There’s a lot in Torchwood: The Vigil, but you may not realise quite how much until you’ve finished listening to it the first time, and the layers of story and character come back to you. As you go through it the first time, the story’s fairly straightforward – this is a tale from early in Tosh’s Torchwood career, when – as we’ve seen from the TV version – she was both instinctively tech-brilliant and deeply unsure about her skills, her worthiness, and for most of her time, the advisability of her saying boo to anything more challenging than a goose. Throwing her into an active operation with Sebastian Vaughan – an aristocratic James Bond-alike, hardcore Hooray Henry, and equally new Torchwood operative – shows the contrast between Tosh and the seemingly ‘typical’ recruit of, perhaps, an earlier iteration of Torchwood. Daddy’s pulled some strings to get Sebastian into the alien-fighting service, rather than the standard MI5 route which might well have otherwise been his career path, whereas we know Tosh was rescued by Torchwood – and specifically by Jack Harkness – after getting involved with techno-gittery and blackmail-merchants and then falling foul of UNIT. They could hardly be more different in history or character, and they’re teamed up to deal with an infestation of vortex leeches.
Yes, they’re as disgusting as they sound, thanks for asking.
The thing is, the storytelling is split into two parallel strands – the past, mostly consisting of Tosh and Sebastian working on the problem of the leeches, and (and this really shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler to you, given the story’s called The Vigil, and one tends not to hold vigils for friends who come out of experiences alive, well and smiling), the present, in which Sebastian… well, he’s not as alive as is generally judged to be optimal.
In fact, if you want to be really picky, he’s distinctly sub-optimal in the whole ‘being alive’ stakes.
Leeches – they’re a bugger of a thing.
Once he’s dead, there’s a tradition to be observed. Unlike most Torchwood operatives, Sebastian Vaughan’s body has to be taken home to his mother. Because that’s just what Vaughans do. The family has a long history of service to the nation in war after war after war, and every time they’ve given their all in that service, their bodies are shipped home to be among their ancestors.
Sebastian Vaughan’s most immediate ancestor, his mother, is still alive and distinctly kicking. Throughout this story, she gives the impression that what she’d like to be kicking is Tosh, who, with her timidity, her uncertainty, and her general lack of dashed moral fibre, Mother Dearest feels is obviously ultimately responsible for the death of her big brave boy.
You almost don’t need to know any more about the story – you can probably see it spool out ahead of you. The leeches have evolved from mindless hunters to set traps, to keep their meat fresh until they can find a new victim, and so the leeches, like vampires in some of the better Victorian vampire stories, pluck on the heartstrings of their victim’s friends and relatives, setting us up for a second round of Torchwoody goodness as Tosh has to find her mettle against gittishness of both the human and alien kinds.
The story is one of Tosh if not entirely finding her feet and her sense of self, then at least outlasting someone who was supposedly ‘born’ for the job, by doing things her own way – doing the research, getting the data, making decisions based on good intelligence, and, when necessary, going several extra miles to do the right thing.
What doesn’t really hit you until after your first listen is the richness of the characterisation and the backstory it lends to the whole thing. Sebastian is frankly awful on every level – and the chances are, most people (certainly most women) will have encountered him, from warehouse supervisors to boardroom bully-boys, and in every social circle imaginable. Privileged, certain of his own power and therefore of his own inevitable rightness, building connections by swinging his…personality about the place, and both intentionally and unintentionally belittling the efforts, the self-worth and the confidence of people who are not like him.
When you re-listen to the story, you’re significantly on the side of the leeches.
But his mother, Madeline, played as if looking down a glacial nose at everything not-we by Lucy Robinson, is equally vile and domineering, and actually helps explain where Sebastian’s granite sense of entitlement and self-certainty comes from. She delivers that odd combination of coddling of the Little Prince of the family, and the crushing weight of expectation that comes with having A Family, rather than just a family. The Vaughans have Standards. Ancestors. A code to maintain from generation to generation, and Madeline’s casual certainty that they’re a cut above almost anyone, and several cuts above the likes of Toshiko Sato, helps fill in some backstory of the growing Sebastian for us. By the time he’s working with Tosh, he seems to feel that she’s just not trying to fit in with the team, while he’s dumping all the gruntwork on her shoulders because – well, because someone else does that, don’t they?
All in all, the plot and the characterisation strands of The Vigil work well in harmony, and each would be weaker without the other. The plot on its own would be a standard ‘alien beasties not quite as dead as you assume they are’ story from before Series One of televised Torchwood. The characterisation alone would be ‘Tosh is a fish out of water with an eminently slapable colleague’ – which, given her ongoing infatuation with Owen for quite some time would not be entirely new either. But the subtle ways in which Lou Morgan intertwines both elements means that The Vigil is an emotionally satisfying listen that rewards a re-run, allowing you to pick up new elements and nuances each time. Tony Fyler