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Torchwood: The Victorian Age (Credit: Big Finish)
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria), with Youssef Kerkour, Louise Jameson and Aaron Neil
Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2016​

Believe it or not, there’s something inherently satisfying about experiencing a work of fiction which successfully does precisely what it says on the tin.

Torchwood: The Victorian Age mightn’t come packaged in a tin – depending on whether one opts for the physical or digital edition, it’ll either be encased in plastic or megabytes – but the point certainly still stands; for better or for worse, it’s an audio drama which makes little pretence regarding its goal of standing as a light-hearted, structurally fast-paced thriller that effortlessly keeps its audience entertained. If the second season of Big Finish’s ever-increasingly accomplished continuation of the titular Doctor Who spin-off were to comprise completely of such thematically lightweight escapades, then there’d of course be cause for concern, but in terms of reminding fans of the original TV series how much fun the show’s characters – regular and supporting alike – can have when the writing team allows them a moment to let their hair down, it’s as fine a freshman outing as any to be sure.

As its sub-title suggests, rather than pursuing the Torchwood Three team’s non-linear quest to trace and apprehend the enigmatic Committee in present day Cardiff, The Victorian Age takes both Jack Harkness and Wales’ aforementioned capital city back a couple of centuries to the days of Queen Victoria, pitting both the good captain and indeed the monarch herself against an alien menace intent on stealing the youths of as many victims as possible. Naturally, these efforts to prolong life on the part of the piece’s antagonist enable writer AK Benedict to delve into the well-worn realms of Jack’s inability to shed his mortal coil, albeit via an unexpectedly layered commentary on why the relative brevity of the reigns of rulers like Victoria can in fact prove to be far more of a blessing than a curse. Whereas Pauline Collins took on the role of one of Britain’s longest-serving queens back in 2006’s Tooth and Claw, it’s Rowena Cooper – who also appeared in The Sarah Jane Adventures serial Lost in Time, incidentally – who takes the character’s reins here to glorious effect, adding a further layer of pathos to Victoria’s emotionally sympathetic discussion of how she lacks the necessary time to fulfil all of the ambitions she set out for herself when her reign began.

If that all sounds rather maudlin, then as we mentioned above, rest assured that it’s hardly representation of the rollercoaster-esque tone of the overall storyline: Cooper and especially John Barrowman must have had a riot of a time recording their dialogue, at least if the constantly chuckle-worthy, surprisingly multi-faceted rapport their characters strike up through their conversations over the course of the hour is any indication. In stark contrast to his more sombre performances in the far darker The Conspiracy or Uncanny Valley, Barrowman unsurprisingly relishes the opportunity to showcase the sassier, raunchier ex-Time Agent with whom many viewers fell instantly in love in 2005’s hit Doctor Who two-parter The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, giving as good as he gets whenever Cooper’s Victoria attempts to gain the upper hand in terms of authority or general wit. There will most likely be some members of the listenership who find themselves at first a tad disappointed by Benedict’s election not to venture in the morally murkier waters we saw Torchwood’s most loyal recruit enter over the course of the show’s first season of audio adventures, yet Barrowman’s relentless zest and energy are all but guaranteed to win them over once more within minutes of proceedings getting underway.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that The Victorian Age’s admirable commitment to producing a caper-style narrative which only rarely delves beyond the surface of its characters’ psyches doesn’t come without a few minor faults. Much as it’s something of a welcome relief to see Big Finish’s Torchwood range take a turn for the more whimsical given how adult – to say the very least – Season One’s tone became on occasion, there’s an inevitable lack of true emotional or philosophical depth which sets the release apart from some of the TV show’s finest hours like Captain Jack Harkness, Adam, Exit Wounds and Children of Earth, though mercifully that doesn’t mean the listening experience feels anywhere near as close to a chore as was the case with Yvonne Hartman’s alcohol-laden trip through the streets of Cardiff in last year’s One Rule. Add in a few technical blemishes – despite a great play on Murray Gold’s classic “Captain Jack’s Theme” and some convincing sound effects involving the footsteps of the horses Jack and Victoria mount in pursuit of their foe, the score itself leaves something to be desired, rarely hitting the rousing notes one would expect of an on-screen thriller of the same ilk – and another disappointing refusal on Benedict or perhaps producer James Goss’ part to acknowledge the overarching Committee plot threads which have been left obtusely hanging since Uncanny Valley launched earlier this year, and it’s fair to say that for all of the piece’s achievements, there’s still absolutely room for improvement by its successors in the months to come.

Yet if Big Finish’s take on Torchwood over the past six releases can be seen as just a hint at what lies around the corner for the range, then by this point, little doubt should really remain in our minds as to the studio’s capability to ensure that future releases continue to evolve and adapt to combat their predecessors’ flaws – Uncanny Valley provided Barrowman with a more well-rounded storyline than the still accomplished The Conspiracy, while this November’s three-part Outbreak looks set to remedy fans’ gripes with the lack of full-cast audio dramas commissioned to date, all of which only serves to confirm that the licence couldn’t be in better hands. Better yet, given the success with which they’ve had here at providing a thrilling historical outing complete with superb performances and a delightfully unexpected – if fleeting – thematic insight into both an esteemed fictitious character and a renowned real-world leader, it seems that Torchwood Three – or Torchwood Cardiff, as it was once evidently known – has not only a bright future to look forward to in the years between now and 2025, but a similarly bright past to boot.