Hospitals are a conducive setting for the writers of supernatural fiction. There’s great potential in those sterile corridors and operating theatres for maniacal doctors, toxic medications and body horror to run riot. The adventures of Torchwood have led Jack Harness’ team into their local A&E department on more than one occasion. This latest audio unfolds in the confines of St. Helen’s Hospital, as Rhys (Gwen Cooper’s other half) pay a visit to his mother, convalescing from her recent hip replacement operation.
Brenda Williams (the redoubtable Nerys Hughes) appeared once in the Torchwood TV series, in the famous series two wedding episode “Something Borrowed”. There’s no question that pairing one of the less central (although well-liked) characters from the show’s TV canon with a ‘family member’ who featured in just one story is a mark of confidence on the part of Big Finish’s producers. There’s clearly a risk that this audio tale might come across as rather peripheral to the Torchwood universe and of little import in and of itself.
It is fortunate then that “Visiting Hours” is a well-plotted story, strong on humour, which makes great play of the winning dynamic between Rhys and his exasperated (and sometimes exasperating) mother. Snuck in at the tail end of the agreed visitors’ slot, Rhys quickly realises that dark deeds are afoot on the wards. After he discovers that a time-travelling surgical team, led by the no-nonsense Dr. Fletcher, are harvesting patients’ organs for rich, sick clients (in this case, a mysterious prince), he learns that his mum is on that evening’s list for extraction; a procedure in which the donor inevitably dies. Unable to summon help, and as events move into ‘real time’, Rhys has to move his incapacitated mother to a place of safety, evading the efforts of Fletcher’s retrievers to find them.
As well as the good-natured squabbling between Rhys and his mother, it is Rhys’ determination to step up and become the hero of the hour that shapes how the drama unfolds. Scriptwriter David Llewellyn channels the voice of both of the main characters, and Hughes and Owen both deliver relaxed and assured performances (it’s clear from the studio interview special feature how much fun they’ve been having).
The central conceit of “Visiting Hours” is relatively straightforward, but the two-man bodysnatcher team benefit from some plausible character notes, and the feared Cleaner robots (although little used) provide an additional sense of threat. Handcock’s direction gets good value out of a relatively small number of locations, and there’s some very effective sound design, courtesy of the talented Benji Clifford, as Rhys races through the hospital, pushing his mother on the trolley he uses as a battering ram, and is berated by their hunters on the hospital’s PA system. Mother and son are finally forced to take refuge in the morgue’s least appealing filing cabinet. There’s also a punchy gag about the use of bad language (one of the obvious reasons that this is not a release for very young ears), and some knockabout fun as bed-bound Brenda helps to fight off their assailants as best she can (ignoring the Queensbury rules of combat in the process).
Of the small guest cast, Karl Theobald (no stranger to hospital scrubs, given his role as the hapless house officer Martin Dear in Channel 4’s sublime sitcom Green Wing) is particularly impressive. He is the brains of snatch squad duo, but once his true motives are revealed, Theobald finds the pathos that spurs his character’s criminal action.
This instalment of Torchwood does not offer any truly chilling confrontations, and there are no real lump-in-the-throat emotional moments either. But if this is a diverting, rather than a riveting, tale, this only goes to show how flexible the ‘single main character’ audio format really is. “Visiting Time” does not pretend to offer the high-octane, high-concept thrills of Torchwood at its most unleashed, but it does work on its own terms as an entertaining, character-focused short story. The doctor (and his killer cleaner robots from the future) will see you now.
TORCHWOOD: VISITING HOURS / STARRING: KAI OWEN, NERYS HUGHES, KARL THEOBALD, RYAN SAMPSON / DIRECTOR: SCOTT HANDCOCK / WRITER: DAVID LLEWELLYN / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (FROM BIG FINISH); 30TH APRIL (GENERAL RELEASE)