Torchwood One: Machines – Starring Tracy-Ann Oberman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Jane Asher, Paterson Joseph, James Wilby, Adjoa Andoh, Niky Wardley, Daniel Anthony, Tim Bentinck, Trevor Neal, Claire Wyatt, Helen Goldwyn & Nicholas Pegg. Written by Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd & Tim Foley. Directed by Barnaby Edwards – 3xCD / Download (Big Finish)
Ahhh, Torchwood One.
The version of Torchwood based in Canary Wharf, as seen on TV in Doctor Who and as run by the vaguely fascistic, or at least distinctly imperial Yvonne Hartman, played by Tracy-Ann Oberman.
Torchwood One has always seemed like an organisation in transition – in its TV appearance, it seemed to translate a Victorian imperialism into the 21st century, and as such combine the best in humanity’s scientific broad-mindedness with the worst in terms of its nationalistic ideology of dominance, Hartman going to her death ‘for Queen and Country,’ having outlined her remit as being to horde alien artefacts not for the world, but for Britain and its interests, wherever they would ultimately lie.
Torchwood One on audio has given us the opportunity to see a little more humanity in Hartman, and a little more of that transitional phase for Torchwood One as a whole – while absolutely staying true to the post-dated yuppie culture and adding in the 21st century elements of ‘caring commercial culture,’ especially in Yvonne herself, who knows everybody’s name because it makes for good office politics, we’ve seen Hartman as the indefatigable wrangler, the diplomat, the finder of ways to ultimately achieve her aims – even when the organisation is stolen out from under her in Torchwood One: Before The Fall. Torchwood One itself has been revealed to us as an aspirational organisation, drawing talent from all over the country, and matching the Generation Y professionalism of the likes of Ianto Jones with the unreconstructed and entirely casual sexism of Tommy the technical genius, played by Tim Bentinck. It’s an organisation that has yet to reach the pinnacle of ‘Queen and Country’ English imperialism of its TV appearance and demise.
This three-story set pitches Torchwood One against an enemy from the black and white era of Doctor Who, WOTAN (a clever computer with a superiority complex), and it does it in a way that develops and gets more interesting as the set progresses.
The Law Machines by Matt Fitton, apart from being a glorious play on words (WOTAN, when it first appeared, set about creating itself a bunch of ‘War Machines’ and linking computers together to eradicate a humanity it judged flawed by both flesh and individuality), is a modern take on the likes of Robocop – the original War Machines have been updated, given a new look and sent out into the world as a robotic police force, able to judge wrongdoing and deliver summary punishment (Yes, there was always a touch of Judge Dredd about the idea too). The ‘Law Machines’ have of course been entirely purged of any control by WOTAN, which was deleted way back in the Sixties.
Well, of course it wasn’t. Something survived on a spool, on a drive, on a data stick, something of the WOTAN machine consciousness, which is now using a new human stooge to infect an increasing number of laptops, systems and eventually of course, the Law Machines for its own purpose.
There’s a glorious moment in The Law Machines when WOTAN, which sees connectivity between machines as the key to growing its power, demands to be connected. Its stooge simply plugs it into the internet, like a baby being given a dummy. And of course, that’s part of the genius and the challenge about resurrecting this particular villain – the behind the scenes interviews include the line ‘I once sent a copy of The War Machines to Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the internet. He wrote back, saying “I am a fraud,”’ the implication being that Doctor Who envisioned the internet as science fiction before Berners-Lee made it a reality.
Back in the Sixties, the idea of interconnected computers that developed Artificial Intelligence was a thing to be feared. Now, it’s the most staggering of commonplaces. We’ve moved on, so making WOTAN threatening again is something of a creative challenge – but it’s one to which Fitton rises rather well, as Yvonne Hartman and the team take on the relic of Sixties computer megalomania as it learns its way around the early 21st century.
There’s a good story here, particularly in terms of a thread beneath the surface of the Law Machines and the WOTAN awakening, with Hartman’s Torchwood advocating for something called the Vision Protocols, a kind of permanent surveillance of the civilian population. When Hartman tells you if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear, there are chilling back-references to the reality of political chicanery at the turn of the century, and there’s also a speech from Yvonne that shows her motivations and her plans – she despises the ordinary people of the UK, and yet she protects them, waiting for the day when, with her help and guidance, they can become something great, they can fulfil a big idea of a Greater Britain, setting itself apart and over the rest of the world. Until that day, she vows, the world can rely on Torchwood to preserve it in all its petty obsessions. Torchwood may not yet be quite ‘ready’ for the 21st century, but it’s ready enough to do what’s necessary.
Blind Summit by Gareth David-Lloyd is a story you don’t want to miss if you’re a fan of Ianto Jones. It gives you Ianto’s first encounters with Torchwood One – his life in London before the organisation poked its nose into his affairs, and his first active mission for Torchwood, investigating a drug trial that seems to be creating supermen – or lunatics. Or indeed both simultaneously. There’s a lot of texture to Ianto’s life and personality here, as he makes the uneasy transition from ‘ordinary’ citizen to ‘Torchwood-aware’ operative. What’s neat is that the drug being trialled involves data from the same archive as the Law Machines, so the theme of WOTAN’s presence is maintained, but more than that, this story really focuses on the hard human choices of the life of a Torchwood operative, and particularly, Torchwood’s leader, Yvonne. David-Lloyd’s writing of Torchwood stories, while never slouchy, takes a big leap forward here and he comes closer to an urban version of the bleakness of Countrycide than the buddy movie of his last story for Ianto, The Last Beacon. Seriously, even if the return of WOTAN means nothing to you, don’t miss out on Blind Summit, it’ll help put a lot of what you think you know about Ianto into a better, darker context than you ever imagined.
9 to 5 by Tim Foley is a corollary to The Law Machines, without for the most part giving its games away. An odd temp agency sends out temps of an unparalleled perkiness, efficiency and sunny disposition. They’re not creepy-perky, just instilled with a corporate ethos of doing the best job they can do, as efficiently as possible. What could be wrong there…right?
Yvonne and Ianto couldn’t tell you – at least not at first. But when they befriend a temp named Stacey, played by Niky Wardley, things begin to unravel as more and more questions emerge without satisfactory answers.
Without giving the game away, WOTAN’s the program that just won’t die, and the story brings a cold logic to the idea of artificial intelligence – it adapts, it learns, it flows around problems and it finds resource-appropriate solutions. If The Law Machines was a gentle poke of the stick at the fact that we’ve gone beyond the Sixties paranoia of interconnected computer systems and artificial intelligence, 9 to 5 uses the idea of artificial intelligence adaptation to make WOTAN a credible, 21st century threat (while also carrying the bonus of a villain played by the joy that is Jane Asher).
Torchwood One: Machines is an unusual, inventive set, pitting a version of Torchwood seen on TV in just two episodes against a Sixties enemy who’s at least initially lost much of their sting. What it brings though is a premise established, and then updated, with a cracking Ianto-at-Torchwood origin story to join the two together. For Torchwood fans, it also shows Torchwood One at a stage in its evolution where it’s not perhaps as nakedly invasive and paternalistic as it would eventually become, but where some seeds are sewn for its development in that direction. Tony Fyler