Torchwood – “Moving Target”

Suzie Costello would never describe herself as a hero. Not even if she were the last woman on Earth. Turns out, she’s the second last woman on Earth, and that’ll just have to do.

With the Earth frozen in time, Suzie becomes locked in a battle to save the planet and the life of Alex, the last woman alive. Hunted by alien warriors, and, with every hour that doesn’t pass, the stakes are only getting higher.

Suzie Costello would never describe herself as a hero. But she would say she’s someone who always makes the right choices. Wouldn’t she? .

Indira Varma is Suzie Costello in Torchwood: Moving Target
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Cast
Indira Varma (Suzie Costello)
Naomi McDonald (Alex)
Nicholas Burns (The Referee)

Written by: Guy Adams
Directed by: Scott Handcock
Produced by: James Goss
Script edited by: Steve Tribe
Released: June 2016

Trailer – https://www.bigfinish.com/releases/popout/moving-target-1392

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Torchwood: Moving Target is another quality release from Big Finish’s line of Torchwood audios, successfully combining suspense and action while also throwing in a few moments of levity.  There is a bit of a twist on the proceedings however as the story focuses on a character who could easily be considered one of the show’s villains, Torchwood Three team member Suzie Costello.  Where the story truly shines is how it presents Suzie as someone who is over her head but still determined to do her job and keep Earth safe from alien threats, and it pulls off this presentation well enough for the listener to forget just how pragmatic and devious Suzie really could be.

The 20th century is when everything changes, and Suzie Costello admits she isn’t ready to face the new day as she struggles with her alarm clock.  And the day continues to go downhill once she looks out the window to see that the entire world has come to a halt.  Cars are stopped on the highway, humans are frozen in mid-step, and even the raindrops hang motionless in mid-air.  There is some good news however, as Suzie can still interact with the world (for the most part) and there’s a young lady named Alex who is also unstuck in time.  While Alex is enjoying the opportunity to pull pranks on her unsuspecting co-workers and do a little “shopping,” Suzie is more concerned with getting in touch with the Hub and trying to make the world move again.  But first, there’s the matter of the forces behind this chronological event.  It seems that humanity is considered nothing more than pests to the greater universe, and the life of a single human being makes no difference in the grand scheme of things.  So, why not take advantage of the primitive, worthless Earthlings?  That’s exactly what a certain intergalactic safari company had in mind when they froze the Earth and picked Alex to be the quarry for a group alien hunters looking for an exciting hunt in a backwards land.  Sent on the run, can Suzie find a way to keep Alex alive from a never-ending stream of hunters?

There’s little doubt that Moving Target was influenced by books such as The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games.  Guy Adams, who penned the season finale More Than This for Big Finish’s first series of Torchwood audios, utilizes some of the same concepts that made that story a success.  There’s a Torchwood operative, an alien menace, and a human being who had no idea of just how vast the universe truly until a drooling alien was screaming in their face.   Adams’ script moves at a brisk pace, introducing Alex before Suzie’s musing monologues about the nature of the frozen world, which include showing just how much she can interact with it, drag on too long.  Suzie’s inquisitive nature is balanced by Alex’s carefree demeanor to take full advantage of the situation she finds herself in, and just as the two establish their relationship, the Referee is introduced to explain the situation to the two woman.   The Committee (mentioned in one sentence to tie-in Moving Target to the series’ overall story arc and feeling a bit out of place) has declared human beings to be nothing more than pests or vermin to be exterminated.  Earth has been frozen to ensure that no temporal harm comes to the planet as Alex, chosen by an intergalactic safari company, is hunted through Cardiff by an alien hunter who relishes the chance to hunt an “exotic but mostly harmless” creature.  Suzie, by virtue of being around Torchwood’s temporal technology, is somehow immune to the safari company’s temporal manipulations, and she vows to protect Alex from the alien hunter…even as in the background, Alex has easily dispatched the unsuspecting hunter and stolen its weapon.  The Referee is giddy as the hunter’s death – this means Alex is a threat, and he can double the licensing fee for the next hunter.  And when Suzie runs over the next hunter with one of Torchwood’s SUV’s, that means the fee doubles yet again for the third hunter.  And so on.  And so on…

