Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the conclusion to Big Finish’s fifth series of Torchwood. We know what you’ve done. And we know what you’ll do – that is, mind the spoilers after the ‘read more’ tag. And, if you’re so enclined, you find our coverage for parts one and two by following those links.
TIBERE: Well, here we are, on the last page, and … I’m confused. It’s not that this boxset, or indeed the series as a whole, has been bad. It hasn’t, and really, it absolutely nailed it what it had to – proving that Torchwood could continue with different and new characters, and a new format. The concepts and the hooks are great, and enticing. But, after a first boxset that I absolutely adored, I think the series has trouble finding its way – there’s the matter of the nostalgic call-backs we already discussed, but, as this set makes it clear, there’s also some real issues in the way the arc, themes and plot development of the series have been conceived. It’s a really ambitious piece of work, but it’s also a deeply flawed one, much more than one might have initially supposed – but then again, this is Torchwood. There’s no such thing as perfectly polished Torchwood. I think the appeal of the show always has been these sorts of sudden conceptual bursts of genius, these really great stories coming almost out of the blue – and this set has that covered, so, really, there’s not too much to complain about.
SCRIBBLES: Would I recommend Aliens Among Us III? Wholeheartedly. The strength of the opening two stories here alone is far, far above the average baseline for Big Finish audio content, and easily stands up as some of the best Torchwood material ever. However, I will say, brace for niggles. They’re niggles worth experiencing, as Aliens Among Us has as a whole been a tremendous success that everyone should hear. But don’t expect a sense of closure. I loved all three sets of Aliens Among Us, and this set has my favorite piece of the lot. And yet, unfortunately, I’m also left asking what the story was about in the end. I can say, though, I immediately went back to relisten to the entire thing because I wanted to understand, and enjoyed all twelve hours even more on revisit. Aliens Among Us demands that kind of investment because it is such a complex and clever piece. I don’t entirely feel like I’ve got what it wants to be yet, but the most damning critique I can make of this set is that it’s so ambitious and daring it can’t contain itself. That’s a healthy thing to be. Torchwood is back, and as this set proves, it’s not going away in a hurry. I think we all can be happy about that.
9) “Poker Face”, by Tim Foley
SCRIBBLES: Tim Foley was previously the author of what was previously the best story in Aliens Among Us in the last set. He doesn’t quite top himself here, but this is a very, very worthy accompaniment to the exceptional outing that was “The Empty Hand.”
TIBERE: It’s just the kind of story with such a self-evidently perfect concept you can’t really build on it or comment it too much – Jack and Yvonne (and the team) locked together and having to debate the future of Torchwood. It makes so much sense – if the main question in that new series has been how can Torchwood adapt and evolve in a new world where the boundaries between the human and the alien. So pitting the characters that both embody the clearest ideological visions of Torchwood against each other, both terribly problematic but oddly likeable, just gives way to electric scenes. And Tracy-Ann Oberman, yum. Yvonne is a bit of a problematic fave of mine, and her performance, all chilling poise and bitter irony, is a thing of beauty. They’re clever about how they bring her back, too, in that it allows to keep pushing this theme of the boundaries being blurred. She’s Yvonne, yes, but she’s not quite the real one – she’s from another universe, she is, in a way, an alien as well – and since she ends up allying with Ro-Jedda in the finale … Of course, there’s also the question of how much humanity is a question of memories, of experiences, which is already embodied in the Gwen/Ng tension, with Gwen telling the impostor that she’s welcome to her life if she wants it – which kind of finds an echo here with Yvonne not knowing certain key facts about the Torchwood history and continuity, Ianto’s name and fate chief among those.
SCRIBBLES: The worst thing I can say about this story is that some of the strings of the character machinations were a bit obvious. The structure is cribbed quite elegantly from “End of Days,” complete with Gwen shooting Jack. The cleverness, though, is in how it hits some of those beats in new ways. Colchester being suspicious of Jack may be a bit obvious, but the way, say, Yvonne plants the remote on Jack, or the way Orr collects evidence against him, is excellent and genuinely surprised me once or twice. And it’s just the right level of convoluted. The beautiful, beautiful irony of the story is that Jack could have owned up to his dalliances with Red Doors and explained via truth serum and everyone would have likely understood. It’s his insistence on not revealing anything about himself creates the ambiguity that Yvonne can manipulate.
