Torchwood: God Among Us Part 3 – Starring John Barrowman, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Paul Clayton, Alexandria Riley, Johnny Green, Samantha Beart, Tom Price and Ramon Tikaram. With Jacqueline King as God. Written by Alexandria Riley, Robin Bell, Tim Foley, and James Goss & Directed by Scott Handcock – 4xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Torchwood’s post-Miracle Day box sets have frequently fallen into the category of ‘Story arcs that leave you needing a lie down in a dark room with a soothing cup of tea.’ The God Among Us arc has had more coherence than its predecessor, Aliens Among Us though, due in no small part to an increased familiarity with the characters of New Torchwood. If all this comes to you now as a bolt from the blue, stop reading immediately, you’re significantly behind us in time, and there’s no real way to catch up except by going through the preceding box sets, because this is not the Torchwood you think you know.
Go on, shoo! Come back, by all means, when you’re up to speed and have got your head around the hows, the whys and the wherefores.
All up to speed? Right then.
You rejoin us at the point where, at the risk of still giving listeners some sort of mental breakdown, God (or at least, a God) has been working with the Committee – a bunch of body-snatchers from Way Out Yonder who’ve previously been mostly voiced by David Warner as Old Bloke In the Nursing Home Of the Damned – to at first secure a victory for a bunch of civic-minded aliens, but then, thanks to some fairly sharp thinking and self-sacrifice by the likes of Norton Folgate, just-possibly-hologrammatic Torchwood operative from the 1960s, and alternative-universe Yvonne Hartman (See? Getting up to speed makes all kinds of sense now, doesn’t it?), were at least partially defeated. But Cardiff now is not Cardiff as we’ve known it. Cardiff – modern-day, post-industrial, high-tech Cardiff – has been the victim of a major tsunami. Hundreds of thousands have died. Straggling communities of the homeless camp out in the lobbies of swanky apartment buildings, such as that in which Mr Colchester of Torchwood and his husband Colin live. Colin now works tirelessly to try and keep the flow of supplies coming to these new indigents, alongside would-be Torchwooder and part-time turncoat Tyler Steele. Jack Harkness is about here and there, but Hartman’s Torchwood is still, at least technically, in control. And PC-cum-Sergeant Andy Davidson (last seen in a moderately disturbing relationship with Yvonne), has become director of the committee dealing with the rescue and recovery effort for his shattered city. Meanwhile shapeshifting empath Orr might or might not have formed some sort of understanding with God, Colchester appears to have been brought back from the dead by Steele, without in fact understanding as much, and Ng, the one-time-and-possibly-still herald of God who hid out in the body of, and now has many of the personality traits of, Gwen Cooper, without in any way actually being her, is somewhat unsure of her past and her future but in the meantime is saving the world as best she can.
This is where we come in to this box set. By the time we reach the end, there’ll have been a fairly epic sweep towards the destruction of the planet, Andy will have shot an innocent teenager, God will have given away her powers, Orr will love everyone, Ng will have discovered the inherent superpower of Welsh women, and at least one podcaster will have been torn to shreds by thin air. Welcome to God Among Us, Part 3.
Alexandria Riley (who also plays Ng), takes writing duties to start us off here, and delivers a powerful piece, driven at us as if to-camera for large chunks of time by the wonder that is Mina Anwar. Anwar plays Bethan, mother of a young man who’s still missing after the Cardiff tsunami, and her grief is a powerful motivator to her strength and tenacity in this episode as she tries to find out what’s happened to her son – whether he’s still alive, or if not, what happened to him. She’s our window on the world of some of our Torchwood favourites in the wake of the disaster, and she unveils a cover-up as to who was behind the orders to evacuate parts of Cardiff, who gave the orders for the military to make preparations for the tsunami strike, who did any of it. When the inquiry into the incident demands answers, all that anyone can tell them is that they…don’t recall who gave them the orders. Bethan ultimately figures out the truth – or at least a version of it – and gains at least a little piece of mind, somewhat bolstered by a random encounter with Orr, who is driven by Bethan’s pain and need to ‘become’ her son Anthony for at least a little while.
Here’s the thing – we should be taking Riley’s writing more seriously. Absolutely, Mina Anwar is a powerhouse in this episode, driving it on, giving us glimpses into the characters-under-pressure of a city in crisis. But only once you’ve gone through the box set do you sit and assess the whole thing, and only then does the intricacy, the cleverness and the natural tone of Riley’s script really hit you. It opens up the post-tsunami world to us, providing a perfect first slice of action for this box set and a satisfying whodunnitandwhy, while mostly focusing on the human emotional cost of disasters, and the contrast between human effort to help those affected by such events and the necessary but inherently soulless bureaucracy that has to deal with the world after such catastrophes on a purely logistical basis. It’s affecting, effective writing, and more from Riley in all corners of the written world would be welcome on the basis of this introduction.
