Big Finish: Torchwood THE CROWN Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Torchwood THE CROWN Review

Tony takes the crown.

If you’re going to do a festive Torchwood, it makes a lot of sense to go with Queen Victoria. She’s the centre of your Venn diagram when it comes to Torchwood and Christmas.

The Crown, by Jonathan Barnes, has a plot that’s not especially festive, but is set at Christmas, and follows a great Victorian tradition of Christmas ghost stories.

Here, a couple of legends come together – the legend of a false crown, which if worn can reduce someone to invisibility, to inconsequence, to a position where they are either ignored or dismissed as trash, and the legend of an accompanying death-bringing mythic figure, the Ferryman, who has his own rhyme, and is only visible to those for whom he comes, to drag them into death’s embrace.

So – y’know – it’s a cheery one. Ho ho hooooly Hannah…

What complicates matters here is that Victoria Regina, Queen of Great Britain, Empress of India, Defender of the Faith, etc, etc, runs into a ‘common personage’ in the grounds of Sandringham. A common personage who should not by any account be there. And a curse is put upon Her Majesty. The curse of The Crown.

That means that, while all the business of the state goes on as normally as possible, Victoria Regina, Queen of Great Britain, Empress of India, Defender of the Faith, etc, etc, is missing. Fading into irrelevance, at first in the corridors of her own palace, then ejected like into the streets like a beggar. Forced to plead at the roadside for coins with her face stamped on them.

When Victoria turns to Torchwood, it’s as though she’s only there for moments at a time before she fades out of their visual memory. And so, after months of wandering her kingdom as a vagrant, sleeping rough, being buffeted by the forces of harsh Victorian economics, she goes in search of a doctor. A very particular doctor, who might just be able to see her for who she really is, and help her escape the curse of The Crown.

This is the premise of Jonathan Barnes’ story. It’s fair to say there’s not a lot more to it than that in terms of plotting – your interest is maintained through much of the running time by the atmosphere and character development of Victoria as she takes you through her experiences. Rowena Cooper has been a great Queen Victoria since she began in the audio Torchwood world, and this story gives her a lot to get her teeth into. Audio Torchwood is also careful never to be too lenient or kind to Victoria, who clearly had a core of steel by the time she became the older woman she is here. So while this Victoria acknowledges the brief relief of suddenly not being the object of every subject’s eye, she quickly becomes indignant, self-absorbed and annoyed at being ignored and reduced in her stature, determined to find a way to shake off or pass off this curse, even as her influence in the world dwindles from the highest station to the lowest.

And while she rails against the indignities heaped upon the poor and the indigent in her kingdom, this is no Victoria’s Christmas Carol. She’s not changed unduly by the eye-opening experience, or consumed with a socially reforming zeal. These experiences may have been terrible for her, but the thought doesn’t seem to penetrate that they would be terrible for everyone. Her main concern is getting out from under the curse, and being a queen and an empress, she makes no spurious promises to gods or monsters, ghosts or spirits to reform her ways or her kingdom by way of bargaining for her freedom. No, she is Victoria, and she will be free of this curse, either by breaking its hold somehow, or by passing it on to some less inherently important unfortunate. They will not deserve it, but these things must be.

The doctor she finds, Dr Gideon Parr (Derek Riddell), is something of a specialist in delusions of grandeur, and it’s in this capacity that the ‘woman who claims she’s the queen’ is brought to him. The question is, can Victoria make him believe in her story of curses, crowns and deadly ferrymen? And if she can, what then? Can Gideon Parr help Victoria shed the cursed Crown, and re-assert herself on her throne?

It would be tempting the spoilerman to tell you the answers to these questions of course, but let’s always keep firmly in front of us the fact that this is Torchwood. There’s always likely to be more going on than at first meets the eye. This time round, that’s truer even than normal. Trust nothing. Believe no-one. You may not know the whole story until the very end. Hell, you may not know it even then.

While it’s one of the less convoluted Torchwood plots of recent times, this story brings a distinctly Jago & Litefoot vibe to its run-time. The curse of The Crown seems like a genuine curse, rising from folk myth rather than particularly explained as alien. There’s fun in that, in that it leaves the way open for potential future stories involving the same mythos, and like all the best ghost stories, it leaves you perplexed and not a little chilled at the end.

There’s at least one twist late in the game of this story though, that will make you realise the stakes of the story are higher than you might have realised. Most two-hander dramas (which this mostly is, with occasional interesting interruptions) are a game of chess, a cat-and-mouse tango for the upper hand. When you pit the Queen Empress against a master of delusions, you can never be entirely sure who’s winning till the game is over. So the thing that chills you most may not be what you’re expecting.

As we mentioned, it’s not by any means an ostensibly festive story, but in The Crown, Jonathan Barnes has delivered a briskly creepy, philosophically intriguing story with a Christmas tinge. If Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a story of how a hardened heart can be melted by a difference of perspective and an observation of the hardship of others, of how a change in circumstance or a change of viewpoint can soften one’s attitude to those less fortunate than oneself, The Crown is pretty much The Anti-Carol. Victoria’s experience of invisibility among the poor and the insignificant turns her to thoughts not of compassion and acceptance, but of vengeance for the affront and the wrong done to her, and to immediately escaping her newly-imposed condition. When we find out the truth at the end of the story, there’s something impressive and something horrifying in it. Which perhaps makes sense for a queen who – in our mythos, anyway - saw the potential of the alien and founded the Torchwood Institute to fight it, to harness it, and to use it specifically in the interests of her land.

If you’re looking for a heartwarming Christmas tale, The Crown isn’t it. The Crown is perhaps a fitting topper to 2020 though, a cold, glittering curse to round out the year. It’s a beautifully written curse, and both Rowena Cooper and Derek Riddell power their performances with precision, delivering the pace you need and the atmosphere you’ll appreciate to make this a chilling story on both mythological and human grounds. Give it a whirl as you kiss goodbye to the year of a new transferrable ‘curse,’ but perhaps have a funny favourite on standby to lift your spirits afterward.

Torchwood: The Crown is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until February 28th 2021, and on general sale after this date.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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