TIBERE: The stuff with the key is especially cruel. If he had simply told them what he had taken from Yvonne’s pockets, they would never have believed it was an active detonator. But no – that’s a very Torchwood thing to do, these little missed occasions, these moments of cruelty. They can come out needlessly brutal and pointless, but, when they are anchored in a deep understanding of the characters and the arc, it’s a thing of beauty. Speaking of call-backs, I alsoI think that it is also leaning very heavily on “They Keep Killing Suzie”. A dead female Torchwood operative rising from the dead, kept under lock, and who has a terrible masterplan?
SCRIBBLES: Tim Foley also recreates what was so excellent about his previous outing in the plotting. Like “The Empty Hand,” this is a very simple science fiction conceit. The glitter bombs are tremendously simple science fiction, and the eventual reveal that there was basically no bombs in the first place makes it even better. The science fiction is an incredibly light prodding to push some high-stakes character drama. Unlike that previous story, it doesn’t get the visceral political sandbox to play so blisteringly in, but it’s nonetheless immensely effective at taking that same approach and applying it to the more intimate and yet distant landscape of the Torchwood hub. I quite liked, too, how this is the second Alien Among Us story to bring back a seemingly random minor character. After “A View to a Kill” brought back the gloriously unfortunate Duncan from the preceding story, this now brings back near-nobody Xander from Foley’s previous outing, using a fairly forgettable element in that story as an extremely efficient wedge between the characters in this one. And it carries over some of the weight from that story, which is very welcome. Plus, of course Yvonne keeps bodies in bags in her car. That’s just so her.
TIBERE: I think that’s one of the great successes of Aliens Among Us, despite all the flaws we can find in the concept – it really gives the impression of a live city, of a realistic environment with actual people. Really, Cardiff in the main character in that series, and having a layered ensembled cast to complement that works wonder to reinforce the Torchwood ethos. But yeah, overall this is just an impeccably polished little script, full of smart symbols and reversals: the way it ends, especially, with Yvonne literalling toppling Jack away from his pedestal, his typical skyscraper landscape. It starts as simply a play on tropes, it ends up as a comment on power dynamics. And really, I think the entire story is filled with that kind of subtle, running ideas and commentaries. It’s really interesting to see how Jack, who’s in many respects a much more progressive figure than Yvonne, is doomed by his adhesion to past dogmas and rules – to the past of the show, even, maybe. There’s a bit of a political reading there – the old left falling into irrelevance despite good intentions, by compromising too much morally (Jack’s dalliances with the Red Doors) and ending up getting supplanted by a soulless, but glamorous brand of new, glossy conservatism Yvonne embodies beautifully. She’s a monster, but in a context that craves powerful women, iconic figures, it’s so much easier to like her …
SCRIBBLES: Let’s not forget, as well, this is a story with Russell T Davies’ fingerprints on it. The Yvonne return explanation is stunning, at once so obvious and so unexpected. If ever one is wondering why Russell T Davies is one of the greatest treasures to happen to Who, it’s moments like that. His touch really, really elevates this Big Finish series, and it just so happens this is one of the best possible episodes in it he can elevate.
10) “Tagged”, by Joseph Lidster
TIBERE: Joseph Lidster’s entire body of work is based on the interaction between the alien and the human. Having him write for that series is that kind of idea that are so obvious you kind of forget how great they are. And the result, damn …
SCRIBBLES: There’s no way around it, this is the best Aliens Among Us story. Possibly the best Torchwood audio, period, though in my personal view, “Fall to Earth” and the middle disc of Outbreak put up a good fight. I just mentioned before that Russell T Davies’ touches on Aliens Among Us show why he was such a treasure to the show. Well, this shows why Joseph Lidster was the only credited writer here to author a television story back when Torchwood was on air. The sheer talent here is self-evident. It’s got more emotional punch and raw humanity to it than any Big Finish audio possibly ever. This is in the pulse of the very real world, dealing with very real trauma in a way it takes real skill to write. Exceptional.
