Torchwood: Oracle – Written by Ash Darby & Starring Ronny Jhutti & Silas Carson (Big Finish)

The third of the run of Torchwood stories to catch us up with the alumni of The Impossible Planet, Torchwood: Oracle is the one that feels most closely linked to the original story. Not that there’s a showing from the Beast, but there are various elements that effectively take his place, leaving Ethics Officer Danny Bartok (Ronny Jhutti) trying to out-think his seemingly inevitable death against all conceivable odds.

The set-up is closest to the TV episode, too – a small group of seemingly stranded individuals, an Ood that knows too much, and a dilemma that throws ethics into the melting pot and dares any of them to come crawling out alive at the end.

The Devil’s Bargain

And yet the premise sings with simplicity. A spaceship from 1000 years in the future arrives. 

It’s clearly rich with promise, knowledge, and the potential to make you ruler of the known cosmos.

But there could also be terrible consequences if you use its knowledge. 

It’s a classic Devil’s Bargain – you could win the world, or lose your soul. Or, as is forever likely in these cases, you might just do both.

Ash Darby throws extra fuel onto the fire by putting the future-ship, with its entirely theoretical Ood, on a planet where Danny and his crewmates have crashed and find themselves at the mercy of lava and time. So there’s the ethics of future knowledge and, on the other end of the seesaw, there’s the ethics of group – and individual survival.

Match that with human nature in a whole array of its shades, and what you have is Agatha Christie as sci-fi. Who’ll do what, and why, and when, and what will the consequences be?

That’s quite the world of moving mirrors for Danny Bartok to navigate if he wants to stay alive. 

And while it feels like the most highbrow of the three stories in this run, it would be a mistake to assume it’s all intellectual chat and calculating variables of chance and cause and effect.

There’s time here to get to know all of Danny’s crewmates, their motivations and ethical responses to the dilemma in front of them. Naturally, as on Krop Tor, Danny’s a kind of underdog, because there’s a mindset in the 43rd century – as there is today – that says the Ethicist is the first one out of the lifeboat when disaster strikes, the first one to be eaten if they crash. 

Wild Hearts and Ethicists

It would be a mischaracterisation to say that Danny manoeuvres and manipulates his way through the ranks like he’s playing some kind of Kind Hearts and Coronets game in the 43rd century. In fact, Danny’s moves are calculated, but by no means regularly the big plays in the game of survival into which the crew is thrust. 

And it would also be a mistake to think of this story as fun with ethical hypotheses. There are murders here, there’s a suicide, there are natural disasters and future powerplays. There are alliances and double-crosses, and at least one death that riffs right back to that of Mr Jefferson in The Satan Pit. 

Oracle is well-named, because the story revolves around knowledge of the future, but it could as easily have been named Cassandra, for its lesson that sometimes, or even often, knowledge of what happens tomorrow only brings grief, madness, and a sense of existential futility. Would you want to know when you died? Or how? 

The central dilemma of Oracle brings these things in from the cold of Danny’s ethical rhetoric and makes them real in a way that most of us would give almost anything to avoid.

The Real Danny Bartok

Ronny Jhutti is perhaps the least recognisable of the three Torchwood Archive personnel in these catch-up stories, but that’s no fault of his. It’s more the fault of the intense busyness of The Impossible Planet on screen, and Danny’s relatively little critical activity in that story.

In Ash Darby’s audio sequel, Danny has much more to do (and, by necessity of audio, to say), and it lets us see him in a whole different light. Not necessarily a better light – Danny Bartok is still a relatively scorched-earth ethicist – but by spending another hour in absolute, ethical, mortal peril with him, we get a chance to understand why he “deserves” to survive on his own terms, rather than, for instance being “rescued” by the actions of others. Here he affects events, and we empathise with him more often than we suspected we would going into the story.

Silas Carson, the Every-Ood, turns in a glorious performance here as probably the oddest Ood you’ve ever come across, and it’s in the nature of his performance that the growing claustrophobia of death is most peculiarly felt. 

His Ood here is the voice of the future-ship, rather than a workaday flesh and blood Ood, so you get predictions of the future in that mind-scrambling Alexa calm of the Ood voice, and as the story evolves, we and Danny start to question the truth of what the ship tells us. Is it bound by the laws of cause and effect, or can it be an active player in the destiny of the hapless humans trapped on the lava-world?

Dare You!

Once you start acting questions like that, the whole nature of the problem goes somewhat five-dimensional, and what you really need in a situation like that…is an ethicist.

It would absolutely be cheating to tell you who survives till the end of Oracle – or even if Danny’s among them. It’s just worth dangling the idea that his main role is to drag us into the conundrum, not necessarily to pull us out the other side. So, place your bets. What will Danny Bartok do when faced with the opportunity to plunder a thousand yearsworth of knowledge – and what will happen when he makes his move?

Torchwood: Oracle will show you. 

Dare you to ignore it…  Tony Fyler

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