Torchwood One: Latter Days – Starring Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Tim Bentinck, Barbara Flynn, Derek Griffiths & Michael Maloney. Written by Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd & Tim Foley & Directed by Barnaby Edwards – CD / Download (Big Finish)
There have been three box sets exploring the work of Torchwood One – the at least semi-imperialist protectors of queen and country we first really explored when they were beggaring about fracturing reality to let some ‘ghosts’ through from another dimension on TV. Given the nature of the organisation as it was introduced to us, delivering stories from an organisation so skewed towards narrow national advantage might have seemed challenging, but in essence we’ve seen it in the relatively early days of Yvonne Hartman’s governance (Before The Fall), at the height of its powers for general good, always tinged with a little bit of ruthless self-service (Machines) and now, we hear the story of Torchwood One as it winds towards what will be its inevitable end.
A large part of making these stories work given the nature of Torchwood One has been getting the character stories right: showing us some of the positives in Hartman’s (Tracy Ann Oberman) nature, tempering her naked avarice for Britain’s advantage with a bigger role than might have been imagined for Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) within the infrastructure, and in particular the addition of Tommy (Tim Bentinck), the alcoholic, northern, head of alien acquisitions who acts as the antithesis of Hartman’s corporate smoothness, being unreconstructed by political correctness or even really a passing acquaintance with the moral standards of the 21st century, allowing the writers to puncture the slickness of Hartman’s operation and bring it down a peg or two.
In this set, there’s an overarching sense of endings, and we open with Retirement Plan, also written by Gareth David-Lloyd. In some senses, the storyline is at least half obvious. Tommy, ageing and not keen on the standard Torchwood retirement plan, which like the Men In Black of the movies, involves a mind-wipe and in his case four decades of false memories about working as a bus mechanic, builds himself an alternative retirement destination, using alien tech to construct his ideal virtual environment. He plans, it seems, to upload his consciousness into a virtual Spanish villa and then kill his three-dimensional body, so he can live on in perfect, electronic, climate-controlled paradise, all paella and piss-ups on the Costa Del Sol.
The comedy that comes from Ianto demanding to have a look around the virtual environment is fairly obvious – there’s a shortage of physical templates, so most of the non-player characters are based on a mutual colleague named John, and you get no prizes for guessing who the template is for Tommy’s feisty, hot-blooded Spanish wife. The plot that comes from this look-around is fairly self-explanatory too, and could have been forecast significantly in advance by anyone who’s seen a sci-fi dystopia movie in the last thirty years, but nevertheless, it delivers in two important respects. It allows us to spend some unfiltered time with Tommy, who explains everything Torchwood has taken from him over his years of service, and how the standard retirement option simply isn’t good enough when he’s spent his life saving the world and paying the price of secrecy for the heartless organisation that Torchwood really is, beneath Hartman’s veneer of charm. And secondly, David-Lloyd writing for Ianto means a tactic of the virtual environment shows us the inner fantasy life of our favourite PA, and Ianto Jones, Secret Agent is born. Smash the cheesiest bits of Roger Moore’s Bond together with a sweetly subversive British version of Knight Rider, underpinned by a score that surely must come bum-squeakingly close to copyright dodginess without ever actually getting there, and you have a thing of mad, mad glory. While it feels like a sudden transition from Tommy’s fantasy world to Ianto’s, and it probably felt in the writing like the last conceivable opportunity to explore this part of the inner mindscape of Ianto, so joyous a thing is it that probably, as with Ace Rimmer in Red Dwarf, every excuse should be found for weaving the adventures of Ianto Jones, Secret Agent into future main range Torchwood releases.
As a story, it delivers a handful of joy in the secret agent section, a deeper and more poignant understanding of Tommy’s nature and history, and if there’s any justice in this drab old world, it should deliver sackfuls of plaudits to Oberman’s door, for a gameness of spirit which has her undercutting her usual character six ways from Sunday, adding something delicious every time she picks a new accent for her range of non-player characters.
