Writer: Gareth David-Lloyd
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: Burn Gorman, Gareth David-Lloyd, Laura Dalgleish, Daniel Hawksford, Rick Yale, Marilyn Le Conte
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour
Released by Big Finish Productions - April 2018
Order from Amazon UK
“I can’t go in there – it’s got a hygiene rating of 1!”
“Could be worse.”
“Could be 0!”
Since Big Finish acquired their prized license to continue the missions of Torchwood Three beyond their 2010 televised expiry date, we’ve seen their resultant monthly range deliver myriad unlikely character groupings: Captain Jack and Queen Victoria, Sergeant Andy and an enigmatic long-dead secret agent, Yvonne Hartman and Wales’ nightclubbing community, the list goes on. That trend of subversive matchmaking continues this month with The Last Beacon, wherein Cardiff’s famed coffee brewing extraordinaire Ianto Jones and its infamous soon-to-be eternal antihero Owen Harper must embark on the road trip to end all road trips. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we’re glad that you asked.
Such circumstances could’ve never come about without sufficient incentive for both participants, of course, and indeed the pair has their work cut out locating the source of the elusive signal which endows Beacon with its name. Containing the language of an alien species long thought extinct, the sudden transmission brings Ianto and Owen out to the Welsh countryside for a makeshift bonding exercise-turned-trial by fire – the former equipped with his trusty coffee kit, mittens and years of camping experience, the latter only his wits and trademark bitter sense of humour. By now any Torchwood devotee should already have sensed the rife potential for fraught inter-team dynamics and rural satire just waiting for the play’s writer to exploit, and the scribe’s name? Gareth David-Lloyd.
If the gamble of allowing one of the show’s lead stars to try his hand at penning their latest script, particularly with no prior writing credits to his name, seems a step too far even for a company as prone to risk-taking as Big Finish, then worry not; the studio couldn’t possibly have selected a more suitable custodian for this utterly spectacular buddy comedy. Whether he’s sending our heroes into pubs for spontaneous – if inevitable – brawls, eerie forests containing sinister visions of the past or abandoned clubhouses which Owen wryly brands as being “frozen in the ‘80s”, David-Lloyd evidently recalls transparently how the original series thrived on juggling humorous and horrific elements throughout its four-season run, straddling those contrasting tones with the same enviable ease as any of his fellow range wrights.
Less surprising, however, is the man’s ability to brilliantly capture Ianto’s complex personality – on the printed page and in the recording studio – as if TV’s second most iconic butler after Jeeves had never departed from our screens or airwaves. It’s easy to forget at times how impressively multi-faceted a character Mr. Jones became over the course of 30 episodes, his quiet sense of humour belying intense romantic passion, psychological vulnerability and strained familial ties which then came to the fore in Children of Earth. Fair play to David-Lloyd, then, for placing this emotionally versatile character’s internal struggles front-and-centre in Beacon, with his struggle to reconcile the innocent tyke who adored visiting the Welsh mountains to see his gran with the oft-isolated man that we see today a core thematic and narrative element that lends vital gravitas to the mission and to his dynamic with Owen.
Enter Burn Gorman, the return of whom to Torchwood marked by far one of the audio range’s biggest breakthroughs in 2017’s deeply unsettling masterpiece Corpse Day. Unsurprisingly Gorman – who successfully sent shivers down this viewer’s spine in the role of Oliver’s Bill Sykes on the West End a few years back – carries the performing mettle to simultaneously evolve Owen’s intricate relationship with Ianto, as the former discovers how the latter’s childhood experiences still inform his modern-day decisions, while also providing much of the tale’s pitch-perfect comic relief as Owen finds himself totally out of his element. Indeed, David-Lloyd confirms in Beacon's interview tracks that he and Goss conspired to bring Owen aboard what the former calls a spiritual successor to "Countrycide", knowing that he'd truly seem a fish out of water when met with the prospect of conversing with amicable bus drivers and alien badgers or indulging Ianto's newfound passopn for geocaching treasure hunts. That Gorman shares such obvious chemistry with David-Lloyd, particularly thanks to their hilarious good cop / bad cop approach, couldn’t have been predicted before recording, though; let’s hope that this month’s long-awaited team-up boxset Torchwood: Believe offers plenty more of this superb dynamic.
Beyond the fine tonal balancing and gripping character drama, there’s even time for some provocative thematic exploration of communities and species straying from their traditional roots along the way. Guest star Ellie Darvill does an utterly tremendous job conveying her character’s underlying yearning for our species return to simpler times before our gothic pursuit of technology at all costs, a return to the rare community spirit which anyone who’s ever camped near rural villages will attest pervades that refreshing escapist experience. Once again, though, that David-Lloyd effortlessly integrates this increasingly topical talking point into the context of a sci-fi narrative – and indeed Ianto’s personal arc over the course of hour – speaks wonders for his previously untapped literary talents, to the remarkable extent that even Big Finish’s veteran scribes could learn a thing or three for future reference.
Regular readers of our Torchwood audio verdicts might recall this reviewer previously calling out the range’s inconsistent approach to arc-building, but ultimately, if its – seemingly – standalone recent entries such as this one and last month’s brilliantly off-the-wall The Death of Captain Jack are even marginally indicative of what’s to come in future releases, then consider those qualms completely laid to rest. In The Last Beacon, Gareth David-Lloyd has delivered not only the definitive take on his still beloved character of Ianto Jones, but more importantly an incredible distillation of everything which made the show so successful on-air and which continues to ensure its hallowed place in fans’ hearts today.
Next Time on Torchwood – We’re off for another road trip, this time of the psychological horror variety, as the Cooper family test their longstanding theory that We Always Get Out Alive to its nerve-wracking limits. First, though, who fancies attending Torchwood Three’s much-vaunted reunion party, the guest list for which includes immortal Time Agents, space pig-hunting medics and a certain renowned butler? Apparently securing an invitation to this prestigious three-hour event doesn’t take much effort for those in the know – all one has to do is Believe…