When Bilis Manger returns to Torchwood, it always sends a shiver down the spine. Murray Melvin, who’s played Bilis since TV Torchwood Series 1, always invests him with that spiderlike, almost playful quality, weaving hapless humans into one cocoon or another, with the voice and the manners of a sweet older man and the heart of a vicious black hole with teeth.
He’s back in an audio drama from David Llewellyn, in a distinctly Cardiff, distinctly Torchwood and above all distinctly shudderworthy take on the classic Amicus movie Dr Terror’s House of Horrors.
The initial situation is deceptively simple – a train, somewhere in Cardiff. Three people jolt awake as the train stops suddenly – but each of them are firm in their conviction that the train should be going to a different destination. And none of them can remember getting on.
A fourth passenger, one Mr Manger, tries to make sense of their inconsistent beliefs. And then he raises the most peculiar possibility. Maybe they’re all dead, and the train is going nowhere, ever again.
And so, without so much as an evil chuckle, begins Dead Man’s Switch. The characterisation is this story is on absolutely another level to most Torchwood – and indeed, most audio drama – because the set-up is simple and static. Three people, one location, and Bilis Manger, urging them on to remember things about their lives.
Their stories are remembered strictly one by one, like ghost stories round a campfire, which allows the lives of the people on the train to be told mostly fuss-free and in their own voices, usually with only one additional character besides themselves. Both the focus of the narrative and the slightly claustrophobic feel of their lives draw listeners deeply into their histories, and each of them seem, while being entirely different and separate, to be tinged with a loneliness, whether of their own making or not. Their responses to that loneliness mark them out as individuals.
Rowena is an older lady determined to fill her life with beautiful things, but also, dammit, determined not to be beaten any more at auction by the dapper older gentleman who’s gazumped her on several recent sales. Piers (well, it would be, wouldn’t it?) is a property moving bully-boy, a smart-suited city git with a contraceptive personality, who’s determined to scare an old man out of his business property so it can be bulldozed and expensive flats built in its place. And Zoe is a poorly-schooled but engaging single mother, whose daughter…is no longer with us. Zoe lives in a building about to be condemned, across a hallway from a nice old duffer who likes classical music and English breakfast tea.
Tale by tale, we hear of creepy goings-on in an empty house with a mysterious mirror, a Hitchcock-meets-Dracula problem with indomitable, small-bodied bats and an unfortunately positioned balcony, and a basement full of the sounds and noises of a baby in distress.
In each case, the passengers take us up to a moment of jump-scare, a moment of seeming tragedy or scream or death – and then they woke up on the train.
To explain what’s actually happened to them and why would be to blow the important plot details on which the whole story hangs. But are they dead? Alive? Trapped forever, Sapphire and Steel style in a limbo of nothingness? Bilis Manger has the answers, and while almost no-one on the train will be happy with what he has to tell them, there are reasons behind his actions, reasons why he too is on this strangest of trains.
Bilis Manger on audio from Big Finish has always had an edge – a cutting edge, if you will – that allows him to be above and beyond the normal toing and froing of Torchwood’s finest. But in 2018 release Deadbeat Escape and here in Dead Man’s Switch, he’s developing something of a theme, a determination to specifically sacrifice others to achieve his own aims. Something seems to be building for Bilis, and it’s building in a scary ladder of traumatic stories, of innocence and evil, action and inaction, all with an inevitable ending that pulls no punches.
Torchwood in 2019 has given us some hard, heavy subject matter – everything from Night of the Fendahl and its dabbling with snuff movies, to The Hope, dealing with serial child murder. Dead Man’s Switch is less immediately punchy with horror than either of those releases, but it also gives you much less wiggle-room to look away from its central premise, because the linear nature of the storytelling means there’s nowhere to cut away to, nothing to relieve the pulse after pulse of tension as it builds. Here, the horror creeps up on you, unseen in empty rooms, or lures you, Stephen King-style, to its basement and then locks the door. Your investment in the characters is what’ll make your heart beat faster in this story, your need to know what really happened to them drawing you along until – boom! The answer looks right back at you through your own eyes.
Dead Man’s Switch is a creepy, contained, claustrophobic listen that takes you into three lonely lives and shows you the consequences of your actions in a social world. It will drag you in and turn you inside out, and, in the way that the best horror stories always do, it will leave you unsettled and thinking long after you’ve stopped listening. Tony Fyler