From 3D printers to 4D cinemas, from smartphones to smart houses, from HDMI to AI, the march of technological progress hastens by the day, presenting us inferior mortal beings with quite the existential dilemma all the while – give it another ten years and the human workforce might just find itself rendered obsolete. Admittedly long-running fans of Doctor Who’s longest-running spin-off, Torchwood, might justifiably expect the eponymous covert agency to remain steadfastly unfazed by such developments; surely after tackling extraterrestrial deities, zealous religious cults with aspirations to intergalactic stardom and even the odd “Cyberwoman” (good times!), humanity’s increasingly intertwined flirtation with artificial ‘life-forms’ would scarcely offer cause for concern?
Well, they’re not entirely wrong – Big Finish’s latest foray into the organization’s past confirms that its London-based branch had no qualms about embracing this new era of mechanical innovation. Yet as just about any Gothic writer from Mary Shelly to Charlie Brooker will attest, that leap of faith can – and indeed does – soon prove deadly if the individuals responsible fail to understand its implications before leaving the ground. Indeed, as evidenced by the two century-spanning gap between Frankenstein’s publication and Black Mirror’s launch, there’s been no shortage of literary or screen contemplations on the man-machine dynamic over the years, so ever since its inception, Torchwood One: Machines faces such a considerable uphill battle to distinguish itself from the pack.
While the Thirteenth Doctor sprints brazenly into the technological future with her Sheffield steel-clad sonic screwdriver in hand, then, let’s see whether Yvonne Hartman and company’s Earth-bound exploits warrant as much global attention as Season Eleven has received to date, or whether this ever-compelling Torchwood saga will soon join cassette players and dial-up internet connections as yet another relic of the past…
“The Law Machines”:
“Yvonne Hartman is dead? But she was required.” “Oh yes, by so many…”
Had you asked Torchwood devotees which classic or modern Who antagonists they’d love to see the agency – in any of its endless guises – battle upon the show’s 2015 revival at Big Finish, chances are that WOTAN wouldn’t have come anywhere near the top of the list compared to Sontarans, the Master or proper Cybermen. That said, Doctor Who’s HAL-9000 precursor proves an ideal narrative fit for Machines’ first instalment, the formless AI entity’s defeat in 1966’s “The War Machines” leaving its hardware susceptible to Hartman’s goals as she introduces a wave of seemingly hacking-immune robo-cops onto the streets at the Mayor of London’s cost-driven request. How could anything possibly go amiss?
Laden with explosive setpieces across England’s capital and more quips about London life than commuters could imagine (look out for Hartman’s especially seething one-liner on the hindrance that empty Oyster cards pose in a hurry), “Law Machines” barely lets up for a second, introducing new players by the half dozen only to off plenty of them with scarce remorse over the course of its running time. Unfortunately, taking such a whirlwind structural approach does arguably limit scribe Matt Fitton’s capacity for intricate character arcs somewhat; Daniel Anthony’s intriguing tech whiz-turned-WOTAN disciple Julian, for instance, only receives scarce airtime to convey his basic plot purpose, despite the Sarah Jane Adventures star’s admirable efforts to imbue him with simultaneously endearing innocence and underlying sinister malice along the way, while the deliciously corrupt Mayor barely gets time to register either.
What “Law” perhaps lacks in sophisticated characterisation, though, the opener more than compensates for with a sense of scale often absent from the franchise’s TV or audio outings. Whereas we only caught glimpses of how Miracle Day’s titular phenomenon affected the planet Earth at large via brief fictional news footage, Hartman, Ianto Jones and their comrades bear direct witness to WOTAN’s heartless rampage across London, the carnage unleashed by their hubris brought home as the sound design team depict shootouts, resultant demises and other terrors with brutal realism – no wonder Fitton peppers in the aforementioned moments of satirical wit to keep his script from feeling too morose. Nevertheless, his efforts (alongside everyone else working behind-the-scenes) to showcase the franchise’s grimmer tone certainly pay off in full force, hopefully encouraging more writers to follow his lead with mature contributions of their own going forward.
“Ianto Jones, my name is Yvonne Hartman – and I work for an organisation called Torchwood.”
If there’s one area wherein Big Finish truly excel, it’s filling those niggling continuity gaps which Doctor Who and its various spin-offs never found time to properly address on-screen: just ask the Time War’s participants, the Committee, the Valeyard, Coal Hill Academy’s alumni network or Paul McGann for ample evidence. Sometimes these middle man storylines focus on long-awaited plot threads like those above, other times – as in the case of “Blind Summit” – the writer involved crafts connective tissue that catches us off guard, further enriching underappreciated constructs even when it appeared as if their journey had already played out in its entirety. This time around it’s the turn of Ianto Jones to plummet through the ringer yet again in a tale which (barring one or two modern interludes) occurs long before the days of WOTAN’s resurgence, instead chronicling his first meetings with Yvonne Hartman and the morally overwhelming transformation that these soon triggered.
