Easily the most ambitious Big Finish Originals audio drama to date, conspiracy thriller Transference presents itself as a pretty demanding listen. Weighing in with a total runtime of eight hours, and commanding a significant price tag (for a digital-download-only release), Big Finish are expecting a significant investment from the company’s loyal listeners for what is a new and untested property.
It’s a relief to be able to report then that Transference reveals itself to be a taut and cleverly plotted mystery, which builds its tension through a series of twists and turns as the lives of its protagonists are pulled apart by the hidden hands of puppet masters pulling their strings.
Transference is a kind of hybrid: a blend of the sort of full-cast serial thriller that BBC drama editors would be pleased to commission; and the type of multi-character audiobook which regularly feature in the bestseller lists. It returns the commitment to its substantial running time by offering the listener an enthralling and inventive tale of suspense and subterfuge that is extremely well told.
Psychotherapist Sam Ross has a full roster of patients in her care, but is struggling with her own psychological issues as she deals with the grief of her younger sister’s death. One of her clients, an unsettled young man named Keith, is something of an enigma. His life story changes with each visit, and he has developed an unhealthy interest in Sam’s personal life. She is unsure if he is a fantasist, a serial liar or someone with a serious psychiatric condition. When her best friend Paul, a detective constable in the local force, begins to investigate Keith’s background, he uncovers the first strands of what will become a complex web of connections and causal relationships that will engulf Sam and all of those around her in a life-threatening criminal intrigue.
Reviewing a conspiracy thriller is always difficult, because it’s impossible to summarise the evolution of the intricate plot without spoiling for the listener the series of revelations that make the story so gripping. Suffice to say that this is something of a masterclass in how to construct a compelling dramatic journey across what is a vast audio canvas, retaining focus throughout whilst continually surprising the listener.
Four experienced Big Finish writers bring their collective talents to bear on Transference, with each assigned a pair of linked episodes to work on. Jane Slavin enjoys setting up the character dynamics and the central premise of the story in the first two instalments; Andrew Smith picks up the “copper’s casefile” storyline foregrounded in episodes three and four; Roland Moore relocates the story to recount a tale of seaside shenanigans; before John Dorney draws together the myriad strands of the plot for the impressive showdown explored in the closing two episodes – a cleverly rendered endpoint with a subtle circular reference to the story’s origin. Script editor Matt Fitton does stirling work, ensuring the continuity of characterisation and the integrity of the plot right across this opus.
While there’s a large ensemble cast for Transference, this is very much Alex Kingston’s show, and she delivers the kind of astute, emotionally-literate performance that allows the listener to share in her bewildering and shocking journey of discovery as her entire life is plunged into a world of secret machinations and clandestine collusion. Sam is put through the wringer as the story unfolds, and Kingston explores all of the potential that this fall from normality makes possible. Robert Whitelock finds the humanity, decency and determination that motivates Paul; while Wendy Craig is once again a revelation as Sam’s scheming, corrosive, passive-aggressive mother. It’s important to the unnerving atmosphere of the story that there’s real uncertainty about Keith’s true nature and agenda, and Warren Brown delivers that ambiguity very effectively.
There’s an extensive set of behind-the-scenes interviews, which explore the gestation of the thriller, the story-crafting and writing dynamic, the casting process (which involved signing-up key names before a word of the script had been written) and the experience in the studio. It’s immediately evident from this material how committed everyone involved was to the success of this project. There’s also an isolated version of Joe Kraemer’s atmospheric musical score, the motifs of which are used to punctuate and accent the drama to satisfying effect.
Transference clearly ups the ante of Big Finish’s developing new drama range, not least by its scale as a one-off original. It’s undoubtedly an audacious pitch, but the drama’s reach never exceeds its grasp, and it delivers on the company’s bold declaration of intent. All the signs are good. Now it’s a case of waiting to see if that sense of self-belief transfers to the target audience.