TIBERE: It’s just so very modern, isn’t it? I think that, at its best, Torchwood was a catalyst for very real, contemporary anxieties – the Iraq War, the government selling you out, financial crisis, et caetera. And here … We get a commentary on technology, obviously, and one that’s utterly brilliant (Lidster also happens to be the single best Cybermen writer ever, just saying that), but it goes beyond that. There’s a truly ontological threat at work here – technology is a form of alienation humans impose on themselves, allowing them to enter in a dimension of secrets and toxicity and danger that will mark them to their very soul.
SCRIBBLES: I wouldn’t have ever thought Big Finish would take on something like date rape. Just hearing those words in an audio was a punch to the gut for me. And it’s not something, honestly, that I’d trust most Big Finish writers with. Even James Goss, much as I love him, entered iffy territory with “Corpse Day.” This, though, this is magnificent, and written by someone who genuinely understands the issues involved. I mean, we even get Ng using the word “mansplaining,” utterly without forced awkwardness. The natural way in which this audio sits in the present world is mind-boggling. It’s sewn from the fabric of our lives. I don’t think any Doctor Who content period has ever gotten modern Earth life this viscerally well.
TIBERE: I mean, the idea of taking justice into your own hands is just such a powerful tool, at the moment, isn’t? When there’s this sense of the main institutions, of the political power having let you down, there’s going to be a reckoning. Cardiff is a mirror for the sort of lonely political/mental landscape we’re all wandering around at the moment.
SCRIBBLES: And I love, love, love the fact that this audio never once paints Serena as in the wrong. She’s exploited, certainly, but she honestly wasn’t wrong to kill her rapist. I love the moment in her triumphant ending where she mentions she’ll keep the look on his face when she pushed him under a bus. It’s deserved! It is, genuinely, for all the moral horror here, treated as just. I want to hug this story, it’s fantastic.
TIBERE: Absolutely. Like, what allows the Meme (god, even that, what a fantastic bit of modern culture!) to get insider her head is not her desire for violence and rebellion – which is presented as legitimate -, it’s her own self-loathing, it’s her feeling something is wrong with her because she was abused by a man. And she gets free, in the end – except she has already gone too far, she has gazed into this abyss, and it’s coming to get her. It’s violent, and wrong, and hard to listen to.
SCRIBBLES: The fact that this story even calls attention to how her rapist was covered up by the police was stellar. It’s so political in all the right ways. Reminds me a bit of Joseph Lidster’s UNIT story, “The Longest Night,” which was about white terrorists framing people of color, but with far less awkwardness. That story still traded in fridging and some gratuitous, awkward beats that never landed. Lidster’s clearly grown as a writer since, I don’t think there’s a single move here I would actually criticize. At worst, its ending is extremely cynical, with Ng’s killing of Serena probably the biggest gut punch I have ever felt from Doctor Who media. It’s horrible and painful, genuinely painful. But it works, I think. It’s never once tied to her place as a rape victim, but used to further Ng to the most interesting place she’s ever been. I can understand if that beat does not work as well for other people, it’s painful as hell, but it means more to me emotionally than most stories I’ve ever experienced.
TIBERE: The attention Lidster puts into the scene is what really sells it. The details – “you need to be holding the gun”. God … But I do think it works, even if it’s not a pleasant listen. I think it just taps into some kind of fundamental storytelling truth, to me at least – there’s just a purity to the morality play that happens here, it runs like a pure Greek tragedy where the likeable but fatally flawed hero is doomed by fate and their own mistakes.
SCRIBBLES: My favorite aspect of her killing Serena is the way it begins with a monologue about how everybody has secrets. Immediately, you know the other foot is going to come down. You just know. I was terrified Serena would just get into a car crash or something while driving off, and that actually would have made me kind of angry even if it also made me feel. But using Ng here is inspired and makes every political and character theme in this story have massive ramifications on the overall set. This is genuinely Ng’s best outing, no wonder she gets this cover. Sometimes Ng is just treated as Gwen with a secret, but not here. She’s her own fully fleshed out character, and it sings. Similarly astonishing was her beat letting a victim go. I mean, that’s always a magnificent way to flesh out a menacing presence. Her offering to retcon him instead of killing him makes her struggles feel more emotional. It’s not much better, she’s violating his mind, but it feels better, and you want her to let him go like that, too. I’ve never been more invested in where this Ng plot is going, and couldn’t wait for the answers on who she is.
