Torchwood: The Last Beacon – Starring Burn Gorman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Ellie Darvill, Daniel Hawksford, Rick Yale, Luke Williams, Charlotte O’Leary, Kristy Philips, Laura Dalgleish, Richard Elfyn & Marilyn Le Conte Written by Gareth David-Lloyd & Directed by Scott Handcock – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Torchwood, like its parent show Doctor Who, has shown it has a capacity to tell every kind of story under the sun, from the light and comic to the appallingly grim.
The Last Beacon is Torchwood: The Odd Couple, the combination of two absolutely opposite personalities in a single situation, and how they go about not only surviving the rigours of the case, but having to work together despite the opposite directions in which their natures guide them. It’s also a story that will resonate with anyone who’s ever really wanted a promotion, or had to impress an authority figure who they fear sees the world through entirely different eyes.
What that gives you is comedy Torchwood of the highest calibre, as Ianto Jones – sweet, optimistic, clever but grounded Welsh Valleys boy, Ianto Jones – takes on a case in the company of Torchwood medic Owen Harper. Owen Harper, who’s the very archetype of the sneery Englishman stuck in Wales, who’s at least a bit of an arse to everyone, and who thinks almost everyone is basically contemptible.
What could possibly go wrong?
Very little, in Torchwood terms. Ianto and Owen are on a mission to investigate and shut down an alien beacon lodged in the dark heart of the Welsh Valleys. That means travelling on never-punctual buses, and pretending, gods help them, to be geocachers wandering the hills, Ianto with a practical ‘Val-da-reeeee’ on his lips, Owen fantasising about places to hide the jolly Welshman’s body. It means facing the cheery hopelessness of endless chain kebab shops, and Valleys wannabe-tough guys, and nosy or ‘friendly’ landladies. It also means dealing with strange smells, terrifying possible-illusions, ghost miners, and…erm…badgers from outer space.
Written by and starring Ianto actor, Gareth David-Lloyd, The Last Beacon is a much lighter story than was told the last time the Torchwood team ventured into the Welsh countryside, for…erm… Countrycide, and simply put, it’s the story of Ianto gaining his Torchwood stripes, moving up in the world from the bloke who makes the coffee for the ‘real’ Torchwood team, to becoming a full and active member of that team. It’s an assignment, a test, and an utter joy from start to finish.
The actual assignment itself – beacons, ghost miners, space badgers, oh my! – is relatively simple, but the scenario gives Ianto enough scope to prove himself as resourceful, compassionate and strong-minded. The real business of The Last Beacon though is in the character comedy of forcing Ianto and Owen together over an extended period, with Owen technically acting as Ianto’s boss, but Ianto being in tenuous command on this mission. It’s also about a matter of viewpoint. The Welsh Valleys make sense to Ianto. Their small communities, their knowing what everyone’s up to, their looking out for one another, it’s all a fundamental fact of his youth, of what makes Ianto who he is. Yes, he’s moved on, lived in cities, learned the importance of a sharp suit and a hot coffee and of working very hard to do the best job he can, but that small community spirit runs in Ianto’s veins.
For the most part, metropolitan superiority runs in Owen’s, and the contrast between them is enormously funny but also fairly poignant. Where Ianto sees warmth and sharing and intrinsic interwoven values, Owen mostly sees a colossally intrusive, low-barred lifestyle that makes a waste of the awesome potential of a human life.
Beyond the joyful character comedy of Ianto and Owen trying to work together in an environment loved by the one and loathed by the other then, there’s an underlying philosophical argument in The Last Beacon: small communities – havens of warm-hearted people who pull together and care for each other, or covens of small-minded people who demand to know everyone else’s business and reserve the right to pass judgment?
It’s a philosophical debate played out, believe it or not, through the alien adventure, and given an extra poignancy by the decision the Torchwooders have to make about how to resolve the matter of the alien beacon blazing away in the Welsh Valleys, sending come-and-get-us signals to the stars. If it ultimately pushes one side of the argument more strongly than the other, you could say that it has to, in order to answer the very questions it asks. And at the end of the story, there are admissions of a broader humanity from Owen the Ice King that hint at his true nature, underneath the superior sneer.
The Last Beacon is a story that knows it has to deliver an alien mystery, and does, but in which the story is rather subservient to the pleasure of the character-based laughter it rips out of you, and the ultimately slightly sentimental smile it leaves on your lips. David-Lloyd as Ianto is the perennial new boy wanting to make good, the optimist, the believer in people, while Burn Gorman’s Owen is a glorious scorched-earth miseryguts and a fish very definitely out of his comfortable water in this story. The combination of the two makes for a Torchwood story not only more accessible to occasional viewers and listeners than many, but also for a ‘buddy movie’ that recommends itself for a re-listen for the simple pleasure of the relationship.
Grab The Last Beacon and have a romp in the Valleys with two of Torchwood’s finest. Tony Fyler