It’s damn near comical how easily the hunters are taken out by Suzie and Alex in a montage of quick scenes punctuated by the appropriate explosions and gunshots mixed with the dying screams of the alien hunters.  The hunters themselves are nothing more than bored, corpulent executives who want nothing more than an easy hunt that they could brag about, and apparently hunting Earthlings is the easiest hunt one can experience without a porter actually doing the shooting for them.  By the fourteenth hunter, they sound almost bored with the proceedings as they casually check the bodies for more ammunition.   These moments help to add a sense of levity of the proceedings, even though the presence of the Referee threatens to tip the scales a bit too far from “drama” to “panto.”    Played by Nicholas Burns (from the Channel 4 sitcom Nathan Barley), the Referee is a robot who ensure the rules of the hunt are fairly followed.  His disdain for humanity drips from nearly every word he says as he casually dismisses Suzie’s vows to save Alex, and I have to give Burns a bit of credit for taking the standard “alien finds humanity backwards” clichés and making them come alive (“Humanity is stupid for worshipping an imaginary being in the sky,” “Don’t talk to me about the sanctity of human life, I’ve spent the past ten seconds reading up on all your wars,” “Why are you protecting her?  Are you mating with her?  Disgusting habit, by the way”) by virtue of his delivery alone.  This constant style of deliver becomes repetitive and threatens to undo the sense of tension that runs throughout the story.

It’s a nice twist that the hunters themselves aren’t the true threat to Alex and Suzie, but rather it’s the never ending constant stream of hunters who are transmitted to Cardiff on a continual basis.  They might be cannon fodder, but they’re slowly wearing the pair of women down as they struggle to catch a few hours rest.    Veteran voice actor Naomi McDonald (whose credits include Dark Souls II and Alien: Isolation, a game I still haven’t beaten because after spending four hours hiding from ONE Xenomorph, seeing an entire nest in the reactor core made me say “game over, man”) does a fantastic job with Alex.  Alex is perfectly normal – admin job, steady boyfriend, best friend she both loves and hates – and listening her slowly go from freaked out target to badass hunter to weary soldier is something else and a showcase for McDonald’s vocal skills.  What do you do when you know something is going to try to kill you, and even if you stop it, something else is going to come for you?  And the person by your side, who swears they’ll find a way to fix it, can’t?  The initial excitement and eventual stress-induced breakdown over the course of Moving Target is one of the finest acting jobs in recent Big Finish history.    I eagerly hope that McDonald (who also starred in the Bernice Summerfield story The Tears of Isis) does some more work for Big Finish in the future.

Odds are that if you picked up Moving Target, you’re familiar with the character of Suzie Costello as played by Indira Varma.  Varma is known for her turns in Kama Sutra: A Love Story and Luther.  Most recently, she’s played Ellaria Sand on Game of Thrones.  If you forget who Ellaria Sand is because of that show’s enormous cast of characters, here’s a reminder.

For those of you who aren’t familiar or need a quick refresher, Suzie was one of the members of Torchwood Three that Gwen encounters during the events of the premiere episode, Everything Changes.   The events of that story revolved around an alien artifact called the Resurrection Gauntlet, a metal glove that could bring the dead back to life for a few moments.  Hyped up as one of the team’s core members in the promotional materials, it’s revealed that Suzie had actually been committing a series murders in an attempt to study the glove and make the resurrection of the dead permanent.  When confronted by Gwen and Jack, Suzie chooses to commit suicide, with her remains stored deep in the Hub and the Resurrection Gauntlet locked away.  Initially a somewhat tragic figure, the events of the first season episode They Keep Killing Suzie shows a much more sinister side to the character.  A series of murders by a colleague of Suzie’s lead to the Torchwood team using the Resurrection Gauntlet to bring her back to life in an effort to learn more about the killer.  It turns out that Suzie had actually programmed her colleague using the amnesia drug Retcon to commit the murders if they hadn’t received the drug in over three months, which would have meant Suzie was dead and needed to be brought back to life.   Using Gwen as a source of life-energy, Suzie kills her father and reveals that by sucking the life-energy out of Gwen, she can overcome the temporary effects of the gauntlet and become basically immortal.  It’s only when the glove is destroy that Suzie finally dies for the final time, though not before pleading with the team to let her live, stating that Jack couldn’t kill her because she was all that was left of Gwen.

