Torchwood – The Victorian Age
Tony yearns for some eminent Victorians.
We’ve been advocating for Torchwood, Year One for a while now – a show that takes Torchwood back to its roots, its glorious, ruthless, potentially steampunk-as-all-get-out roots.
This is not that story.
This is A Royal Night Out, with Jack Harkness and an alien.
For those not familiar with the reference, A Royal Night Out tells the apparently true story of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret escaping from their palace and their chaperones to celebrate ‘among the people’ on VE Night, encountering common folk in pubs, in crowds, in dubious nightclubs, knocking shops and parties, and more or less having a right royal knees-up with them.
Torchwood – The Victorian Age, by A K Benedict, brings Queen Victoria, twenty years after she founded the Institute, on an annual inspection of Torchwood London, where she’s met rather incongruously by Torchwood Cardiff’s Captain Jack Harkness, just before alien mayhem erupts, in the form of a creature that seems able to suck youth and vigour out of its prey (the Victorian Age of course gaining another meaning by virtue of this particular trait). With Torchwood London’s boss, Archie, being withered to old age, we’re off to the races with Captain Jack and Queen Victoria (played here by Rowena Cooper, of many other things and in Big Finish terms, The Last post and Cloisters of Terror, where she played Liz Shaw’s mum). Cooper is a good audio queen, delivering the extraordinariness of that singularly redoubtable monarch, but with a combination of an older sensibility and a twinge or two of twinkly mischief around the edges. Barrowman as Harkness shifts his performance too, so we get a younger, newer-to-all-this Captain Jack, rather more puppy-dog than old warrior, but still old enough to be aware of his mortality-shunning habit.
The adventure itself though is rather a case of wondering ‘what had Victoria probably never done, and how can we get her to do it?’ with occasional alien confrontation along the line. So we see Victoria go to a pub and eat winkles (Americans – don’t ask; it’s a peculiar British perversion); riding the Underground, travelling by car, and leading the chase for a vigour-sapping alien menace across Hyde Park on horseback. We see her interacting with what amounts to a fairly random selection of Victorian commoners – a pubful, a parson who’s preaching the end of the world, an anti-monarchist, a woman who’s either simply old or a bit doolally, sitting under a tree, advocating the soothing benefits of a strawberry ice. Victoria’s at her most appealing though towards the end, helping a mother whose young daughter has been touched by the monster, and who now looks like her own grandmother, her future stolen. Cooper brings the Queen Empress right down to size as one human being talking to another, giving comfort, helping the hysterical mother to see there are still blessings in the world, and that her daughter being alive is one of them.
It's also Victoria who delivers the decisive action at the end of the story – both leaving ‘Hard to Kill Harkness’ alone in the Underground to face the beast, and realising, from events she’s observed, how best to actually deal with its peculiar penchant for stealing, or indeed returning, vital energy. The Queen Empress on the march with what might be called the provisional wing of the Silver Cloak is a thing to hear, and we find at the end of it a mellower Victoria than Pauline Collins in on-screen Who, having faced a great and timely temptation, and beaten down the inner demons urging her to give in to it. All may not exactly be well that ends well – there are genuine victims of the alien aggressor in The Victorian Age – but Goss rounds off his story with a neat bow and serves it to us as a complete thing, with few if any dangling threads to pull on for future Victorian Torchwood stories.
Does it satisfy, then?
Welllll, a basic yes – it hits the points you expect it to hit, and Cooper, Barrowman and Louise Jameson, giving voice to a couple of roles, are all on good audio form.
But this is an audio that suffers both from its position and the scope of its potential. The first series of Torchwood audios from Big Finish was fairly staggering in its quality – it hit a wide variety of notes, sometimes focusing on the comedy elements (as in Fall to Earth and One Rule), and other times foregrounding the horror (Forgotten Lives), while most regularly, as in the likes of Uncanny Valley and More Than This, it achieved a beautiful, enjoyable balance between its elements, delivering something that could be enjoyed by a range of listeners.
This one, to be absolutely fair, and to apply the least appropriate word in the history of Torchwood reviewing, feels a little too…straight. Its premise is revealed early on, and it’s not long before we get the idea that this is Victoria’s grand adventure out among the people. It strives to deliver more than that on a couple of occasions, and in that moment with the mother of the stricken daughter, it achieves that moment of mattering on a deeper level. But other moments, like the run-in with the apocalyptic pastor, feel by comparison like they miss their mark, leaving the listener wondering at the point of keeping them in. So overall, this feels like a slight step down from everything that’s come before it.
Why that’s especially worrying of course is that this is the first story in Series 2 of the Big Finish audio Torchwood. As things have turned out, that means relatively little – there’s not much in the way of temporal continuity involved in the Torchwood stories Big Finish is choosing to tell, and the release date of this Series 2 opener is just a month after the Series 1 closer, but if you combine a series-opening slot with the premise of a form of Torchwood we’ve only seen in flashbacks before, and the idea that it’s the very epitome of steampunk time, you incite high expectations in your potential listeners. You say ‘Torchwood - The Victorian Age’ and show Captain Jack with sideburns on the cover art, and you evoke all sorts of stories, which set the blood pumping and the mind racing. And then, what you get is Queen Victoria on a jolly. In itself, there’s nothing wrong with the story or the idea, and there’s certainly little enough to quarrel about in the execution (though again you have to wonder at the inclusion of some scenes – neither the pastor nor the anti-monarchist scene particularly comes to anything, and there’s a degree to which the ‘man woman with a strawberry ice’ scene is just padding, bordering on time-wasting), but it just doesn’t live up to either the expectations you have based on all that’s come before, or the expectations to which you’re incited by the premise and the slot.
While not usually given to faint praise, we would have to say that Torchwood – The Victorian Age is a perfectly nice Torchwood story that does some of the things you expect of it. But in living up neither to the storytelling and emotional complexity of Series 1, nor the potential of its premise and its Series 2-opening slot, it feels like it struggles to compete in a range that has previously been known for its verve, its darkness, its comedy and its humanity.