When a long-dormant, mind-reading, character-changing virus is re-released in 2009, Cardiff finds itself in the grip of an unstoppable contagion. As victims of the “Good Thinking Programme” lose inhibitions, become animated and crazed, and resort to violence, authorities move to quarantine the city. Scattered and separated, the Torchwood team struggle to respond to the outbreak, come into conflict with the government, and find their efforts challenged by a maverick predecessor from the 1950s.
This full-cast Torchwood adventure revels in a sense of epic scale and the blending of separate, parallel storylines. The three episodes track key stages in the development of the threat soon to engulf the city (and then the world beyond it): “Incubation” (the development of the infection); “Prodromal” (the first phase of symptoms); and “Invasion” (the full onslaught of the disease). The episode names do signpost the key milestones in the trilogy’s storyline, but that’s not where the real surprises here are to be found.
Torchwood: Outbreak delivers a complex, energetic and multi-strand drama in which the momentum rarely dips. But alongside the high-concept sci-fi ideas and the driving storyline, the scripts find an impressive amount of time to explore some relationship dynamics too: with the entanglement of Jack and Ianto (file under ‘it’s complicated’) first amongst them. Scott Handcock’s direction ensures a keen sense of focus and shows real confidence when handling the switches between time and place and character. Rather than “announce” the changes through overly-obvious dialogue cues, he and the writers allow the listener to recognise each new setting as the next scene unfolds; a far more satisfying audio experience.
This latest story reunites a host of characters from the original TV series: Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) are joined by Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) and PC Andy Davidson (Tom Price), with all members of the (“Torchwood 3”) ensemble afforded a satisfying amount of attention across the course of the three-hour running time. Amongst the trilogy’s guest cast, Samuel Barnett is particularly impressive as the infuriating, officious and mercurial “Torchwood Assessor” Norton Folgate (first introduced in James Goss’ “Ghost Mission”); while Marilyn Le Conte finds the right mixture of the callous and the supercilious in her portrayal as the deceitful head of the “outbreak management team” Frances Godalming.
The Torchwood team are put through the wringer in Outbreak. Mortified at the risk he might pose, Jack isolates himself in a lockup in The Hub, fearful that, as one of the infected, he may harm those that he loves. A tortured Jack is overwhelmed by terrifying recollections of the last time the “Good Thinking” experiment went wrong; and soldiers in his group were burnt to death. As Ianto attempts to manage Jack’s containment and find the source of the outbreak, he is all the while harassed by Folgate’s incessant, sarcastic commentary. As the body count rises, Gwen finds herself adrift amid a city falling apart, before she too succumbs to the illness. Andy does his best to support the emergency teams responding to the crisis before the resources of the police are overwhelmed and the force itself succumbs to the condition. Rhys meanwhile tries to trick and charm his way through the cordon sealing off Cardiff, but begins to question his efforts when he is reunited with a now-unhinged Gwen. As the team uncover the truth and unmask the perpetrators, Gwen reveals some impressive talents as a rabble rouser.
There are some familiar Torchwood tropes in evidence here: the city of Cardiff falls victim to some kind of “alien” infestation; Torchwood comes under covert scrutiny by the authorities; a crucial artefact is unearthed in the Hub’s archives; and untold secrets from Jack’s past are revealed. Yet the inclusion of these recognisable beats does not detract in any way from the richly-rendered, rip-roaring entertainment on offer in Outbreak, which strikes many original tones of its own. The scripts are punctuated with trademark Torchwood knowing double entendres (which characters comment on directly) and sexual references (particularly around Jack’s desirability and prowess). This reinforces that tonal blend of the super-serious and the sassily suggestive which is immediately recognisable as Torchwood.
The release comes with a bonus disc-length of extra features, in which original show creator Russell T Davies, along with members of cast and crew, reminisce about the making of the TV series (enjoying many good-natured jokes at each other’s expense); while the Big Finish Torchwood team discuss the pleasures and perils of bringing the show back into the audio realm. It’s a great way to round off an already convincing release. Few Torchwood fans will be immune to the irresistible infection of Outbreak.
TORCHWOOD: OUTBREAK / CAST: JOHN BARROWMAN, GARETH DAVID-LLOYD, EVE MYLES, KAI OWEN, TOM PRICE / DIRECTOR: SCOTT HANDCOCK / WRITERS: GUY ADAMS, EMMA REEVES, AK BENEDICT / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW FROM BIG FINISH; GENERAL RELEASE: JANUARY 31ST