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

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Big Finish: Torchwood THE RED LIST Review

Worlds collide. Tony keeps his head down, stays in his hotel room, and waits for this all to blow over.
When there are weird lights in the sky, you expect Torchwood to go and investigate.

When, subsequent to there being weird lights in the sky, a country’s economy, law and order breaks down, you expect Torchwood to go and investigate. Even harder, if possible.

“Outside the government, beyond the police,” right? It’s right there in the tagline.

Now imagine all that happens. Torchwood goes to investigate – annnd is then promptly trapped in a quarantine hotel for the duration, because there’s a pandemic going on out there, in case you haven’t noticed.

That’s a strange dichotomy, to be sure – yes, there’s a job to be done, so you’d expect Mr Colchester (Paul Clayton) to break out of the hotel, conduct his investigation, restore order, and crack on with the business of being Torchwood’s resident Mr Grumpy.

Except, technically, the “right” thing to do is to obey quarantine restrictions and not risk spreading the plague, or indeed contracting it and taking it home.

Except EXCEPT there’s every reason to suspect the government of the country is using the REAL pandemic to engineer a false danger and minimise resistance to its government. If you can’t go out and gather, you can’t safely protest, loot, riot, or get into any rather more Torchwoody trouble – right?

And then of course there are the enigmatic waiters. The enigmatic waiters like Xavier (Manuel Pacific), who are all smiles and helpfulness, but never seem to necessarily do as you ask them to do. And there are the cameras. And the weird little traps in the rooms to make sure you don’t step out of your prescribed lines. And the odd sensation of timelessness, where you can’t quite remember how long you’ve been in your hotel room. And the TV that turns itself on, only to blast propaganda TV at you that you can’t turn off.

Hotel Orwell, anyone?

What you have there is a situation that manages to be both incredibly closed in and minimalist, and not a little creepy. In a sense, it focuses the objectives of The Red List by James Goss down to a single initial goal – escape from the hotel.

That of course is by no means as easy as it would sound in normal circumstances. But it’s made a possibility because of Mr Colchester’s next-door neighbour.

Dorothy McShane (Sophie Aldred) is in town, initially and formally to help with some humanitarian projects as part of her work for A Charitable Earth, and personally because weird lights in the sky and collapsing governments send her Scumbag-Senses tingling like a good ’un. Except she finds herself confined in the same sleek, smiling rat-hole as Torchwood’s Best And Grumpiest, with what is essentially the same set of problems. The smooth but unhelpful waiters. The room-traps. The inability to get the hell out of the hotel, enforced by rather more than the will to be a good, responsible citizen.

What then unfolds is a fascinating character-journey for the two of them. Initially no fan of Torchwood and its ways, Dorothy (or Ace as fans will know her) has to come to some arrangement with Mr Colchester based on both their similar problems and their interest in the alien. A mutual interest in crosswords allows them to communicate in a covert way while speaking out loud, and when she’s free to do so, Dorothy shares a little of the wonder – and the pressure - of travel in time and space with the ex-soldier.

What there isn’t, for the largest part of the story, is any noticeable forward motion. The whole point about setting the story during one of the interminable lockdowns is that the usual markers by which you’d count off the progression of the story are missing. Usually, either Colchester or McShane alone would be quite able to deal with the situation in front of them, but in being confined to quarters, they’re both extremely limited in the range of their actions, either alone or together.

That sense of a closed-in world – and what it potentially does to your mind over time – is extremely well evoked here, creeping in like a fog and leading to an initially institutionalised acceptance of a truncated life and options.

When McShane and Colchester finally start to get somewhere (and no, we’re absolutely not going to tell you what makes the difference – in any case, there are a couple of triggers and revelations), we’re fairly far into the story, and we end the episode with the two of them in the hotel lobby, walking confidently towards the door.

But then –

No, likewise, we’re not going to blow the ending for you. It’s an ending worth hearing for yourself, without having it spoiled for you by some reviewer. The point of which is that after the longest time spent as a character piece, an odd couple drama with only the leavening of the characters’ natural humour to lift it, when it kicks off, The Red List REALLY kicks off, finding its Inner Tarantino and playing like a high-stakes thriller movie.

What you get here then is a realistic evocation of the sense of lockdown inertia and the shrinking world it brings with it. A sense that important, world-changing things are going on out there and that neither St John Colchester nor Dorothy McShane can do a single thing about it – at least unless they can get out of the quarantine hotel. And the sense of a largely contained adventure with that single, simple goal to get out of the hotel of traps. Whatever comes next is on the outside of those doors.

That makes The Red List feel like it should be – and in fact, like it was PLANNED to be – the first part of an occasional series telling a larger overall story. Whether that’s the case or not, we couldn’t tell you, but what is absolutely certain is that by the end of The Red List, you want more of Colchester and McShane together.

Yes, the worlds of Torchwood and Doctor Who have intersected plenty of times before, but this is something a little special. Dorothy McShane – the grown-up version of the Ace we still know and love and gladly listen to stories about – is a creation who’s come upon us little by little. A line in Russell T Davies’ Sarah Jane Adventures. A subsequent appearance in Farewell, Sarah Jane, a tribute to the remarkable journalist and travelling companion, also written by Davies. A fantastic, concise trailer for the Season 26 blu-ray collection. And a full novel, written by Sophie Aldred, that brought the grown-up Dorothy and her work with A Charitable Earth to life.

This advance into audio adventures, and Torchwood audio adventures at that, feels like an extra step forward for the character and the 21st century version of her destiny (she’s had a few – killed in one, sent to Gallifrey in another, and so on). It feels like there could well be room for McShane as a post-Doctor grown-up to have any number of future audio adventures in this older incarnation, and in her own right.

Certainly, Dorothy McShane is a more tempered person than the Ace we know. But just as we can love various versions of the Doctor, so we can absolutely appreciate both the young gung-ho Ace, the developing Ace in her Gallifrey destiny, and this altogether impressive characterisation of her as someone trying to do good work and improve the lives of her fellow earthlings.

The Red List is a tantalising audio drama with just enough humour to grease its storytelling wheels without ever breaking the tension of the situation it presents. Dorothy McShane has enough of the young Ace and enough of something new and equally vibrant to make you want a LOT more of her, and Mr Colchester is the driest of joys any time he features in an audio. The situation is taut and gets more frightening as it goes along, and The Red List leaves you on a hell of a cliff-hanger. More of these two – both together and separately – would only be a good thing, and The Red List brings together two chunks of the 21st century extended Doctor Who universe in a way that’ll give you a grin you won’t be able to shift for a week.

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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