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Torchwood: Iceberg review

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Hospitals and medical facilities have become regular ‘go to’ locations in Big Finish’s monthly Torchwood audio range. With patients beholden to the doctors treating them, there’s always the potential for that power imbalance to lead to unexpected outcomes. Latest release “Iceberg” takes that kind of clinical concept and injects a dose of mystery and suspense into it. Things develop quickly as a highly unusual threat-to-life demands a very unorthodox treatment.

Owen Harper is one of the Hub’s most complex and conflicted team members. His gruff and sometimes dismissive exterior belies a more complex inner-life. He’s someone who struggles with emotional openness, and who tends to deflect his anxieties through humour, bluff or sarcasm. That means that stories focusing on Harper can be especially interesting when they explore the consequences of the tensions in his nature – particularly under the added pressure of crisis conditions.

Early hours

In the early hours of the morning, Owen arrives at a Cardiff hospital at the request of an old friend, and former medical colleague. Left to fend alone on the night-shift, Amira Hussein hopes for Owen’s insight into a phenomenon affecting dozens of patients on her wards. Those suffering the unusual condition drift in and out of a deep coma. When they awake, they report that they can visualise the presence of a dead family member. More than that, they say they can converse with this apparition of their dearly departed.

As Owen diagnoses the first patient, his personal history with Amira complicates things for them both. It was “Fragments”, the twelfth episode of the second Torchwood TV series, that revealed the story of Owen’s devastating personal loss: the death of his fiancée Katie. Amira complains that Owen “ghosted” her, despite her being a close friend, rebuffing her attempts to reach out to him. Owen is worried that Amira’s self-doubt is affecting her confidence as a medical practitioner, as she forgets some of the basics of her training.

Forensic scrutiny

These early scenes set up an intriguing framework for a story that then unfolds in some surprising ways. The interactions between Owen and Amira are the pivot for the whole drama. Burn Gorman is on fantastic form here, channelling Owen’s trademark passionate, arrogant, insufferable and glorious self. He puts Amira under forensic scrutiny about her increasingly implausible explanations for what is happening under her watch.

As Amira, Maya Saroya is a fabulous antagonist for Owen. As her situation worsens, her character’s focus switches back-and-forth between her medical obligations and her concern for Owen’s emotional health. Third cast member Lowri Walton is great too, in the role of the young and feisty patient Lucy Shepherd. Her relationship with her locum doctor becomes more combative as she recognises the seriousness of her predicament.

Night time sounds

Iain Meadows’ sound design evokes the night time sounds of a hospital ward with great effectiveness, adding to the sense of these characters’ isolation from the wider world. Blair Mowat’s edgy and pared back musical score reinforces that atmosphere, adding to the sense of unease.

It’s difficult to say and more about the way that the story develops without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that as the layers are pulled back, Owen’s diagnosis of the disease changes dramatically. Amidst that medical drama, Owen reveals some of the emotional hurt that he has worked so hard to disguise. It’s an exercise in “opening up” which allows Gorman a rare chance to explore Owen’s vulnerability. But as the night unfolds, the strength and sense of purpose at the core of his nature reasserts itself.

Grace Knight’s impressive script blends a cleverly-crafted thriller with some sharply written dialogue. The metaphor of the story’s title is also deftly woven into the plot’s gradual reveal. It’s part of what positions “Iceberg” very much at the serious, hard sci-fi end of the Torchwood continuum, through a tale that does not flinch from depicting the darker moral ambiguities of the team’s work.

Torchwood: Iceberg is available to buy now, in CD and digital download format, from the Big Finish site.