No matter whether we’re working at minimum wage to provide for ourselves and loved ones, at the head of monolithic corporations as billionaires or anywhere in-between, one immutable truth remains the same regardless: death comes to everyone eventually. All the world’s a stage as a certain Bard once accurately proclaimed – its endless production comprises countless human entrances followed inextricably by countless exits.
If this sounds like a rather ominous note on which to begin our next Torchwood audio verdict, then rest assured that it’s with good reason; Latter Days, the third (and ironically potential final) boxset in Big Finish’s Torchwood One prequel series, directs its attention away from immortal beings like Captain Jack Harkness and instead onto far more short-lived humans facing their end of days while the titular Canary Wharf-based agency nears its own collapse.
Unless you’ve anything better to get on with during your Earthly days, then, let’s delve once more unto the mortal breach, plunging headfirst into arguably the most tragicomic entry in the franchise’s pantheon to date. Time’s a-wasting after all, and no-one knows that better than the employees whose contracts carry a retcon clause for retirement age – provided that they even survive long enough to contemplate retirement, of course.
“Who the hell is Travis?”
“My talking Italian sports car – I just made him up.”
(Now there's a dialogue exchange which we never expected to transcribe!)
It had to happen at some point, we suppose. Just as Chris Chibnall dabbled in the realms of James Bond-style undercover espionage with his two-part opener for Doctor Who Season Twelve,“Spyfall”, so too has Gareth David-Lloyd taken a similar tact with his sophomore Torchwood script (after his excellent debut with The Last Beacon in 2018). Unlike Chibnall’s TV episodes, though, which could only go so far with the pastiche’s scale and ambition owing to budgetary limitations (admittedly doing a superb job on that basis), “Retirement Plan” carries no such stipulations, leaving David-Lloyd free to deliver as ridiculously over-the-top and unashamedly campy an affair as he saw fit.
And deliver on those fronts he most certainly does. The sheer glee which must’ve ensued as the star-turned-playwright drafted his script immediately leaps off the page/soundtrack, with Ianto’s unwitting traversal into a virtual reality utopia-of-sorts opening the door for an all-manner of vividly-rendered comic delights from Yvonne’s transformation into a not-so-PC exotic maid to Agent Jones’ madcap snowmobile chase across the Alps and regular sexual encounters throughout his high-stakes mission. Not since the Kingsman films entered cinemas or Killing Eve took TV by storm have we seen 007’s half-century-spanning antics lovingly sent up in such bombastic, downright hilarious fashion as that of “Retirement”, a trait which easily distinguishes the piece as the most memorable of this well-rounded collection.
More impressive still is the fine balance which David-Lloyd and his co-stars nevertheless maintain between farcical frivolity and – where the former’s storytelling demands as much – contrastingly profound pathos. Suffice to say that long-running Torchwood One recruit Tommy has no intentions of going gentle into that good retcon-laden night, hence his intent to spend retirement amidst innocuous VR servants. Timothy Bentick’s performance in the role oozes poignancy as a result, the character’s futile longing to remain in this prolonged nostalgic state only becoming more heartbreaking as events inevitably take a turn for the worst. Witnessing his friend’s age-induced downward spiral only serves to deepen Ianto’s ongoing conflict over his line of work to boot, prompting his own metaphoric contemplation of whether a life lived in escapist VR bliss outweighs an early death among comrades. Cue some painful dramatic irony for any fans still mourning his Children of Earth demise which will doubtless ensure the play’s repeat value for far more than its gloriously insane action.
"Dave Cook was the last person to access Locker 15, and now he can't remember how it's secured!"
Whereas the set’s first and final instalments primarily depict Torchwood recruits contemplating or in the early midst of retirement, Matt Fitton’s contribution instead centralises an underappreciated employee with years of post-work experience already under his belt. Trouble is that, even for a cleaner with minimal exposure to the company’s alien dealings like Dave, such dealings often come back to haunt you. “Locker 15” consequently draws the now-almost amnesiac Dave back to service as his ex-teammates desperately mine the depths of his psyche for any clues on how to stop a deadly artefact sealed within their vaults from potentially destroying Canary Wharf, then London, then the world (no pressure though).
