The self-help industry in the UK is thriving, a beneficiary of increasingly uncertain times. The personal self-help recording, voiced by pop psychologists or celebrities, has long been a key platform for the distribution of behavioural advice. It is something that has brought solace, reassurance and encouragement to countless listeners.
Yet, for sceptics of “guided audio self-improvement”, there is something innately unsettling about the “self-help tape” (the format began on cassette many decades ago). This style of therapy encourages the “patient” to explore intimate aspects of their own psychology and make-up, while the pre-recorded “clinician” dispenses generic, non-interactive advice. In this situation, it’s not just that the doctor won’t see you now, it’s that the doctor is completely unaware of your response to their programme of self-betterment.
Far from reassuring
It is this far from reassuring disconnect that inspires this brilliant single-voice Big Finish audio drama set in the Torchwood universe. In this tale of “audiobook possession”, instruction is not provided pre-recorded, but in real-time. “The Voice” dispensing these words does not have this patient’s best interests at heart. In fact, they want to use the therapy session to manipulate them into completing a secret mission, by using Tropical Beach Sounds as a vehicle for their nefarious intent. That will mean thwarting team Torchwood’s efforts to stop them, and bringing chaos to The Hub.
In a casting coup, the producers enticed ex-Python, and soon-to-be-anointed “national treasure”, Sir Michael Palin to provide the narrator’s voice. Palin is a fantastic vocal actor, whose sonorous tones would entertain the listener if he were reading a printer instruction manual. What’s especially effective about his work here is his ability to shift between the calm and encouraging voice of the instructor to the darker and manipulative manner of the schemer.
Palin freely admits in the in-studio interview that the world of Torchwood was unknown to him when he began work on this audio. You’d never know it from the way his character is quickly immersed in the dynamics and goings-on of the Hub. Palin’s narrator is able to traverse Torchwood’s HQ in a way that allows him to voice a critical outsider’s view of the members of the team as they go about their work unaware they are being observed and assessed.
This is one of several fantastic conceits in Tim Foley’s extraordinarily accomplished script. Foley mines the potential of the “self-help book gone bad” extremely effectively. Telling the story through a “second person” perspective is a brilliant idea. It makes for disconcerting listening because “The Voice” directs his orders, his impatience, his resentment and his scorn directly at the person on the receiving end of this exercise of enforced self-improvement: which means that it feels like his words are targeted at you.
As the drama shifts from tropical beach to subterranean Cardiff and back again, there’s a great sense of mounting tension. Director Scott Handcock shapes the unfolding story with pace and texture. The uncluttered sound design, and the narrator’s barbed assessment of other characters, fill out the piece. Together, those elements give the story the sense of being a populated drama and not simply a narrated audiobook.
Unique amongst the Torchwood audio canon, Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4 will leave you unnerved rather than comforted. But that’s really the point. Take a deep breath, relax and press play.
Torchwood: Tropical Beach Sounds and Other Relaxing Seascapes #4 is available, in CD and digital download formats, from the Big Finish site.