Torchwood: The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough – Starring Tracy-Ann Oberman, Timothy Bentinck, Dennis Lawson & Lisa Bowerman, Written by: Erm…Yvonne Hartman & Directed by Scott Handock (Big Finish)
Spoiler: if you’re a fan of Doctor Who or Torchwood who complains that the show is too busy pushing a woke agenda, and that you don’t like it when it gets all political – switch off this audio immediately. It’s not for you.
But then, if you’re one of those fans, Doctor Who since practically the dawn of Jon Pertwee hasn’t been for you, so how you’re still here is a mystery.
But this Torchwood story, more than most Doctor Who or Torchwood, is in your face political.
It’s also in your face relevant, with a staggeringly incompetent government and a cloud of death that can kill on contact (in this case, the result of a crashed spaceship in Middlesbrough, rather than, say, a pandemic virus). Also in this audio, a dithering, worse-than-useless Leader of the Opposition, too terrified of annoying anyone to actually do anything (though with an unfortunate tendency to find themselves accidentally supporting extreme right-wing events with gifts of jam (ahem!). The operator of a billion-pound health app that doesn’t actually work? Yep, she’s here too. A government spin doctor who breaks the rules he himself sets (complete with mention of getting his eyes tested)? Check. Demented radio ‘truther’ who believes in the New World Order of ‘banking powers’ being behind all the ‘lies’ about a Middlesbrough incident? Yep, we have one of those too.
The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough is a phenomenally brave Torchwood story to release in the current climate. But if for instance you’re a fan of verifiable reality and virology, and not a fan of political idiocy, chicanery, and apathy, conspiracy theories, antisemitism or the staggering human gullibility that has cost huge numbers of lives in our real world, you’ll probably love it.
I absolutely love it. Which tells you where I stand on a whole lot of issues.
The weird thing about this release, if anything, is that it exists at all. Pitching Yvonne Hartman against more or less the whole modern British world takes her beyond any prior Torchwood world or timeline – even the world of the ‘New Torchwood’ box sets, Aliens Among Us and God Among Us. Trying to fit it into any real Torchwood chronology is probably a mistake. It’s more or less an unashamed cri de coeur on behalf of the rational in an increasingly insane world, and an example of what someone who had the power and opportunity of Torchwood behind them could do if they existed in our world and had frankly had enough of it all.
Another slightly odd note of course is that Yvonne Hartman in TV Torchwood – and largely in the subsequent audios – has some practically 19th century views on ‘making Britain great again,’ and cares for ‘the people’ in a more or less abstract, ‘they should be protected for now, if all else fails’ way, rather than with any particular warmth or emotional engagement.
But there is of course one thing that absolutely gets Yvonne Hartman’s goat, and that’s inefficiency. Throughout The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough, she advocates tirelessly for a simple solution. The so-called Icarus Protocol – nice work in the naming department, there – would prevent any alien devastation from, say, a crashed spaceship – from affecting (or indeed, infecting) anywhere else beyond a given boundary. But the Secretary of State for Defence, Alfie Scott (Tim Bentinck giving us his ‘bluff northerner’ – in a performance very close to his ‘Tommy’ of Torchwood One, again suggesting Middlesbrough is not to be taken as part of any previous Torchwood chronology) has ‘received other science, and we’re following that science’- which amounts to little more than building a ring road. Even when it emerges that the Defence Secretary’s other pet project, a missile program, may have been responsible for shooting down the ship that devastated Middlesbrough in the first place, and that the ambassador of the aliens in question has a plan that could easily undo the devastating damage of the crash, Yvonne can’t make those in government listen to her, can’t make them give enough of a toss about human beings to put aside their self-interest.
When it comes to cordoning off the rest of the country and the world from the disaster hotspot, she runs into crisis manager Mo Simister (Sara Powell), who costs the public billions of poundsworth of tax revenue for a particle tracking phone app that simply doesn’t and never could work, and who pays a specialist in red carpets to establish a cordon. With her, it’s not that Yvonne gets further, particularly, but she does plague the ever-living daylights out of her, using Torchwood tech to try and make Mo see sense.
We won’t spoiler you with the details of whether she succeeds. We’ll just refer you back to the title of the release…
With short-sighted political guru Caspar Beacham (only the actual Dennis Law, popping his Big Finish cherry, and appearing to have a good deal of fun doing everything but driving to Barnard Castle), Yvonne is more fundamentalist, essentially tricking him into breaking his own rules in full view of the public, and letting the world’s media know that people should evacuate from London in a big hurry, because after all, when the rats are leaving, it’s time to pack a bag and drive into gridlock.
And with Lancelyn Green, the ‘banking interests’ truther who describes himself as ‘The Lance Of Truth,’ we get the only real hint that The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough fits into any kind of Torchwood chronology, because Yvonne uses a piece of alien tech that is the subject of a previous release, The Crown, by Jonathan Barnes.
Without spoiling it for you if you haven’t heard it yet, it’s an interesting dip-back into previous Torchwood audio, and ultimately, if it existed, it would be too tempting to use on fact-averse, fact-perverse bloviating spokespeople for the absurd, because if you argue with them, you just become ‘part of the plot,’ and their audience believe everything they say – to the collective harm of the whole society. The Torchwood solution is intensely cruel – but also more effective than anything available to us in the real world. As far as we know.
Sure, Yvonne’s way impacts the whole ‘freedom of speech’ thing, but she’s convinced it’s for the betterment of society as a whole after some of Lance’s listeners die, marching confidently into the cloud of Middlesbrough-death because they believe his proclamations that the Middlesbrough crash is a hoax designed to keep people controlled.
Overall, The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough will be a cathartic experience for lots of people frustrated by the catastrophic, deadly folly of some leading western governments. If, like many people, you’re convinced that there are bacteria in a deep ocean trench that could handle a national or international disaster better than the government you have, you’ll find yourself identifying with Yvonne’s frustration as she comes up against ineptitude, self-interest, graft, lies, idiocy, and utter contempt for human life.
For anyone who thinks science-fiction shouldn’t come close to real-world politics – less cathartic, more irritating. That’s probably a criticism Big Finish is anticipating, because the piece itself is said to be written by… Yvonne Hartman. Mm-hmm.
In which case, all hail, Ms Hartman. You did your duty, for queen, country, and rationality. Sure, a handful of people had to die. The world kinda got better as a result though, so, no harm, no foul, just possibly the best Big Finish of 2021 so far.
There’s been some absolutely breath-taking drama from Big Finish in 2021 of course, (including The War Master – Killing Time, and more or less both of the Ninth Doctor box sets so far), but if you need the kind of catharsis of a world-class truth-telling stand-up comedian to shake out some of your fury at the world in which we live, The Five People You Kill In Middlesbrough is going to ring every bell you have. Tony Fyler