“I’m a bloody truck driver from Cardiff, not Indiana Jones,” protests Rhys Williams as the life-or-death pressure mounts in the fourth instalment of Big Finish’s impressive Doctor Who monster themed Torchwood audio specials. Latest story Sargasso turns the spotlight on the plastic animators of the Nestene Consciousness, who have taken to the high seas in pursuit of their latest nefarious (and probably “single-use”) scheme.
Four stories in to this new audio imprint, it’s evident just how keen Big Finish are to give the mythos and backstory of Who creatures a contemporary spin, drawing in topical ideas from today’s headlines. In the environmental realm, there’s scarcely a more worrying concern than the polluting of the world’s oceans with toxic and non-biodegradable plastic. It’s this alarming state of affairs, and the determination of the Nestene to exploit the manifest opportunities of the crisis, that provides the setting for this latest adventure.
On board a container ship heading out from the UK, Rhys finds himself ‘all at sea’ when the engines shut down and the crew are nowhere to be found. Relieved to locate fellow passenger Kaitlin Russell, a young American environmentalist heading home, the pair discover they are adrift amidst what appears to be the vast and infamous North Atlantic garbage patch. When a lifeboat carrying fleeing crewmen is overwhelmed and sunk by a blanket of plastic ducks, Rhys is able to convince the sceptical Kaitlin that it’s likely that they’re facing a rapacious and highly motivated alien threat.
From the time of the Autons’ first appearance in Jon Pertwee’s debut serial Spearhead From Space in 1970, much of the malevolence of the Nestene’s talents at bringing plastic to life has come from its visual impact. Manifesting something just as powerful using audio alone is a challenging ask. It’s addressed here very effectively, through a combination of first-rate sound design courtesy of Adrian Townsend (the noises of the Nestene’s efforts to forge weapons and tools from the plastic detritus are especially effective) and through the chilling vocalisation of characters who are ‘channelling’ the intent of their polyurethane-twisting masters.
Christopher Cooper’s taut script keeps the focus on the characters of Rhys and Kaitlin who, along with wounded ship’s captain Anika Banaczik (Chloe Ewart), are forced into a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek aboard the sprawling, empty vessel. As they put together an escape plan, the ship’s interiors evoke an unnerving sense of enclosure and claustrophobia (as did the mines of Llanfairfach in second instalment The Green Life), as things build towards a satisfying finale.
Kai Owen always revels in the chance to play Rhys in his ‘everyman action hero’ guise, and he delivers a reliably winning turn here that puts his character’s big-heart and his level-headedness centre stage. His pairing with Sydney Feder’s Kaitlin works well, with Feder offering a committed and sympathetic reading of the understandably unconvinced young traveller who finds herself in the midst of a particularly unexpected type of recycling challenge.
Some savvy listeners are likely to anticipate a couple of the key plot twists ahead of time. Many more are likely to be left nonplussed by artist Lee Binding’s oddly chosen (if very striking) cover image. Such niggles aside, there’s container-loads of fun to enjoy here, with director Scott Handcock exploiting the richness of Cooper’s dialogue, and the great potential of the setting, in what’s a well-executed and well-rendered standalone story. This series of monthly Torchwood–Who monster mash-ups has so far delivered consistent, high quality audio thrills.