By far the most straightforward action-led storyline of the trio, Fitton’s script – for better and for worse – seems far less fussed with exploring didactic themes (beyond the central message on the dangers of letting class divides fester in the workplace) and moreso with aping J.J. Abrams’ mystery box-style manner of storytelling; the play’s non-linear structure, prompted by Dave slowly regaining his memories, affords us frequent clues as to how Locker 15’s explosive contents got loose and whether the former blue-collar worker holds any responsibility for the crisis at hand. It’s a perfectly engaging storyline on its lonesome which keeps ramping up the stakes and holding the listener’s attention. However, given the extent to which David-Lloyd and (as we’ll discuss momentarily) Tim Foley successfully tap into deeper issues elsewhere in the set, whether by utilising Bond pastiches as an extended metaphor for late-life nostalgia or interrogating Yvonne Hartman’s defining life-choices, the lack of meaningful character development – beyond Dave’s role as a plot cypher – presented here at the midway point stands out markedly as a result.
Going forward Fitton (a Big Finish regular who’s done superb work on Doctor Who ranges like Ravenous and The Eighth Doctor: The Time War) might benefit from relistening to his counterparts’ slightly superior contributions to Latter Days, if only to recall the benefits of prioritising the character drama at which the studio often excels over sci-fi spectacle which can eventually grate when sustaining audio dramas by itself.
“Let it be known that I hate the countryside!”
But whose time within the soon-to-be-devastated offices of Torchwood One holds greater tragic weight than that of its commander-in-chief, Yvonne Hartman? Lest we forget given the rich abundance of Torchwood audio plays in which Tracy-Ann Oberman’s beloved character (or her Pete’s Earth counterpart) has since starred, her debut appearance in 2006’s Doctor Who season finale “Army of Ghosts / Doomsday” saw the head honcho meet a bittersweet end, holding back the Cybermen long enough for the Doctor to overcome them, only to sacrifice her humanity – and ultimately her life – in the process.
With a title like Latter Days, then, the series’ 2019 boxset was virtually obligated to deal with Yvonne’s fate (which in turn predicated the entire London agency’s downfall) in some capacity. Indeed, Tim Foley’s closing instalment “The Rockery” places the Hartman dynasty centre-stage in order to explore the fleeting nature of mortality – albeit in a rather different way than we might’ve initially expected. For in this instance Yvonne’s mission concerns not so much the fate of the cosmos, nor of her staff, but rather her mother’s post-retirement wellbeing as she settles begrudgingly into a life of rural tranquillity…with inevitably bumpy results once her daughter’s (usually benevolent) grand schemes come into play.
How much mileage you’ll glean from the collection’s most relaxed outing depends, in a similar vein to last year’s innuendo-laden Jack / Ianto release Serenity, on your investment in the previously-unexplored Hartman family drama as it develops here. Much of the runtime is spent in Anne’s company while she struggles with prioritising plants over professional projects, encountering selfless neighbours like Michael Maloney’s charming William rather than ruthless workplace rivals, so those Torchwood fans in favour of action-driven storylines a la Miracle Day might come away somewhat underwhelmed (and hence prefer Fitton's undeniably eventful effort "Locker 15" instead). To Foley’s credit, however, his regular injections of endearing senile humour (not least Anne’s aggravated reactions to human or animal intruders alike), escalating intrigue surrounding Yvonne’s housewarming gifts and world-wearied wisdom on family’s importance all endow “Rockery” with sufficient variety to keep proceedings from ever feeling stale.
One also cannot overstate, when it comes to intimate narratives of this ilk, the vital role which the players have in keeping listeners hooked through their chemistry and conviction. True to form, Oberman effortlessly channels Yvonne’s scathing wit as well as her unrelenting (and in many ways self-assuring) pragmatism, yet she equally goes a long way towards revealing the character’s rarely-glimpsed vulnerabilities too; that trademark bravado seemingly belies insecurities over her father’s passing, the growing distance between herself and Anne along with the legacy which she’ll leave when her time (soon enough) arrives, with the After Life actress’ sincere rendition of said transition greatly enhancing her fan-favourite heroine. Just as much applause, if not moreso, should similarly go in Barbara Flynn’s direction to boot, her capturing in Anne of the same ruthlessness, brazen practicality and hidden emotional scars as Yvonne’s all the more impressive given her freshman status as a Torchwood thespian here, as is the simultaneously ferocious yet heartfelt dynamic which the pair establish in only their first hour together.
Rather than showing any signs of a middle-age crisis or non-compos mentis tendencies, Torchwood One: Latter Days, therefore, speaks yet again to the enduring vitality of its franchise right now. With youth may well come innovation, but as the non-Shakespearean adage goes, with age comes wisdom; doubtless, that's a sentiment which will continue to hold true so long as Big Finish keep finding ways to explore weighty human themes amidst Torchwood’s outrageous sci-fi trappings, to remind us that there’s so much joy to be found through life’s thrills, friendships formed and cherishing loved ones that the end needn’t concern us nearly so much as the journey getting there.