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

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Big Finish: Torchwood THE EMPIRE MAN Review

Tony pops a mint imperial.

There’s either a tradition, or certainly what feels like a tradition, of dropping back in time to Queen Victoria, founder of the original Torchwood Institute, for festive scares at Big Finish. 


If it isn’t ACTUALLY a tradition yet, there’s no doubt that it should be, because Victoria is intrinsically linked with both the customs of Christmas as they have come down to us, and to a societal love of spine-tingling ghost stories and gothic horror. The likes of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the works of Sheridan Le Fanu and MR James, are all eminently Victorian shudders, speaking to the dualistic nature of the age – scientific progress and rationalism meets ruralist superstition and mystic forces.


If that’s your bag, pull up a chair, because it’s very squarely the territory in which Torchwood: The Empire Man, by Jonathan Barnes, lands us.


Telling Stories

It’s the night of Christmas Eve, and Queen Victoria (Rowena “can now do this with her eyes closed” Cooper) is meeting with her unconventional aide, Mr Castringham (the ever-reliable Hugh Fraser), and her relatively new and thankfully unnamed Prime Minister (Richard David-Caine).


With an hour to go before Christmas Day, the time is ripe, says the queen, to tell ghost stories – and she will, as is her right, lead the way.


As the night ticks on, what you get for your money here is a triptych of stories, each from one of the characters’ points of view, and each in a somewhat different horror style. The queen tells a tale of being a young girl who ran amok in a forest, although technically under the control of a local nurse (enter Patience Tomlinson, mistress of accents). 


She hears the approach of Romans, and is drawn into a wonderfully evocative sonic nightmare of panic and chase as “the Emperor’s Man” is said to want her. The Emperor’s Man is a warrior from the days of ancient Rome’s conquest of Britain, who thrives to this day in the dark wood as a figure of folk horror. That’s the tone of the queen’s tale – classic folk horror, of the kind that would not be out of place in a Hammer film, but which of course has roots that go back to rural tales of supernatural powers and authorities that cannot be crossed… or escaped.


Intertwining Tales

Castringham’s tale takes a different tone. He’s been interested in mysticism and spiritualistic endeavours for years, and relates an MR James-style story of a trip to a seaside hotel in which he is at the time the only guest. The joy of this is that Jonathan Barnes does due diligence and varies the tone to match the nature of its teller and the type of horror, so there’s more description, more clammy, creeping, wait-for-it pauses before delving straight into something Jamesish, with a touch of Lovecraft round the edges, all centring on an unpleasant, out-of-place piece of furniture with some unusual origins.


And finally the Prime Minister, who styles himself as an arch-rationalist, and usefully punctures the first two tales a few times to point out quite how anodyne they could be if stripped of adrenaline, imagination and suggestibility, takes his turn. While never having time for all that superstitious nonsense, he is not a man without hobbies. He’s a dedicated numismatist – a collector of ancient coins – and he tells the story of one particular coin he had in his collection, which seemed to bring him both good fortune and advancement, and yet at the same time to swamp him in nightmares and anxiety. 


One particular… Roman… coin. The coin of the Empire Man.


While there might seem nothing but storytelling here, Barnes is a much better writer than that. There are intertwinings between the three separate stories, meaning each of the tale-tellers has their own encounter with this figure of the Empire Man. But this is also a Queen Victoria story – and one thing to keep firmly in front of you whenever you embark on a Queen Victoria Torchwood story is that there’s more going on than the old lady will ever at first let you know.


A Killer Twist

Even if you go into The Empire Man aware of that, the writing and the playing is such that, despite the increasingly obvious fact that all three of the protagonists have had an encounter with the title character (a fact neatly if subtly underlined by Patience Tomlinson appearing in different roles throughout the running time of the adventure), you won’t by any means guess the REASON why the queen has gathered them together on Christmas Eve until Jonathan Barnes determines that you will, so you get a last act whiplash moment of “Wait, whaaaat?” that you won’t see coming.


Even though we’ve now told you you’re getting it.


When the reveal comes, it’s unmistakably shocking, not so much in itself, but in Victoria’s reaction to it, and you’ll end the story with the nodding approval of the idea that when it comes to early Torchwood, you’d have to get up fairly early to find a better investigator than the queen herself. 


If there’s one thing that you have to understand about The Empire Man though, it’s that it’s very much an adventure in ghost story and horror forms. It’s distinctly a tale of tales, and even when things unravel into their conclusion towards the end, it doesn’t reach out beyond the confines of an audio story and shake you for hours afterwards, as, for instance, The Lincolnshire Poacher may well do. 


The Empire Man is the perfect Christmas present – it’s Behind The Sofa scary, rather than Keep The Lights On scary. Keep that in mind and don’t expect it to come chasing after you through your own dreams, and what you have in The Empire Man is a handful of excellent chills in some understood styles, all wrapped up with a Torchwood, Queen Victorian bow. And there’s not a single scary Roman thing wrong with that.

Torchwood: The Empire Man is exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 28 February 2023, 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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