Big Finish: Torchwood EMPIRE OF SHADOWS Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Torchwood EMPIRE OF SHADOWS Review

Tony’s hiding in the shadows. Along with the truth.
The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit are frequently ranked right up in the top echelons of the Tenth Doctor’s on-screen stories. They showed a rugged, gritty spacefaring gang of scientists and specialists, blasting out into the cosmos to go and poke it with a stick. They introduced us to the Ood – one of the most popular New Who creations, re-used both on screen and in subsequent Big Finish audio. They gave us what to all intents and purposes was the literal Devil, both in a great CGI roaring Beast and a phenomenal voice performance by Gabriel “I’m bloody Sutekh, I am” Woolf. And they gave us a great base under siege from within story that included an impressive amount of scuttling through ducts on hands and knees.

What people tend easily to forget is that The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit were also, technically, Torchwood stories.

Between the Doctor and Rose’s encounter with Queen Victoria and their run-in with Yvonne Hartman at Torchwood One in Canary Wharf, lay this example of a Torchwood that existed far in the future, far beyond the actions of what were from our perspective a subsequent bunch of Cardiff-based misfits. Torchwood was responsible for the research team going to look at an impossible black hole with an impossible planet in orbit of it. And in at least notional charge of them all was Zachary Cross Flane (Shaun Parkes).

While his role in the story overall was very much “Sit in this chair and say things,” compared to the more active roles of other characters, Parkes delivered a fine line in reluctant command, giving Cross Flane an air of doing the best he could think of to do, and trying to make it the best thing for everyone, while under extreme and increasing pressure. For the space of those two episodes, it looked and sounded like he might well deserve a spin-off, at least in the minds of fans.

Well, the minds of fans have finally got their way, as Shaun Parkes and Zachary Cross Flane join the realms of Torchwood audio with Empire of Shadows.

The set-up is relatively simple. Cross Flane and his synth friend, Chloe (Amanda Shodeko) are invited to an event by the Emperor Merdiven, the ruler of the Earth Empire (Mateo Oxley). The event is to honour his mother, who watched as her heirs were shot seemingly stone dead in front of her, before herself wandering for years and adding her tales to the Torchwood Archive and the Imperial Library.

Merdiven, who miraculously escaped the slaughter of his siblings (Think Anastasia Romanoff in space) believes those who plotted against his mother are now seeking to de-throne him. He needs Torchwood – now a forgotten and relatively despised organization with the whiff of a secret police about it – to break into an unbreakable vault, find out whatever there is to find out, come back and tell him, and then…

Well, and then is when it gets a little sticky. Chloe, as a synth, has a date with a memory wipe, and to be fair, she’s none too happy about it. She’s also the only person with little enough tact to ask what might happen to Zachary, who doesn’t have such a wipe-clean memory.

That’s the basic outline of the plot that fills the minutes of Empire Of Shadows. Arrive at a party, wait around a lot, get a mission, break into an unbreakable vault, steal its secrets, forget them – all while it’s all too entirely plausible someone’s trying to assassinate the emperor, and everyone looks at you like you’re week-old cronk on the bottom of their shoes.

Easy – once you’ve tangled with the Beast, this is just weekend stuff…


Welll… there’s no universe in which you need us to tell you it’s not quite that simple. Apart from anything else, it’s a James Goss story, so you know you’re going to have a decent amount of plot to sink your teeth into along the way. And there’s also a more than decent science-fiction-cum-philosophical theme to get to grips with too, involving memory, morality and a sense of history perhaps incorrectly remembered. It’s not so much “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” as “Do Synths Remember The Sheep They’ve Known…?” It’s also very much about who records the narrative of history, and how far you trust what you think you know.

All this is extremely well delivered – it’s great to hear Shaun Parkes again in the Torchwood universe, and it’s interesting to see how his character has changed, and how he’s especially changed when he has to deal with bigwigs and synths, compared to being relatively alone with a tight bunch of fellow operatives out on the frontier of knowledge. He wears his allegiance to the emperor with a great deal of willingness but an endless itch around the collar, which makes him entertaining to listen to.

Amanda Shodeko as Chloe is an utter joy alongside Parkes’ Zachary – she’s perky, chatty, and severely narked at the thought of getting her memory wiped, because it can’t happen in isolation. It’s like a restore to her factory settings, which means all the loosened-up shortcuts and memory files and personality tweaks she’s made along the way to this point will be lost, and she’ll revert to the fresh-from-the-factory chirpiness that everybody hates.

But the further they go in their mission, the clearer it becomes that Chloe knows things about it that will turn the mission on its head – not least, who they’re REALLY working for, and what their goal ACTUALLY is. She’s not, naturally, allowed to tell Zachary either of these things directly, so it becomes more and more of a challenge – especially when the Emperor accompanies them on their mission (Nothing like performance anxiety when the boss is along for the ride).

From a kind of Torchwood meets The Thomas Crown Affair start, this story takes its time and paces out the way it adds to your knowledge, giving you just enough about a handful of heartbeats ahead of Zachary to figure out what’s really going on. And when you do, the whole story takes on whole new dimensions – including the dimension of Torchwood’s reputation in the empire – and clicks into place within a larger framework. That whole thing about memory determining both ethics and historical truth gets larger at that point, and really, the end of the story turns on who remembers what by the time tomorrow comes.

If you cried when Donna Noble had her mind wiped of her adventures with the Doctor, you’ll weep on the way to the ending of this story, though whether Zachary gives the order to stop Chloe’s memory being erased or whether he doesn’t, we won’t spoil for you, as it’s a heavyweight piece of ethical drama towards the end.

Shaun Parkes as Zachary Cross Flane here gives a slightly brisker performance than you’ll remember from The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit, because he has to – this time he’s not co-ordinating the drama so much as he is doing the whole outer space James Bond thing, right in the thick of the action.

If there’s a point at which the release falls down, it’s that it is, practically by its very nature, heavy on backstory. Even the most hardcore Who and Torchwood fan will find a lot of the set-up of this story new to them – imperial history, the exploits of the Empress, the slaughter of her children, the survival of an heir in a body-pile, etc. While James Goss avoids too large an infodump (of course he does, this is James Goss), there’s still a LOT of history you need to get your head around if you’re going to make this work, and whereas with a traditional Torchwood, or even a Torchwood Soho story, things are familiar enough to let us get our heads around them fairly fast, this feels less like the standalone it currently is, and more like the pilot for what should be – what it NEEDS to be – a sequence of box sets that explore the world of this version of Torchwood.

It feels like a primer for a necessary “more,” rather than working completely on its own as a single story in a monthly run of Torchwood stories.

We’ve had that sensation before, of course – the American “Charlie’s Angels” Torchwood being a case in point. Stories that give us either new versions of Torchwood, or expand versions we’ve barely heard of, feel like they need more time and space to play.

With Shaun Parkes as Zachary Cross Flane though, there’s a distinct feeling of spin-off series potential, MOST especially with Amanda Shodeko along for the ride as Chloe (or even, the Chloes…).

Sure, we can hope, right? As a standalone, Empire of Shadows is a lot of backstory lifted by a cogent storyline, a clever sub-story, and at least two blindingly appealing central performances. As the start of an Imperial Torchwood spin-off (C’mon, Big Finish, you know it makes sense…), it could be the start of something extra-special.

Torchwood: Empire of Shadows is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31st October 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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