Cold.  Selfish.  Strong-willed.  Pitiless.  Why on Earth would anyone want to listen to a story with a character like Suzie Costello as the protagonist?   Yvonne Hartman from One Rule wasn’t exactly a hero, but she more of a well-intentioned extremist whereas Suzie was manipulative and looked out for no one but herself.  In a series already pull of flawed anti-heroes, making Suzie sympathetic in any capacity would be a monumental task.  Working from Adams’ script however, Varma goes back to how Suzie was during the first part of Everything Changes.  She’s proud to be a member of Torchwood Three, but still lacking in self-confidence.  She throws herself into reading the rulebook trying to find a loophole to allow Alex to live, only to get frustrated and lash out at Alex when she realizes she may not be able to solve this problem.  The ruthless streak is still there, especially in the way Suzie easily dispatches some of the alien hunters.   Where credit is due is with how Varma manages to portray Suzie as someone who might just be a good person who got caught up in a bad situation.  Anyone familiar with the events of Everything Changes and They Keep Killing Suzie might still have that nagging feeling regarding the darkness just below Suzie’s surface.  But it’s very to forget about her personality as Varma portrays her as someone who is stubborn, brave, and willing to learn about her charge as a person.  In any other situation, in any other story, Suzie would be a hero, and it might lead listeners to wonder if there was truly more to her, with the potential of future stories to…

…then Suzie finds out why Alex was specifically chosen for the hunt and what exactly she must do to end the constant assault against her.

There’s no build-up, no hand-wringing, no soul-searching.  Suzie realizes was has to be done and simply does it.   It caught me completely off-guard, especially when I looked down at my iPhone and realized there were only two minutes left to the story!  It’s a sudden shock (or a slow realization to the more savvy) as Suzie watches the world start up again, proceeds to call Jack, and tells him she’ll explain everything as her voice fades into the sound of rain falling.

To be “adult and edgy,” a story doesn’t need large amounts of blood and/or sex.  Characters making difficult choices on the basis of morality can be the pivot point for the most though-provoking of tales.   The Big Finish Torchwood series has walked that line very well, giving listeners characters making tough choices or being helpless as someone else does something immoral.  Heck, the only sex in the entire series (so far) comes from Uncanny Valley and even that was…sort of…tasteful?   Moving Target succeeds as a well-written chase story with fraught moments of tension, but where it really works is how it handles the character of Suzie Costello, one of the show’s most memorable villains.  She’s not twirling her monocle or actively working against her colleagues.  She’s just looking out for herself and her interests, which is her own survival.  Just because a character is likeable or means well doesn’t automatically put them on the side of the angels.  And if they are on the side of the angels, it doesn’t take much for that halo to get tilted sideways, and redemption from those actions isn’t always possible or even wanted.   Moving Target could have made Suzie a character who was only caught in one bad moment which started her down the slippery slope, however Guy Adams instead shows that under the thin veneer of humanity, no matter how noble or trustworthy, could lie a tar pit that spells doom for the unwary.

Pros
+ Great performances by Indira Varma and Naomi McDonald
+ A twist on the “being hunted” genre
+ A surprisingly sudden and dark ending
+ Doesn’t attempt to redeem or justify Suzie’s future actions

Cons
– Nicholas Burns’ comedic acting threatens to undo the mounting tension
– The Committee’s involvement felt thrown in

Cobi’s SynopsisMoving Target uses one of Torchwood’s key antagonists to show that just because someone is capable of heroic deeds, it doesn’t make them a hero, taking the listener along for the ride as Indira Varma and Naomic McDonald turn in great performances as humans being hunted for sport through a Cardiff frozen in time.

Next up – Ianto’s local becomes somewhere where he feels safe. Safe from his demons, safe from his life, safe from Torchwood. Until one evening, Captain Jack Harkness walks into a bar….

John Barrowman is Captain Jack Harkness and Gareth David-Lloyd in Ianto Jones in…Torchwood: Broken

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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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