Torchwood – “Uncanny Valley”

What has made billionaire Neil Redmond emerge from his long seclusion? Captain Jack knows the answer, and is prepared to go to any lengths to prove it.

A couple of years ago, Neil Redmond was in a terrible accident. His recovery has been long and slow, but now he’s back and looking better than ever. Much better than ever.

Dark forces have been behind Neil’s transformation. Dark forces that Jack has been hunting for a long time. But Captain Jack’s never been able to resist the darkness.

John Barrowman is Captain Jack Harkness is Torchwood: Uncanny Valley

X X X X X

Cast
Captain Jack Harkness – John Barrowman
Neil Redmond – Steven Cree
Miss Trent – Emma Reeves

Written by: David Llewellyn
Directed by: Neil Gardner
Produced by James Goss
Script edited by Steve Tribe

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/uncanny-valley-1298

X X X X X

Torchwood: Uncanny Valley isn’t your normal audio.  It’s disturbing, it peers into what it means to be human, gives the listener a look at narcissism in its purest form, and there’s a good bit of sex involved.  Pretty much what one might expect from a Jack Harkness serial.  The story isn’t carried by John Barrowman, however but rather Steven Cree in a well-written and well-acted dual role that manages to touch upon the more “adult” themes of Torchwood without turning into a sopping and gratuitous mess.

Billionaire armaments manufacturer Neil Redmond was in a car crash a few years ago.  Robbed of the use of his legs, Redmond confined himself to his wheelchair and shut himself off from the rest of the world.  Two years later however, Neil Redmond reappeared at a New York fashion show with full use of his legs, beginning a whirlwind social tour that coincided with the signing of weapons agreements across the globe.  Now, on the verge of the opening of a grand weapons bazaar in St Petersburg, Neil Redmond has decided to fly in the face of his critics and mingle with suspected terrorists and Third World dictators.  But even as Redmond appears on international television, Captain Jack Harkness is knocking on the door of Redmond’s Scottish estate, and he isn’t surprised when a wheelchair-bound Neil Redmond answers…

 Un·can·ny val·ley (noun) – used in reference to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.

There were two themes that Torchwood attempted to explore during its time on the air.  One was the exploration of human corruptibility.  The other was sex.  The first two episodes of the show contained an alien that killed its victims by orgasm (including a massacre at a fertility clinic) and one of the Torchwood Three team members using a mind control device to convince women (and men) to sleep with them.  Fortunately these overt moments faded as the show progressed, focusing more on the relationships between Torchwood Three and its various members, people they met during the course of their cases, and lovers from both the past and present.  The series gave heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual relationships the same amount of narrative weight, never judging or, no matter what the critics said, shoving Russell T Davies “big gay agenda” in Britain’s face.

Of course, there were still a few missteps…

(I don’t know which I get more mileage out of, the Cyberwoman or that one picture of the Myrka from Warriors of the Deep)

David Llewellyn penned the opening audio for the Torchwood range The Conspiracy, which also featured Jack Harkness and kicked off the Committee story arc.  The Conspiracy was enjoyable but packed with a lot of exposition, understandable since it was the very first story in the range.  Uncanny Valley sees Llewellyn follow the same blueprint.  The first 2/3’rds of Uncanny Valley are very much “this is how we got here,” with Neil Redmond laying out to Jack Harkness how he’s both in Scotland and Russia – a synthetic double created by a robotics company who looks like Redmond and is taught by the billionaire how to think and act like him.  There is a little bit of “let’s get on with it” in Llewllyn’s script, but the story as a whole fails to drag along thanks to the performance by Steven Cree (Outlander, Lip Service) who brings Llewllyn’s words to life as both Neil Redmond and the robot double who comes to be known as NJ.

In the hands of a lesser actor, Uncanny Valley could nothing more than a boring slog.  But Cree easily breathes life into both roles.  With Redmond, Cree starts with showing just how broken and frustrated the wheelchair bound Redmond is and how so very easily he leaps into the “arms” of a robotics company (which is of course a front for the Committee) in order to have some semblance of a life again. Any initial apprehension quickly disappears as Redmond slowly walks his robot double, who he calls “NJ,” through the details of his life and his personality. Redmond’s glowing joy is evident in Cree’s performance as well as his growing infatuation with NJ, who sees as a means to interact with the world. At first, it’s all just fun and games to Redmond as he watches NJ wheel, deal, mix, and mingle with clients and supermodels, all observed through NJ’s high-definition video feed that’s transmitted directly back to Redmond’s castle in Scotland. Redmond lives vicariously through his robot double, but over time slowly starts to come to resent NJ – not just for leading the life Redmond can’t, but for the business decisions that NJ starts to make on his behalf without consulting Redmond. This turn of events, an artificial intelligence taking on a personality of its own, is a standard theme in science fiction, but it’s the HURT that Cree puts into Remond’s realization that truly sells it.

