Audio Torchwood has made two particular formats enormously popular and successful. The situation where you have one Torchwood member in weird circumstances with an outside character or two for context has delivered some of the best and most gripping audio in the range. And pairing up two Torchwooders whose characters sparks interesting chemistry and gives the threat or situation a whole other dimension has given us delights that would rarely have worked on TV.
One of the best combinations in the range is Sergeant Andy Davidson (Tom Price) and Owen Harper (Burn Gorman). In fact, they’ve become audio Torchwood’s prime odd couple. Every time they’ve worked together, they’ve hit the script, the drama, and most particularly the comedy out of the park.
In The Three Monkeys, from James Goss, the comedy is more to the fore than it has been in the pair’s other outings, but that comedic foregrounding lets the story ripple with unsettling undertones when the genuine threat of the episode is revealed. It’s also probably worth noting that their previous episodes together have involved a suburban torture chamber and a serial child killer, so bringing the comedy more to the fore than those is a) not that big a challenge, and b) an enormous relief.
The premise of The Three Monkeys is fairly simple.
Some guys have all the luck.
Unscrupulous, thieving, conniving bastards with no thought for the consequences of their own actions on the little people down below.
It’s a strange, Twilight Zone concept, obviously, but try to go with it.
For the most part, unscrupulous bastards seem content to believe that their unscrupulous bastardy brings its own rewards, and the world, complicit in their gittery, seems content to let this be the case. Being ruthless, being heartless, being devoid of care for the consequences of your actions just breeds success, we say.
But what if there were more to it than that?
What if, like Aladdin, they had help to get their wishes fulfilled? To get the results they wanted? What if they had a shield from the consequences of their actions, something that – to borrow a phrase from TV’s Robots of Sherwood – bestowed a climate of extraordinary benevolence on everything they did?
Somebody’s rigging the system, and Andy Davidson wants to bring them down.
In this story, Andy’s reasons are more personal than police – some of the consequences of the actions of one particular protected bastard have landed squarely on his family. Lives ruined. Reputations destroyed, people who died as a result of the stress dumped on them by the actions of a mogul. All those consequences, swept under the carpet with a phone call, or escaped through acts of god…
Rule One of Torchwood – never trust an act of god. The gods are malicious, and probably alien.
Owen, on the other hand, has been sent along as an expression of Torchwood curiosity – or ‘to help out a mate,’ if you believe that sort of thing. He goes along as Andy, bless him, tries his hand at a little housebreaking to try and find the secrets that can bring his man down for good.
What he finds…is a monkey.
A small, cymbal-playing toy monkey, of the sort which, for those who know the stage show or the movie, serves as an entry-point to the story of the Phantom of the Opera (the story of a man who has seemingly unlimited power and success until the tide turns against him…).
Given that the monkey is hidden at what seems like enormous expense and difficulty, it seems like an unusual prize, and an even more unusual guardian from the slings and arrows of outrageous wossname.
The rest of the story seems on the surface to be much more character-based than plot-driven. But then…just possibly, that’s what the monkey wants you to think.
What the monkey is, and how it works, would be a detail or two too much to give you, but along the journey of the second half of the story, there are character developments, revelations and deepenings between the two Torchwood stalwarts, and you begin to hear them more clearly than they’ve been heard, certainly in a while, possibly ever.
Why do they work together so well? It’s the same sort of answer as why yin and yang fit together to make a circle. Why, to borrow from another geekdom, Crowley and Aziraphale work together so well in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. They’re almost complete opposites, going in different directions, but meeting in a mid-point on their journeys and finding they fit.
Owen, the man with a great future behind him, the man who loved, and was to some extent betrayed and robbed by death, is alive beyond the point of death, almost rejected by death and forced to live on, but robbed of all life’s sensual wonders. His viewpoint is compassionate but downward-focused, unsure when this unnatural life will end, but aware that only nothingness awaits.
Andy is a man who sometimes feels the significance of his life has passed him by – the moment when Gwen was chosen for Torchwood and he wasn’t robbing him of a whole other life of meaning that he could have had. His focus is compassionate too, but upward-looking, determined that he’s still here, and every day he’s here, he can do…at least something to make life better for people.
The family drama revealed early on feels like an affront to that conviction. The idea that he can be as good and as positive as he likes, and some bastards will still have all the luck offends him. And, more pertinently, the real-life consequences of such people having all the fortune offends him even more.
And so, in their differently-facing compassion and curiosity, they find themselves together. In a car, in Cardiff’s outlying regions. With a monkey.
There are glorious comic moments here – an audio riff on a Men In Black scene where Andy’s busy burgling and trips off alarms in the distance while Owen, trapped in a car, is questioned by police is a particular joy.
But more than that, there’s a thin crust of banter laid over a growing odd-couple relationship of wary friendship, which endures some plain speaking as the fate of the meddling monkey (We’re sorry, it was there, we had to use it!) hangs in the balance. More and more as the car chase between our hapless heroes and the forces of gittery and officialdom goes on, each of them is forced to face up to some of their own self-protective fantasy.
The things they say they want, the things they plan or planned to do are all very well, but if they could be granted the power to do whatever they wanted…would either of their lives change very much?
It’s time to find out. Hold the monkey…
James Goss is a writer you can rely on to give you good fun for your money, and usually to use it as a carrier medium for deeper, meaningful points as you go from one end of his stories to another, without ever weighing you down unnecessarily.
There’s some great character work here about Owen’s status as a dead man (an ongoing journey in the audio Torchwood that never got the space or time it really needed on-screen), and while it’s the lightest of their episodes together, that works well as a medium for them and us to find out more about both Owen and Andy as human beings, rather than as characters serving a plot.
Try The Three Monkeys for a compassion-fuelled romp with dreams, aspirations, a solid dose of self-realization and a monkey. You know it’s what your days have been missing. Tony Fyler