November’s monthly Torchwood story pulls the spotlight away from the main Hub crew to push the focus back in the direction of the malevolent, machiavellian manipulator Bilis Manger. Last heard of in the deliciously dark Deadbeat Escape back in August 2018, Manger has lost none of his nefarious charms by the time the events of Dead Man’s Switch get underway.
The title is lifted from the name of the safety device installed on railway engines to ensure a train comes to a controlled stop if the driver is incapacitated. This being a Torchwood tale premised on Manger’s talents as a schemer and a twister, that title also references the story’s deadly undercurrent.
Dead Man’s Switch is a carefully constructed homage to the cinematic horror portmanteau brought to 1970s’ movie screens by the likes of Amicus and Hammer. Resisting the obvious temptation to parody (ground already covered so effectively in Steve Coogan’s Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible), this audio evocation of the all-in-one spooky anthology plays it completely straight. Characters refer to the dubious choices people in horror stories seem to make so frequently, but these come across as respectful nods to the rules of the genre rather than an attempt to poke fun at them.
Strangers on a train
Events unfold in a train carriage sat on the rails somewhere near Cardiff. Three strangers wake from their slumbers in a state of confusion about how they embarked on this unexpected journey. Their companion, a polite and attentive gentlemen of indeterminate years, encourages them to recount the story of the last thing each of them remembers before discovering themselves aboard the train.
This classic framing device is put to good use, as each of the characters relates the series of unfortunate events that led them to this fateful encounter. Scriptwriter David Llewellyn has the proven ability to turn his talents to all kinds of Torchwood scenarios. It’s pleasing to report that he sidesteps the recurring danger of portmanteau storytelling to ensure each of the short tales his three protagonists share is both intriguing and of substance.
It’s down to street-smart antique dealer Rowena (beautifully voiced by Maxine Evans) to open the proceedings. Her sharp practice at an auction ensures that she lands the winning bid for an elegant mirror. When she shuns a lucrative offer from her unsuccessful competitor to take it off her hands, Rowena finds that she has bought into more than she bargained for. It’s a creepy tale, greatly enhanced by Blair Mowat’s subtle but unsettling score and what becomes a recurring musical motif: the plaintive refrains of Beethoven’s “Midnight” piano sonata.
Ruthless property developer Piers (brought to life in a spirited turn by Timothy Blore) finds his comeuppance when he ignores the advice of a quiet shopkeeper evicted to make way for Pier’s latest money-making scheme. While, at the other end of the Cardiff income scale, heartbroken Zoe (a performance of real texture and honesty from Mali Ann Rees) disregards her likeable neighbour’s words of caution. When she confronts some unwanted guests in her building, the outcome is far from that she expects. The testimonies of both characters are equally effective forays into the realm of the unnerving and the unedifying.
The puppet master
As anyone who’s encountered Bilis Manger before will know, there’s a puppet master controlling the fate of these individuals. Melvin Murray can be relied on to bring out the full range of Manger’s chameleon-like character through some first-rate vocalisation. There’s even more potential than normal in this story for him to explore the different personas he adopts in pursuit of what remains an opaque agenda.
Not everyone will enjoy a Torchwood story set on the fringes of that universe in which no series’ regulars appear. Yet this comes recommended as a self-contained collection of smart, spooky tales, ideal for those darkening autumnal evenings. Had the schedule allowed it, Dead Man’s Switch could have been very suitably swapped with last month’s Smashed to become an ideal pre-Halloween release. Depending on your mode of travel, you still might not want to listen to it on your commute home even now…
Torchwood: Dead Man’s Switch is available, in CD and download formats, from the Big Finish site.