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

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Big Finish: Torchwood INFIDEL PLACES Review

Tony waves a placard.
Torchwood was, in Doctor Who chronology, an institute for the investigation of all things alien, inaugurated by Queen Victoria herself after the events of Tooth and Claw.

While never overloading the range with tales in which Her Majesty takes the lead, Big Finish sprinkles Victoria stories into the mix when something slightly different from our traditional Torchwood is called for. Rowena Cooper, who’s always been audio Torchwood’s Victoria of choice, gives the queen an intelligent balance between privilege and inquisitiveness, and is often useful in stories of Torchwood examining social phenomena or delivering social education, using the Victorian era to show us something crucial about our own.

Infidel Places, by Una McCormack, is a great example of that sort of writing, as the queen takes a trip to Cambridge to witness a vote on whether to allow women to receive degrees.

There, she meets Sir James Montescue (your spelling may vary), Vice Chancellor of Cambridge (Jon Glover, who gives excellent pained-and-weary-disdain to the character’s voice). Sir James is perhaps the strongest and most stereotypical sexist pig in the recent history of Torchwood releases, (even allowing for Sir Christopher Grey in Lizbeth Myles’ The Black Knight).

Sir James is firmly of the opinion that learning is no use to women beyond helping their men in their more worthwhile pursuits. He also believes that it’s probably actively dangerous for women’s bodies if they learn too much, because it probably impairs their ability to conceive.

Women, in his view, cannot be trusted in an educational environment because they just go goggle-eyed after their tutors and distract men who would otherwise be free to contribute to the sum of human knowledge, with their dangerous, Eve-like femininity and wantonness.

Here's the thing. All this, written down blankly like this, initially looks far too broad and obvious a stereotype. Surely, no-one could never have really existed.

It did.

And in fact – and this is the true mind-boggler – it still does, both in academic circles and in the chauvinistic society in which we live.

Don’t believe us? Suffered a recent head trauma? OK, let us remind you that as late as 2016, these were views publicised by a British Nobel prizewinner. So if you hear Sir James’ views and immediately jump to the “That’s too far-fetched and agenda-driven” argument, please, do evvveryone a favour and just shush. Part of the point of Una McCormack’s title and tale is that these are real attitudes, that have limited, and that continue to limit opportunities for women in academia – and in the job market too.

Right. Now we’ve got that off our chest, what’s the story here?

Well, the story centres on the vote to allow women to be awarded degrees, and on a somewhat delicious irony. Cambridge dons have developed a distressing tendency to go up in flames, and in one of the premier seats of learning and intellectual development in the country, the talk is almost immediately of black magic, occultist dabblings, and the summoning of demons. Because of course it is – intellectualism, confronted with the seemingly inexplicable, instantly reverting to superstition and what is (at least, probably) poppycock.

Meanwhile, Sir James’ niece, Honora Taplow (energetically voiced by Jade Gordon), is ardently in favour of the movement to allow women to be awarded the degrees they’ve earned, and is also a brilliant young mathematician. She gives the queen much more convivial company while she’s in Cambridge, and seems to be much the more rational of the two.

But if she’s rational, there’s a certain heartlessness there, too. When boring and wrong-headed old men seem to be visited by ‘demons’ and burned to nothing but a greasy smear on the historic brickwork, she shows little or no compassion for their plight. That gives us an early sign that she may know a thing or two about the immolations, so we tread warily with her, even though in most other respects, her character is our closest reference point in the audio to views we’d like to think are modern and progressive.

As the grease-stains mount up and the vote nears, with a solid suffragette movement pushing for what we think of as fairness in academia, and a truculent number of dons opposed to the idea, the queen engages in her own investigations, like Miss Marple with a crown and a high-tech piece of waggly kit for detecting space-time embuggerances.

