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

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Big Finish: Torchwood THE BLACK KNIGHT Review

Tony goes into space with a dick and a bastard.
Before the complaints come in, those are descriptions the actors who play each main supporting character in The Black Night use about them, so if you have pearls to clutch, feel free to clack them in the direction of Jacob Dudman, who plays Freddie Talbot, and Samuel Barnett who plays Torchwood Soho’s inveterate meddler, Norton Folgate.

In their defence, in this instance, they’re absolutely right.

In The Black Knight, writer Lizbeth Myles takes us into an ambitious cul-de-sac of British history, and then has a glorious amount of sci-fi fun with real-world conspiracy theories, real world appalling sexism, and a very Torchwood “You’ve got to be ready” moral that has frankly devastating consequences.

The historical cul-de-sac?

We’re glad you asked. There was a time when, quite apart from the TV shenanigans of British Rocket Group and Professor Quatermass, Britain had the beginnings of its own space programme.

Not, by any means, “One small step for a man…”, but satellites, launches, that sort of thing.

Into that reality, which neatly coincides with the period of Torchwood Soho’s existence, steps Professor Lynne Sharman, played by Safiyya Ingar. Very much in the mould of late Sixties, early Seventies female scientist in Doctor Who (“Calling Professor Liz Shaw to Mission Control…”), she’s both decades ahead of her time in terms of her rocket science, and, annoyingly, beset by pompous, outrageously sexist men who don’t believe it’s a good idea for the little women to meddle in SCIENCE.

Those men are typified and exemplified here by Sir Christopher Grey (played with an almost audible swig of port and puff of cigar smoke and condescension by Russel Bentley). Again, annoyingly, he’s the man in charge of whether projects like Lynne’s rocket, the Viola, get funding, time, and government backing.

Which is what would probably be known in military parlance as “a right bugger.”

But while it’s also undoubtedly a vastly sexist bugger, that’s not ALL it is, because while it’s way ahead of its time, the Viola has… problems.

All its previous, unmanned launches have exploded jussst as they were about to leave Earth’s magnetosphere, which is a costly and deeply unfortunate thing for rockets to do.

As we join Lynne, it’s launch day once more, on what is probably her last ‘life,’ her last chance to prove to the sexist piggish bureaucrats that she knows her rocket science. She’s previously argued for this launch to be manned, to up the ante of the experiment. Manned in fact by her friend and would-be possessor of the right stuff, Freddie Talbot.

When the latest Viola rocket behaves in a now depressingly familiar way, the only real bright side is that Freddie isn’t on board to get atomised. But, on the verge of binning the project altogether as a failed experiment, Sir Christopher is swayed by Lynne’s impassioned plea. The maths is right, dammit! The rocket science SHOULD WORK! He agrees to let her investigate what has happened to all her revolutionary rocketry.

It's an impressive scene, this, even though it’s short – in other hands, and with other characters, there’d be a chance of Lynne coming off as suffering from egotistical scientific blinkering. She MUST be right, so there must be Something Else at play. But, written by Lizbeth Myles and played with huge conviction by Safiyya Ingar, what you get is a character who’s brilliant enough to back herself, not out of ego, but because she’s gone through the variables scientifically, and she’s not closed-minded enough to write off something outside the normal parameters of her research. Some external factor that no-one could have known they had to consider.

When she finds it, though, it sounds like nothing so much as a nonsensical conspiracy theory (which is hardly surprising, given that it IS a real-world conspiracy theory!).

There is something up there, she contends. Something that is actively STOPPING the human race from leaving its safe little planetary bubble. The difference between the admittedly-gleeful conspiracy theory and Lynne’s SCIENTIFIC theory is that not only does she find The Thing – an asteroid which, in a swirl of Arthurian imagination, she dubs “The Black Knight”– but she correlates a very slight movement of the asteroid with the moment each of her previous rockets went up in smoke. Correlation of course does not equate to causation, but it’s a hellishly odd coincidence, and surely worth checking out.

Erm… no.

She’s scorned, laughed at, and Project Viola is set to be swept under the carpet of scientific embarrassment once and for all.

What do you need when you’re faced with an implacable black knight?

Why, a white knight, obviously (and yes, we apologise for the correlation of those colours with good and evil).

Enter, White Knight Norton Folgate, Torchwood Soho’s charming bastard, and a man who can Get Things Done, even when faced with the likes of the bluff old blowhard, Sir Christopher.

Norton tells Lynne that Torchwood believes her theory. And then he arranges for one more launch, with a three-person crew, to go and actively investigate the Black Knight, sitting up there like a planetary hall monitor.

Freddie, as the most mission-ready would-be spaceman available, has to be on board. Norton, as Torchwood’s man on the spot, has to come along to observe this potentially alien embuggerance. And Lynne herself has to be prepared to risk everything to prove her theory. Right?


So, this is how we get to go into space with a dick and a bastard. And a genius, of course. To wiiiildly paraphrase Douglas Adams, when heading into unknown space, always know where your genius is.

The thing is, it takes a while during their adventure investigating the Black Knight for Freddie’s particular strain of dickishness to reveal itself, and – as you want from all the characters if your drama is to be fully satisfying, he’s never JUST a dick.

