Monday, 1 May 2017

Reviews The Dollhouse by Tony J Fyler

Torchwood The Dollhouse

By Tony J Fyler

This is not the Torchwood you’re looking for.

Almost beyond a shadow of doubt, this is not the Torchwood you’re looking for.

By that, we don’t mean it’s bad necessarily, just that it bears only the tiniest resemblance to the Torchwood anyone knows or understands.

It’s Charlie’s Angels.

This script of the latest Torchwood audio story from Big Finish, written by Juno Dawson, isn’t even really ‘Torchwood does Charlie’s Angels.’ It more or less is Charlie’s Angels. The only things that make it more Torchwood are the voice on the phone which gives the three female American 1970s investigators, which is British and talks about them being the last vestige of the British Empire (which in itself seems odd), and the fact that the threat here is alien, rather than crookedly human.

Having this American Torchwood, and making it so rag-tag and under-resourced as three specially talented young women in LA who take orders from a disembodied British voice feels a little like trying to bend one show far enough out of shape that it’s actually another show altogether, and there’s a disconnect early on with all the usual Cardiff-based shenanigans. But once you accept that this is in almost no way whatsoever the Torchwood you probably signed on for, there’s plenty of enjoyment to be had in The Dollhouse.

Torchwood’s Angels are Marlow Sweet (played by Laila Pyne), Charley Du Bujeau (Jelly-Anne Lyons) and Gabi Martinez (Ajjaz Awad), and they’re African American, corn-fed Southern and Latina respectively, bringing a more inclusive dynamic to its set-up than Charlie’s Angels ever did. Together they’re investigating spikes in cosmic radiation, leading them to a very sleazy casting agent by the name of Don Donohue. Big Finish strikes casting gold here, with Donohue played by Stuart Milligan, who was seemingly born to embody self-justifying sleaze with an American twang. Milligan gives the bad guy more teeth than you might otherwise expect, and while you struggle for a little while to accept that this is a Torchwood release you’re listening to, and probably fantasise more than somewhat about the version of a modernised Charlie’s Angels that, say, Gwen, Tosh and Martha could have delivered, Pyne, Lyons and Awad work with what they’re given to create a more grounded, realistic team of crime-fighting, alien-busting sisters than seventies TV ever allowed. There’s just a little too much reliance on the baddies being stupid in the story, as angel after angel investigates Donohue’s very special casting service for what is revealed to be the role of a lifetime, but Pyne, Lyons and Award quickly become a very audio-friendly team – you’re anticipating their characters’ reactions long before the end, and Awad surprises by occasionally pulling off so convincing a Rosie Perez vibe as Martinez that you prick up your ears.

Where Torchwood Dollhouse is at is best is in its underlying message, which is clever and depressing by turns. Donohue’s operation funnels clueless actresses off the carousel of potential humiliations awaiting women who aspire to change their lives in Seventies Hollywood, but what happens to them then is a lesson in the weary acceptance of objectification. Lyons’ Charley even says at one point, ‘So what’s it for? Intergalactic sex trafficking?’, and she says it with a sigh in her voice that’s indicative of the passive acceptance that that’s what it would be if there were a human behind the idea, the simultaneous valuing and devaluing of a handful of biological real estate driving men to do appalling, unspeakable things to women, and to deny what should be the obvious reality of female bodily autonomy throughout our species’ history – a theme that’s still so, so depressingly relevant in the age of Trump. What it’s really about…that, admittedly, has a properly Torchwood vibe, an alien species teaching even humanity a lesson in shocking objectification. Dawson plays with us and delivers her shocks well on this level, especially when Donohue is asked how he could agree to be a party to something so grim. His answer will punch you in the face and give you things to think about long after the more action-based climax of the story.

Torchwood has always been for grown-ups, its language and its content dealing with more overtly adult themes, and this is such a story (there’s even a sub-argument here about pubic hair as a feminist cause, given the originally porn-driven infantilisation of women’s bodies to match some moderately dark male fantasy from the age of their sexual peak – don’t panic, it’s not as overtly stated as that in the story, but it’s there). Frustratingly then, while it makes the most of Torchwood’s ability to use more adult language, when people swear in Torchwood Dollhouse, it feels like a wasted opportunity, adding little if anything even to the emphasis of lines.

Ultimately, this is a very unusual Torchwood story, and listeners expecting anything of the ‘usual’ Torchwood vibe from it will be disappointed. What it is is an attempt to tell a new kind of Torchwood story, with some solid messages and good politics. As Torchwood, it would be misleading to call it a spectacular success. As an audio story that gives you more than you might have expected to think about though, Dollhouse is definitely worth giving a spin.

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