Parasite, the first Torchwood Soho set, ended with a change to the status quo. Norton Folgate (Samuel Barnett), one of the few survivors of the recent destruction of Torchwood – one of many demises for the ill-fated organisation – headed off with his journalist boyfriend Gideon Lyme (Joe Shire) to restart Torchwood anew, pet dog in tow. The release’s final scenes hinted at darker things to come with reference to Norton’s more manipulative side; the follow-up, Ashenden, foregrounds the idea of his deviousness across six half-hour episodes.
The story begins with Sergeant Andy Davidson (Tom Price) transported once more from the modern day to the 1950s, landing in a razed depopulated zone known as Pimlico, which is little more than a bombsite following the war. He encounters Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan), Norton’s former boss who met her demise in Parasite and finds herself similarly displaced in time, having been drawn into the future just as Andy has been drawn into the past.
Informed by Gideon, who himself is acting strangely, that Norton has gone rogue and must be hunted down, the pair start to question the nature of their surroundings. Andy and Lizbeth discover the rebuilt Torchwood has been infiltrated by body-snatching aliens, and they are soon on the run. The action then shifts to Ashenden itself, a planned community on the Sussex coast, which Gideon, the town’s new head of arrivals, spruiks to newly arrived residents with sickly saccharine enthusiasm.
The opening episodes give Andy and Lizbeth the opportunity for some light-hearted sparring and shenanigans, even as the mystery of Norton’s motivations, and indeed what’s going on in Ashenden, deepens. Lizbeth’s dry sarcasm is a nice counterpoint to Andy’s endearing, fish-out-of-water benevolence. Their relationship is less playfully competitive, like it is between Lizbeth and Norton, and more collegial. This is a pairing of characters who never properly met in the previous set, so it’s pleasing to hear them together here, and both Kirwan and Price charm the socks off the listener in their respective roles.
Indeed, the central quartet of characters pair well together, each bringing out different qualities in one another. There’s not quite as much for Gideon to do this time round unfortunately, but he does get some good scenes in the final episode opposite Norton. And it’s towards the end as well that Norton’s vulnerability really emerges as he ponders the breadth of his loyalty to his friend Andy and lover Gideon.
The six episodes are packed full of variety to keep the listener on their toes. There’s a creepy body horror episode set in a hospital, replete with an overbearing matron and disappearing patients; a body-snatching sequence where aliens slowly take control of the population; and later some political machinations at Downing Street. And throughout it all is the spectre of the ominously named Ashenden Formula, which leans into social commentary on governmental treatment of so-called lower-class citizens and immigrants, as the New Towns Department cooperates with an alien force to socially engineer the Ashenden population.
The world of the 1950s in portrayed through immersive sound design: the bombed-out buildings, dingy accommodation and murky streetscapes work wonders to transport the listener back 70-odd years. The story’s gloomy atmosphere is matched by its sinister tone: there are secrets and revelations, transplants and injections, and eel-like monsters akin to something out of H.P. Lovecraft. And Tom Hill’s debut cover art for Big Finish is superb and plays directly into that tone of sinister intrigue – although of the four leads, Kirwan is glaringly absent, which seems a shame.
The raucousness of Parasite has been toned down slightly in favour of shadow and enigma, yet writer James Goss balances the grim premise with some sparky dialogue. You could almost have the four leads chatting away for hours without any significant plotline and it’d be worth listening to.
Across half an hour of interviews, we hear the story of Ashenden’s genesis and making, the debt Torchwood Soho owes to Quatermass serials, and an assortment of entertaining anecdotes. A highlight of the suite of extras is a roundtable discussion, helmed by director Scott Handcock, on the joy of wildtracks and small part casting, with actors who voiced multiple roles sharing their approach to accents and navigating the recording schedule. With the roundtable covering everything from dentistry to Boris Johnson to that iconic Doctor Who quote, “Not the mind probe!”, it’s a nice shake-up to the usual extras format.
As the sophomore Torchwood Soho release, Ashenden might not feel as fresh as Parasite; indeed, the notion of an alien entity spreading across London and possessing people echoes, for good or for worse, the titular parasite of that release. But the follow-up more than makes up with thematic richness and a grim sensibility. Ashenden is a haunting depiction of mid-century London with the flavour of a classic science fiction TV serial, and all wrapped up with a Torchwood bow.
Torchwood Soho – Ashenden was released in October 2021. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until 31 December 2021, and on general sale after this date.
Welcome to Ashenden. An exciting new town just outside London, and also the home of a terrible secret.
London has been infiltrated – a darkness is spreading from the bombsites to the highest ranks of government. A darkness that cannot be stopped. A desperate hunt is on for the man who caused it.
The past has come for Torchwood agent Norton Folgate. This is the hour of the hollow man.
Sergeant Andy finds himself chased through the ruins of London with only a dead woman for company.
2. O Little Town of Ashenden
Ashenden was once a listening station. It’s become something far worse.
3. The National Health
Sergeant Andy must fight his way out of a hospital that offers care from the cradle to the grave.
4. Rivers of Blood
Miss Satterthwaite always dreamed that the stars were listening to her, and now they’re changing her life forever.
5. Now is the Time for All Good Men
Lizbeth Heyhoe is looking for help from those in power. But they are turning a deaf ear.
6. The Hour of the Hollow Man
Some things in life cannot be escaped. Death, taxes, and a picnic on the beach.
Samuel Barnett (Norton Folgate)
Dervla Kirwan (Lizbeth Hayhoe)
Tom Price (Andy Davidson)
Joe Shire (Gideon Lyme)
Rachel Atkins (Miss Pinkerton)
Russell Bentley (Bowers)
Daniel Brocklebank (Ornadel)
Jacob Dudman (Fotheringay)
Raj Ghatak (Speaker)
Diveen Henry (Amanda)
Shvorne Marks (Matron)
Laura Riseborough (Miss Satterthwaite)
Additional themes by Ben Foster
Cover Art by Tim Hill
Director Scott Handcock
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Music by Blair Mowat
Producer James Goss
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Sound Design by Peter Doggart
Written by James Goss
Theme Music by Murray Gold