Locker 15, by Matt Fitton is an odd-ish story. It starts small, building and building towards a potential explosion, and then has that shiny sting of Torchwood One ruthlessness right at the end to take the knees out from under you.
Every organisation of any considerable size doesn’t just involve the people who choose to work specifically for it, or have skills that particularly serve its causes. There are always going to be cooks and cleaners, toilet-scrubbers, bin-emptiers and chip-fryers (or more probably, at Torchwood One, salad-dressers). Locker 15 examines the life and lot of these people. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an organisation that deals with the kind of things it does, the Retcon flows freely in the veins of these contract staff, building up after years and years of nightly mind-wiping.
Which can be a problem when it turns out one of them left something dangerous in one of the lockers, and no-one else can get in. When the thing in the locker starts negatively affecting the number of people who work there, a new mission is launched – get the cleaner back in to sort it out.
Except the cleaner in question is a bloke called Dave (played by TV legend Derek Griffiths), and he’s in an old people’s home, his mind turning to rot-gut and his memory of Torchwood, such as it is, turning to Swiss cheese.
The last great hope for humanity is broken out of the home, wheeled once more down the corridors of Torchwood One, and brought face to face with the locker of unspeakable grimness. What happens next would be a major spoiler to the episode, but what you’ve been led to think is flipped on its head when the actual contents of locker 15 are revealed. Ultimately, this story’s only contextually about the alien threat to Torchwood, London, and humanity. Really, it deals in the ruthlessness of the organisation, with its policy of relentlessly wiping the memories of its support staff ‘for queen and country,’ and especially of its leader, who cannot ever be seen to have dropped too big a ball, in case such an error shows weakness to those who would wrest her organisation from her. It’s a shocking story in terms of its impact, which is hammered home by the straightness of Griffiths’ performance, contrasting its quietness and humility against the wild screaming sirens of a Torchwood One in turmoil, and the desperation that drives the organisation, and Hartman in particular to seek out this seemingly ‘unimportant’ individual again to solve their problems for them. Importantly, the Torchwood One of Locker 15 feels like the Torchwood of Army of Ghosts, all gleaming efficiency and smoothness on the surface, but with Hartman increasingly overconfident of her power, with creeping strangeness under the water, stealing her staff and rotting the organisation away from below.
We end the set with The Rockery by Tim Foley, and a landmark addition to the legend of Yvonne Hartman – her mother, Anne, played with both brio and sensitivity by Barbara Flynn. In fact, we get to see some of the familial ties and tugs that made Yvonne Hartman who she is. A daddy’s girl in the sense that they both had a strong commitment to duty and a determination to see it done, she was never especially close to her mother, who had depressive episodes and was seen to be rather ‘letting the side down’ as a result. With her mother’s sudden decision to move to the Shropshire countryside despite hating the outdoors, despising gardening and viewing fresh air with a deep and not unjustified suspicion, the chance is there for the two to form a new understanding of each other. Instead, Yvonne gives her a housewarming gift of an alien plant, which Yvonne is trying to study in a safe environment. Anne, the plant, Yvonne and the cheery (naturally already checked out on Torchwood’s databases) neighbour, William (played with an against-type ‘normality’ by Michael Maloney) are in for a bumpy ride – especially after Anne pours weed killer over her new plant. Ultimately though, the two Hartmans do find a way to come together more than they ever have before. The denouement at the end is flagged up sufficiently early for you to get its full load of pathos, but still, when it comes it’ll hit you with a satisfying melancholy.
Overall, this is a box set which makes it easy to engage with its stories – Retirement Plan and The Rockery in particular. Locker 15 is more of a challenge, but that’s mostly because it keeps some of its key cards close to its chest until it’s fully ready to play them, so the script-flip when it comes is more effective. The set as a whole is a solid reflection of a Torchwood One beginning to wane, beginning to let in cracks and corruptions for all the bright shiny plastic confidence of its leader. It’s the version of Torchwood One closest to what we saw on screen and a solid capper to the Torchwood One box sets.
Pop into the Wharf one more time and hear Torchwood One in its Latter Days. You won’t be disappointed. Tony Fyler