As if to answer the cries of anyone like yours truly for meatier character drama after “Law Machines”, Gareth David-Lloyd – back on dual writing / performing duties after his stellar debut with The Last Beacon in April – delves deeper than ever before into Ianto’s psyche with a minimalistic yet extremely powerful script, unfolding hitherto unseen layers in the Torchwood Three agent’s past. Remember the strained father-son dynamic teased in Children of Earth? That’s explored in harrowing fashion, along with his consequential yearning for greater professional fulfilment and reckless willingness to thrust himself into unknown territory so as to achieve this goal, all of which the newfound writer handles with the utmost touching sincerity even as the threat of a deadly drug-testing company escalates over the piece’s second half.
Better yet, David-Lloyd’s contributions clearly didn’t diminish in the slightest upon departing his office and entering the recording studio, his sizzling chemistry with Tracy-Ann Oberman proving equally potent whether they’re deciphering each other’s secrets over coffee, on the run from alien onslaughts or coming to terms with the personal demons that will ultimately define their partnership in the years ahead – for better or for worse. We’ll keep our take on Machines spoiler-lite as always to preserve your listening experience, but suffice to say that even the most hardcore Torchwood devotees won’t predict every emotional twist that “Summit” has up its spacious sleeve, not least thanks to David-Lloyd’s stirring performance as a far more vulnerable incarnation of his yet-to-be world-wearied butler. Never mind the 21st century as a whole – when it comes to re-visiting past Ianto-focused stories, “Summit” might well represent the moment where “everything changes” for your perspective.
“9 to 5”:
“See you in the morning!” “Sure, 9am – like clockwork…”
Whilst robotics and pharmaceuticals mark some of the more tangible technical developments for society in recent years, there’s another aspect of mechanical ‘progress’ which has increasingly come to dominate the headlines of late – that of the corporate machine and its oft-exploited human cogs. One only need gaze at recent reports surrounding video gaming behemoth Rockstar North’s supposed enforcement of 100 hour weekly work cycles in order to wonder whether the situation’s getting out of hand in some circles, with the banking / legal sectors particularly notorious in this regard too, hence why the matter’s rife for contemplation in Machines’ aptly-titled final instalment, “9 to 5”.
Returning us to the ‘present day’ (as much as is possible for a miniseries set years before the events of Torchwood Seasons One-Six), Tim Foley’s pertinent denouement depicts Hartman and Jones’ not-so-coincidental run-in with a temp-reliant firm that takes the term “worker drones” to rather horrific new levels. At first glance, those of us who’ve been around the block several times with the sci-fi genre might fret that we’ve seen it all before: secret agents recruit insider employee to unravel a mystery, employee gets in over her head then office-wide chaos ensues. But Niky Wardley’s dramatically charged performance as the manipulated employee in question, Stacey, easily keeps the format fresh enough to avoid fatigue, her relatable curiosity begetting her initial naivety such that we’re just as fascinated as her to discover the truth behind his latest temp employer’s true machinations (in every sense of the word), even in spite of the growing tension surrounding her fate as a result.
That’s not to say “9 to 5” instantly courts consideration for the Big Finish Hall of Fame, however – as well as mostly conforming to the familiar story beats discussed above, Foley (perhaps at the studio’s behest) seems all too keen to tie together Machines’ various disparate plot strands as rapidly as possible come the third act, when in reality we’d have preferred a standalone affair which took its time in bringing events to a conclusion. Luckily the way in which he wraps up proceedings does still successfully deliver an inevitable yet undeniably impactful gut-punch that’s sure to stay with listeners long after the credits, but with Foley set to pen half of the War Master’s third boxset next year as well as further scripts for Torchwood: God Among Us, there’s still plenty of room for this promising writer to develop his skills ever further in the next 12 months.
As ever, exactly whether Machines lies up your alley will depend on the extent to which you’re intrigued by the notion of exploring non-Cardiff Torchwood branches, particularly given the riskier investment of £20-25 rather than the £8-10 required for standalone monthly releases. Persevere through the mindless – albeit breathless entertaining – action of the London department’s clash with WOTAN, however, and listeners will reach two undoubtedly thought-provoking Gothic thrillers which intelligently investigate humanity’s obsession with technology to both hilarious and moving effect, echoing shows like Black Mirror but with Yvonne’s self-assured complacency adding a snarky, bitter-tongued edge in trademark Torchwood style. Sure, this latest boxset probably won’t garner awards come year’s end as this reviewer hopes Aliens Among Us Part 3 or Believe will, yet not every release needs to; with such remarkable consistency throughout the range’s 2018 output, what matters most is that there’s never been a better time for newcomers to hop aboard the show’s bandwagon.
Next Time on Torchwood – In the absence of any further news on her prequel outings’ longevity, Yvonne ‘returns’ via her Pete’s World counterpart this month for God Among Us Part 1, wherein she’ll need to promptly dust herself down after almost being crushed in Season Five if Torchwood Three is to stand any chance of overcoming the titular immortal being presently besieging Cardiff. Look out for our verdict on Part 1 in the coming days, as well as our ongoing coverage of Torchwood in all of its forms as the monthly range returns (alongside Parts 2-3 and presumably other boxsets) next Spring…