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

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Big Finish: Torchwood - CURIOS Review

Tony’s in the dark.
Curios is… well, there’s no other way to describe it… a curious Torchwood story.

In the first place, there are no familiar Torchwood operatives in it.

In the second place, it stars the always elegantly creepy and interestingly amoral Bilis Manger – the nearest thing TV Torchwood had to a Professor Moriarty – played as ever by Murray Melvin, and yet here, his urbanity and charm doesn’t act, as it normally does, like a greased steel trap waiting to be sprung. Instead, he genuinely seems to work with a human being for their mutual benefit.

Whhhhhat the hell, James Goss? What – the actual – hell?

We assume of course that there’s a story coming after this one in which Bilis will be returning to his usual amoral and homicidal form, but perhaps this marks the beginning of a new pathway for the character, into new relationships with the puny humans he encounters. Seems unlikely, but you never know.

You never know particularly in this case, because of where and when the story is set.

This is not 21st century Torchwood, it’s wartime Torchwood. We get a mention of a younger Lizbeth Hayhoe in this story (she who will go on to become Norton Folgate’s oppo in Torchwood Soho). Here, she sends Jill Anderson (Rosie Baker), a girl with a history, to the Welsh coal mines where, alongside the archives of several leading art galleries and museums, the Torchwood archive is being kept safe from the potentially calamitous randomness of the Blitz. Safe, but messy and in need of cataloguing.

There, she meets two surly Welsh guards, getting their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on while waiting for something interesting to give their lives some meaning. And there, beneath the surface of the mine, she meets Bilis Manger.

And the monster.

The monster that sometimes makes itself known by sounds, sometimes by fleeting visibility in shadows, and eventually, the monster that simply stands there, having grown a face to scare you with.

All of this is good, wholesome, MR James-ish creepiness, shudders down the back of the neck, mysterious, ill-defined monsters and all.

What becomes increasingly unnerving over the run-time of Curios is the sense that on the one hand, Jill may be alone down there, locked underground with the ‘essence’ of Bilis Manger, invisible to anyone else – an idea which adds a deep pathos to the conversations she has with him – and that on the other, if Bilis is really there, they’ve stumbled into the same sort of trap.

If it’s a trap, we’re led to understand, it’s a mistake to think it comes without consequences – Jill starts the story fully aware that she has had predecessors, sent to catalogue the collection. But they’ve all… disappeared.

Run away?


But there’s a steady, building pulse of threat down there in the dark that’s enough to get you breathing faster and more shallow. Yes, there’s a degree of manufacture about the feel of it, but that plays into the uncertainty Jill – and we – have about Bilis Manger stuck in a coal mine, unable to rise and leave, talking seemingly honestly about his relationship with time and Torchwood. It has the growing edge of a Bond villain, explaining the reality of the situation because he knows you’re never going to leave the room alive, and we bring our foreknowledge of Bilis Manger to the situation, which hypes the tension in our heads even more.

There’s more to the threat than Bilis and the thing that shared his darkness though. For Jill, there’s also trouble on the outside. The two guards, Wilf Church and Bent Hall (Yes, Church and Hall – don’t say it) have a casual cruelty to them – they literally decide how to treat new girl Jill on the toss of a coin, whether to be nice to her or not. That translates into suspending her in a mine’s lift shaft in the dark for unspecified amounts of time, into a spectacular unhelpfulness, and even to a basic, horrible game of sexual threat. That’s perhaps an odd note, but it feels like it belongs in a show like Torchwood, where the darker side of human nature is always prone to come out alongside whatever alien weirdness is happening.

The creeping nature of the threat here is underlined by Jill’s adventures topside, too. Whatever is lurking there in the dark beneath a Welsh hillside, it lets her go, time after time. Lets her go back to the local village, mix with the people, would probably even let her go completely – at first.

It’s only as she comes back, time and time again, that the pull of the archive, and the evolution of the monster – or is it monsters – in the dark become increasingly a trap, almost as though the dark is growing flesh and blood with which to stop her, keep her there in the dark. After all, what DID happen to all the others?

The ending of the story is distinctly unexpected – you find yourself getting some idea of what’s going on much earlier than that, but Jill’s own strength and resilience, matched with the mind of Bilis Manger, proves to be a surprisingly impressive thing. And at the end, you wonder what the future has in store. It’s not a story that’s ever entirely wrapped up in a neat little bow, so it makes you wonder what the next day looks and sounds like for the characters we encounter.

Murray Melvin as Bilis is as urbane and spider-like as ever, at least to begin with – but more than in most cases, there’s a resonant note of honesty about him in this story that will appeal to fans of the character. Usually, whenever Bilis Manger speaks at any length, you can more or less guarantee it’s part of some plan or scheme to feed a hapless human into the jaws of time and make his escape. Here though, Bilis feels more open to possibilities, more honest than usual, more bereft of any of his usual plans.

Nevertheless, the combination of Murray Melvin’s performance and the assured, wrong-footing story progression keeps you both on edge and unable – or unwilling – to stop the recording and get your breath. In a sense, it’s the thin, cultured, air of diabolical politeness that Murray Melvin always conjures into his performance as Bilis that extends the premise of the story out from the trap that forms behind Jill’s back to contain us too. We could listen to Murray Melvin just speaking as Bilis Manger (or, come to that, as Murray Melvin!) for hours without moving – and that’s a fact used to great effect here to keep us underground with Jill, hoping she’ll escape but happy to spend the town in that scary scenario with her for as long as it lasts.

Rosie Baker has an appealing energy as Jill, neither too bouncily positive, nor a stereotypical screaming victim. In fact, the longer the story goes on, the more it feels as though Jill may have more to scare her on the outside than she has trapped in a mine with Bilis Manger – a feeling that ultimately translates into an evolution of Bilis’ story, and that surprising ending.

Ultimately, as we said at the start, this is a curious Torchwood story. Curios never does quite what you think it will – or even what you think it should - but delivers a clammy, creepy tale of things that go bump in the dark that is enjoyable and surprising by turns.

Torchwood: Curios is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 November 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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