On a cold, dark and rain-lashed night in the Welsh hinterlands, solitary traveller Hywel Roberts seeks respite on a gruelling road journey home to see his dying father. The desolate roadside hotel he pulls up at has just one remaining free room, which the weary young man gratefully accepts. He soon discovers however, that he may have made a fateful error, as he learns that this hotel offers no protection at all from the terrors that can come at night.
This is the disturbing set-up for the latest release in the Big Finish Torchwood special range. This instalment does not feature any members of the Torchwood group, but instead brings back into focus the villainous Bilis Manger; first introduced in the TV episode Captain Jack Harkness. Taking on the roles of concierge, receptionist and barman, Manger introduces Roberts to the threadbare and rather depressing facilities on offer, and continually reappears as his visitor encounters other wraith-like residents whose connections with the real world seem tenuous and whose personal timelines appear to be tangled.
What begins with a sense of unease and foreboding, develops into a series of increasingly disconcerting events as the hotel’s latest guest comes to regret his decision and looks for ways to make his excuses and leave. But can the explanations and warnings of his persuasive host be trusted, and is there any chance that Roberts will reach his estranged father in time for a deathbed reunion?
These special episodes always provide a little more experimental leeway, and it’s a measure of Big Finish’s confidence in the Torchwood range that they’re willing to focus a story on a series’ villain, albeit a well-regarded one, untroubled by the efforts of The Hub’s finest to thwart their latest scheme. With none of the jokes, double-entendres or knowing pop-culture references that are the shared vocabulary of team Torchwood, this is a more traditional spook-fest. It’s the kind of story that would fit seamlessly into a ghostly anthology or an old-school horror portmanteau. There’s more than a hint of Sapphire & Steel in the fractured timeline of a place beyond the norm, and more than a touch of Hammer House of Horror in the gruesome and macabre undercurrents of the main storyline.
Murray Melvin brings a brilliant sense of texture to the character of Manger; combining guile, duplicity and malevolence with a great deal of self-assured charm. Gareth Pierce is great too as the self-doubting everyman Roberts; first incredulous at his bad luck, then increasingly alarmed at his worsening predicament. Cara Chase is also fantastic as the frail but insistent Grace, a fellow guest and Roberts’ neighbour.
Sound design is extremely effective. With its cramped and gloomy interior setting, and the constant sound of lashing rain, it’s an intimate and claustrophobic listen through which you can almost taste the damp and the dust in this neglected and dysfunctional residence. The rich soundscape also includes one of the more inventive ‘dripping tap’ motifs that you’ll have heard for some time.
This is a deliciously creepy standalone audio, and while it occupies a canonical space within the Torchwood universe, it’s not a story that’s integral to it. To put it another way, it would take very few changes, other than a bit of additional exposition, to detach this story entirely from its Torchwood moorings. That’s meant as an observation rather than anything approaching a criticism. This remains an unsettling tale that delivers both unexpected chills and a darkly brooding atmosphere.