TIBERE: I think one of the most interesting aspects of the script is how it ever refuses to lean on the sci-fi and fantastical nature of the show to justify what’s actually happening. It’s always a trap, in genre fiction: going all “aliens did it”, which isn’t the most respectful thing as far as the pain of real people is concerned. Here, not only is the alien only a catalyst for Serena’s emotions, but it goes even further than that, with the Meme really being born of the internet, of our modern culture and modes of communication. That’s where Orr really comes into their own, and it’s probably also the best material they get since their debut in set one: their little plunge into the depths of the internet, at the interaction of everyday racism, sexism and cruelty hidden behind anonymity. And it’s not neutral to have Orr channel this incomprehension and the violence that comes with it.
SCRIBBLES: God, it’s disturbing to listen to. It nails the mundane horrors of the Internet from their alien perspective. Comments like caring about skin pigmentation seeming silly or them getting more hate as a woman really untaps the radical potential of a non-binary character like Orr that literally defies any category. Orr is an innately radical and interesting character. Hell, they formerly a sex slave, for god’s sake! They’re engineered to be the perfect sex slave.
TIBERE: I mean, they literally appear as a Muslim woman in their first episode! They’re just a perfect encapsulation of all the complexities of the series, and when the writers tap into their potential, it’s glorious.
SCRIBBLES: They’re political and radical, and relegating them to technobabble exposition has been a crime. They’re magnificent, and exactly what Torchwood would be in the 2010s. Russell T Davies was inspired in creating them, and I’m so glad writers like Juno Dawson, A.K. Benedict, and now Joseph Lidster have fully tapped into that. I can only hope Orr gets more material this strong in future.
TIBERE: And really, I’m praying for more Lidster. Because really, every single character in this gets some superb moments, even if it’s only for a couple scenes – Andy’s frustrations at being a desk cop (having Serena working for him is a great beat, too – showing how even the best, kindest guy around can still be utterly clueless when it comes to what women around him have to endure), Yvonne’s patriotic love of gross chips with barbecue sauce, the teases of Colchester’s past … These characters are fascinating, they really are, and I want more of them. Beyond all the qualities of that script, which are legion, I think that’s Lidster’s greatest triumph here: he pulls you into that word, makes you feel for these people, and once it’s over, you’re not sure you’ll ever be able to live the nightmarish Cardiff landscape the writers have created.
SCRIBBLES: Basically, “Tagged” single-handedly justifies the entire existence of Aliens Among Us. Listen for this. Seriously, do it. There’s never been an audio more insightfully connected to our world than this.
11) “Escape Room”, by Helen Goldwyn
SCRIBBLES: What is “Escape Room?” What does it want to achieve? I feel like there is no answer. Usually, Torchwood does a lot in its penultimate episodes. “Captain Jack Harkness” is one of the best in the show’s history. Same with “Adrift.” “Day Four” contains the single most iconic and emotional moment in Torchwood’s history. Only “The Gathering” really leans on basic setup, but even then, it keeps answers coming and sets the stage for a whopper of a finale. The hot take from us here at Downtime is that “The Blood Line” is one of the finest Torchwood hours and Miracle Day is underappreciated.
TIBERE: I’m the only living person who prefers Miracle Day to Children of Earth, I’d like to state.
SCRIBBLES: But this, well, it doesn’t really elevate itself to such a level. The most damning thing about “Escape Room” is that on every fundamental level it feels like filler. The status quo doesn’t change. The answers aren’t provided. I can’t recall, but I’m pretty sure Gwen doesn’t even turn up for one of the inside-Ng’s-head scenes. Nothing moves here. It’s basically a fairly empty series of puzzles that are attempting to make big relationship drama moments happen without actually being allowed to make the relationship drama moments happen.
