Naoko Mori is back for her second Torchwood solo adventure of the year, after May’s War Chest (check out our review here). This time, writer Alexander Stewart takes Toshiko Sato back to some of her earliest days in Torchwood. We saw Toshiko grow in confidence over the first two series of Torchwood; but Suckers is a story where she lacks the grit and determination she had when she died in the line of duty. The setting – trapped in a psychiatric facility, drugged to the max and told your whole life is a hallucination – is enough to show even the strongest character at their most vulnerable. And this Toshkio lacks the strength of her later experiences, making for a particularly harrowing experience for this member of the Torchwood team.
Putting a character in a psychiatric ward, convincing them their life is all fantasy, is not something new to genre storytelling. On TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer explored this idea in its sixth season and more recently Moon Knight suggested the idea that its central character may not have super powers and was just delusional all along. But it’s a great hook for a story and knowing what we know about Torchwood, we believe that the alien suckers, dragging poor patients to their death, are most likely real. Poor Toshiko, is already struggling to find her place in the world of secret organisations and alien incursions, making it even easier for the malevolent forces at play to convince her that Torchwood is just in her head.
With every solo Torchwood release, Mori has savoured the chance for Toshkio to stop into the spotlight, proving that she is more than just a supporting character. Suckers is no different. If anything, it is a greater challenge to take on a less-experienced version of Toshiko and make her the hero of the tale, without characters like Jack to bounce off. Mori still manages to make Toshiko’s desperate will to uncover the truth a compelling through-line, and the listener is with her every step of the way, even when she starts to succumb to the lie.
Mori also has a solid cast to play off. Emma Kaler’s Shireen Afzal is the heart of Suckers, Toshiko’s room mate who must decide whether to believe whether the fantastical stories she are told, are real. Afzal brings a touch of humour to a very grounded role and her journey is as compelling as Toshkio’s, particularly when her racial identity becomes a factor in her story. Linda Armstrong is equally as engaging as Felicia Haynes, the ruthless director of the facility. She’s every smart-talking condescending boss we’ve ever had and there’s enough to hate without turning her into a pantomime villain.
Writer Alexander Stewart makes the most of his own experience working in psychiatric health, adding a dark, fantastical twist to something all too real. It’s something Torchwood does in its sleep. There’s an insidious piece of dark satire concerning the treatment of non-Caucasian patients at the facility, which is as horrifying as any monster. If there is one thing that lacks punch in the story, it’s the alien threat. Outside one particularly horrifying scene with one of the characters and Toshiko’s spiralling delusions, they fail to make much of an impact. The brilliant cover design from Sean Longmore certainly suggests more than we actually get.
Is Suckers likely to enter the list of best Torchwood stories? Unlikely. It has a great premise and Mori, Afzal and Armstrong are all strong performers, but it lacks energy. It could have been more horrifying, more frightening and more could have been made of Toshiko dellusions as she started to believe that her life in Torchwood was all a lie. But I enjoyed the tale. Big Finish rarely put a foot wrong with their Torchwood range and this is no different. For my money, last year’s Drive is still Toshiko’s best solo tale. But as a chance to examine the earliest part of her career in Torchwood, Suckers manages to give us another facet to the life of one of Doctor Who‘s more underrated characters.
Torchwood: Suckers is available to purchase at the Big Finish site here, and goes on general release on the 31st October 2022.
“The brilliant thing about telling a Torchwood story is that you can talk about institutionalised racism and the over-medication of people of colour, in a story about monsters and creepy corridors.”
In the behind the scenes interviews, writer Alexander Stewart talks about his attempt to dramatise the ‘us versus them’ mentality seen in his own experiences of working in a psychiatric facility. He also talks about how this version of Toshiko doesn’t have the experience and resilience to handle the situation she find herself in. Naoko Mori continues this thread, reflecting on Toshiko’s lack of confidence and the learning curve the story offers her to become a member of the Torchwood team. The supporting cast also offer insights into their characters. Emma Kaler talks Shireen turbulent relationship with Toshiko, Dylan Jones examines the challenge faced by Stefan as he is forced to act against his moral code, and Linda Armstrong draws upon her previous experience playing Nurse Hatchett for the role of Felicia and the similarities between the two characters.
Shireen’s not exactly enjoying being sectioned, but she’s been in worse places. That psychiatric unit in Brecon was a right dump. This one’s alright, though. There’s table tennis, art therapy and they even get to do a bit of gardening.
There’s only one problem. Shireen’s roommate. Toshiko – she’s a total space cadet, convinced the unit is overrun by aliens. Yeah, right.
Naoko Mori (Toshiko Sato)
Linda Armstrong (Felicia Haynes)
Nick Asbury (Ivan)
Dylan Jones (Steffan Blayney)
Emma Kaler (Shireen Afzal)
Senior Producer David Richardson
Additional themes by Ben Foster
Cover Art by Sean Longmore
Director Lisa Bowerman
Executive Producer Jason Haigh-Ellery & Nicholas Briggs
Music by Blair Mowat
Producer James Goss
Script Editor Lauren Mooney
Sound Design by Toby Hrycek-Robinson
Written by Alexander Stewart
Theme Music by Murray Gold