‘Torchwood: The Green Life’ reviewed

❉ Strong leads, writing and direction make this pairing a pleasure to listen to, writes Don Klees.

Of the many spin-offs from Doctor Who, few have struggled to establish their own identity as much as Torchwood. Torchwood’s first two series featured some good individual episodes, but it rarely reflected a clear remit beyond providing a platform for Eve Myles and John Barrowman to get into onscreen situations notionally too “adult” for the mothership. Two intertwined factors made that result virtually inevitable from the outset. Because Torchwood was conceived as an alternate approach to the universe of a program that is itself fundamentally a series of alternate approaches, even a supremely gifted head-writer would have struggled to carve out a compelling niche. Series creator Russell T. Davies ceding that role to a less imaginative writer ensured that the program’s efforts to present a mature vision of the Doctor Who universe would produce stories like Cyberwoman.

What ultimately helped Torchwood find its footing was greater involvement from Davies, who wrote more episodes of the third series, the five-part drama Children of Earth, than he did for the two earlier series combined. In the process, he reclaimed its core principle by treating the idea of a more adult-oriented take on the Doctor Who universe as a fertile ground for drama rather than “Carry On Through the Dimensional Rift”. For his definition of adult, Davies ventured beyond alien sex-monsters into the realm of ethical compromises made necessary by a prolonged visit by extraterrestrials. Working from that premise, a storyline that recalled the UNIT stories of the early-70s – a period of Doctor Who’s original run that routinely foregrounded moral ambiguities – fit perfectly and fulfilled the potential that only rarely manifested in the two prior series.

Torchwood’s final television series, Miracle Day, found it losing its identity in new and different ways, but the program’s audio resurrection with Big Finish Production has largely gone from strength to strength. As the various boxed-set releases – several of them set after Miracle Day – have pushed the broader narrative forward, the monthly one-off installments have allowed for smaller scale but no less compelling portraits of individual characters. The audio version of Torchwood’s confidence in itself and pride in its ancestry shows through in the current run of monthly stories in which members of the team encounter creatures that originated on Doctor Who.

The recently released installment The Green Life, written by David Llewellyn, fully embraces this approach by pairing Jack Harkness with Jo Jones (aka Jo Grant) in a direct follow-up to the beloved Doctor Who story The Green Death. From a plot standpoint, relatively little about this straightforward story surprises. The infamous giant maggots are back, and in keeping with the era of Doctor Who being evoked the antagonist is anything but a one-dimensional villain. Where the story truly shines, though, is in the interplay between Jack and Jo.

With John Barrowman and Katy Manning being two of the Doctor Who universe’s great forces of nature, it seems only natural that they should be The Green Life’s driving force. Hearing their characters so thoroughly exasperate each other before finding the common ground needed to address the current dilemma is a genuine pleasure. The collective strength of Llewellyn’s script, Scott Handcock’s direction and the two leads is on full display as they articulate their differing mindsets on the problem at hand.

Jo: Well, Jack, don’t you think we, we owe it to human civilization to understand them?
Jack: Uh, not really, this is a big hunt, not a David Attenborough documentary.
Jack: Well, they’re not from outer-space. They didn’t invade. We created them, Jack. Like chickens.
Jack: Jo, humans didn’t create chickens.

Jo explaining that humans effectively did create chickens as we know them sparks further frustration on Jack’s part. In the dialogue that follows, it becomes apparent that his prickliness is at least partially a reaction to the fact that Jo’s presence is a reminder of the Doctor, leading to a beautifully played moment about parting ways with him. The combination of Jack’s anger at being abandoned by the Doctor on Satellite Five and the undertone of sadness when Jo tells him that she chose to leave the Doctor’s company speak volumes about how life with the Doctor impacts his friends, especially when it ends.

The flip-side of this impact, of course, is that the Doctor also makes his friends better, typically by imparting an appreciation of the greater good and fostering the acumen to help achieve it. Once Jack and Jo find their common ground with each other, they put those gifts to work. This along with some playfully flirtatious banter near the end makes The Green Life a pleasure to listen to. At its best Torchwood drew from the DNA of Jon Pertwee’s tenure on Doctor Who, and this play gratefully returns the favor.

❉ ‘Torchwood: The Green Life’ by David Llewellyn was released in April 2019. It will be exclusively available to buy from the Big Finish website until June 30th 2019, and on general sale after this date.

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.


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