Robin Bell’s ScrapeJane delivers a kind of Blade Runner horror story of modern mythology and the power of belief, in which Mr Colchester and Ng have to defeat a bogeywoman admittedly created in the last handful of years – by of all people an ‘urban explorer’ hoping to interest people online in Cardiff’s history. There is of course nothing wrong with creating bogeywomen to encourage an interest in history.
Until your fictional bogeywoman starts slaughtering not only annoying podcasters but nests full of Weevils without a by-your-leave. The quest to find and pacify the invented ScrapeJane gives Colchester (himself now feeling like he is living on the borrowed time of Colin’s belief in him, as he’s under the impression that it was Colin, rather than Tyler, who brought him back to life) and Ng, the one-time God-herald, now-Welshwoman-impersonator and world-saver and equally uncertain of her future, a chance to go beneath the surface of their day-job and exchange some honest insecurities. It’s the kind of getting-to-really-know-you fare which Torchwood has regularly done with great aplomb, and Robin Bell adds creditably to the series’ store of character-stories, while also investigating truth, fiction, creativity, ownership and belief in a very contemporary way. There’s even a bit of brave humour in here, as Bell writes characters telling invented characters that wanting to meet – and even take revenge on – their creators is unoriginal and has been done before. Imagine the ‘meta’ nature of writing that, and then tinge it with a sad note, as Bell himself is sadly no longer with us. As with Riley, it would have been good to hear more from him at Big Finish.
Day Zero, by Tim Foley, turns up the dial on the threat noise-floor, as Cardiff runs out of drinkable water. Isolated, with no relief able to get through, the city’s hit by a poison in its water supply. If every civilisation is just three meals away from revolution, Foley’s script asks us to imagine what happens to a major modern city if, all of a sudden – thank you news blackouts to ‘reduce panic,’ and yes, you’re entirely free to slide Operation Yellowhammer into your mind at this point if you like – there’s no water. No bathing, no showering, no toilet-flushing, no drinking, surprisingly little by the way of cooking, in a city already stretched to crisis-point.
The tension in this script (ahem) boils over when it turns out there’s one place with a source of clean water, and it becomes a focal point for dissent and battles, with Torchwood on one side, thirsty vigilantes on the other and Andy’s Disaster Recovery Committee in the middle trying to seize the source and allocate the water as it sees fit. The fundamentals of a solid dystopian science-fiction story are right here – remove something crucial from society and write what happens – but this being Torchwood, there’s a handful of unexpected twists, especially as Orr exists to give people what they want. In a city suddenly very thirsty, that has distinct consequences, but it’s also this episode that shows us the character divisions of what was once a united team, and which since the return of alt-Yvonne, has been carrying on as regardless as possible, trying to paper over the colossal cracks in the fabric of the city’s existence. This is a story that feels like it should draw battle lines, but its point is rather more subtle than that. Yes, it takes us into a hell of sudden deprivation (a hell, incidentally, already faced by millions of people on our planet, not all of them that far removed from our wastefulness), but it also shows us what happens when that deprivation ends, when everyone looks away and doesn’t tackle the division of which they were part. Day Zero feels important for that lesson, for the ‘What happens next?’ question of a society divided to the death.
And finally, all these increasing tensions and agonies and strong episodes need to come together at some point and explode. In Thoughts And Prayers by James Goss, the neat conceit is that thoughts and prayers actually work, that they provide an energy for gods (or those to whom gods have delegated their powers), which is then up for the taking and using by any power big enough to effectively threaten a god. The Committee are back, and ooh, they’ve made Torchwood all spick and span again, with a rift manipulator far more advanced than even TV Torchwood ever had. Think Stargate and you’re not far wrong. As the end of the world advances, there are ever more thoughts and prayers to process, and the energy builds to a climax that looks like it’s going to go one way – the phrase ‘I was trying to do my duty’ is mentioned, to the delight of all Hartman-fans – but then doesn’t go quite the way you think it will. The aftermath of Thoughts and Prayers is vaguely familiar territory perhaps, because you can only have a cataclysm if it has consequences, and there are only so many ways you can spin those consequences, but it leaves plenty of room for creativity in terms of where to take Torchwood from here. We’re not by any means necessarily looking at another re-boot after this, but whatever’s next from Torchwood will be filled with post-almost-apocalyptic challenges to overcome.
At the end of a series of box sets that have occasionally been challenging and have occasionally included episodes which mostly focused on character without advancing the plot, God Among Us Part 3 is that rare thing – a roller-coaster ride with plenty of emotional highs and lows, but no drops in quality from start to finish. It’s a belter, from the highly effective, personally-driven first episode to the roaring, screaming, ‘So this is it, we’re going to die!’ conclusion. You absolutely need to have followed the new Torchwood more or less from the beginning to get the most out of this box set. But it’s a conclusion that makes the journey thoroughly worthwhile. Tony Fyler