It’s another Torchwood ghost story for Christmas, with a trilogy of spooky tales that are slightly less than the sum of their parts

As none other than Queen Victoria herself remarks during The Empire Man, Christmas is a time for gathering around close together and sharing ghost stories. Torchwood has developed its own yuletide tradition over the past several years with, appropriately enough, a strand of Victorian ghost stories worthy of M.R. James. In fact it doesn’t get any more Victorian than this, with each December’s Torchwood release featuring Queen Victoria herself battling various eldritch forces. This winter’s The Empire Man leans into the idea more than ever with a Hammer/Amicus style portmanteau of tales, as Victoria, her new Prime Minster, and her mysterious servant Castringham gather by candlelight one Christmas Eve.

The trio of tales feature Victoria’s childhood stay at the borders of Altrim Wood, where locals claim something evil lurks among the trees, Castringham’s terrifying stay in a remote coach house containing a cabinet with a disturbing history; and an ancient Roman coin that the Prime Minster comes to regret purchasing. And it will be no surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with the format, that the three build to the framing sequence delivering a sting in the tale.

As with every portmanteau, some entries are stronger than others

Like all such collections, the quality of the stories within the story vary. The strongest here is undoubtedly that of The Slothful Warden and the banging and scratching that echo through the night there. It’s a slight but performed little spine chiller and the one which most strongly shows the Jamesian influence, with mysterious figures on the beach and something genuinely disturbing awaiting our narrator at the heart of the mystery. Victoria’s own story flits back to the present day, with a few too many interjections from her sceptical PM, to build enough momentum to be truly creepy. And as the politician himself admits, his own story seems to barely touch the margins of the supernatural, even though it proves the most essential of the three.

 

The cast of Torchwood: The Empire Man (l-r) Patience Tomlinson (Mrs Wickmere), Hugh Fraser (Castringham), Richard David-Caine (The Prime Minister), Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria) Gladstone
The cast of Torchwood: The Empire Man (l-r) Patience Tomlinson (Mrs Wickmere), Hugh Fraser (Castringham), Richard David-Caine (The Prime Minister), Rowena Cooper (Queen Victoria)

As thrilling as the Queen Victoria stories have been, The Empire Man finds her at her most petty and cruel

It’s hard not to conclude, though, that The Empire Man adds up to somewhat less than the sum of its parts, however. Even that this Torchwood strand of Victoriana, after producing so many outstanding stories like The Crown and Fortitude, is running out of steam a little. Victoria herself is part of the problem. Torchwood has always specialized in morally grey anti-heroes like Yvonne Hartman or Norton Folgate. Even truly malicious forces of nature like Bilis Manger worm their rotten ways into listeners’ heart with their sheer panache and deviousness. But while beautifully performed as ever by Rownena Cooper, Victoria possesses an air of smug superiority allied to a cruel viciousness that’s starting to wear thin, and makes time spent in her company less and less pleasant.

It’s compounded this time out by her pettiness. She continually puts down her PM who, even if he’s not exactly entering into the spirit of the storytelling, isn’t wrong in any of his objections. Meanwhile, while many of its predecessors have excused Victoria’s methods by setting her against terrible monsters and threats, the biggest monster here is probably her.

There’s also an odd line of Gladstone slander here too. This Christmas Eve get together is Victoria and her unnamed Prime Minister’s first meeting. But with Gladstone coming to power on the 3rd of December 1868, and one subplot obviously inspired by Gladstone’s admittedly unusual way to unwind by cutting down oak trees, it’s pretty obvious who he’s meant to be. But with him depicted as weak willed and woolly minded, you do have to wonder which one of writer Jonathan Barnes’ ancestor’s cats he ran over with his carriage.

With a genuinely chilling little tale of terror at its dark heart, The Empire Man may still freeze your heart this winter

The Empire Man may not be Torchwood’s greatest ghost story for Christmas. But with January still providing ample dark and stormy nights to gather round the fire, it still has a few chills to send up your spine. Though thanks to Hugh Fraser’s perfectly judged Castringham and his story, you might sleep a little less easy in your bed after.

 

Torchwood: The Empire Man. Cover by Sean Longmore (c) Big Finish Productions Queen Victoria Gladstone Doctor Who
Torchwood: The Empire Man. Cover by Sean Longmore (c) Big Finish Productions

Torchwood: The Empire Man

Christmas Eve, and in a secret library underneath Buckingham Palace, Queen Victoria has invited her new prime minister to a very private tradition.

At one hour to midnight, the monarch insists on the telling of ghost stories. Stories of the supernatural, the alien, and the unsettling. Only this year, something else has got in.

We are not alone.

Torchwood: The Empire Man, written by Jonathan Barnes, is now available to own for just £10.99 (collector’s edition single-disc CD + download) or £8.99 (download only) here.

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