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Torchwood - The Conspiracy (Credit: Big Finish)
Torchwood: The Conspiracy
Wriiten by David Llewellyn
Directed by Scott Hancock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack); John Sessions (Wilson); Sarah Ovens (Kate); Dan Bottomley (Sam)
Released by Big Finish Productions - September 2015

“The twenty-first century is when everything changes – and Torchwood is ready.”

They’re not alone, either: echoing this memorable guiding mantra to a tee, Big Finish have spared no expense to ensure that the first instalment in their new series of Torchwood audio releases mirrors its televised source material, demonstrating just as much innovation, engaging storytelling and political layers as audiences could possibly hope for from a budding drama coming to the market in 2015. Indeed, where some of the studio’s recent titles like Jago & Litefoot and last month’s The Sixth Doctor – The Last Adventure justifiably kept one foot lodged firmly in the past so as to entice fans of their respective eras, The Conspiracy instead goes remarkably far out of its way to remind its listeners that it’s a modern beast through and through, not only via its aforementioned dramatic ambition but moreover its integration of contemporary social forums aplenty in an enviably seamless fashion. From pre-recorded voice messages to nifty Instagram posts to local radio interviews, the number of narrative elements which have been plucked straight from our present cultural stratosphere into this captivating opening instalment’s web beggar belief.

On the surface this renewed emphasis from Conspiracy’s honoured wright, David Llewellyn, on clearly establishing – or rather re-establishing in the case of the show’s considerable band of followers, although newcomers needn’t feel daunted about stepping aboard for the impressively accessible ride – his storyline’s setting as here and now mightn’t seem a particularly revolutionary contributory element, yet its effect on the overall listening experience couldn’t be more profound if it tried. One sequence in particular perfectly encapsulates its impact, in fact; as the ever-dedicated, ever-eternal Captain Jack Harkness investigates the seemingly innocuous ramblings of populist conspiracy theorist George Wilson regarding a seedy, seemingly omniscient organisation dubbed only “the Committee”, all the while relating his progress to the listeners and his teammates (none of whom are referenced directly beyond a single namecheck for Gwen Cooper, though we’re all but certainly looking at a pre-“Exit Wounds” mission here), he comes across an intrepid YouTube blogger who carries suspicious knowledge of the supposedly covert organisation based beneath Cardiff Bay. This chance encounter in turn prompts Jack to momentarily digress from his retelling of the day’s events in order to play us a subsequent clip from the budding reporter’s portfolio concerning Torchwood – a simple conceit to be sure, but one which works wonders in terms of revealing new, semi-paranoid layers to the construct in question, doubling the sense that we’re listening in on a fictional Earth near identical to our own, whilst only taking up a few moments of our time before we’re returned to Harkness’ ongoing interview-turned-interrogation of Wilson without so much as a hint of narrative disconnect. Insignificant as they may seem when viewed in isolation, it’s small moments such as this one which make all the difference with regards to the scribe’s valiant efforts to establish the latest franchise to have fallen into Big Finish’s lap as every bit as compelling a contender as its predecessors.

Had there not been an accomplished central cast ensemble present to back Llewellyn’s thoroughly contemporary script, however, all might have been nought; just look at how the original Cardiff-set TV drama’s lesser efforts such as “Cyberwoman” and “Sleeper” fared with viewers upon presenting them with scarcely memorable secondary performers, then in contrast at how the likes of Susan Brown and a certain Mr. Peter Capaldi elevated “Children of Earth” to previously unthinkable levels of gravitas with their work as Bridget Spears and her ultimately pathos-ridden employer just half a dozen short years ago. Enter John Barrowman, who – despite not having played the supposed “Face of Boe” on-screen since 2011’s divisive Miracle Day – steps back into the role of Jack as if not a day has passed since we last heard the ex-Time Agent’s charming voice, lending the entire production a characteristically jovial feel throughout. Regardless of whether he’s matching wits with Wilson’s marvellously sly daughter Kate (portrayed with delicious aplomb by Sarah Ovens), contemplating the need for answers in today’s world of alleged transparency with Wilson himself (prepare to be taken aback by John Sessions’ understated yet wholly believable take on what could easily have been a one-dimensional construct in the wrong vocal chords) or realising the consequences of his team’s increased publicity as his conversations with Dan Bottomley’s simultaneously intrusive and touchingly vulnerable reporter Sam Hallett take a turn for the deadly, the voice behind one of Doctor Who’s best-loved recurring heroes delivers to nothing less than an impeccable extent. Little wonder, then, that despite its relative lack of stakes-raising set-pieces, in contrast to recent instalments in Big Finish’s output such as the hugely underwhelming The Warehouse, The Conspiracy never seems poised to lose its audience’s attention, since Barrowman, Bottomley and company each bring such unrelenting energy to the table this time around.

Whilst we’re on the subject of individual commendations, let’s not forget the oft-overlooked yet undeniably sterling work done by everyone involved with the Torchwood range’s sound design behind-the-scenes. It’s one feat to yank across the audio effects used to depict the technologically brimming, almost sentient landscape of the team’s iconic Hub so as to strengthen the dominant sense that we’re very much bearing witness to a direct continuation of the original series here, yet to balance the volumes and background effects involved with rendering Jack’s narration, his past interactions with Wilson et al, the slightly distorted audio of videos recorded primarily for viewing on mobile devices and various other text-within-a-text scenarios takes true talent of the highest degree, talent which many devoted followers of all things Big Finish might argue (completely justifiably in this case, we should add) that only the Berkshire-based studio’s diligent band of technical wizards possesses. Indeed, given that this reviewer at times unashamedly favours literary evaluation which primarily critiques narrative and where relevant performances, it’s telling when an aesthetic or aural aspect catches his eye or ear, and in this instance, there’s certainly no getting around the extent to which the dramatic weight of the overall piece would suffer were we to remove the nameless geniuses whose invaluable work began after recording from the equation.

Now, chances are some readers have been sticking around this long in order to reach this critique’s inevitable “but…”, yet aside from the rather abrupt manner in which Llewellyn (no doubt hoping to allow his successors ample room to develop upon the Committee’s still largely ambiguous plans for Earth) brings his otherwise faultless tale to a close and the lack of much in the way of tangible character development for Jack beyond yet another unfortunate blast from his past, it’s astoundingly difficult to pinpoint much about which one can complain in any great substance here – an unexpected result indeed, particularly given how long Big Finish have already spent dabbling in the realms of audio storytelling to date. Then again, throughout its five or so years on air, Torchwood always dared to subvert expectations in the most spectacular fashion, and in this respect its stunning latest outing hasn’t let the side down in the slightest; quite to the contrary, The Conspiracy holds the even rarer honour of ranking, at least in this reviewer’s humble opinion, as one of the studio’s most thrilling, finely-paced, strongly performed and therefore satisfying works yet, or to summarise the situation in a more succinct manner:

This is when everything changes for audio storytelling – and we’re definitely ready to see what’s coming next.”

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