The latest monthly Torchwood release from Big Finish returns the spotlight to the character of Gwen Cooper, who was last heard from in the richly atmospheric standalone story Night of the Fendahl released back in April. That return to the mythos of the Fendahl made for a creepy and unnerving tale. Smashed has an altogether bleaker and tougher sensibility, unfolding in a striking setting and making terrific use of an inspired central conceit.
Cooper is at something of a loose end, and in need of gainful employment. Against her better instincts, she takes on a temporary “gig economy” job as a consultant for a fracking company. Drillpak have set up operations in the former mining village of Glynteg, bringing much-needed employment to an area rife with deprivation. But some residents complain that the fracking operations are making villagers ill, and that drilling works have blighted the countryside.
Struck by how depressed and devoid of hope the area feels, Cooper meets with resigned residents and Martyn, the sole remaining member of an eco-protest camp. While she tries to navigate the barriers of mistrust between the company, the villagers and the opponents of fracking, Cooper struggles to cling to her principles. When attention turns to the possibility that the local water table may have been contaminated, everything suddenly changes. Especially because there is only one way to counteract the metabolic effects of the polluted H2O.
There’s no question that Smashed is a well-constructed and well-paced story, courtesy of James Goss’ no-nonsense script. But what makes this foray into the Torchwood universe so memorable is Eve Myles’ extraordinarily accomplished and confident performance. For most of the run-time, Gwen Cooper is drunk. Roaringly, boisterously blotto. “Drunk acting” is a minefield of clichés and temptations to over-indulge that has put paid to the performance of many an accomplished thespian. Yet Myles’ vocalisation of an inebriated Gwen, battling to overcome the alcoholic impairment that is keeping her safe, is pitched perfectly. Gwen shouts and bellows, stumbles over her words, becomes argumentative, loses the thread half way through her sentences, and nods off in a stupor. She has to somehow overcome the cognitive “fug” layered on her brain by the consumption of too much booze, and focus on the important business of staying alive.
As her accomplice Martyn, Omar Austin also hits the right “companion” notes; his character a likeable blend of the clueless and the committed. As the last protestor standing, he’s understandably suspicious of Gwen’s intentions when the pair first meet, but this misaligned duo are able to make entertaining common cause as the sense of jeopardy grows.
It’s another great aspect of Goss’ script that the monsters pursuing Gwen and Martyn are themselves victims rather than villains, consumed by the very forces that are at the heart of the story. As the hunters close in on the pair’s latest sanctuary, director Scott Handcock constructs some gripping games of hide-and-seek, which threaten to end in calamity. Things then build to a conclusion that’s far from predictable.
This is a standalone tale that draws on some unsettling truths about the social impact of economic decline in the “real world”, and adds in scientific concern about the little-understood consequences of fracking. The result is a plausible, and very contemporary, story that’s twisted into the realm of the fantastic by its old-school sci-fi premise. It’s proper Torchwood, in other words.
Torchwood: Smashed is available now from the Big Finish site in both CD and digital download formats.