Big Finish: TORCHWOOD: SUCKERS Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad


Tony’s getting tentacular

There are times in the main Torchwood range from Big Finish where storytellers and actors push against the boundaries of anything like comfort. Stories like Corpse Day, by James Goss, The Hope…also, by no means coincidentally by James Goss…they push against the boundaries of our safe, entertainment mindset and go into the realms of the seriously creepy and the poignant, making us squirm with an ick factor that gets under the skin, both in terms of the nasties against which Torchwood must fight and in terms of the society in which we live.

Welcome to Creepout Club, Alexander Stewart, writer of Suckers.

Reasons To Be Creeped Out

Number 1, even from the cover art by Sean Longmore, this story is enough to send shudders (not to say slithers) down your spine, because it features mind-sucking space octopi – than which, you’re free to create your own creepier imaginary creature. We’ll wait – from a blanket fort in the corner, quivering and rocking gently.

Number 2, it takes place in a psychiatric hospital, which is riiiight on the knife-edge border between ridiculously brave and downright foolhardy in terms of getting the tone both right from the drama, and accurately reflective for people who’ve seen one from the inside.

Number 3, it doubles down on its bravery by addressing issues of institutional racism in the treatment of mental health issues – which you as the listener will have no reason to know about unless you’ve experienced it yourself. We ask only one favour – when you come up against it, go with it. Believe it. Don’t do the Disappointing White People thing and claim everything’s getting woke. Let the message in, rather than being the reason the lesson is necessary.

Thank you.

Competing Realities

Moving on – as a story, this is a multi-layered creation. On the first and simplest level, there’s a monstrous and shocking story of a relatively modern mental health facility with both an alien and a knowingly racist solution to troublesome patients. That’s the level on which the story probably stays with you longest once you’ve finished listening to it, because while Alexander Stewart does good service to the science fictionalizing of the ultimate threat (we mentioned the mind-sucking space octopi, right?), the fundamentals of the outrage the story generates are rooted in real prejudice in the UK mental health system. To quote Mind, “If one examines routes to treatment you will see that Black people are 40% more likely to access treatment through a police or criminal justice route, less likely to receive psychological therapies, more likely to be compulsorily admitted for treatment, more likely to be on a medium or high secure ward and be more likely to be subject to seclusion or restraint (56.2 per 100,000 population for Black Caribbean as against 16.2 per 100,000 population for white).”

That real world discrimination is shown in Suckers through the prism of a hospital with a mental health equivalent of solitary confinement from which no-one ever returns, and a massively casual over-medication of specifically black patients. That would be bad enough in its own right, but the medication has a horrifying effect, which we’re not going to spoiler for you, because when you learn it in the story, it will punch you sideways.

So there’s powerful, point-making storytelling here on even its base level. Where the story adds extra layers of dramatic power is in the constant and necessary second-guessing it deploys. Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori) has been despatched to the hospital by a pre-Gwen version of Torchwood, before it became a dysfunctional family. She’s unsure of herself, unsure of her past, and when we join her in Suckers, she’s unsure of her present, too.

Jacked up on medication and treated as an in-patient, this is not the super-quick Tosh of, say, Rossa McPhillips’ recent War Chest. This is Tosh with her defences almost all the way down. Without the help of a new arrival, it’s actively doubtful she’d get out of the hospital alive. Because she’s in a mental health facility for talking about aliens – as newcomer Shireen Afzal (Emma Kaler) points out, that’s weird in itself. You’re not necessarily a danger to yourself or others because you believe in aliens – any web search will find you plenty of people who talk with absolute conviction about their belief in alien encounters.

But the dissonance between reality and drug-induced paranoia and self-doubt means you follow Tosh back and forth across the dividing line of Torchwood’s reality and her own potential delusions many times before the story ends.

Shireen Afzal, by the way – a superb character, given an enormous energy by Enna Kaler (of whom, lashing more would be much appreciated, o casting gods of Big Finish). She’s undeniably got the issues that have found her bounced from hospital to hospital, and the drama never really shies away from those issues, but while Tosh is uncertain and hazy on the medication she’s given, Shireen has enough about her first to be wildly dismissive of her stories, and then, when things start to make sense, to be a champion for Tosh’s point of view, even as Tosh herself loses conviction in the alien theory step by step.

In another timeline, Shireen could totally be a Torchwood member – or a companion of the Doctor’s, come to that – and she completely galvanizes Tosh back to her naturally brilliant self, even though it takes a lot to get her there.

Complex Characterization

This is by no means just a which-layer-of-reality-is-real double-hander, though. Linda Armstrong puts in a strong and plausible performance as Felicia Haynes, who runs the facility. For longstanding Who-fans, think of the self-justifying efficiency of Matron Cofelia from Partners In Crime, matched with the refined and cynical cruelty of Priti Patel (the irony of which is sweetened in a story that hinges on institutional racism).

And would-be nurse Steffan Blayney lets Dylan Jones add some human shades of grey to the whole piece, as a man in desperate need of a career to support his unwell mother, but who makes those step-by-step compromises with evil that are all too common in a system under pressure. While he may never have understood the true horror of the hospital, what he believed was going on would be enough to condemn him for his part in it on any objective day. But in systems under pressure, there’s never any such thing as an objective day, and his change of heart as the story goes on at least allows us to entertain his redemption, as well as giving Tosh a way to turn the tables on a mortifyingly unjust system.

The Horror of an Ending

There’s that, too. Torchwood has always been advertised as for adult audiences, with mature and disturbing themes. If the mental health facility setting, the mind-sucking space octopi, and the should-be-staggering racism isn’t enough to clue you in to the fact that we’re in uncomfortable territory here, the ending – in fact, both of two notional endings – will do the job. Tosh, once she gets out from under the oppressive system at the hospital, goes a bit ‘Time Lord Victorious,’ allowing events to run their course, which absolutely gets people killed. She does it as a form of retribution for all the wrongs done in the place, and she does it with an iron-hard lack of vacillation. Toshiko Sato Victorious, it turns out, is intensely hardcore.

And the postscript ending, which we’re absolutely not about to spoil for you, delivers a summation that feels both absolutely sick and entirely realistic.

Suckers is a Torchwood story that will boil your blood and make you want to rage – against a mental health system that lets people down, against governments who underfund it and pressurize it so it has no option BUT to let people down, and against callous racists most of all. It’s a complex, emotionally engaging, multi-layered story that will hit you hard, make you cry, and stoke your determination to burn the world down and start again from scratch. All while fighting mind-sucking space octopi in South Wales.

The Verdict

Suckers gives you way more than you may have been bargaining for, and it gives it to you through an A++ script, some superb performances, and a creeping multi-level horror in the best traditions of the most challenging Torchwood. There have been lots of great Torchwood stories in 2022, but this is something on a whole other level. Go get it, before the Suckers get you…

Torchwood: Suckers is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 October 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad