❉ A special feature-length story celebrating 10 years of Torchwood
One of the elements that makes Big Finish’s ‘Doctor Who’ related dramas all the more remarkable is how creative they are despite almost every series being bounded by established continuity. Some of the Doctors may have greater ellipses in their eras than others, but the listener knows that each incarnation ultimately needs to reach a specific end-point. This principle is even more relevant to ‘Torchwood’ where – outside of Captain Jack Harkness – mortality rather than renewal is the key demarcation point.
With that in mind, it’s not surprising that nearly half of the 12 plays in their first two series of ‘Torchwood’ dramas revisited characters who died on-screen, such as Tosh and Ianto. Where these earlier stories each showcased just one or two characters and only sparingly ventured beyond the boundaries of the TV series’ timeline, ‘The Torchwood Archive’ is variously a departure from and continuation of that approach. Released to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the program’s television debut, this intriguing release features nearly all the key Torchwood characters in a storyline that stretches from Torchwood’s Victorian-era origins to the far future.
When this special was first announced, it was tempting to envision it as ‘Torchwood’s’ answer to their parent show’s 20th anniversary story, The Five Doctors. Aside from the number of returning characters, though, the respective approaches couldn’t be more different. Where The Five Doctors was largely a celebration of status quo, ‘The Torchwood Archive’ is playing a far more ambitious game. By tying together elements from both the TV episodes and the audio dramas, the production team are crafting not just a cohesive continuity but also building the broader mythology that was hinted at but never quite realized onscreen. Whether it’s John Barrowman as Jack or Rowena Cooper as the stately yet very human Queen Victoria, each character/performance feels significant to filling in that picture.
Despite a number of references to some of the previous audio dramas, enjoying this release isn’t dependent on having heard them. That’s not to say familiarity with those stories isn’t helpful; just that it isn’t essential. Where characters or concepts from them are deployed, such as the Russian version of Torchwood or the recurring plot element of “the Committee”, James Goss’ script provides enough context to keep new listeners engaged.
It might actually be more helpful for listeners to brush up on the TV episodes, as the story references some very particular onscreen events. A prime example is the segment featuring Alex Hopkins, the one-time head of Torchwood’s Cardiff base who was previously seen in the second season’s flashback-intensive episode Fragments. His role in ‘The Torchwood Archive’ fills in the background of those onscreen events while tying them to Torchwood’s larger story.
That section also points to a notable aspect of this story and Torchwood in general. While the subject matter is frequently downbeat, there’s often a tangible streak of humor throughout. No one’s likely to confuse it for a light-hearted romp, but brief interjections like a character referring to Jack as “the hen-night stripper I met in the corridor” or Alex Hopkins remarking “how the millennium bug really had turned out to be a giant insect” go a long way to balancing out the tone.
Since that tone still tends toward the darker, laying the groundwork for future stories inevitably means trouble to come. By the end – including a brief scene that follows the closing theme music – a variety of dropped hints point the way to unseen and (more pertinently) unheard incidents from Torchwood’s history. Some of these will doubtless be explored more fully in next year’s third series of plays or other upcoming releases. In the meantime, ‘The Torchwood Archive’ is a fine celebration of the program’s still unfolding history.
❉ ‘The Torchwood Archive’ was released by Big Finish Productions on 21 October. It will be exclusively available to buy from the BF website until December 31st 2016, and on general sale after this date.