Owen Harper has had a troubled life. The acerbic medic of Torchwood in Cardiff Bay might – and arguably should – be forgiven his seemingly cold, shallow, hostile nature when you look at what has happened to him. His life and happiness having been originally bound up in a love and a career, he’s an object lesson in playing society’s game… until the game plays far too harshly with him, his love is taken from him, and his skills remain, his open-heartedness replaced with a burning need to understand, to make sense of the senseless, and to do some sort of good in an ultimately meaningless cosmos.
Writers in the audio world have not for the most part been kind to Own Harper.
They’ve been good to him, yes, giving him some meaty scripts, having him tackle a suburban charnel house, a mass murderer’s burial grounds, and the career-minded enthusiasm of Ianto Jones. But kind, no. Owen’s generally had a godawful time in his audio career at Big Finish. See also the suburban charnel house, the mass murderer’s killing grounds and…you get the picture.
In Grace Knight’s Iceberg, there is at least initially less blatant horror in store for Owen, but still there’s challenging territory for the man who can’t allow himself to look backwards because it hurts too much.
A phone call at one in the morning. The voice of an old friend.
An old friend who Owen, under the guise of having too much new demanding stuff to do after the death of his fiancée Katie and the new job he mysteriously took up, had gently ghosted, unable to deal with human connections to his old life that left him raw.
But it’s one in the morning. He answers before he can think.
And it’s Amira.
Amira, the friend of both Katie and that younger, more hopeful Owen. A voice from the past.
More to the point, when he answers her call, she has a mystery for him. A doctor herself, she has a patient who’s in at least most of a coma. The patient, Lucy, wakes for brief periods, has a totally lucid conversation with the ghost of her dead sister, who she insists is standing in the room, and then goes back to dreamland.
But something’s all sorts of wrong with her chemistry levels. And Amira, despite having a legitimate concern for her patient and a keenness to haul Owen over the friendliest of coals for his abandonment of her and everyone in the wake of Katie’s death, has moments when she blanks on basic medical procedure.
The more we learn of Lucy’s predicament, the more we understand why this is a Torchwood story. Lucy (played by Lowri Walton) is a young woman already haunted by the memory of her dead sister before that sister comes to pay her visits in the hospital. Amira (played by Maya Saroya strongly enough to stand up to Burn Gorman’s Owen) has secrets of her own, which Owen must unravel if anything about this night call to an otherwise eerily silent hospital is to make sense. And not to put too fine a point on it, he’d better hurry.
Iceberg is an intriguing mixture of things. On the one hand, it gives us more and meatier detail of Owen’s pre-Torchwood past, his life, his love, the way he reacted when Katie died, and, thanks to one blistering outburst, played to the nail by Burn Gorman, the workings of his mind when he forced himself to become the character we first met in TV Torchwood, Series 1. On the other, it’s an example of the ticking-clock mysteries at which audio Torchwood excels – separating one team member from all the rest, dropping them into a seemingly devastating, inescapable conundrum with a countdown of which they may or may not be aware, and challenging them to prove their Torchwood worthiness, their ability to think through the facts, accept a wider universe than the Earth, work the problem and earn their right to survive.
Burn Gorman when he first arrived on our screens in Torchwood might have had what seemed like an easy character to play – the brash, the shallow, the self-revolving but misanthropic doctor with the sharp wit and the impeccable medical skills. But well within his time on-screen he was able to bring out deeper levels to the character. In audio, Owen’s resourcefulness, his compassion for patients and people and aliens alike has been matured into a guiding principle that has survived some of the worst things imaginable in both an ordinary human life and the life of an alien investigator. More than just Owen’s skills have survived from his past life, the life in which he loved Katie and had his future to look forward to. The reasons he got up in the morning to use those skills are still intact too, the need to make people better. Iceberg shows us that very clearly, shows us his take on the Hippocratic Oath, shows us a lot of classic Owen spikiness, and ultimately shows us the steel in his spine which has let Owen survive.
The point about Owen Harper as a character is that he’s determined to survive. Life threw some of the worst imaginable luck at him, made him grieve for the person he loved and who made him better. But Owen after that… will. Not. Break. Will never break, will never become a victim of the grief that could split him apart. He’ll do everything he can for everyone who needs him, and he’ll make the hard decisions of life and death when he needs to, as he needs to here, with the practiced, practical application of a doctor. Even when he should by all rights be dead, Owen won’t, and doesn’t, give up. Even when he sees what’s beyond the point of death, and knows it’s nothing, and that everyone he’s ever loved and lost has gone to equal nothing, Owen Harper will survive.
Will he survive Iceberg though? When something alien, something creepy, and something from his past combine in one exhausted 1AM, will Owen have the strength he needs to survive? When the dead seem to walk and the familiar comes unstuck and the hospital is silent in the middle of the night, Will Owen Harper be able to find the truth to explain the evidence in front of him, even when it seems absurd?
As a ticking-clock mystery, Iceberg works well. As a study in the character of Owen Harper, it works even better. The writing’s pin-sharp, for all the situation it creates is impressively mysterious for most of the run-time. The performances from the three cast members are joyously jagged, Owen reacting to the intrusion from his past and the problem in front of him instinctively but never easily. As a whole, if you’ve not heard Iceberg, you’ve missed out on a rich, cold, sharp, sweet, sour and bang to rights slice of Owen Harper’s life. Don’t do that to yourself. Give Iceberg a listen now. Tony Fyler