Torchwood: Fortitude is Torchwood with a difference, in that its one of the range’s occasional dips into the adventures of Queen Victoria herself, with no other active Torchwood operatives in play. As such, there’s a certain additional weight on Rowena Cooper’s shoulders as Victoria to push the listener through the tale, as Victoria, perhaps, is the character who knows the most about what’s actually going on – at least at first.
In fact, this is very much a Victoria-centred tale, designed more or less to show her in her older years with the concerns of one who feels the complication of her own death on the horizon. Released in the week that Doctor Who on TV was highlighting the importance of individual figures and the way in which they move the needle of the human experience (Nikola Tesla’s Night Of Terror), it’s a poignant counterpoint to the TV version’s ultimate optimism on that question. When Victoria dies, she tells the other characters in this story, there will be riots and murders, uprisings and mob rule as the world tries to shake itself into a different shape in the understanding of her absence. This is a Victoria who has regrets about some of her earlier actions, and who might, just possibly, be in the market for solutions that help her sleep a little easier.
None of which ostensibly explains why she’s swanning about on Victoria’s Most Haunted – a sea fort off the coast of Portsmouth, built to fight a French invasion which never came. Nor, for that matter, why she’s bringing the Maharaja Duleep Singh (Paul Bazely) along with her. The two have a somewhat spiky relationship – as the title Maharaja might suggest, he was born to one of India’s ruling families, but raised at court as a proper English gentleman (official version) or an exotic performing pet (his version, and the version with which we have more sympathy in a post-imperial age with a severe colonial hangover). It’s prrrrrobably true to say though that they never held knives to each other’s throats in the real world. If that’s a detail you’ve been waiting all your life for, look no further – James Goss has got you covered.
There are…imps on the fort, or ghosts, or voices at the very least, seeming to lack bodies to carry them about, and therefore unnerving the very bejesus out of most people who visit. Not so Colonel Crackenthorpe (David Sterne), army man with a dubious history of his own – not to say rather too much of it to be credible – who’s in technical charge of the fort, and who talks to the voices, and the thing which may or may not kill them all.
There’s also a storm which patently isn’t a storm brewing off the fort, kicking the wind-driven daylights out of anyone who tries to get near. Whatever it is that connects them all is less than a fan of Queen Victoria’s – there are amends to make, truths to uncover, sentient raging aliens with which to engage, and pasts for which to atone in this tight, creepy, MR James-ish story that will seldom let you rest between the opening bars of a Torchwood theme tune re-arranged for Victorian instruments and its final resolution.
That, if anything, is the keynote – if you’re a fan of MR James, and his unnerving stories of good people with flaws and those flaws catching up with them in creepy, nerve-jangling ways, you’re going to enjoy Fortitude.
There are three such people on the sea fort (assuming we give Victoria the benefit of the doubt about her goodness by this point in her life). That makes for a lot of uncertainty, plenty of questions, and several dollops of dubious or devious motivation, all lumped together with an alien something, a bunch of arguable ghosts and a mood-storm out at sea. While James is a solid marker for whether you’ll like this story, fans of The Horror of Fang Rock, Ghost Light and even JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls should also swallow this release whole – it has the claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense of incipient disaster of Fang Rock, and the tone of Ghost Light, where no-one’s entirely sure what the hell is going on for the longest time, but everyone’s nerves are jangled by it nevertheless, a sense bolstered by Colonel Crackenthorpe at first bearing an audible resemblance to Ghost Light’s Redvers Fenn-Cooper. The Inspector Calls vibe shudders through the sense of accountability for one’s past which unites the three main characters – Victoria for her rigidity of view in her youth, which led to many errors, Crackenthrope for a possible crime which has blotted his life, and the Maharaja for an entitled indolence which has stopped him ever achieving what he might have done. There’ll be a night of reckoning on the sea fort, and little if anything is likely to be the same come the morning light.
The writing here is tense and twangs like tripwires hidden in mist, without ever looking or sounding like it tries too hard – again, the MR James reference is relevant, because that’s a trick at which he was a master. The point of which in this audio is that you engage with it tentatively, Victoria and Singh arriving on an unlikely sea fort after fighting through an impossible storm, but it winds you in, and in, and in, wraiths of wet mist pulling you into secrets, truths, half-truths, versions of reality as envisioned by each of the characters, and their interaction. Before you’re done, you’ll wonder whether one, two or all three of them are ghosts, you’ll itch to know the nature of the fort’s resident something, and you’ll find at least some of the answers to the character-questions you need answering before you dare to place your narrative trust in anyone.
Fortitude is Torchwood with a difference not just because it doesn’t feature any of the cast we’re used to, and takes us on a trip with the Institute’s founder instead. It’s different because the journey on which it takes you is chilly and clammy and damp, unnerving in a way the world’s allowed to be without a Jack Harkness or a Gwen Cooper to protect it. Unnerving in its shades of grey, its uncertainties and the shudder with which it will leave you, despite a resolution that promises some sunlight. It’s an initially unwilling confrontation of truths and mistakes, and it shows the possibility of change through communication, even when the mistakes have been grave in days gone by. Listen to Torchwood – Fortitude now, and any time you want a shiver down your spine. Tony Fyler