Something that has been really good to see in the Torchwood range is the expansion of characters that Big Finish have been playing with. We’ve seen the return of Yvonne Hartman and Torchwood One, seen what Ianto’s life was like before we knew him, seen PC Andy get some much-needed exploration, the further adventures of Gwen and Rhys, the list goes on. One of the best ideas the range ever had was to include stories from Torchwood’s creator, Queen Victoria. Save Our Souls sees Rowena Cooper make her tremendous return to the character.
Rowena Cooper has been playing Queen Victoria in Big Finish since 2016’s Torchwood release, The Victorian Age. Since then she’s played the monarch in a further five outings, including the finale of Jago and Litefoot. A further story, The Crown is set for release in December 2020.
Save our Souls, written by Scott Handcock sees Queen Victoria arriving on an island where the inhabitants of a lighthouse have been conducting experiments with the supernatural and built a machine which can receive messages from ‘The Other Side’. Along with Victoria, there are four other people, all of whom receive warnings, because all but one is doomed to die.
Handcock makes sure that Victoria is strong right off the bat and listening to the CD extras at the end, director Lisa Bowerman gets it right when she says that this version of Victoria is soft and kind when she needs to be but will always slip back into the role she’s been given to play. At that point in history, she was one of the most important people of the planet and she’d do anything to survive, even if it means everyone else has to sacrifice themselves for her.
Handcock makes sure that Victoria has a little moral grey area. While one can’t condone some of the actions, well, the action she takes at the end to make sure she survives. But you know that for the sake of history she has to survive.
What helps is that every character here has some kind of flaw and a reason why they die. One is a liar, the other a murderer, a traitor and I suppose you could say two are cowards. But even if some of them only have brief airtime, Handcock makes sure to make each of them sympathetic and each death is a shock.
One of my favourite ever Doctor Who stories is Horror of Fang Rock and Handcock takes all the very best elements of that outing, the isolated setting, the spooky atmosphere, the deeply flawed characters that you root for nonetheless and an unrelenting enemy. The enemy is also a look at what Torchwood does best, giving us an alien threat without much of an explanation as to where it comes from and in this case, what it even is and as a result puts the heroes of the audio in the losing field.
This is my first time hearing Rowena Cooper as Queen Victoria in the Torchwood range, for some reason I never got around to listening to her previous story, Fortitude, but Save our Souls has succeeded in making her one of my favourite parts of the Torchwood range. Handcock makes her engage in a battle of wits with the alien menace and Cooper equips herself well, and dare I say she’s better than Pauline Collins who played the same role on screen in Tooth and Claw? There is a nice reference to that story here too, which pleased me because it’s one of my favourite modern-era stories. She displays a much more manipulative streak here than she did on-screen when everyone seemed happy to die for her, on audio though, the characters aren’t quite as happy to do that for her, and as a result, puts her at odds with almost every character she encounters.
As a result, Save our Souls rattles towards its far-from-predictable conclusion and Handcock offers us some interesting reflections on the idea of free-will and predestination. I always like stories that make me think ‘what would I do here’ and Save our Souls is one of those. What would you do if you were faced with the knowledge that in a matter of hours, you were going to die horribly? Would you surrender to it, or would you fight? Rightly so Save our Souls offers us no easy answers.