One of the ways Big Finish has worked around availability issues with the main cast of TV Torchwood is by elaborating on the Institute’s history, from its founding by Queen Victoria to an American outpost in the 1970s to the last hurrah of Torchwood One under Yvonne Hartman. Perhaps the most prominent addition, though, is Norton Folgate, a 1950s Torchwood agent played (to the hilt) by Samuel Barnett. Norton is gay, sarcastic, playful, and, in true Torchwood fashion, utterly coldhearted when he needs to be. Big Finish have thrown into pretty much every Torchwood sub-range at one time or another, but he’s so much fun that I’m never sorry to hear him turn up. And now he has his own spin-off, with frequent foil Andy Davidson along for the ride.
In addition to Norton and Andy, Parasite also introduces two new characters, Torchwood operative Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan) and journalist Gideon Lyme (Joe Shire). It shouldn’t be difficult for a three-disc story to make consistent and effective use of four characters, but the only real drawback of Parasite is that its structure is messy. It doesn’t help that for some reason each disc is divided into two episodes, even though that means that a couple of them are only twenty minutes long and all three mid-disc cliffhangers feel forced. Two of the six episodes jump to a different chronological moment to show events from a particular character’s perspective, and while it’s done effectively enough I’m not sure that level of detail was necessary. At another point a science fiction plot device is used to, essentially, put Andy and Gideon on pause for a while so Norton can shape events by himself.
I think the underlying problem is that there isn’t really enough plot here for a three-disc story. The same was true of Outbreak and Believe, the other two Big Finish Torchwood mini-series. I suspect there’s a budgetary trade-off that requires box sets at this length whether or not there’s sufficient incident to warrant them. If you described these events in a linear fashion, with a flashback or two as appropriate, you’d have a tight two-disc release. But honestly, when the characters are as much fun as this, I don’t mind the muddle. Norton and Andy’s comic double act is well-established at this point, and Joe Shire nails both Gideon’s exasperation at being caught up in their antics and his deeper weariness as a black man in 1950s London. Dervla Kirwan does what she can as Lizbeth, but all she really has for characterization is “competent woman undermined by sexism,” which is a well Big Finish has gone to several times in recent years (River Song, Helen Sinclair, Constance Clarke). Don’t get me wrong: that’s an important story to tell, but it should be the story, and it should form part of the characterization, not all of it.
After a fairly lighthearted first couple discs, the story takes a darker turn in the first half of disc three. I’m not sure it’s quite as dark as it thinks it is– Torchwood has certainly been to worse places– but it creates an appropriate counterbalance to the whimsy. That’s also what makes Norton Folgate work as a character: no matter how flamboyant his dialogue, no matter how arch Barnett’s delivery, there’s a ruthlessness to him that saves him from being a gay stereotype and makes him the perfect Torchwood character. I’d love to hear more of Torchwood Soho. I suspect a move to multiple single-disc stories would help to resolve its growing pains.
I’m going to say more about the plot of Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories than I typically would, because my issue with it is that I think a lot of what happens is predictable, and you can’t talk about why things are predictable without giving away what they are. As the “and other stories” in the title suggests, this seems to be another anthology of one-part stories, with established writer Nev Fountain joined by three newcomers. Seems, that is, unless you bother to spend even a few seconds looking at the contributors’ names, in which case you will probably deduce that Al(an) Terigo, Su(san) Dennom, and A(ndrew) Lias are not new writers at all, but pen names. (I suppose we’re lucky they only needed three, or we might have been introduced to Nomia DePlume.) And, noticing the pen names, you may suspect that the reason for them is that the four stories are not as unconnected as they appear.
I could, perhaps, forgive the predictability if the twist were executed with elan, but as the revelations are handed out in part four, you don’t feel like an elegant tapestry has just been revealed; you feel like three stories that were pleasantly quirky in their own distinct ways have been raggedly stitched together for the sake of playing a game with the listener. The reveal about the mysterious new companion who was already an established part of the TARDIS crew in episode one works better; it was painfully obvious given the lack of a proper introduction that Something Was Up with him, but the explanation of what that is ties elements of the previous episodes together with a neatness that the connections between episodes themselves don’t offer.
I’m critiquing the whole for being less than the sum of its parts, but the parts themselves are rather nice; taken as two one-parters and a two-parter with callbacks it works well enough. The conceit in “Blood on Santa’s Claw” is pretty self-consciously wacky, and it doesn’t even lead to many good jokes, but I admire its oddball ambition. “The Baby Awakes” is the best story in the set, a nice slice of science fiction about designer babies that offers character work for Peri that Nicola Bryant… well, she does her best with it, but she shares with Janet Fielding the unfortunate habit of responding to emotionally heavy scenes by increasing the pitch and volume of her delivery rather than imbuing it with genuine feeling. The second disc throws in some Gallifreyan lore that isn’t any more interesting than any other Gallifreyan lore we’ve ever heard about, but the action is brisk and there are some good character moments for the Doctor and Peri. Like Parasite, Blood on Santa’s Claw and Other Stories hasn’t found the most natural form for the story it’s telling, but like Parasite, it has such a distinctive charm that I can’t help enjoying it anyway.