❉ We review the three-part Torchwood mini-series Outbreak.
If there’s a lingering disappointment in Big Finish’s previous Torchwood releases, as good as many of them are, it would be a real sense of scale. Some stories have suggested larger events, hints clearly intended to be developed in future installments, but the primary focus has resolutely been on in-depth looks at one or two characters in each one. While this has provided some great character development, especially in the releases spotlighting Ianto Jones and Yvonne Hartman, the sense of something greater at stake was often either missing or at best implied.
‘The Torchwood Archive’ broadened the scope a bit, but the retrospective aspect of the story combined with the sheer number of characters involved – most of whom never really interact – sometimes made it feel more like a series of intriguing vignettes than something truly epic. In contrast, the newly-released ‘Outbreak’ brings Jack, Gwen and Ianto together to face a single massive threat over three hour-long episodes. Unfortunately, while the larger scale to the drama and hearing this trio together again are both welcome developments, the end result isn’t as compelling as it could be.
Where many of the previous plays could have been lost episodes from the first two series of ‘Torchwood’, the template here was clearly ‘Children of Earth’. Certainly many of the elements have a familiar ring, the most obvious being widespread incidents of strange behavior and a looming menace that Jack quickly recognizes from his murky past. That’s not to say that ‘Outbreak’ is just a copy of ‘Children of Earth’, but the similarity of their premises combined with the two stories being close to each other in the program’s continuity makes comparisons hard to avoid, with the audio story suffering in comparison to its TV cousin.
Part of what made ‘Children of Earth’ so impactful was the degree to which its setting was clearly recognizable as our own world with characters behaving believably when confronted with world-shaking events. In a sense, it was the culmination of the effort made in Jon Pertwee’s first season to turn ‘Doctor Who’ into a more grounded, adult-oriented science-fiction series, albeit one where the Doctor is only mentioned. Despite the lack of aliens, ‘Outbreak’ somehow feels less plausible than ‘Children of Earth’, with both the setting and characters – at least the supporting ones – coming across as fulfilling prescribed roles rather than parts of a developed world.
Fortunately, even though the plot is just average, the regular characters are all in good form throughout. In particular, it was great to hear Gwen and Ianto paired up early on. Their back and forth, such as when she tries to convince him to give up his expensive tie to restrain a victim of the titular outbreak, was a highlight as were the awkwardly tender moments between Jack and Ianto. As a general matter, Gareth David-Lloyd has been terrific in these audio stories, which bodes well for next year’s ‘Before the Fall’ set.
Producer James Goss, director Scott Handcock and the various writers clearly get what makes ‘Torchwood’ work.
Likewise, Kai Owen never fails make Rhys likable, and his character’s devotion to Gwen always rings true. The real unsung hero, though, is Tom Price as PC Andy, whose role is key to the overall story. Like Rhys, Andy is engaging, down-to-earth and given some great dialogue. A particular highlight is when one of the outbreak’s victims dismisses the idea that he’s working with Torchwood leading him to remark that “even the nutters sound surprised at the idea”.
That’s about as ruffled as Andy ever gets and also serves as a good example of how well the writers have integrated humor into the plot. At times, the lighter moments actually help to emphasize the underlying darkness like an ambulance driver telling Jack, “We were told to collect your body. We were hoping it wouldn’t talk.”
If ‘Outbreak’ doesn’t quite live up to its potential, it’s still good on its terms. Producer James Goss, director Scott Handcock and the various writers clearly get what makes ‘Torchwood’ work. While they haven’t (yet) bettered the show’s on-screen pinnacle, they’ve done a great job expanding its story and given fans good reason to look forward to future stories.
❉ ‘Torchwood: Outbreak’ was released on 15 November 2016. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until January 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.