TIBERE: I think my attempt at answering that would be that there’s “Escape Room”, the individual piece of storytelling, and “Escape Room”, the big eleventh episode with plenty of arc stuff. As a standalone, it is … Fine. It’s pretty good. It’s a cool concept – I mean, Doctor Who does Saw, why hasn’t someone thought of that before? – that’s done competently enough. There’s fun dialogue, cool little sadistic traps. It’s an enjoyable enough hour. As a piece of the larger arcs, though, it’s just baffling. It’s not just that it’s really light on reveals – the very place it occupies within the series prevents its concept to work as well as it can be. Did anyone think they were actually going to kill any of the characters? A horror tale needs red shirts – and you have plenty of recurring characters hanging around the series. Why would you write yourself in a corner like this does?
SCRIBBLES: Exactly. Even as Torchwood does Saw, some of the choices here are utterly bizarre. I can’t say I’ve ever viewed a Saw film, but I’ve pretty readily osmosed that the joy for fans of the series is in the grotesque and over-the-top deaths that come as consequences, even punishments, for the characters, elevating scenes of moral dilemma. This has none of that. I did mention to Tibère the other day, just casually, one way this could have elevated that. Have some of the recurring characters from earlier in the series! Tibère suggested PC Owen, but I’d have loved to even see Serena’s death held off from “Tagged” to fit in here. I mean, Ng trapped in an environment with traps and a person who knows all her secrets, trying to silence her inconspicuously, would have been amazing as a shot in the arm to give this story stakes! As it is, there aren’t really any stakes.
TIBERE: Having her kill Serena but getting caught in the act feels like such a natural fit for her character arc.
SCRIBBLES: Particularly if Colin saw her. Then it’d be Ng vs Colin drama, and that would bring Rhys and Colchester both quite interestingly into the mix. But as is, what’s there to get invested in? We know Rhys, Colchester, Colin, and Ng are getting out of this. I kept hoping at least that this would be the story to finally reveal what Ng is– I believe I said in covering a previous set that if we’re left to the last episode to resolve that I’d be frustrated, and sure enough–so there’s nothing happening here. We don’t even get a maiming. If you’re gonna do Saw, you’ve gotta do some kind of gross bodily suffering. All we get is a fairly empty fakeout Rhys death scene. If you’re gonna fake Rhys’ death, you’re fighting with the far more poignantly handled one from “End of Days,” and this story never really feels like it commits to a goodbye to Rhys to make it feel like one.
TIBERE: Rhys might be this story’s biggest problem, now that I think about it, because it makes you see just how weirdly handled his arc is. I honestly think it could be a pretty decent story at the middle point of the series – have it and “A Kill to a View” trade places, for instance. Have Rhys be an active participant, raising suspicions, doing something. The seeds of conflict that are sewn here between the two characters can’t amount to anything because it has to all be wrapped up in ten minutes in the next episode. It’s not that the story doesn’t do much with its premise – it’s that it cannot do much with that premise. It’s like, the one focal point where all the overarching plotting decisions of the show converge to screw us over.
SCRIBBLES: For me, to be honest, the weakest patch was Colin Colchester-Pryce. Ramon Tikaram does a lovely job as ever, but his character is constantly being pushed into fairly insubstantial and unfulfilling drama with Ng that makes him and Ng both feel petty while the massive and interesting drama at the heart of Ng gets basically ignored. I don’t know what to make of his moral motivations here, I honestly don’t. Sure, him having his beliefs firmly held is lovely, but I don’t think the story really works out what to do with that. The ending with the doors just feels so arbitrary. It all does. Colin just happens to know the answer to every puzzle and is always right here, and Ng for some reason doesn’t ever want to listen to him. It feels stilted to me. Why is he always right? Why won’t Ng listen? I don’t feel like it ever really develops that enough.
TIBERE: I mean, I guess I see the idea behind the ending, in that it’s a very Who kind of set-up. You know, the two levers in “Doomsday“, the glass booths in “The End of Time“, the buttons in “Day of the Doctor” or “Kill the Moon” … I can kind of see the inspiration for it, but in these stories, there’s a level of emotion and theme that dominates. The workings of the technology are not the focus, they’re just a handy shorthand to show the viewers the different paths – but here, the emotional relevance gets completely lost in the enigmas, the buttons and doors and plots and twists … The scene builds all its emotion on Colchester’s possible sacrifice, and then it turns around by saying that no, actually, it’s not about sacrifice but murder, which is interesting in its own right but completely counterproductive when it comes to building tension.
