Outbreak

Posted in Audio by - May 09, 2018
Outbreak

Released November 2016
SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

With only a few exceptions, the return of Torchwood to the audio medium through Big Finish has been a resounding success, exploring characters and ideas in both intimate and more overt fashions through its first twelve releases. However, because of the small casts employed, establishing a true sense of scale and scope has remained a difficult task for the range to achieve, a fact mitigated by the continuous presence of the nefarious Committee lurking ominously in the shadows and steering events. Following the intriguing but retrospective series of tales told in ‘The Torchwood Archive,’ Outbreak now arrives with Captain Jack Harkness, Gwen Cooper, Ianto Jones, Rhys Williams, and PC Andy Davidson all present and simultaneously involved to give the truest audio adaptation yet of the event television status that Torchwood achieved during its original run.

In Outbreak, a medical experiment has gone horribly wrong, and one of the test subjects is roaming the streets asking for Torchwood as a virus rapidly spreads and bodies begin building up in the streets. The government clambers to control the outbreak, but nobody in control is keen on the dark secret behind it becoming known. With Cardiff sealed off and murderous mobs marching through its streets, Torchwood has to protect more than just the human race, and Captain Jack Harkness has encountered this particular evil before. Indeed, the first episode in this set, ‘Incubation,’ superbly sets the scene with PC Andy the eyes of the everyman who also represents an authority figure in a world where law and order have quickly become vestiges of the past. With almost every available officer out on the streets and only a skeleton crew of officers at the stations to handle the influx of complaints and reports of violence, the police and the general populace have become overwhelmed and realise quite quickly that this is much more serious than first imagined as reports become known of the presence anti-terrorism units and of roadblocks cordoning off the city and keeping anyone from entering or exiting.

The virus itself has quite a unique form of manifestation as those infected first suffer an intense itching sensation as the virus spreads, then begin hallucinating and developing homicidal thoughts about those that they love, and then finally act on those murderous inclinations. While the set in general doesn’t necessarily show that progression in the general populace and it’s not quite clear if those infected then assuredly die after that final stage, the progression does work to remarkable effect with the leads and absolutely lends an incredible background of danger to Cardiff in general. With medical resources stretched to the their maximum and the government literally putting in place a steel wall around the city, Jack has locked himself up in the Hub, knowing he is infected and trying to protect those around him- Ianto in particular- and giving Outbreak a more personal focus as Rhys tries his best to get into Cardiff to be with and protect his wife.

In ‘Prodromal,’ the relationship between Ianto and the infected Jack gloriously takes centre stage and provides unquestionably the strongest aspect of this set. As Jack begins hallucinating and proclaiming that the mischievous Norton Folgate from the 1950s is involved, Ianto breaks through the quantum locks to be with him. Jack remains lucid enough to warn Ianto that he needs to get away and not even look at him, knowing that he has progressed to stage two, and his only actions soon enough will be to live, love, and kill. Through this, the fascinating glimpses at Jack’s past involvement with this virus add incredible depth to the story even if they may be skewed through Jack’s perspective, and his emotional discussion about what it’s like to be in a room filled with people screaming and crying in fear knowing that they will soon die is wonderfully delivered by John Barrowman, rivaled in intensity quite quickly as he admits to feeling better than those people by knowing that he alone will survive. To him, the burning employed was a mercy since nobody deserved to die by scratching and gouging one’s own eyes out, and he waits to take his revenge on Norton whom he suspects was only acting on higher orders.

As Ianto summons Norton to the present, Norton insists that he wasn’t told what the virus was and suggests that perhaps those in charge didn’t know what would happen. An entire way of life was under attack in the 1950s when the shadow organization Good Thinking developed the virus intended to identify bad thoughts. A small group of death row inmates was supposed to be the initial test group with hopes of rehabilitating them into model citizens, but there were so many bad thoughts around that it all went horribly wrong with no antidote except burning. Norton supposes he may have saved the world by stopping the outbreak, but he then reveals that he handed the virus over to the government as ordered. While all of this information is absolutely pertinent to the plot, Jack’s harrowing and dangerous pursuit of Ianto through the Hub as Norton influences events from the past and constantly switches sides between the two is the standout sequence of this audio range to date. With bone saws, guns, and all manner of weapons involved as Ianto does his best to stay one step ahead in the confined environment, Ianto must also come to terms with the fact that the first time he has ever heard Jack earnestly tell him he loves him has been on the day that Jack wants to kill him. Jack has killed loved ones before and knows that he’ll have to live with the remorse of killing Ianto, but he still can’t stop himself from giving in to the virus’s influence, and the ultimate safeguard that floods the area with poisonous gas looks more and more enticing as the personal danger continues to escalate.

Gwen succumbs to the infection she has tried so hard to stave off in ‘Invasion,’ and though her chase of Rhys who has finally broken into Cardiff isn’t quite as effective as the more confined pursuit that preceded it, it firmly proves that nobody is safe and again amplifies the overall tension amidst this dangerous backdrop while giving both Eve Myles and Kai Owen ample opportunity to shine, the former as her most base instincts are explored and the latter as he refuses to give up on his wife. The pursuit wisely ends in dangerous and harmful fashion despite a rather easy resolution before Gwen joins the growing revolution, but it’s quite telling and fitting with the placement of this set between series two and Children of Earth that nobody has ever been happier to be the victim of an attempted murder than Rhys is here.

As reports of breaches in the steel ring become known, the enigmatic Frances Goldaming tells the public that a vaccine has been made available in short supply and that those who bring forth an infected family member can be saved. What she keeps hidden is that this cure is the result of untested experimenting with the Good Thinking nanovirus components that is filled with buggy code, a solution that could counteract the original virus but one that could also synergise with the original and amplify its scope. With Jack captured and his blood taken for testing and experimentation, he understands more than anyone what is occurring here, and he seeks out the data stores stemming from this new virus’s mode of action. Trying to sway public opinion by reporting that Cardiff has been the subject of a chemical attack, Goldaming attempts to get out in front of the news by proclaiming that her cure is not a mind control drug and that it will be slowly rolled out to all of the UK because of the individuals who have broken through the barriers and quarantine. As the infected are piled up to die, she assures everyone that those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear, but the true danger of being a good-thinking citizen becomes clear even to her in due course as the notions of the anti-vaccination movement are put into entirely new context.

The conclusion to Outbreak is a bit anti-climactic given its reliance on Jack and his unique properties that allow him to effectively erase the virus, but the continued exploration of the friction existing between Norton and Jack as the two people who survived the initial outbreak and understood implicitly that someone would try to unleash the virus again, thus resulting in Jack’s ability to activate a Trojan horse, is suitably intriguing. It’s not fair to expect Outbreak to reach the incredible highs of Children of Earth, and the setting, supporting characters, and villainous plot all seem somewhat less developed and well-rounded than those at Torchwood’s height on television. Still, the use of humour to help underscore the dark and dangerous threat is as wonderfully employed as ever, and though there is an imbalance in the use of different characters in a story that would form a tightly-paced two-parter, Outbreak as a whole is well-acted and well-directed and represents an exciting suggestion of what is possible with full-cast serials under Big Finish’s guidance.

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