❉ An overview of Big Finish’s Torchwood audio range.
As good as Big Finish Productions’ Torchwood audio dramas have been overall, an honest assessment requires acknowledging an underlying frustration that’s only recently been addressed. Prior to last month’s release of the first set from the Aliens Among Us storyline, the stories rarely ventured beyond the fourth TV series in the Torchwood timeline. Aliens Among Us, which is being billed as “Series Five”, is a welcome progression from – and improvement upon – Miracle Day. It also presents a good opportunity to review how far the series has come under Big Finish’s guidance since The Conspiracy was released in September 2015.
As with Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio dramas, many of which are tightly constrained by established continuity and the fates of key characters being well-known, it’s remarkable how creative the Torchwood stories have been under more extreme circumstances. Narratively speaking, Captain Jack Harkness’ immortality makes him likely to outlive all the incarnations of the Doctor, but the governing principle in this series isn’t renewal so much as mortality. Bearing that in mind, it’s not surprising that nearly half of the hour-long plays across the three monthly series to date, as well as the special releases like Outbreak and The Torchwood Archive, have revisited characters who died on-screen.
In that respect, the writers have done a consistently good job of turning a potential limitation into a springboard for some remarkable stories. This dates back to the second release, Fall to Earth, which gave Gareth David-Lloyd the kind of showcase for Ianto that he rarely got on television. Expanding the stories of characters beyond just the regulars was another early and successful approach, particularly Tracy-Ann Oberman reprising the role of Yvonne Hartman in One Rule. With Fall to Earth and One Rule being the standout releases from the first audio series, it’s unsurprising that Ianto and Yvonne were later showcased in Before the Fall, a set focusing on Torchwood One prior to the events of Army of Ghosts.
Moving into boxed-set releases was likewise an unsurprising evolution for the Torchwood range but also a fundamental shift from what the production team had been doing with the monthly titles. Because the hour-long stories generally focused on just one or two characters, their scale tended to be relatively small. Even the 2016 anniversary release The Torchwood Archive, which featured nearly every known member of the organization, was only a partial departure from this approach. Depicting events ranging from Torchwood’s Victorian-era origins to the far future contributed to building the kind of broader mythology hinted at (but never quite realized) on-screen, but the anthology-like approach still limited genuine character interaction.
Outbreak, the first true gathering of the team for Big Finish, addressed that concern but had a bigger issue that could be summarized in three words – “Children of Earth“. That miniseries, which remains the program’s pinnacle in any medium was clearly the template for Outbreak. Many elements have a familiar ring, particularly the widespread incidents of strange behavior and a threat that Jack quickly recognizes from his murky past, and it’s clearly striving for the same sense of a worldwide menace.
Outbreak wasn’t just a copy of Children of Earth, but the similarity of their premises combined with the two stories being close to each other in Torchwood’s continuity makes comparison almost inevitable. Perhaps the biggest area where the audio story suffered in comparison is that it couldn’t change the status quo the way it’s televised cousin did with Ianto’s death.
That’s part of what makes Aliens Among Us so welcome. While it seems unlikely that any primary characters will die in the course of this series, there are also no guarantees. Paradoxically, this element of uncertainty feels like Torchwood’s comfort zone.
Of course, that wouldn’t matter if the new storyline wasn’t compelling in its own right. The third series of hour-long dramas finished on an uneven note, with neither The Dying Room nor The Office of Never Was being especially impressive, but Aliens Among Us is a return to form. It’s not just about familiar characters fulfilling the roles the audience expects of them but also creating a world that makes fulfilling those roles worthwhile. Aliens Among Us – at least in its initial installment – also adopts Children of Earth as a model but appears to have learned from Outbreak’s shortcomings.
Putting aside the question of character mortality, series writers James Goss, Juno Dawson and AK Benedict (reputedly aided and abetted by some input from Russell T. Davies) collectively understand that Torchwood is at its best when the setting is recognizable as our own world with a twist. Consequently a science-fiction spin on concerns about accepting refugees – combined with the lingering impact of the 2008 financial crisis – is a perfect springboard. Working from this foundation, director Scott Handcock gets the best out of the cast. While neither John Barrowman not Eve Myles appeared in the most recent hourly run, they’re both in good form here, perhaps in part because they’re being pushed by a newcomer.
Paul Clayton as the sardonic Mr. Colchester, a veteran civil servant who seems generally annoyed to be working with Torchwood, is a perfect addition to the cast. Despite his character being a bit older, there’s a temptation to compare his role to Ianto, but that would be a disservice to both. Colchester is unambiguously older and wiser, quite clever and not remotely hesitant about letting others know it. He brings a very different dynamic to Torchwood, and his interplay with Gwen in the second episode, Aliens & Sex & Chips & Gravy, is a genuine pleasure. It’s emblematic of a recaptured balance of humor and drama and definitely speaks to a desire to move Torchwood in new directions rather than recapitulate past successes.
In short, for a series that seemed to be at the very least moribund after its last TV instalment, Torchwood remains quite lively. Aliens Among Us definitely has surprises yet to come, and the upcoming return of James Marsters as Captain John Hart makes it a safe bet that the next run of monthly stories will be anything but bland. This renewed sense of potential is a bit stunning and entirely welcome. Above all, it’s a lot of fun.
❉ ‘Aliens Among Us: 1’ was released in August 2017. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until October 31st 2017, and on general sale after this date.
❉ Catch up with our Cult Q & A interviews with some of the talents behind ‘Before The Fall’: Yvonne Hartman herself, Tracy-Ann Oberman, ‘Before The Fall’ guest star Simon Hickson, and ‘Torchwood’ writer Joe Lidster.
❉ For more information about the Torchwood audio releases from Big Finish Productions, visit the Big Finish ‘Torchwood’ hub: https://www.bigfinish.com/ranges/v/torchwood
❉ Don Klees has spent many years in the video business. This continues to enrich his life in many ways, chief among them being able to tell people he watches television for a living. An avid consumer of pop – and sometimes not-so-popular – culture, Don is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.