SCRIBBLES: The story does throw in a reference to the idea that this is all driven by trying to shift how the characters believe, with the maxisms on the walls. That said, I don’t think we get enough of a coherent look at said philosophy to grasp at its meaning! It feels like the most interesting directions of this story are refused to it, having to make a big show of doing things without doing anything. I can’t help but wonder if this was a last-minute addition to the series, holding pattern between “Tagged” and “Herald of the Dawn” to make up for something else being removed. It feels like it. Because everything about this story feels like a writer desperately wanting to do something interesting but not being allowed it. She makes good stabs at it, literally in the case of one pleasant knife puzzle that’s easily the deathtrap highlight, but it never really goes anywhere.
TIBERE: I’m not really blaming Helen Goldwyn, though – I’m curious to see where she goes from here, and am waiting her Ten audio with a pretty high level of anticipation. She does a pretty strong job at executing a good idea – it’s just an idea that does not fit well into Aliens Among Us as an ensemble. It could have, but it doesn’t, and that’s a bit of a shame.
12) “Herald of the Dawn”, by James Goss
TIBERE: It’s a good summary of Aliens Among Us, I think. Often fascinating. Very, very frustrating. Makes you say “what the hell?!” a lot.
SCRIBBLES: My overwhelming feeling at this, as I mentioned before, is to ask “What is Aliens Among Us about?” I mean, this is the big chance to make a statement about what this storyline was, and the general answer is, it wants to defer any statement to another series. There’s a few well-handled subplots. Yvonne using her newfound position to make peace with the Sorvix and eliminate Red Doors is great, as is the focus on consequences for Jack as a result of his work with Red Doors. That does feel, in some way, like a resolution to what this set is about. “Changes Everything” also set up Aliens Among Us as Tyler’s story, and he’s barely been in this set! Sending an assassin after him from Ro-Jedda is a kind of payoff, I guess, but it never really feels like a vital through-line. Ng is the plot this story makes the biggest show of caring about, and all the answers for it are left for another time, leaving us with a very, very beautiful Gwen departure scene that can’t help but also feel like it comes out of nowhere. It’s the best scene in Aliens Among Us, easily, and Russell T Davies gets a massive lump in my throat from it, but it feels so odd in isolation. And what else is there? Orr gets some nice scenes bonding again with Jack that feel like they came out of nowhere, then gets a cliffhanger that I fear could shaft the character; I hope not. Colchester, the only character to be in all of Aliens Among Us, never really had an arc to resolve, and here is just one more ingredient in the mix. Ro-Jedda and Yvonne get to be the victims of a last big Red Doors attack, which is an exciting resolution that ties back to the way this series opened with terrorist bombings…and they both survive unscathed, with no established characters feeling the impact. I just have to ask what this story wants to be.
TIBERE: I guess that, if you want to feel generous, you can kind of read into the Yvonne plotline to make the final word of the series on the human/alien dilemma a sort of class statement. The aliens are the powerful, be they born on Earth or not, in their towers, watching as the ordinary people suffer; the aliens are the gods that project their will on people and steal their bodies. But that’s just stretching it – the bitter truth is, there’s really no sense of resolution or consequences to that story. Yes, Gwen leaves, probably forever, and we’ll obviously get back to that – but we don’t get to see what Ng is, or why she acted the way she did, and what really happened between her and her host … Tyler has a change of heart, but really, was there any doubt that he was going to? At least by “Zero Hour”, you can’t expect him to get onto the Sorvix train. And it’s not like there was some big moment, some big sacrifice that would really have his arc snap into motion either – I suggested that it could have made quite a bit of sense to kill him off there, have him stay at the town hall to help Torchwood and then get blown up because of Torchwood. It would be a lovely inversion of his first scenes in the show, and having the obvious Gwen replacement disappear as Gwen leaves could hit pretty hard. Colchester and Orr are basically kept on the margins … I guess Jack is the character that gets something resembling a resolution the most, with the Red Doors stuff coming to a pretty definitive end, and him making the choice to support his team above all else. Does that mean these were the big arcs? But … Red Doors is basically mentioned in the first episode and then never again until the eighth. Jack’s leadership issues really snap into focus with the second set. That’s the issue, at the end of the day – Aliens Among Us doesn’t know about who it’s about. Don’t get me wrong, an ensemble cast is not necessarily a problem – but it is here, because the narrative keeps teasing main characters and then chickens out. Tyler is the main character, and then he isn’t. Orr then feels like the big new person, but then they’re basically entirely sidelined during set 2. Colchester is a continuous presence, through every episode, but we learn very few things about him and he only really ever gets one episode in the spotlight, with “A Kill to a View”.
