Tony’s breaking out all over.
Torchwood on Big Finish audio has been tied up with the Committee for its first two series and its first special release.
Torchwood Outbreak is, in a real sense, Torchwood breaking out of its mould. It’s free of the Committee for the first time, forced to deal with an enormous problem, while still being true to its characters. Let’s say this before we start – it’s quite a relief to free Torchwood from its internecine war against the non-corporeal aliens who take over pensioners. Torchwood Outbreak is Series 2.5 - it has the vibe of Series 2, with Jack and Ianto establishing themselves as a couple, and Gwen and Rhys very strongly in love, with Rhys just needing a smidgen of reassurance that it’s him Gwen really cares for, not the swanky yank in the damn good coat. The storytelling scale of Outbreak though is much more Children of Earth or Miracle Day than it is Series 2. Hence Series 2.5.
As you might expect from the title, Torchwood Outbreak is also Big Finish smashing a couple of ranges together – it’s Torchwood to its bones, but it brings in a Survivors-style threat, a plague virus that kills and causes havoc throughout Cardiff, and beyond. That said, there’s something altogether more creepy about the Torchwood infection than the Survivors version – imagine wires burrowing under your skin, moving, burning, making you so nuts you tear yourself open to try and pull them out. This is Torchwood, remember – there will be blood.
There’s also a really weird progression pattern to the disease, which gives you intense feelings of love for the most natural object of your affection, then turns that emotion into an even more intense need to kill that person. There are hallucinations along the way, and as Cardiff, and the Hub go into simultaneous quarantine lockdown, we learn where the infection comes from, and what the nature of the insidious plot behind the virus actually is.
Insidious plot behind the virus? Of course. This is Torchwood. There’s usually an insidious plot behind the grimness in Torchwood, and Outbreak doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
Where it might disappoint is if you stop and actually think about it too hard. There’s an old project from the Fifties which has been unearthed, in the failed destruction of which – naturally – Jack was involved, alongside cheeky Torchwood ghost chappie Norton Folgate, who seems to be here largely because of the joyful quality of Samuel Barnett’s performance. The infection, which at first seems like a random lab accident, quickly becomes something rather darker and more deliberate. While maintaining a grand tradition of Torchwood figures of authority being deeply amoral wrong ’uns, there’s something about the development of the story in AK Benedict’s third episode of Outbreak that ventures dangerously close to justifying the real-world ‘anti-vax’ conspiracy theory, which is based on little more than idiocy. Granted, in the sci-fi arena and established as fiction, it’s a solid, resonant plot device, but you might get just a little uncomfortable with it before the end.
If we’re being really picky, there’s a sense of some padding throughout the three episodes too. The mid-section, with Jack locked up in the Hub after contracting the virus, Ianto trying to work out what to do for him, and Norton switching sides almost more often than he takes a breath, means Emma Reeves’ episode has a feeling of Tochwood: The Shining more than anything that especially moves the plot along, and in Guy Adams’ first episode too, there’s quite a lot of quirkiness involved in the way people succumb to the outbreak – bus drivers suddenly imagining they’re playing the violin etc – though that does, in fairness, add to the Torchwoody strangeness of it all, and allows people not to see the true impact of the citywide apocalypse coming.
What’s excellently done throughout is the relationship between Gwen and Rhys, which is thankfully allowed to drive quite a lot of the plot forward. With Gwen trapped inside a hastily-erected ‘ring of steel,’ Rhys has to use his nous to break through and reach her, and as the episodes unfold, their chemistry together is beautifully…Welsh, Eve Myles and Kai Owen working if anything better together on audio even than they did on screen, creating a real force of optimism and brute bloody-minded force to stand, and occasionally smash things, against the cynical forces of darkness behind Cardiff’s outbreak. PC Andy’s a force to be reckoned with here too, the writers continuing Big Finish’s campaign to give Andy a fair crack at rounded, deepened characterisation, and Tom Price delivering on the character’s potential. He’s the voice of ordinary coppers here, faced with a (fairly literally) demented situation, and only his own resources of ingenuity to call on to deal with it. In many ways, he’s the voice of human reason, outside the scope of Torchwood and its world-saving mission.
The ending of the story is just a touch anti-climactic, and dependent on Jack – who uses up one of his infinite number of deaths here (because after all, it almost wouldn’t be an epic Torchwood story if he didn’t) – pretty much ‘deleting’ the virus, as he can, because he’s Jack, leaving the story powering on, and on, and on, and then, suddenly, not powering anywhere any more. While not detracting from the power of the story overall, or its sense of worth, the relative ease of the eventual ending is discomfiting given that people have died to get us to that point.
For all the Shining-padding, and the anti-vax closeness (as we say, that does at least give the plot here an extra dimension of breathtaking cunning and evil bastardy), and the ‘Oh, that’s sorted then’ ending, Torchwood Outbreak is an engaging story, that powers through its run time with a combination of growing weirdness, panic, retaliation and cynical evil, as the forces of goodness, personified by Gwen, Rhys, Ianto and Andy (Jack optional) battle to keep control of their sanity and their city. Is it up there with, say UNIT: Extinction or Survivors, Series 1? No – but it’s as good a way to spend some hours as UNIT: Shutdown or Survivors Series 2. On that basis alone, it’s worth your money. The extra bonuses here of freedom from the Committee, great written chemistry between Gwen and Rhys and great performances from Myles, Owen, Price and Barnett make Torchwood Breakout more than a solid addition to your collection, and more like the must-have it’s striving to be.