First coming to our screens in 2006’s rather lacklustre Doctor Who episode ‘Tooth and Claw’, Queen Victoria dealt with backflipping monks, a half dressed companion, and an allergy-ridden werewolf. By the end of it the most powerful woman in the world decided it was time to get some skin in the game and so created Torchwood. Originally played by Pauline Collins, Rowena Cooper has taken over the role of Torchwood’s founder for Big Finish’s audio productions, and she does a splendid job. Her Victoria is a Machiavellian character, ready to do what it takes to get not only the job at hand done, but prepare for the job waiting ten years down the line.
In their latest Torchwood offering, Big Finish surrounds her with special aid Castringham and an unnamed Prime Minister, (although we’re told he’s new, so can we assume Gladstone?) to tell ghost stories late on a Christmas Eve. Of course the tales end up with a common thread woven through, and we get to enjoy a fun twist at the end which shows just how far the Queen is really prepared to go.
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It’s well written, with Jonathan Barnes managing to bring a believability to the situation. In fairness, two of the three stories aren’t all that scary, though this brings an odd realism of its own; stories like this are best told at night, with a glass of something warm to keep away the cold without and the chills within. There is the feel that these are things that could have happened, that a person might think of as remarkable, enough to make them question the way they see the world, at least in the small hours when they couldn’t sleep. Without the right setting this story is a diversion. With it, it’s a much richer entertainment.
And the richness is only enhanced by the cast. Hugh Fraser’s rich, aristocratic tones bring a thorough believability to the role of Castringham, an aid whose duties cover far more than fetch, carry, and diary organisation. Richard David-Caine makes his Big Finish debut as the Prime Minister; a surprisingly difficult part given the complexity of emotions David-Caine is having to convey, and he handles himself with aplomb. Patience Tomlinson rounds out the cast playing a number of roles, most notable as former nanny of the queen. Her voice acting ability is superb, as is her use of dialect.
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Something about this release makes it feel far more intimate than many other offerings from Big Finish. Director Lisa Bowerman has used a small cast and a narrative tool to make us feel like just one more person listening in on these tales of dread. Of course the nice thing about picking this up as a last minute Christmas gift is that, as a digital download, you don’t have to worry about post either.
Torchwood: The Empire Man is out now from Big Finish.