The much-loved character of Sergeant Andy Davidson takes centre stage in this latest monthly Torchwood audio release from Big Finish. Red Base is a blend of sci-fi caper and whodunnit, which sees Andy dispatched to investigate unexplained deaths on the Mars colony at Starr Base.
What makes this personable Welsh copper’s task a little easier is that the base is an Earth-bound experimental facility, located in a quarry (where else) in Neath, just off the A474. Paid for by an independent entrepreneur, Starr Base is designed to test how a mission crew might respond to long periods of close-contact isolation in deep-space. It also provides an opportunity to see how well the high-end technology functions, and in particular to ascertain if the base’s artificial intelligence system (named Dave) can learn to support and protect the on-board team.
The reality of Mars
To help to recoup costs, and to excite public interest in an upcoming Mars mission, life on the base has become the subject of a reality TV show. But with the funder’s interest in the project waning, the whole premise of the experiment is under threat. And that’s before the bodies start piling up.
Writer James Goss has drawn inspiration from a number of different genre sources. The idea of a space crew being put in jeopardy by the commercial protocols of “the company” that’s paying the bills is strongly reminiscent of set-up in Alien. The notion of a reality TV show being taken off air, but continuing to disintegrate in unseen isolation, invites comparison with the calamitous 2016 Channel 4 series Eden (and perhaps in a differently dysfunctional way, Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set).
An AI putting astronauts in danger, either because of its programming (Ash in Alien) or after it degenerates (the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey), is now a familiar trope of high-concept science-fiction). Hallmarks of all of these are evident in Red Base. In addition, Andy takes on the role of Cardiff’s answer to Hercule Poirot, sifting through the clues while trying not to become the latest victim of the hidden killer in their midst.
Paranoia and anxiety
The opening sequence, which shows Andy arriving on the “surface of Mars” provides a witty and neatly-executed gambit. Soon after arriving, he’s entangled with the uncooperative and unnerving AI and the small, jittery crew. The surviving astronauts are friendly enough, but they’re all gripped in different ways by paranoia and anxiety. Suspicions abound, and Andy’s attention is soon drawn towards the motivations of one crew member in particular. The investigation unfolds with a good sense of pace and with some interesting plot twists.
Goss ensures that the small ensemble of characters imprisoned on the base are clearly differentiated, and the performances by the guest cast are all on point. However, the setting and premise impacts on how far Sgt Davidson is able to interact with these individuals. Andy is a gregarious, unassuming soul who has an open and endearing nature. Much of the drama of his contribution to the Torchwood universe comes from those times when Andy is confronted by circumstances far outside of his comfort zone.
But the team locked inside Starr Base are (for good reason) emotionally and psychologically shut off, and reluctant to open up to a stranger. So, while Andy can demonstrate empathy and decency (and a little bit of bravery) it’s hard for him to get much out of his encounters with his fellow “astronauts”, even as he solves the mystery. It’s as well then that the plot is sufficiently strong to carry the drama to a convincing conclusion.