On the flip side, Cree’s performance as NJ starts off as slow, stilted, and open. The robotic lilt is in NJ’s voice as he slowly adapts Redmond’s personality, vocal style, and body language, the hesitancy in his words slowly giving way as he grows more familiar with them. NJ’s introduction/Redmond’s “return” to the world is played as the listener might expect, with NJ slowly growing more confident within his programming and stepping beyond his designated parameters in an attempt to soothe and comfort Neil through the live feed. Even without the slight robotic tone the voice filter adds to Cree’s turn as NJ, it’s very evident which character Cree is playing at any given time even as NJ becomes more “human” as the story goes on. The twist to NJ’s creation an his ultimate purpose is standard sci-fi fare, but even to the end of the story when NJ is trying to kill Jack, he’s not full blown “all humans must die,” but a creation who values human life and truly regrets taking it.

Where Cree’s performance shines is through the “love” that the two Neil Redmonds share with one another. It’s a bit creepy and unnerving, ala th3 2013 Joaquin Phoenix/Scarlett Johansson movie Her. Loving one’s self is the highest form of narcissism (or masturbation if you stop to think about it…and let’s just move on, shall we?) and Llewllyn’s script doesn’t pull any punches in attempt to explore it. Redmond soaks in the depravity and excess of NJ’s lifestyle as his only outlet into the world, soon coming to see NJ as the only person in the world who truly loves and understands him. As much as his wheelchair can allow, even when NJ is beginning to change and evolve Redmond still loves him. Is it because NJ is the “perfect” form of Neil Redmond? Is it because NJ is the only thing in Redmond’s life and you just love the one you with? Or is there something deeper there?

On the other side of the coin…

“I’m a fantasy.  I’m either the man you want to be or the man you want to have…I won’t get upset that you don’t call me back, and I won’t stalk you online or leave messages on your voicemail.  I don’t have mood swings and I don’t sulk.  I’m perfect…so what are you waiting for?”

NJ’s entire existance (save his deep programming) revolves around Neil Redmond. Is this love just software and firmware? Is it something that evolved in his programming over time? Did NJ somehow become a real boy? Or is the love as “real” as the kind between two human beings? Whichever it turns out to be, Cree plays both sides of the relationship as honestly as one could. The listener might not understand what exactly kind of “love” exists between Neil Redmond and NJ, but there’s not doubt that something called “love” exists between them. Which makes the final scene between the pair that much more shocking and potentially deeply moving.

I haven’t mentioned Captain Jack Harkness much in this review. That’s because for the most of Uncanny Valley’s runtime, Jack is a passive observer. Redmond spends much of the story relating the background between him and NJ to Jack, who throws in a couple of observations about how strange everything is, from the car crash up to NJ’s evolution as well as mentioning conspiracy theorist George Wilson in order to tie this story back to The Conspiracy. John Barrowman is Jack Harkness – that’s the best way to describe his turn in this story. It’s the Captain Jack Harkness listeners have come to expect. He’s straight forward, a little coy, incredibly flirtatious, and very impulsive. It’s the only way I can possibly explain why there’s a scene where Jack and NJ bang each other. And I use the word “bang” because there sure as hell ain’t any level of “love” involved like there was between Redmond and NJ. Of course, this being Jack Harkness it shouldn’t come as a surprise as he’s Doctor Who’s answer to James Bond, which includes sleeping with people who are obviously trying to kill you. At the end of the story, the focus switches to Jack and his attempts to escape from a rampaging NJ (for once showing bit of smarts and not holding the Idiot Ball like he did in The Conspiracy and Forgotten Lives). Llewllyn uses Jack’s immortality in a unique way in order to save the day, but even in defeat, NJ manages to reveal a bit of crucial information to Jack about the Committee’s true purpose on Earth before shutting down for good…

I have to give Uncanny Valley credit for taking sexual themes and a look at a non-normal relationship in a respectful way. This is another Big Finish story that I could easily imagine as a televised Torchwood episode, and I would have loved to have seen Steven Cree given a shot at pulling off the dual roles of Neil Redmond and NJ to a wider audience. When I think of a show tackling “adult” themes, Uncanny Valley is the kind of story that best addresses those themes without being over-the-top and gratuitous.

Pros
+ Steven Cree with two great performances in the role the same individual
+ Addresses adult themes and sexuality in a respectful manner
+ “I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you…”

Cons
– NJ’s master plan is standard “artificial intelligence gains sentience” fare

Cobi’s Synopsis – A story focusing on the relationship between a man and his robotic twin and all the mental, emotional, and physical aspects involved, Uncanny Valley is worth a listen for the performance of Steven Cree as the crippled billionaire and his synthetic double.

Next up – Gwen Cooper has triumphed against impossible odds before, but now she’s finally met her match: Roger Pugh, Planning Officer for Cardiff City Council…

Eve Myles is Gwen Cooper in…Torchwood: More Than This

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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