SCRIBBLES: Also frustrating is the cliffhanger. I mean, yes, it’s a whopper. But, and I know Chekov’s gun is a cliche criticism and I feel lazy invoking it, I really would have appreciated actually seeing it go off? We were told the Sorvix were here for their god in episode 2. We’ve been told again and again since then. You could probably play a drinking game with how many times “god is coming” gets said in this story. And yet, she never actually comes. Is Ng supposed to be God? Is Ng the herald? Is Orr God? Is Orr the herald? I hope Orr isn’t either, given she pronouns have been used to refer to both religious figures! But that’s all we actually know about the herald and the god, isn’t it? After all this time, we don’t actually know anything. That makes the cliffhanger feel arbitrary. The best cliffhangers feel game-changing and generally add new information in addition to peril, whereas this feels like an overdue beat turning up late and telling you to go buy another not yet announced set to actually get the resolution to the story you purchased. To be honest, I was kinda mad when I first heard it. I’m not now, but I am still nonetheless frustrated.
TIBERE: It’s hard to escape this image, before the credits roll, of James Goss in sunglasses flying away on a giant cat, going all “well, see you in six months and seventy euros, people!”.
SCRIBBLES: I mentioned before how it feels like “Escape Room” was shoved in to fill a suddenly vacant slot. Well, this episode feels like it’s in need of that vacant slot. It feels like they decided to take the finale to Aliens Among Us and call it some unmade series 6. And sure, “god walks on earth” sounds like a very excellent premise for a show that that gave us series with concepts like “everyone stops dying.” It’d be a magnificent exercise in science fiction exploration of humanity and our world. I’m hooked. But is it so hard to get some kind of resolution before leaping into the next story?
TIBERE: It’s not a bad story, I mean. It does take some rather baffling decisions, though – when you see how fast some of the key emotional and plot beats happen at the end, so much so that one can get a little fuzzy on the details, how do you justify a weird, long prologue about people having doggy style sex in cars on a parking? I mean, I love myself some gratuitous sex & violence, it is Torchwood after all, but still, that just was utterly pointless.
SCRIBBLES: It’s a shame, too, because there is one episodic focus in this episode that is actually very, very good. I love the subplot about a politician wrongfully accused of pedophilia, that feels very relevant given we’re in such a state where so many celebrities and people in power have been revealed to be sexual predators. I love that subplot. I love how it resolves in him trying to help at the bombing. I love the cheeky use of Orr to investigate him (though god, if Orr turned into a child…I know Torchwood did some interesting things with Oswald Danes, but I’d probably feel a bit sick). It’s an interesting subplot to do, and the only thing that really feels focused to me here. That’s the big problem with this episode, and as a result, Aliens Among Us overall: focus.
TIBERE: The whole stuff about Yvonne and Ro bringing involuntarily their own destruction by having the Red Doors stopped just as they’re launching their final assault is pretty delightful, too – if this had been the end for either or both of these characters, it would have been a wonderful moment of cruel, Torchwoodesque irony.
SCRIBBLES: Hell, even just cut off Yvonne’s arm and Ro’s legs or something. Anything. Make things stick.
TIBERE: But they don’t. There are so many fascinating pieces on the board, but they are never really combined in a way that allows for them to show all their potential.
SCRIBBLES: Torchwood’s finales are, typically, huge! Killing Tosh and Owen! Summoning a giant demon and having the Doctor return! Jack killing his own son! Esther dying and Gwen shooting Jack! I mentioned when we started Aliens Among Us coverage that I’ve loved every single Torchwood opener. Well, I quite love the finales, too. Torchwood thrives on bombast and intensity. This never really pulls it off. The aesthetic signifiers are all here. There’s a big departure, there’s a god summoned, there’s whatever is happening to Colchester and Orr. But nothing really settles as a direction. It’s going everywhere at once and saying nothing with any of it.
