Ten years ago, Torchwood: Children of Earth terrified a nation and later a world with its gritty, ghastly prospect: aliens who were addicted to the secretions of children, and who wanted to take a job lot away with them, or they’d kill us all. The horror of the concept made Children of Earth a dark high point in TV Torchwood’s career, and one of the particular spikes of horror was that (spoilers, but get over yourself, it’s been ten years), Ianto Jones, Torchwood operative and lover of Jack Harkness, was killed.
To commemorate that ten year deathiverssary, Big Finish has released Torchwood: Serenity, a story featuring Jack and Ianto set back in their heyday, when they were working out exactly what it was they had together. As if to highlight the uncertainty of that, James Moran (whose last Torchwood work was apparently on Children of Earth – how has a decade gone by and allowed that to happen?) puts Jack and Ianto in a kind of Desperate Housewives – Of Death! scenario, a gated community in Cardiff, where life couldn’t be more Stepford, more suburban, more passive aggressive if it tried. It’s all cheery greetings, beaming smiles and prizes for the best kept lawn.
It’s hell on earth, and Torchwood’s investigating.
To anchor the episode back in the days of Ianto being alive, Serenity also gives us a return engagement for a Series 2 villain, an organisation ideally suited to invasion and destruction through weekend barbecues and very small small talk. The episode unfolds like Mr and Mrs Smith meets Men In Black… in Cardiff, with Jack going cheerily off to work each day, leaving Ianto to be househusband and to deal with all the helpful, polite, smiley visits by the neighbours to discuss the length of his lawn grass and the state of the as-yet-unwashed car. It’s a subtle but staggeringly honest satire on the domestic Fascism of collective ‘niceness,’ and the difficulty of not punching neighbourhood busybodies in the face. And Ianto, remember, is no domestic slouch – he’s a man who wears a suit to serve coffee.
As the episode unfolds, so does the alien threat, but not before Jack and Ianto have enormous fun impersonating each other’s characters, fend off threesomes and foursomes, endure a barbecue full of meat-based knob gags and realise the consequences of foiling this particular alien invasion.
Underneath all this of course are those awkward questions any relatively new relationship doesn’t want to ask, but has to find ways to get past – what is it we have? Are we just having fun or could this be a serious thing? Do we want it to be a serious thing? Do we want to blow up the house and take everyone else’s house with it? Standard stuff, but given an effective Torchwood twist in this story. By putting these two characters in the environment of ultra-nice neighbours, picket fences, and suburban gated ugliness, James Moran forces them to look themselves in the heart and ask ‘What the hell do I want out of this relationship? Is it going to end up here anyway, and if it does, is that right for me?’
On top of all that, there are ethical questions tackled in this otherwise relatively light-hearted script – if you have an alien threat that can ‘infect’ other people, are you justified in killing those it’s infected as a first response? Do you not have a duty to try to help the infected, or do you just kill them? Imagine the zombie apocalypse – do you reason with the zombies as they march towards you, or do you shoot first, run away second, and agonise about the morality of it all at some later, safer date over a bottle of wine or whiskey?
And just when you think that’s the peak of moral indecision with which this story will present you, Moran adds another layer to the question. If there was a threat to your way of life, and you could press a single button to make it go away – silently, distantly, with no immediate impact on you – but to press the button meant death for other people, meant potentially genocide, could you press the button?
In an age of nuclear weapons and drone warfare, these are important questions, and here they underline a fundamental difference between a Jack who still feels he’s bound by the ideas of the Tenth Doctor, and Ianto, who for all his experience at Torchwood One, still has qualms about standing at that moral crisis point and doing the deadly thing. In this story it actually makes you ponder the question of whether the Tenth Doctor is the best example to learn from, and whether Jack, perhaps, has grown so used to having ‘no choice’ but to do the deadly thing it’s become his first choice. It makes you wonder how far he is down the path of remote-access death and destruction, how far divorced he is from the consequences of death, as an immortal. How far his vision of the ‘bigger picture’ has deafened him to the immediate, horrifying consequences of his actions – a crisis to which he’s re-introduced through the events of Children of Earth.
But before you get the impression that this is all angsty death and consequences, that’s just a moment towards the end. For the most part, this is a celebration of Jack and Ianto, a funny scenario of domestic bliss and whether they’re ready for it now, or ever will be. But, y’know, with aliens wanting to take over the world, one barbecue at a time. It’s a cracking listen and a laugh-out-loud reunion for the winners of Team Torchwood’s Hottest Couple Award. Give it a go, and then get out and trim your privet – you never know who might be watching… Tony Fyler