need to have words regarding how best the latter scribe might go about drafting his next contribution to the range. Neither of his two scripts have resulted in absolute travesties, admittedly, rather a couple of merely passable storylines which would interest rather than captivate most listeners and wherein a great deal of potential felt unfulfilled. That the three-strong cast’s turns here serve to render the tale at hand as an infinitely more engaging fiction than it might have been with a less accomplished ensemble is at least its saving grace, but even so, Adams can’t rely on this to always be the case; indeed, his scripts may well need to ramp up their ambition in order to come anywhere close to matching the range’s best efforts to date. In the meantime, this reviewer will retire to his local pub in the hope of meeting a dashing American and an endearingly shy butler who can work together to lift his spirits – and speaking of which, look who’s just around the corner…