TIBERE: I mean, I dearly love “End of Days”, which is obviously the model this is based on (we already drew plenty of parallels between this series and the first one, back in 2007), but it shouldn’t be that hard to outdo it. There are reasons why it’s not the best-loved of episodes – it’s a bit clunky and has a big CGI devil that’s defeated by a man shooting a silver ray of gay energy at him … And yet, I think I’d rather take Abaddon over this.
SCRIBBLES: I should stress: neither of us disliked “Herald of the Dawn.” We actually both very much enjoyed it, regardless of how frustrated we sound. We’re massive fans of James Goss, and he does a lot of great things with this script, even while we’re baffled as to the macro-level creative decisions he makes here. As a finale to one of the best things Big Finish has ever done, though, it just doesn’t really work.
TIBERE: I mean, I do feel like it’s also kind of a test run. For all James Goss’ immense qualities as a writer, he hasn’t really been in charge of a single continuous show until yet – even his Bernice sets are much more structured like single events than a prolonged narrative. And really – this is quite a unique new endeavour for Big Finish, as well.
SCRIBBLES: I mean, Big Finish has done finales before. “Neverland.” “The Next Life.” “A Death in the Family.” “Gods and Monsters.” “Signs and Wonders.” “To the Death.” “Eye of Darkness.” “Stop the Clock.” That one Fourth Doctor audio whose name I forget. But it still certainly feels like a new learning experience here. I’m sad to say this doesn’t land the way, say, “Stop the Clock” does, and that was the climax to the first properly focused and planned from the start Big Finish miniseries. It’s a format that Doom Coalition has shown can work. But this doesn’t manage. That story made a strong statement of the themes and character arcs of the range in one of my favorite moments in Doctor Who history. This never chooses to commit.
TIBERE: I mean, yes, they have done finales, but it’s kind of the first time they’re trying to play on this continuous arc of strongly connected stories. I like the Ace/Hex/Seven story a lot, for instance, but it’s more of a suit of serial leading up to big events, like a sort of evolution of the Classic Who format. Even Doom Coalition, which has a lot more in common with Aliens Among Us, is quite different in that it has a level of freedom, of possible variety in how it’s structured: that’s kind of the joy of Doctor Who and its toolbox. But something like Aliens Among Us has to stay in one single location, develop one coherent cast, stick to the same themes … There’s a rigor, a sort of ruthlessness in the storytelling competency that’s required there, and one I’m not sure Big Finish has completely gotten so far. But they can learn. I’m confident that series six, when it does show up, will have learned from this – in the meantime, Aliens Among Us remains a fascinating oddity, a deeply flawed, but often brilliant series that I think, beyond everything, does show that Big Finish can genuinely tackle new topics, move the legacy they carry forwards into original and unpredictable directions. It could have been more, yeah – but it could also have been far less.
SCRIBBLES: The worst thing we can say about this is that it’ll frustrate you. And there’s a good reason for that: Aliens Among Us provides a lot of things to care about in the first place! I’m frustrated because this series did such a good job of establishing things I genuinely care about. That’s about the best possible scenario for such a misfire there is. Aliens Among Us is vital Big Finish listening. It just is. There’s awkwardness, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t something truly special.
- 12 – “Escape Room“
- 11 – “Herald of the Dawn“
- 10 – “Love Rat“
- 9 – “A Kill to a View“
- 8 – “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy“
- 7 – “Zero Hour“
- 6 – “Superiority Complex“
- 5 – “Changes Everything“
- 4 – “Orr“
- 3 – “Poker Face“
- 2 – “The Empty Hand“
- 1 – “Tagged“
- 12 – “Escape Room“
- 11 – “Herald of the Dawn“
- 10 – “Zero Hour“
- 9 – “Love Rat“
- 8 – “Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy“
- 7 – “A Kill to a View“
- 6 – “Superiority Complex“
- 5 – “Orr“
- 4 – “Changes Everything“
- 3 – “Poker Face“
- 2 – “The Empty Hand“
- 1 – “Tagged“