Torchwood: Zone 10 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by David Llewellyn
Directed by Scott Handcock
Starring: Naoko Mori (Toshiko Sato), Krystian Godlewski (Maxim Ivanov), Ella Garland (Anna Volokova), Geoffrey Breton (FSB Agent)
Released by Big Finish Productions - April 2016

If March’s Torchwood: The Victorian Age did exactly what it said on the metaphorical tin, then its immediate successor achieves precisely the opposite ambition, subverting the listener’s expectations at every turn, albeit to an even greater degree of success.

Set sometime before the events of the TV show’s 2007 season finale, Exit Wounds, Torchwood: Zone 10 not only develops the Committee arc which has tied each instalment of Big Finish’s licenced range so far together, but also reintroduces one of the original programme’s most beloved players back into the fold in the form of Naoko Mori as the ever-intrepid Toshiko Sato. Like Ianto before her in last October’s high-octane air-bound thriller Fall to Earth, Toshiko’s latest mission revolves as much around her hopes of proving her capabilities as a solo agent to the rest of her team in their absence as it does her investigation into a previously unexplained signal which takes her deep into Russia’s mountainous regions. It’s a shrewd decision on David Llewellyn’s part, one which lets Mori sink her teeth into a tale that expands her character’s occasionally insecure personality as well as offering a meaty mystery to be resolved along the way.

Better yet, far from resting on her laurels, Mori goes out of her way to confirm why fans so fervently called for her return in one of Big Finish’s releases, mirroring John Barrowman, Gareth David Lloyd, Eve Myles and the rest of her televised co-stars’ accomplished reprisals of their respective roles by rendering Toshiko as just as compelling a lead character in aural form as she was on-screen. Whether she’s trading wits with Krystian Godlewski’s secret agent Maxim Ivanov on the Russian slopes or defending the wayward astronaut Anna Volokova’s right to leave the dangerous territory known as Zone 10 as the storyline progresses, Mori shines regardless in capturing the character’s capacity for understated jokes, personal engagement with her cohorts and adversaries, unlikely leadership and willingness to put her life. If anything, over the course of the hour, her sublime performance – coupled with Llewellyn’s accomplished characterisation – only serves to strengthen Tosh’s status as one of her organisation’s most renowned employees.

Neither of Mori’s leading co-stars let her down in this regard, either: thanks to Llewellyn’s narrative casting Godlewski’s Ivanov as an old friend of sorts to Toshiko who nevertheless finds his loyalties tested by his own agency – the KVI, Torchwood’s Russian counterpart – the construct doesn’t so much come off as a clichéd obstacle for our heroine to overcome as a realistically morally conflicted individual whose hands become increasingly tied as more of the KVI’s connections to the Committee come to light, an internal battle which Godlewski portrays with brilliant subtlety. As for Ella Garland, who plays the aforementioned outer space explorer, her character doesn’t factor into proceedings until around the halfway point, yet such is the poignant, immediately sympathetic nature of Garland’s contribution that by the moment Volokova utters her final words in the play, the audience will be just as attached to her as they’ve grown to Mori’s returning Tosh and Godlewski’s expertly-handled Ivanov, if not more-so, which speaks to the raw power of her voice-work. Even Geoffrey Breton intimidates the audience to an impressive as one would hope from the piece's solitary minor antagonist, a KSB agent pursuing Tosh on her quest for the truth, although his airtime admittedly gets limited to but a few minutes at most.

If it seems as if this critique has stopped short of highlighting any chinks in Zone 10’s armour so far, then there’s a good reason for that: virtually all of its contributory elements stand up magnificently to scrutiny, with Scott Handcock’s direction in particular far outdoing his work on April’s The Victorian Age thanks to his decision to sparingly use weather- and firearm-based sound effects so as to aurally create a backdrop for the aforementioned cast members that’s positively dripping with atmosphere. Perhaps Llewellyn could have done a little more to make his latest contribution to the Torchwood range accessible to newcomers, since he seemingly assumes – perhaps rightly – that most listeners will be familiar enough with the Committee from previous releases to understand their impact this time around, yet at the same time, considering that both March’s More Than This and The Victorian Age kept irritatingly clear of this fascinating plot arc, maligning the scribe’s efforts to shed further light on the joint history of this elusive extra-terrestrial body and the newly-introduced KVI would be a hypocritical move to say the least. Suffice to say that anyone who’s shared this reviewer’s desire for the arc in question to kick itself into gear won’t come away underwhelmed in this instance; instead, such listeners will find themselves left enamoured by the now greatly increased likelihood of us finally gaining some closure in the remaining chapters of Season Two.

Even if the Committee arc appears to be moving rapidly towards its denouement at this point in time, however, the same certainly can’t be said of Big Finish’s Torchwood franchise as a whole; quite to the contrary, in light of the ease with which both Season Two’s opener, The Victorian Age, and now its sophomore instalment – Zone 10 – have reinvigorated the series after Season One ended on something of a rough note, the show’s immediate prospects in the realms of audio couldn’t appear more promising if Russell T. Davies were to be writing the remainder of the run. That sentiment in itself speaks wonders for how far producer James Goss as well as his masterfully selected team of writers have brought the range in the space of just eight months. Indeed, if future monthly releases continue to build upon the superb performances, atmospheric directorial work and tight scripting employed by Llewellyn for Tosh’s spectacular comeback, then chances are that by the time Outbreak rears its long-awaited head in the closing months of the year, we’ll be left in no doubt as to why BBC Worldwide chose to resurrect one of Doctor Who’s most popular spin-offs in audio form rather than on TV. We might be no closer to seeing Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper and the gang return to our screens ten years on from their debut in 2006’s Everybody Changes, but between releases like these and Titan Comics’ just-announced dedicated Torchwood strip – set to launch this Summer – there’s no denying that the show remains in as rude health as ever regardless.