Review by Cavan Gilbey
Every so often Big Finish will give us the chance to explore new characters within the Torchwood universe, offering us a look at branches and agents we may never would have seen onscreen. We’ve been to a Third Reich occupied Paris in The Dying Room, a Charlie’s Angels inspired LA in The Dollhouse and most famously we’ve had a glimpse into Norton Folgate’s Soho based branch. Double follows suit and takes back to a world where the Autons are slowly plotting their global take-over through corporate subterfuge and how a 70s British Torchwood may go around dealing with this hostile threat. Double’s strength lies in its longer format as we get to feel more involved with the world we see in Guy Adams’ script, everything is given the room it needs to breathe and we are offered an Auton story that feels genuinely fresh and expectedly bleak. Although there are some issues with how long it takes Adams to breathe, which ultimately does leave us with a big cluster of brilliant ideas and characters trapped within a narrative which ends up being somewhat confusing for the listener.
Nessoil is leading Britain’s place as a high-stakes player in the global energy crisis of the 1970’s. They’ve asserted their presence with a series of extremely hostile, deadly in fact, take-overs of leading petrochemical companies. Roberta Craven can see something is afoot, and along with journalist Neal Hart, she sets out on a globe trotting peace mission to keep the Nestene as far from the world’s energy crisis as possible. But there are plastic doubles working behind the scenes, disturbing the peace and manipulating the situation all in service of the Nestene Consciousness.
The opening episode of the pair is definitely the strongest if you ask me, despite the fact that is all set up. The thing is Adams is a master world builder and the 70s Britain that he crafts here is extremely vivid and evocative. There is this grand sense of decay running throughout the atmosphere of the episode, the country is falling slowly into the clutches of oil corporations and there isn’t anything they can do about it. Alien invasions leave the country in a state of panic with thousands dead, this actually gives the Auton’s initial invasion from Spearhead further weight as we get to feel the knock on effects here and its genuinely quite bleak with the idea that the invasion kind of worked since the Nestene have infected British society into the highest level of corporate politics. There are plenty of strong moments that really help sell how far Nessoil’s influence has spread; from doubles killing board members to journalists being beaten in their own homes it feels like the Nestene are playing the long game and they intend to win. Even Torchwood themselves feel like an extension of the dying state, all we see of them is Roberta and the voice of a woman she got killed on a mission and neither seem in the best of moods.
The subsequent episode I felt was missing something for me. While the writing and world building remained solid, in fact there are several interesting twists that I shan’t reveal here because they work best hearing them raw. I can’t help but feel that the sound design on this one is what lets it down a lot. To say this episode is a globe trotting conspiracy, Hrycek-Robinson’s soundscapes are incredibly minimal thus making it quite difficult to place where a scene is actually taking place. Although there is a moment of sound design where Roberta has a brief episode of overstimulation that is realised really authentically, putting you in a position of distress where you can so easily empathise with the mental pain Roberta is feeling. There is also the problem of the story not wrapping up in a way that felt that satisfying, it felt somehow too neat and convenient but still confusing in its implications. One concept that I do wish was explored a lot more is the notion of Autons doubles seeking autonomy, pun intended, because I really like this Frankenstein style narrative but it isn’t the main focus. Although if you want more of that please listen to Brave New Town, which is one of the best 8th Doctor stories out there.
I would totally be up for hearing more from Louise Jameson’s Roberta, one the best original Big Finish characters we’ve had in a long while. Adams’ evidently loves this character because she is so vividly realised in his scripts, she feels so real and her anger and frustration is so human. Roberta could carry numerous releases just on her own; an extreme cynic down with just the right amount of optimism and humanity. Omari Douglas’s journalist Neal Hart is a great companion for Roberta. Douglas can play off the comedic aspects of the dialogue really well and provides a good, lighter hearted foil to the darker Roberta. Emma Lowndes is another standout member of the cast, her portrayal of Patty feels like an interesting reflection of the cynical mind of Roberta. An interesting manifestation of guilt that Lowndes aptly plays with a high degree of passive aggression.
Double is a welcome experiment in the Torchwood range, and I would be interested in seeing these shorter story arcs being adopted into the range more since it can help really flesh out some of the stories that don’t fully suit that hour long format. And like any experiment not everything works, but that is a good thing because you can evidently see that this was a risk to take for the range and it mostly pays off. Part 1 has such sublime tonal and atmospheric work, taking its time to build characters and establish the political environment we’ve witnessing the decay of. However Part 2 becomes confusing due to technical aspects not quite matching what was needed by the script, action sequences in particular are a bit hard to follow here but the characters keep you hooked into this world. Adams has got something interesting on his hands here, and I hope to see a return to a 70s era Torchwood in the near future.
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