The third in the new series of Doctor Who monster themed Torchwood specials teams the unlikely duo of Susie Costello and Margaret Blaine, who are thrown together to deal with an unexpected alien incursion that threatens to rain down death and destruction on the planet.
Costello was the former second-in-command at the Hub, who hid her own selfish, murderous intentions, while senior MI5 officer Blaine was killed by Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen who used her skin as the disguise which allowed her to operate unrecognised, along with her compatriots.
Both are drawn to the crash-site of an alien craft, each armed with a hidden agenda they are determined to hide from the other. Any hopes that the UFO might provide salvation for either one of them are soon dashed, and when it becomes clear that deadly warp missiles have locked in on the ship’s signature the pair must cooperate if they are to save themselves, the wholly unaware inhabitants of Cardiff, and a good chunk of the western hemisphere.
Amongst Who fans, opinions about the Slitheen remain keenly contested. There are many who see the Slitheen as the Jar-Jar Binks of the Who universe; the least welcome monsters in the Who pantheon. And then there are those who don’t like them very much. Some of the most acerbic critics have suggested that there is an inverse correlation between the age of the Who enthusiast and the degree of interest in the Slitheen (i.e. the older the fan, the lower the Slitheen tolerance level).
Whatever the truth of those assertions, it’s still a bold choice by Big Finish to pick the Slitheen out from what is a very long list of candidate antagonists for a Who–Torchwood mash-up. There are two things which make this decision pay-off very successfully. Firstly, the focus is on the Slitheen’s incarnation as Blaine (a la Boom Town from the Ecclestone era), which means that it’s Annette Badland’s winning performance as the charlatan mayor that’s in the spotlight and not the “digestively challenged” Slitheen themselves. Secondly, both Costello and Blaine are devious and untrustworthy characters, who hide their real intentions beneath layers of misdirection and deceit – which, in the situation of a life-and-death crisis, makes this pairing rich with dramatic potential.
While the threat of looming disaster provides the story’s sense of peril, Lisa McMullin’s well-paced and well-crafted script concentrates on the sparring and squabbling of these strong-willed characters, who gradually bicker their way to a kind of mutual understanding as each reveals something of their true nature to the other. It’s a great McGuffin to have the pair forced to remain together by the grip of an alien device which threatens to kill them both if they separate.
What enhances the sense of the duo both being clandestine outsiders is that they have to rely entirely on their own skills and resources, as they evade the attentions of the authorities, the police and team Torchwood – who are on their heels at every turn. As they run for their lives, others are left to suffer the consequences of their actions in their wake (and, not for the first time, both of them sidestep any sense of culpability for that).
Despite the short run-time and the amount of incident crammed into the story, there is still the feeling that this shared predicament is impacting on the psyche of both of these duplicitous characters, and even maybe shifting their worldview as a result (if only temporarily). Varma and Badland make for a great double-act, and there’s a natural chemistry between the two actors that lights-up this cleverly conceived story.