Thursday, 1 June 2017

Reviews Torchwood: Corpse Day by Tony J Fyler

Torchwood Corpse Day EO

Tony’s spending the year dead for tax reasons.

Torchwood spent the vast majority of its time dealing with aliens or things coughed up by the rift – it was part of the programme’s remit that that’s what Torchwood was about: protecting the world from alien or trans-temporal threats.

Which meant that when it brought the evil down to a simple, pure, everyday human level, it scared the living daylights out of us. Think Suzie. Think Countrycide. Think the government’s responses in both Children of Earth and Miracle Day. Torchwood is actually at its scariest when we are the bad guys.

Over the years, Big Finish Productions has taken Torchwood forward to the far future, back almost to its Victorian beginnings, and dropped in on a number of different Torchwood teams to the one we’re familiar with from the TV version. It’s also been able to round up almost all the original TV Torchwood team at some point or other, to expand their arcs and give them additional stories. Even Indira Varma as Suzie Costello – the team member who had to die in Episode 1 to make way for team regular Gwen Cooper – has been back to Torchwood at Big Finish.

Almost all the team has.

Corpse Day is a bit of a special release then, because it finally closes the loop on ‘original Torchwood members coming back,’ as the multi-talented and ultra-busy Burn Gorman comes, at least in spirit, back to Cardiff Bay as Dr Owen Harper. The headline to which is that it sounds like he’s never been away. Gorman’s proved his mettle many times on stage and screen since being killed off in Series 2 of Torchwood, but listening to Corpse Day, you’re right back in his era of the show, remembering how much fun the moany, seemingly world-weary doctor was to have around.

The premise is pretty straightforward – it’s ‘Urban Deliverance,’ or ‘City Centre Countrycide,’ an ordinary day, if such a thing ever exists in Torchwood, goes spectacularly, weirdly wrong and dark and ghastly during the course of routine enquiries, leading to the majority of the story being spent in another world entirely – the world behind someone else’s front door.
There are all sorts of themes tangled together there; urban isolation, casual racism, how you never know what goes on behind the smiles of your neighbours etc. But Gorman’s Owen has a deeper, more existential journey to go on in this story too – revealing and to some extent resolving the seeming contradiction at the heart of his character in Series 2, the ‘world-weariness’ that sits alongside a fierce determination to live, to survive, because for Owen, with the unique perspective of a dead man who won’t die, that’s all there is.

He’s helped on this journey by being paired for the first time with Tom Price’s PC Andy Davidson, dealing with ‘Corpse Day,’ a typically grandiose title for a bit of grim filing work, a very Torchwood idea from James Goss, and the two together give the first quarter of the story some solid light relief, Andy’s generally open-minded joie de vivre first clashing, and then blending well with Owen’s stark appreciations of life, people and much of the universe. There’s a great gag early on which we won’t spoil for you, but which will sing to anyone who’s ever been on a diet, and these two work well as a kind of Odd Couple of attitudes to life in general and Torchwood in particular. Once they’ve disturbed Nigel Betts’ Glynn in the middle of putting up a spice rack though, their lives are destined to change significantly, at least in the short term, and they enter a world of grief, loneliness, violence, brainwashing and oh, oh, oh the grimness.

TV Torchwood only rarely went as dark as this, so be prepared for a white-knuckle ride into domestic horror as Corpse Day threatens to earn its name, revealing layer after layer of appalling detail of what human beings will do, what they’ll condition themselves to, in order to survive. The existential journey for Owen though shines through the writing and Gorman plays it not as a road to Damascus (that would be far too jolly) but as a final-analysis scorched earth understanding of why, for instance, he’s right for Torchwood, and why perhaps PC Andy isn’t. Along the way, we also come to realise explicitly a few things we’ve only ever really suspected about Owen’ character before, so the story delivers value for your characterisation-money. Meanwhile, PC Andy, on the same journey of self-discovery with Owen, more or less travels it the other way, as questions of life at any cost or life in circumstances of utter grimness are put. You could claim this story puts the sides of the pro-life/pro-choice debate (though it would be moderately ironic to harp on that angle, given that the characters who take sides in it are both male), but it’s never overtly foregrounded or preachy, it’s too busy focusing on the sweaty, claustrophobic drama of a messed-up situation into which our Torchwood team simply stumble by virtue of their own curiosity. It’s horror movie meets real life long-term kidnap story, a simple world spun out to madness behind a perfectly ordinary front door.

Burn Gorman shines throughout Corpse Day, not just because of the novelty of hearing him as Owen again, but because he’s able to invest the character’s journey with enough light, shade and doubt to keep him interesting all the way through. Price, while inhabiting the seemingly more straightforward character of PC Andy, also gives us plenty to listen to, digging beneath the surface of everyone’s favourite ‘ordinary bloke’ to uncover both conscience and judgment. Betts as Glynn is hugely believable, dancing on the line of ‘nice old bloke’ and ‘demagogue of his own world’ – a line genuinely walked by many older men who ‘rule’ their households. And Hannah Maddox, Alex Tregear and Rhian Blundell, as the three ‘daughters’ of Betts’ domestic King Lear, deserve special mentions, each frequently and rightly stealing the show with the power of their performances, and their ability, when needed, to turn on a dime.

Corpse Day is not by any means an easy listen – there’s kidnap, torture, a degree of humiliation, strong inferences of cannibalism and an uncomfortable background of sexual slavery over the course of this one-hour story. But as a re-introduction for Owen Harper during his ‘Dead Man Walking’ phase, when he’s learning how important life can be, it’s a triumph. You will re-listen to this one, even when you know all its twists and turns and gruesome revelations. You’ll re-listen for the quality of the acting from practically every voice in the story, for the philosophical pondering and the dark wondering about what you’d do that it will force on you, and for the sticky dark energy of the whole production. You will re-listen to Corpse Day because it’s both dark and funny in a way you can only really get with Dr Owen Harper.

And now he’s back.

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