TORCHWOOD: OUTBREAK from Big Finish Productions is a special standalone audio adventure, based on the popular sci-fi TV series, where a close-knit team save the world from alien nasties and human skulduggery, operating from an underground base near a rift in space and time – in Cardiff city centre, guarded by a pterodactyl. No, really.
Like the TV series, this 4-disc boxset stars John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness (an immortal with an American accent, a long history and a really good coat), Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto Jones (a young Welshman in charge of making the coffee and very much in love with Jack), and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper (an ex-copper from the Welsh valleys, and very much the ‘heart’ of the team), along with Kai Owen as her husband (and local haulage firm manager) Rhys, and Tom Price as friend and ex-colleague PC Andy Davidson.
The outbreak of the title is exactly what it sounds like: something nasty, deadly, and with horrible symptoms gets loose in the middle of Cardiff. The drama focuses on what would happen if a chemical experiment went wrong, affecting the population of a busy city in the 21st century. Of course, this being Torchwood, the virus that gets released is no normal virus. It has thoroughly bizarre symptoms: first it learns your secrets, then it gives you some calming hallucinations – at one point, a bus driver ploughs into a wall while they play an imaginary violin – then it makes you fall heavily in love with the person you’re most inclined to feel that way for… and it makes you want to kill that person. The story also has a fair degree of body horror, as the virus also makes you want to tear your own skin off…
The Torchwood team have to find a way to neutralise the virus before it kills everybody in the city, so across the course of three hour-long episodes, you’ve got a deadly virus, some freaky symptoms, an outbreak of love, followed by an apocalypse of murderous hate, with the good guys in a race against time, and a twist or two towards the end that take the whole thing to a new level of twisted pharmaceutical malarkey.
Like a real-life disease beginning with a slight cough or sneeze, Torchwood: Outbreak doesn’t begin like a bullet from a gun, but it does push ever onward with a relentless pace from start to finish, starting with the city plunging into chaos and carnage, continuing with a cat-and-mouse game at Torchwood HQ while main characters fall victim to the virus, and ending with a succession of unexpected and spectacular twists and turns while the citizens of Cardiff are herded towards treatment centres. Admittedly, there is an almost anti-vaccination message to the tale, which would be irresponsible in reality, but on the other hand, it does successfully paint the villains’ hats a deeper shade of black and gives the story a darker reason for being than it otherwise would have.
In addition, the excellent sound design means the listener very much feels they are actually on the streets of a plague city, hemmed in by the army, with limited vaccine for the population and people everywhere erupting into visions, or scratching their skin open. There’s a palpable pulse of panic pushing the pace along. Successfully transferring their characters from TV to audio with ease, the lead performances from all the Torchwood team feels intuitive and real.
A great jumping-on point for non-fans, Torchwood: Outbreak delivers a strong plot, with some devious double-dealing at its heart, while giving the cast the chance to really play with the ideas raised by the idea of a pandemic plague in our modern, civilised world. It pushes listeners along a storyline that’s at once both complex and simple, massive but human-focused. If you’re not scratching by the end of it, you’re probably not human.