He’s a dick in a way that remains appallingly familiar to us in the 2020s – convinced that he (and his ‘kind’) have been done out of a bright future by “men like [Norton]’ losing the post-war peace – though whether he means ‘men like you’ in a simply homophobic sense, an anti-bureaucratic sense, or the sense of Norton being entirely unpersuaded by the imperialistic argument that they should simply stick a flag in the Black Knight and claim it for Britain is uncertain. Possibly, a little of all three.

The sense of the loss of the previous right to do whatever the hell we felt like is alive and well in Freddie, and his grudge is centred in anyone who he feels is against the return to a more imperial level of British freedom. The irony of which of course is twofold.

1, the loss of the last of the British Empire after World War II, combined with the rise of powers like the US and the USSR to economic dominance, could be said to be a large part of the reason why those two powers became superpowers just at the time when space flight was becoming a new technological frontier – they had the MONEY to spend on rockets and missions, while post-imperial, post-war Britain was beyond shafted, economically, so he’s kiiiind of right, but with horrible, dickish motivations.

And 2, the nature of Freddie’s dickishness makes him practically ideal for the ‘queen and country,’ ‘if it’s alien, it’s ours’ ethos of pre-Jack Harkness Torchwood.

Yet he’s also an exceptional pilot, a highly effective person within a strong team structure, and significantly less of a sexist dick than, for instance, most of the men Lynne has encountered in her career. The fact that the adventure to the Black Knight absolutely LACKS that strong, hierarchical team structure in a sense lets Freddie’s Inner Dickishness off its lead, with some fairly horrifying consequences.

Meanwhile, Norton is perhaps, of the two, the more dangerous. In this story, he’s akin to the man who claims to be ‘a nice guy,’ and he lures Lynne, who’s not accustomed to subordinating her opinion to those of men, into trusting his judgment by the simple fact that he doesn’t judge her inferior due to her gender.

He has his own – or rather, Torchwood’s – ulterior motives at heart here, and when Lynne eventually finds out what they are, she pummels the living daylights out of him. He doesn’t exactly scream, but it turns out that, in space, anyone available can hear you say “Ow!”

The space adventure itself is properly engaging, Lizbeth Myles putting the craft into making the Black Knight a genuine mystery – while we discover at least the FORM of alien that’s been sitting in a giant space rock stopping humanity joining the universe’s party, quite WHY they’ve been doing it, and who they ultimately are, remains deliciously open to debate. Have they been trying to protect US from the rest of the universe’s baddies (which would play rather neatly into the invasions that began in the Sixties and ran through the Seventies and Eighties in Doctor Who, causing the formation and development of UNIT). Or, as posited in The Christmas Invasion (another story involving an alien-driven asteroid in orbit), were they perhaps protecting the rest of the universe – from us?

There’s some gorgeous descriptive work and soundscaping once the three get on board the Black Knight, so you get that most precious thing – an audio adventure you can truly SEE. And the combination of the mystery of the aliens’ intent and the progression of the plot through the alien asteroid has a good layer of Alien to it. Rule 1 of non-colonial space exploration - if you see what looks like a giant pearl egg, please feel free to LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE. Only bad things can come from disregarding this cardinal rule – ask John Hurt.

The final act of The Black Knight is its most stark and brutal. There are arguments along the way, to be sure, and the testosterone flying between Freddie and Norton as seemingly opposing avatars of different mindsets is palpable. Freddie, in fact, seems to Norton to be an example of the most convincing reasons why aliens might want to stop humanity spreading to the stars. But nothing is as cruel as the final act – and for the most part, it’s a cruelty enacted in quietness, rather than rage or violence. We’re absolutely not going to tell you what that cruelty IS, because you’d lose the rollercoaster lurch in your stomach if we did – and that’s a thing you deserve to get for your money.

What it proves though is that humanity can’t be lumped into a single mindset – which is both its greatest salvation, and its most terrifying damnation. For every genius, there’s at least one dick, and at least one bastard. It’s a statement that was true in the Fifties, when The Black Knight is set, and the subsequent decades of twitchy nuclear trigger-fingers would go on to prove that for every good intention, there would still always be the opportunity for them to be swamped in imperialistic, warlike, and unfortunate human impulses.

Looking around the news headlines in 2022, it’s hard to argue that we’ve progressed all that far.

The Black Knight is in equal parts a superbly crafted space adventure with highly visual storytelling in an audio medium, a chance for two Big Finish stalwarts to play opposite one another, a Big Finish introduction to Safiyya Ingar (of whom, a whole lot more would only be a good thing), and a poignant, ultimately heartbreaking essay on the condition of humanity as a whole.

You’ll thrill to this one, largely whenever Saffiya Ingar is on the mic, because her conviction and Lynne’s character are intoxicating. You’ll enjoy the clashes of Norton and Freddie, because Samuel Barnett and Jacob Dudman give you the intensity of cold strength and hot emotion respectively to make those clashes sing. And you might just possibly shed a tear at the end, because… well, because the things we can’t tell you will demand that reaction of you.

Big Finish has been in storming form in its Torchwood stories recently, mixing science-fiction and deeper truths about the human condition with staggering aplomb. The Black Knight laces staggering aplomb with joy and teardrops, and delivers an hour of space drama you won’t forget.

Torchwood: The Black Knight is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 May 2022, and on general sale after this date.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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