Torchwood One: Before the FallBookmark and Share

Thursday, 9 November 2017 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
Torchwood One: Before the Fall (Credit: Big Finish)
Director: Scott Handcock
Script Editor: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Tracy-Ann ObermanGareth David-Lloyd
Big Finish
First Released: Tuesday 31st January 2017

With every new Big Finish boxset, there’s the same question as to just what format the narrative will take. Some sets tell one complete story across all their discs, others contain an episode series of separate tales, and some lie somewhere in between, with individual episodes but a story arc running through them. Sometimes huge arcs will even stretch over multiple boxsets. But the one thing you can be sure of is that the official description never seems to quite match the reality (I don’t think anyone would say Doom Coalition felt like one sixteen part story, for instance).

Before the Fall tells two parallel tales of Torchwood One’s newest recruit, Rachel Allan (a name quite distracting if you’re in Ireland, where there’s a celebrity chef called Rachel Allen), and queen bee Yvonne Hartman, and the balance between them – one rising as the other falls. But each of the three installments also tells its own story of this new Torchwood team as the arc elements percolate in the background. It creates a great window into an alternative version of Torchwood and a team we’ve never gotten to see on TV. Introduced in Joseph Lidster’s brilliant opener New Girl through the eyes of eponymous recruit Rachel they’re an appropriately motley crew.

Yvonne is of course, front and centre and perfectly captured again by Lidster as in his earlier One Rule as a splendid mix of intelligence, charm, ruthlessness and menace, and vulnerability. Meanwhile, while we were actively given the impression on TV that Ianto was a low-level drone at Canary Wharf, here he’s promoted to being Yvonne’s right-hand man – an improbability that can be excused for the strong role it gives him in the drama. Nicely, though there’s a callback to his later persona when he audibly bristles at being asked to lower himself to fetching coffee by the head of HR. Alongside these returning favourites, we get that gossipy HR expert Pippa, professional heavies Dean and Kieran and scientific advisor Thomas. Thomas is probably the breakout star here. Effectively a cross between the Third Doctor and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars he’s an unreconstructed sweary, politically incorrect Northern curmudgeon with little respect for authority but given a lot of latitude because, frankly, he’s brilliant. There’s a particularly neat bit of homage in his relationship with his new assistant Rachel – when she blunders into his lab, messing things up, he’s only short of calling her a ‘ham-fisted bun vendor’ and she quickly becomes the Jo to his Doctor. Rachel herself cuts such a sweet, insecure figure that one of New Girl’s great achievements is how it manages to completely wrong-foot the listener – lots of references to the speed of promotion at Torchwood being the result of a high mortality rate and to Yvonne’s very final way of dealing with betrayal or incompetence makes it seem we’re getting a swift encapsulation of how Torchwood can eat up and destroy the unwary. But the final sting sends us in a surprising and intriguing new direction instead.

The following two-thirds of the set sees Rachel finding her feet as the improbable new leader of Torchwood One, and establishing the tenor of her reign, while a fugitive Yvonne, wanted for treason and murder, tries to keep one step ahead of her own agents. Through the Ruins sees the latter at her lowest ebb, couch surfing and calling in every favour she can to try and figure out what’s really going on and how she was framed. Meanwhile, on the Torchwood One team-building Away Day exercise, the sunny, cheerful Rachel has everyone messing about building highly unstable alien weapons in what’s clearly a thinly disguised cull of the slow, the dim and the unlucky. Caught between the two is Ianto. Now romantically involved with Rachel (the Jones boy sure can pick them) but secretly helping Yvonne evade capture, he can all too easily believe almost anything of Yvonne and the evidence seems conclusive, yet he can’t shake the sense that she didn’t actually do this particular horrible thing.

By the concluding Uprising, the stakes have been raised and the fightback begun. With a massive alien fleet about to enter Earth’s atmosphere and lay waste to all, the possibilities as to why it’s all happening are kept convincingly multiple choice until late in the day. Is Rachel a traitor in league with the aliens, or is she just incompetent? The ultimate answer to why Rachel has been making the decisions she has turns out to be very Torchwood – simultaneously grand and tragic, yet kind of petty and pathetic and all too human at the same time. If the essence of Torchwood, as a series, is deeply damaged people trying to rise to challenges that they’re not actually quite up to, then Before the Fall is a fine continuation of that tradition. Yvonne’s ultimate turning of the table on her adversary, meanwhile, is also very Torchwood in its way. Cynical and twisted, but nothing so straightforward as revenge.

Of the mirroring plot strands, Yvonne’s escapades are by far the more successful. Three parts Jason Bourne to one part Mean Girl, she crisscrosses London, getting in car chases and gunfights, while pressing her contracts and hunting leads, all while severely irked that thanks to all this she hasn’t had her hair blown out in days. It also underlines that she’s probably the only unambiguously hyper-competent Torchwood agent we’ve ever had. Rachel’s rapid transformation from naïve newbie to chirpy autocrat is a great deal less successful. We’re regularly told the secret of her success is that she’s a “people person,” adept at making everyone feel she’s their best friend and earning their loyalty. Yet with the entire boxset taking place over the course of a single month, it strains belief that she can command such good faith from her team of agents even as her decisions very, very quickly become hugely suspect.

So, Before the Fall, despite the three episodes, is very much a game of two halves. It’s at its strongest during the initial setup and introductions and New Girl, on its own strengths, is one of the finest hours of Torchwood Big Finish have yet produced. But, despite some nice character work and one or two killer twists, the resulting battle for control of Torchwood all too often feels contrived and just a bit silly. The result overall is a boxset that includes some great stuff but, as a whole proves rather average. However, perhaps its legacy will be this fully fleshed out Torchwood One team. They’re an engaging bunch, and practically worth the price of admission all by themselves. Return visits to Canary Wharf to spend more time with them would be extremely welcome.