This latest Torchwood One audio boxset offers a trilogy of tales shaped by different reflections on a common theme: the challenges that come from the ageing process, as the clichés of the “mid-life crisis” are gradually displaced by the personal upsets that can follow the end of a working life, the onset of illness and infirmity, and the shock of bereavement.
It’s the varied experience of these “latter days” of life that is the common thread of these three diverse stories. The result is a trio of small-scale, intimate tales which step away from the Torchwood “big picture” to explore three instances of retirement, each of which pivots around the character of director Yvonne Hartman.
Opening tale “Retirement Plan” is the most frenetic of the three, driven by a premise lifted from the pages of Philip K Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale and the plot of Michael Crichton’s Westworld. Torchwood’s head of alien acquisitions is headed for retirement. Afflicted with ailing health, Tommy has been preparing for the moment by assembling bits of discarded kit to Jerry-rig an immersive VR world into which he can upload his consciousness leaving his physical form to perish.
The result is the fantasy realm of El Cielo, a community in which Tommy is a major player and a much-loved figure and where digital minions, their forms based on individuals in the Torchwood staff database, support and service his lifestyle. When things start to go awry, Tommy and Ianto, who has joined him on a virtual visit, discover the threats they face are all too real.
There’s great entertainment value to be found throughout Gareth David-Lloyd’s witty and imaginative script, as different characters in this artificial construct get to unleash their hidden fantasies of heroism and triumph. Tracy-Ann Oberman has fun adopting a variety of accents and personas as different digital protagonists come to life, and there’s humour and pathos alongside the peril and panic of a fast-moving story.
Matt Fitton’s “Locker 15” is a more traditional Torchwood tale, in which the fate of the organisation’s Canary Wharf headquarters is put in jeopardy by a rogue piece of alien technology. The entity is steadily engulfing the Tower whilst resisting all efforts to remove it from its storage locker in the basement. It transpires that only recently-retired Torchwood office cleaning operative Dave has the (literal and figurative) key to the locker. But while he welcomes Yvonne and Ianto as visitors to his nursing home, his memories of working in the Tower are fading fast.
There’s a lovely turn from Derek Griffiths as the cognitively-challenged Torchwood retiree, one of the army of the low-paid service personnel who keep the headquarters going, unnoticed by the likes of Yvonne. The tragedies of the story highlight the difference between the empathy and decency of Ianto and the ruthlessness of Hartman.
Closing story “The Rockery” by Tim Foley is the most unusual and personal of the three on offer here. Beginning just before the fateful events of the Doctor Who episode “Army of Ghosts”, it peeks behind Yvonne’s steely professional demeanour, to reveal the fraught relationship she has with her never-heard-from-before mother. Anne Hartman has not come to terms with the death of her husband, and much to her daughter’s surprise has quit London and leased a cottage in the country.
Refusing to acknowledge the corrosive consequences of her grief, she rebuffs Yvonne’s attempts to help her ingratiate herself with the local community. But when Yvonne asks her mother to help with a Torchwood experiment, by tending for an alien plant in her wayward new garden, it becomes the catalyst for an association with her green-fingered neighbour, and retired dentist, William. With Yvonne trying to balance regular visits to the village against the endless demands of her London job, relations between mother and daughter remain tense. Against the odds, the off-world vegetation in the rockery begins to thrive; and in parallel other things in Anne’s life begin to flourish too.
Despite the foreign-body foliage in the garden, “The Rockery” is a very naturalistic character piece, focusing on the development of the dynamic between Yvonne, Anne and William. It examines how each of them deal with each other and with their own feelings of regret, self-recrimination and sadness. Barbara Flynn (Anne) and Michael Maloney (William) both deliver the kind of perceptive and unfussy performances that can’t help but draw the listener in. The quieter, more everyday, tone of the piece allows Oberman to shift the focus towards the more human, less-repellant sides of Yvonne’s nature. Given that her attempts at familial reconciliation occur just as a mysterious army of ghosts make their presence felt across the country, hindsight adds an extra sense of poignancy to that development.
This is a Torchwood One audio boxset that takes the time to go behind the alien shenanigans to delve into the lives and motivations of some of the characters defending the planet from extraterrestrial incursions, and to consider the personal costs of that commitment.