The Victorian era will always be a space in which striking contrasts co-exist without generally recognising how different they are.
Science and the occult, hand in hand more often than not, with an equal application of exploratory spirit, almost like a race for the form of reality which would imprint itself on the future. Would our future be scientific or mystical? The Victorian era allowed for the exploration of both, and would ultimately reward the one that provided most useful evidence and application.
If that sounds like a lofty, rather up-itself beginning to a Torchwood review…well yes, guilty as charged, m’lud. But it’s a loftiness to a point, because Torchwood: Save Our Souls is another in the occasional sub-range of Torchwood stories featuring Queen Victoria (played as ever by the startling wonder that is Rowena Cooper). And in particular, the question of whether something is mystical or scientific is at the heart of the drama this time out.
There’s a voice.
A signal, which translates itself – because even Victorian scientists needed funding and patronage – into the voice of Queen Victoria. A signal, or a voice, which seems to predict the future.
The signal is being picked up by a radio mast on a remote island, which is enough reason to get five people to go there. The scientist who built the mast. An operative of Torchwood. Queen Victoria herself. A soldier who protects her. And her own favourite spiritual medium.
Five people, one island. And a voice that tells the future.
But it’s almost not the prophecies of the voice that are the motivations in this story, so much as what the voice tells people about themselves. Things that couldn’t rationally be known by anyone. Secrets. Lies. The shames of strangers, friends, antagonists trapped together.
And by morning, almost all of them will be dead.
Now, if you’re thinking that sounds familiar with a twist, you’re by no means wrong. It’s Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but with a twisted Torchwood tweak. Not the least of which is that the voice from elsewhere – whether it can be scientifically explained or must fall into the category of the supernatural – tells the people who gather on the island that they’ll die. Except for one. There may be one survivor.
Cue paranoia, and a Hunger Games, Battle Royale style mentality-shift. If you kill the others, by default you’re the survivor…
Writer Scott Handcock knows how to draw an icy, clammy finger down our spines through the power of sound and the exquisitely creepy use of dialogue. That’s very much the vibe of this story – base under siege plus the inevitable ticking, talking clock of death, putting the finger on the assembled people one by one.
The joy of a release like this is that it throws the rational part of your mind into conflict with the primal fears of malign supernatural influence from a more tribal past. And in Torchwood: Save Our Souls, that conflict is played out – when you have a contemporary Victorian scientist, a psychic medium who may or may not be an utter charlatan (Spoiler alert – he is. Shocker), a military man with a dark past and a hopeful future, the Queen-Empress herself, and a Torchwood operative, who knows there may be sciences beyond our own, but who’s also a product of her age, the conflicts between rationality, ego, superstition and guilt are swirled neatly by the simple expedient of a voice that seems to know all their secret histories, as well as what’s coming to the world in the next handful of years. It can tempt, it can scold, it can jab and goad them into oppositions based more in primal, instinctive paranoia than in anything that would seem sensible by daylight in another place.
There’s a very Torchwood touch early on, for instance, when the medium, Samuel Okonjo (played here with increasing, convincing panic by Kingsley Amadi) is told he will be the first to die. In a room full of people, he will be the first to die, in just a few minutes. The scuffle and panic that results is terrifying in that it shouldn’t be believable, but is.
We won’t tell you if he dies or not. Where would be the fun in that?…
Suffice it to say that Torchwood: Save Our Souls is a highly effective clock-ticking, voice-taunting heightened Torchwood interpretation of And Then There Were None which will keep you listening, with several periods when your heart will race, and several other chess-playing moments. You may be an eldritch voice from Elsewhere, and you may be able to taunt Queen Victoria with the sound of her own voice, but it takes more than just that to drive a bunch of mostly rational people stark raving mad, doesn’t it? To kill them? To make them kill each other? Here’s a question – how would you survive? What would you do to outwit a voice that knew everything?
Sleep well thinking of that one…
It’s hardly news to say the story gets more raw and visceral as the number of people on the island goes down, and the final stand-off is more a pull of duty and self-preservation than it is a quest for the truth. By the end of the story, whether it’s alien or eldritch, the voice has proved that it can do what it says it can do – which in itself is a Torchwood threat. Imagine a world where a voice from the future could tell you anything you asked of it. When you’d die, whether you family would go on to succeed after you, or be snuffed out in a calamity. Could you change tomorrow’s history? And if you did, what would be the cost?
That’s the underlying delight of Torchwood: Save Our Souls. On one level, on it’s main level, it’s a sweaty, creepy story of a handful of people trapped together with an inevitable death countdown and no way to escape unless they can possibly out-think or overpower the voice. On the other, the potential of the voice, if it’s allowed to escape the island, is world-altering and catastrophic. It’s the equivalent of having an unscrupulous time traveller free in the world. Or an unscrupulous oracle, able to tell you things that take even the illusion of free will out of the world. What would that do to human nature? To the human struggle to achieve?
It’s a clever superposition of stakes, this – the bigger world consequences of not defeating the voice all funnelling down to what happens to these five people, on this island, over the next 24 hours. And it also has that slick, vicious edge to the threat. The voice knows everything. Everything you did, and everything else you tell people. There are no secrets from the voice, and it can deal with you on a basis of either total honesty if you can handle it, or the very worst things you think about yourself, knowing who you think you really are.
It’s a bit horrific, to be fair, so be prepared. There’s an extent to which the voice in this story – while a great storytelling tool and a convincing villain – has a dangerously strong analogue in the minds of anxious or overthinking people.
But then, that’s true of lots of great villains throughout cultural history. What it means in the short term is that the voice in this story is on par with some of the great villains throughout cultural history.
It’ll leave you with shudders, this one. If you have anxiety or depressive issues, listen to it on a good day. An up day. An ‘Everything might just work out OK somehow’ day.
This is an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a time-twisting Torchwood edge. That edge cuts deep and lethal, so be prepared for a grim old time – but one that will stay with you for weeks afterwards, both for the clammy evil shivers when you think back on it, and for the top notch writing, direction and acting that make it work. Tony Fyler