There are a handful of voices which sound like how trust feels.
Michael Palin has one of those voices.
Python, world traveller and interpreter of the world’s many wonderful madnesses for the viewer at home, Michael Palin, when he wants to use it, has one of those voices that can make you believe that things are all about to work out just fine.
While presumably Tim Foley’s script came first, it’s a joy that Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4 seems to absolutely need a voice like Palin’s.
It starts off like a relaxation or meditation tape, all inner light and breathing in, but evolves into something more akin to a walk-through Choose Your Own Adventure book, as the voice of Palin – and make no mistake, it’s identified as the voice of Palin within the piece – takes ‘you’ on a journey through the inner mindscapes that make up your psychology. Joyfully ripping the piss out of the ever over-convenient translation of things and people into archetypes and psychobabble in meditation tapes and woo philosophy, it takes you on a journey into something called…The Hub. The Hub is a closed mind, it tells you, that needs to be opened to let the light in. Captain Jack is the Captain of your Destiny, the version of You that you were meant to be. Ianto Jones is the spirit of positivity. Toshiko Sato is all things intellectual and inquisitive, Owen Harper all things dark and negative…and so on.
It’s an invasion story, absolutely, but it’s delivered in the tones of Palin as a psychic and psychological battle between good and evil, yin and yang, the force of authority and the force of…of…of something or someone who keeps trying to turn the tour back into a simple seaside meandering.
Palin is of course well experienced at handling vast swathes of text and giving it a coherent, meaningful life, but he’s actually the only voice you hear throughout this story, which makes it a remarkable achievement. The storyline itself – invasion via meditation and psychobabble balderdash – is very cheeky, very Torchwood and inordinately good fun. Plus you get to hear Michael Palin turn on the dime of a moment, from calming presence in your head to vicious, swearing, power-addicted monster, quite prepared to prey not only on your deeper psychological fears, but to threaten pain, humiliation, you name it, when ‘you’ don’t do as he wants. It’s a rewarding listen, this story, but for something with perhaps the oddest title in at least recent Big Finish history, it has moments that are swift as a dagger and dark as motive. Be warned – you probably need to be having an ‘up’ day to get through this one unaffected by the manipulations of its villain, because there are times when that villain echoes all the darkest thoughts you’ll have had about yourself, and the ending, while it’s ultimately positive, isn’t fought on the same battleground, so it might not give you the psychological rebalancing you need.
Normally of course there’d be performances to extol, but as a single-voice audio, it’s all Palin, all the time, and as such, it’s all pure joy. In fact, there are moments when the power that is Palin helps sell some of the script’s balder patches. Certainly, those patches are necessary to get you from the A-B of the story, but in lesser hands, they might well have fallen flat – moments for instance where the villainous voice in your head is clearly scrabbling for inventions to fit in with the psychobabble of the meditation tape ethos by which it lures its victims in, seeming to riff freely in the moment. That’s dangerous writing because it flirts along the borderline of intended floundering (in the writing) and unintended floundering, in the seeming moment of the invention by the villainous character, and you need someone with a particular gift for insouciance to sell the idea. Michael Palin, fortunately, brings exactly what you need to the recording.
There’s a very Invisible Enemy vibe to this story, but with twinkly achievement-noises every time ‘you’ have a human interaction with one of the Torchwood team – it’s not exactly a ‘Contact has been made’ moment, but it’s close – and what is actually happening, who and what the villain actually is remains a little unclear, but as the battle rages on for control of ‘you,’ Palin is able to imbue his own voice with the personalities of two separate characters at war, and while he rages and threatens the psychological violence of all your bad memories set free to flood through your mind, it’s actually just as often the physical threat inherent in the loss of control of your body that will make you go cold in this story – the Palin-voiced villain tells you they can make you do anything, and there are several examples of self-harm here, from the holding of a breath to the point of passing out to hitting a door over and over again, for no other reason that it hurts and damages the host, the ‘you’ that is increasingly controlled by the voice in your head.
The resolution to the story seems to suffer slightly from the single voice format – it feels like when the power of goodness is victorious, it could actually do with separation into the second voice, the voice of the force that’s been trying to frustrate the Palin-villain all the way through the story, but that would probably lessen the sense of awe that this story carries by being single-voice from start to finish.
All in all, Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4 is absolutely worth a listen, not least because it’s an hour of Michael Palin speaking into your ear, but also because it acts as a kind of metaphor for the battle between positive and negative impulses, positive and negative views of yourself that will resonate with many listeners and fascinate even more. As a Torchwood story, it’s a neat inversion of the normal, with the story more or less told from the point of view of the villain, and oh yeah, did we mention it’s Michael Freakin’ Palin as a devious voice-villain from the depths of Who-Knows-Where trying to take over the Hub through a meditation tape!
Don’t hesitate – it’s not like you can experience actual beach sounds right now. Experience the next best thing with audio Torchwood and Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4. Tony Fyler