Torchwood: Red Base

Torchwood: Red Base – Starring Tom Price, Jeremy Ang Jones & Rakie Ayola. Written by James Goss & Directed by Lisa Bowerman – CD / Download (Big Finish)

Sergeant Andyyyyyyy Innnnnnn Spaaaaaaaaace.

Really though? What are the odds that Sergeant Andy Davidson would end up on a Mars base?

Especially, as it happens, a Mars base going seriously 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Welcome to the mind of James Goss. You may never make it home again.

When Andy arrives on the Starr Base – yes, really, two ‘r’s – there have already been deaths among the crew. There’s a blandly-voiced computer in charge of all the life support systems (beeecause what’s gonna be wrong with that?) And everybody still alive is doing their best shiny happy people act, so as not to upset the computer.

If you’ve seen 2001, it adds a cuteness factor to the whole death-trap in space storyline that the computer’s called Dave. But this is not the story of a super-sleek space station going progressively wrong. It’s more Alien than Star Trek, more grubby than scrubbed, and things have been going wrong more or less since the beginning, because the Starr Base was built by budget contractors as a proof of concept. It was also meant to be the set for a reality TV show, examining the actions and lives of humans on a Mars mission.

The show was canned after its second episode. So the crew of the Starr Base have been almost entirely forgotten.

And then they started dying.

There’s a reason why Torchwood sends Andy Davidson to investigate, rather than any of the others. And to his inestimable credit, Andy gets properly stuck into the drama of the base – challenging the authority of Dave, trying desperately to save at least some of the crew, and coming smack bang up against an idea popular in science fiction: the notion that robotic systems will become a danger to human life not because they go wrong, but because they do exactly as we tell them to.

It’s an interesting role for Andy, because it stretches him into newish territory. While he’s often been the Torchwooder who’s dragged into situations by the scruff of his neck, here he’s front and centre, highly pro-active, and the only thing between the remaining crew of the Starr Base and a grisly death. While we’ve previously heard Ianto Jones indulging his secret agent fantasies, this is Andy Davidson as Bond in Moonraker ­– turning up, taking names, trying really hard not to die, while solving the mystery behind the deaths. Whether things are as simple as they seem – computer has a nervous breakdown, kills everyone – is not certain until gratifyingly close to the end, and when you discover what’s truly going on, it hits with an unexpectedly muted note, because there’s a black-or-whiteness to the situation. Still, the fact that Andy Davidson not only works out the truth, but also follows the line of logic to a specific ‘J’accuse’ moment, rather than a vague and general solution, shows the truth of the character. He’s actually always been capable of dealing with people and situations, it’s just that in early Torchwood, and sometimes even now, the nature of situations takes him a little while to get used to. In Red Base, he comes in ready to investigate murders, and he steps up into the gravity of the situation. In that ‘J’accuse’ moment, he switches from Bond to Poirot, giving a summation that cuts through all the whirling distraction, the action, the murder, and delivering the truth behind all the mayhem.

If there’s a weakness in the story, it’s a weakness that more or less applies to most classic crime and mystery stories, from Holmes to Christie – once the truth of who’s killed whom and why is revealed, it’s taken for granted that that’s where the story ends. When challenged, they have little option but to confess, Cluedo-style, and the game is up when Andy names the killer. Resistance to the power of Andy may be futile, as it may with Holmes, Marple, Poirot and others, but in Andy’s case there’s little to underline that futility, no trusty police inspector to enforce the law. But then of course, there is a super Sergeant standing ready.

Torchwood: Red Base is a rip-roaring space crime story, with some fantastic laughs – you’re going to love the pre-credits sequence, it’s physically impossible not to – and within the main drama, an increasing sense of locked-down vulnerability to systems and people and personalities. The cast – from Jeremy Ang Jones as Dave, through Rakie Ayola as Emma and Kae Alexander as Mina – nail the level of grubby, budget space exploration that will probably translate into our reality in the near future. In particular, Jeremy Ang Jones delivers a creepy, bland, non-judgmental  computer tone (the secret to both HAL’s shudder-making delivery on 2001 and the Robots Of Death in Doctor Who) that really intensifies the skin-prickling danger of having reasoning AI minds in charge of all the things you need to keep you alive in a hostile environment.

But most of all, this is Tom Price’s hour. Andy Davidson has had a long journey in Torchwood, from the might-have-been alternative to Gwen Cooper at the very start, through liaison work between Torchwood and the regular police, to his recent out-and-out Torchwood work at Big Finish, checking up on an Eighth Doctor who has no idea Torchwood exists in Stranded. This is one of Price’s finest hours as Andy though. Here, he’s allowed to step out from behind the incredulity and vulnerable humanity of his traditional role and take on baddies without backup, work through a deeply dangerous problem and come out not only alive and well, but having solved the case that destroyed a handful of would-be astronauts’ lives. It’s an hour that will give you a slightly harder, more methodical Andy than you might be used to if you’ve missed his evolution in the last few years. All he needs now to achieve full-on Torchwood status is to have either some blistering, life-changingly good, or some deeply, cringe-makingly awkward sexual chemistry with Jack Harkness, and he’s good to go.  

Catch up with Sergeant Andy Davidson in Red Base – he’s a space-base mystery-solving, murder-stopping badass. Yes, really – and you’re going to love him all over again. Tony Fyler

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