What she discovers is rather more scientific than Satanic, and when directly threatened off her researches, the queen brings both her haughty sense of her own authority as queen and emperor, and her broadened outlook on the universe as the founder of Torchwood to bear. It’s another strong performance from Rowena Cooper, and more than anyone else in this drama, she’s our Torchwood touchstone.

We won’t spoil some things for you, like what kind of space-time embuggerance is actually turning Cambridge dons into deep-fried dogmeat, or indeed, who’s behind them and why. But there’s a pleasing sense of Victoria being smarter than the average monarch when she shrugs off all attempts to bamboozle her with flim-flam, and cuts straight to the heart of the matter so that lives can be saved. She’s not a queen to be messed with, and she needs the culprit to work with her to send the don-scorching forces back where they belong – which is, as far as she’s concerned, anywhere but the Earth.

There are pleas, there are home truths, and there are offers made and rebuffed before Infidel Places finds its ending. But does the ending satisfy? Yes, but probably not in the way you go into the story expecting it will. The further along the story we go, the more and more strongly we’re with Victoria, but the conjuror of ‘spirits’ has plans of their own. In fact, their plan goes far beyond affecting the vote on women’s degrees, and it has to play out the way it does – nothing else will satisfy, not even the pleas and the offers of a monarch.

As for Honora, she’s destined for bigger things than Cambridge, and by the end of Infidel Places, her life will never be the same again. Which, given that her life up to this point has been oppressed by hidebound academic men, and even her tutor Ronnie (Sion Daniel Young) sees her as little more than a marriageable helpmate to his own work, is perhaps not the tragedy it sounds.

There will be listeners who think Infidel Places is a strident piece of politicking with no reference to reality. That’s fine – people are allowed to be wrong.

If, after listening to the Behind The Scenes content, they still think the same way though, to paraphrase Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, they may well die stupid.

Una McCormack places her story of interdimensional demons and the right for bare equality in an otherwise real event – the vote at Cambridge in 1897. There was, as she gives us, a riot over the vote, so sharp was the divide between the idiot past and the equalised future.

She also adds in a detail which really happened – the setting fire by male students of an effigy of a female undergraduate on a bicycle.

Oh, and when did Cambridge ACTUALLY start awarding degrees to women?


If you think that’s still ancient history, Magdalen College was the last Cambridge college to admit women for degrees.

In 1988.

Still ancient history? Really?

OK, can we recommend you read Laura Bates’ book, Men Who Hate Women, a year-long undercover investigation of something called ‘The Manosphere’? What’s ‘The Manosphere’? We’re glad you asked – it’s a thoroughly modern internet group of men determined to reverse women’s rights. It regularly shares plans to legalise rape and the ‘allocation’ of women for sex, and it entirely refutes the fundamental equality of the sexes. And not just in dustbowl states and rural backwaters. The Manosphere’s aims and talking points regularly feed into far-right and alt-right policy forums, and onto platforms – poignantly enough, some of them in universities around the western world.

Today. In the 21st century, not the end of the 19th. Still think Infidel Places is just a historical science-fiction story?

If you’re wondering what the story of the Cambridge riot in 1897 has to do with ‘Infidel Places,’ it’s a reported quote from a priest on viewing Hitchin from a train. Hitchin, actually 30 miles south of Cambridge (for fear of all those feminine wiles, y’know?), was the location of Girton College – the original women’s college in Cambridge, opened in October 1869. The priest called the college “that infidel place” – implying that the education of women above their “natural” (which is to say “Biblical”) state was heathenish, damnable and downright wrong.

Sir James may at first seem (to male listeners, at least) like a misogynist the like of which could surely not be relevant to us today. But what Una McCormack has done in Infidel Places is weave a spooky-science story that’s in the best traditions of Torchwood, and placed it in a real moment in British academic history, while revealing the depth of misogyny that, both then in the late 1800s, and crucially, right here and now in the 2020s, still runs like blood through the heart of not only academic life, but our patriarchal society as a whole.

Torchwood: Infidel Places is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 30 June 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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