As with the writers of the previous plays, Lidster almost seems to be positing a possible future for the television version of the series, this time an adult version of Doctor Who that finds its influence not with the UNIT years but the more usual time travel and discovery format. Certainly it’s structured like a typical Who story, with the Captain pitching up in town, finding a local bar and after being arrested becoming mixed up in some business that may involve overthrowing a government.
But through a massive coincidence, Jack discovers that like US viewers, the inhabitants of this remote, unapproachable ball of rock worship Torchwood. But this Torchwood isn’t just a sci-fi action adventure tv series of inconsistent quality, but their god. Not only that, criticising Torchwood isn’t just banned, it’s blasphemy, punishment nastily meted out by some unseen force in the form of spontaneous combustion. It’s a good job that can’t happen in the real world or I’d be barbecued for some of my Miracle Day reviews.
As with Who's The Face of Evil, it’s this mystery of the familiar in an unfamiliar setting which powers the next hour’s worth of narrative though as Jack befriends some local law enforcement and helps him through some emotional problems while laying some of his own personal demons to rest, it’s also akin to the Immortal Sins episode of Miracle Day, Jack enjoying the company of this companion almost as though he’s well aware he’s working through one of his Time Lord friend’s missed adventures.
Having been on the writing team for the television series (A Day in the Death) and the radio episodes (LHC spectacular Lost Souls) he’s well versed in Torchwood lore which means that when Red Skies heads into some Fragments-style continuity building, none of it feels tacked on and all in-keeping and in-character and even burrows into some unexpected areas, reminding us that despite its relatively slender overall screen time, plenty's happened in this corner of the Whoniverse.
Another accomplishment is Lidster’s characterisation of the Captain himself, striking a balance between the angstier version who chisel-jaws his way around Torchwood and the flirty Jack Rabbit of Doctor Who, even turning the difference into a story point. This Jack is genuinely funny and we can always imagine John Barrowman’s reading of these words, a slight twinkle in his eye, us wondering just how far he and the character are going to push things, the scamp.
Even if we can’t have Barrowman, wild card reading choice John Telfer is a worthy replacement. Best known for playing cool vicar Alan Franks on The Archers, Telfer has no personal previous Who experience but you’d not know it from his uncanny impression of Jack and intelligent measuring of the correct tone for this material. His chameleonic delivery oscillates between pacy prose reading and committed characterisation, especially of the Soviet accented local cop.
Red Skies is another little triumph from what’s turned into a seminal group of stories, right up there with the best of the Radio 4 Afternoon Plays and certainly preferable to some corners of the television series itself. As with a lot of Who, much of the entertainment is in journey, but even the reveal delivers, a logical if chilling revelation. But along the way we’re reminded of Torchwood at its best, and it’s clear that should it continue on screen, a return to single stories would be the best choice.
Torchwood: Red Skies by Joseph Lidster is published by AudioGo and due to be available from the 3rd May 2012. Review copy supplied.