Torchwood was a very odd TV show. Over it’s four years it covered everything from alien fight clubs and the only Kaiju under Cardiff to Welsh cannibals, searingly clever social science fiction and the end of death. It was wildly uneven, often awful, often good, occasionally incredible. It’s final season, Miracle Day, was Torchwood to a tee; hugely ambitious, massively enthusiastic and, in the end, very uneven.
Now it’s back as a series of Big Finish audio dramas and the obvious question is this;
Is it any good?
In fact, so far this is the second strongest season of Torchwood, in any form, to date. Because producer James Goss has done something brilliant; embraced the chaos. If you liked Torchwood: Welsh People Bickering, it’s here. If you liked Torchwood: Bat Harkness, it’s here. If you liked Torchwood: Ianto Jones, Action Butler, you’re in luck. Goss’ series solves the problem of just what the show was by embracing everything the show was, asking it to form an orderly queue and slotting it all into a subtle, well-designed story arc.
You can see that in The Conspiracy, the first story. Written by David Llewellyn and directed as all three stories to date are by Scott Handcock it follows Jack investigating the claims a former newscaster, Wilson, has been making about the alien conspiracy that controls the planet. The only problem is, well, he’s mostly right…
Essentially a dramatic duet, this is a Bat Harkness story through and through. Jack’s hyper competent, in full control and, as is always the case in stories like this, gets people killed. It’s a tight, claustrophobic little piece that works beautifully on three levels. It sets up the arc plot for the season, it both honors and interrogates Jack’s fondness for working alone and it gives Barrowman and John Sessions as Wilson a chance to cut loose. The end result feels like an unusually grim, well-written Radio 4 play that takes a very hard left turn and is all the stronger for that.
Fall to Earth, the second story, is the highlight of the line so far. It’s a beautifully simple premise; a privately funded spaceplane has suffered a catastrophic failure and Ianto Jones is the only person who can save it. Well, Ianto and the cold caller that’s just rung his phone.
James Goss’ script does vast amounts with what is, in many ways, the opposite side of the coin to The Conspiracy. That story looks at what happens when Jack is secretive and works alone. This ones looks at how his behavior alters those around him, with the late Ianto inspired (or perhaps provoked) into doing something similar to his boss and lover.
Goss folds this into a clever look at Ianto’s mindset and what it’s like being the person standing next to the hero, or villain, in this kind of world. Gareth David-Lloyd is exceptionally good in the lead and clearly relishes the chance to show a little more of Ianto’s immensely dry sense of humor. He’s only half of the equation though and Lisa Zahra as Zeynep has stunning presence and depth. The pair have an easy, natural chemistry and that raises the stakes even further. By the end of the story you’ve got a little bit more info about the arc plot and a lot more insight into both Zeynep and the late Mr Jones. Here’s hoping they keep finding ways to bring him back. Zeynep too as she’s fantastic.
Forgotten Lives, the third story to date, is the most recent release. Written by Emma Reeves, it puts Gwen and Rhys, five years out from Miracle Day, front and center. A strange call from an old folks’ home leads them to the discovery of Jack Harkness, aged and possibly insane, demanding to be rescued. As they dig deeper, they find out just what he needs rescuing from…
I mention the words ‘Gwen and Rhys story’ and even now some people will make a run for it. Please, come back, this isn’t the tornado of contradictory writing being beaten into submission by two ridiculously hard working actors that most of their season 1 work was. Instead, Reeves turns in a complex, nuanced story that’s both very funny and very dark. The funny all comes from Myles and Owen who are one of the most endearing double acts any form of Who has had. They use the exact shorthand all long term couples have and there’s a sense of them being as relieved that the shouting and retcon phase of their relationship is over as we are. Plus they’re very much a marriage of equals. Gwen does the kickass stuff, Rhys does the charm and they meet in the middle.
The darkness in the story is illuminated by this character dynamic and believe me this is one of the darkest turns any Torchwood story has taken. Just what’s going on, and who’s behind it isn’t quite Children of Earth levels of bleak but it’s close. Reeves takes big risks here and they all pay off, leading to another memorable story and a tangible sense of the line gearing up for the end game.
Torchwood Season 1 is successful from the moment you hear the revamped, rebuilt theme tune. Goss’ deft production, as well as the excellent scripts, performances and direction give the series the focus it often lacked on screen and make for three very enjoyable listens with more to come. If you were a fan before, you’ll love these. If you weren’t, try them and prepare to be converted. Torchwood, in all its occasionally chaotic glory, is back.