Big Finish Review: Torchwood One - Machines
The second of this month’s Torchwood releases from Big Finish sees Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Yvonne Hartman and Gareth David-Lloyd’s Ianto Jones return to face returning Doctor Who foe and evil computer WOTAN, alongside the new public surveillance drones and policing units known as the Law Machines.
Also starring Jane Asher and Niky Wardley, Torchwood One: Machines is written by Matt Fitton, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tim Foley, produced by James Goss and directed by Barnaby Edwards. Buy it from the Big Finish website here, or wait until its general release on 30 September 2018.
Here are the synopses...
The Law Machines by Matt Fitton
The Mayor of London is launching her bold new law and order initiative. The capital will be kept safe from crime, from fear, from terrorists. The Law Machines are launching. What could possibly go wrong?
Blind Summit by Gareth David-Lloyd
Ianto Jones has just moved to London. He's broke, has no friends, no future. One day he loses the one thing he's been holding on to, and suddenly people around him are dying. Could a mysterious woman really offer him salvation?
9 to 5 by Tim Foley
It's Monday morning. Stacey loves Mondays. Stacey loves every day. Stacey lives to work. She's a temp and she loves it. Only there's a man in the coffee queue who has a terrible warning for her. Stacey is going to die today.
This second Torchwood One set brings back the War Machines from the 1966 Doctor Who story of the same name – except this time, the titular mechanical foes have been revamped for a new generation as the Law Machines, with a “sleeker and sexier” design from Torchwood.
Machines also features two other stories that riff off the set’s theme of – you guessed it – ‘machines’, but in a slightly different way – namely, using humans as machines to achieve various purposes, whether that be to increase workplace productivity, or simply to take over the world.
The Law Machines
The Law Machines kicks off immediately with a story that is fast-paced and intense from the beginning, and full of a sparkling wit that continues to feature across all three stories. We see Torchwood as accident-prone and vulnerable to outside influence as it ever was, with the launch of the Law Machines blowing up in Yvonne and Ianto’s faces as soon as the opening credits fade away. Figuring out how this happened, who’s behind it all and how to change it forms the basis of the rest of the episode.
Being a sequel to a 52-year-old serial, the story is full of references, passing or otherwise, to previous events, which could normally require listeners to be familiar with the 1966 story. In this case, however, the antagonist is presented in a contemporary and accessible way, using the topical concerns of the early 21st-century such as CCTV surveillance to frame the story for a 21st-century audience.
Listeners are quickly reminded that Yvonne is hands-on, practical and up-front, although never without charm or intelligence. Charmingly vicious and infinitely patriotic and always the smartest person in a room, she looks down upon the mind-numbing vacuousness of humanity but still stands by her duty to protect them – because, as she claims, they aren’t able to do it themselves.
Ianto is also back, and is portrayed as much more technical, down-the-line and adherent to a more admirable strand of morality than Yvonne. In addition to Oberman and David-Lloyd, Tim Bentinck also returns from the previous Torchwood One set as the casually creepy Thomas, giving a nice addition to series continuity.
WOTAN itself provides an ethereal threat, but is definitely a product of its era, which includes its associated limitations – once reanimated, it is still preoccupied with the old technology, and takes a bit of nudging before it recognises the full potential of the modern-day internet. WOTAN’s plot is typically one of world domination just as it was in 1966 – but now it’s been updated for the 21st century, incorporating USBs, wireless internet and trojan viruses.
Elsewhere, the innocent and gullible Julian (Daniel Anthony) becomes its puppet, and the Law Machines themselves evoke a Robocop/Terminator vibe. Plus, Anjoa Andoh features not as Martha Jones’ mum (we await that Big Finish debut eagerly!) but the Mayor of London who (spoilers) meets a rather gruesome end in the WOTAN-induced chaos.
And in addition to all of this, Matt Fitton still has room for a dial-up internet joke!
The second story takes a backstep and delves into Ianto’s past, specifically telling the story of how he came to meet Yvonne. Whereas in many early Torchwood episodes on television Ianto was a background character akin to a butler simply functioning to service the needs of the rest of the group, it is common knowledge that he quickly became a very popular character.
In this story, we really see into who he is, what his formative years were like and, importantly, how he relates to Yvonne. David-Lloyd’s second Torchwood script (after The Last Beacon earlier in 2018) has Ianto meeting a “mysterious woman” who vets him for a job at Torchwood, which is made considerably more challenging a run-of-the-mill entrance exam when that involves infiltrating a nefarious organisation.
The stakes comparatively aren’t too high for a Torchwood threat, giving substantial room for developing Ianto’s early characterisation and the lengths Yvonne will go to in order to gain someone’s trust. There are some fun little moments revealing the origin of some typical Ianto characteristics, namely how he learnt to make such good coffee and how he came to always wear a suit.
Thematically, the story is gold mine with lies, deception, memory wipes and manipulation coming to the fore. Yet everything essentially boils down to Ianto wrapping his head around Torchwood and coming to terms with his soon-to-be boss, the manipulative Yvonne Hartman.
9 to 5
Tim Foley has quickly become an established go-to writer of Torchwood at Big Finish, with 9 to 5 being his third contribution in nine months, with at least one more (Night Watch in God Among Us 1) scheduled for release this year. His story rounds off the set with a fun workplace/office satire that rips into corporate management’s treatment of employees.
Niky Wardley features as the temp Stacey in at least her third appearance as such a secretary-like character in the larger Doctor Who universe (think The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot or Big Finish’s Technophobia) Stacey is at the centre of things in a way that makes the episode very human-centred, dealing with the nature of transience and life’s meaning in a very resonant way – listeners are quickly made to associate with Stacey and there are a bunch of emotional scenes.
Jane Asher appears as Elaine, the menacing boss of the company who has a bone to pick with Yvonne. When matched up with Elaine, Yvonne is clearly portrayed as the heroine, but as producer James Goss points out in the extras, Yvonne herself has shades of grey and black to her character that could easily make her an out-and-out villain in other circumstances. In other words, she’s always riveting to listen to!
If The Law Machines was the most exciting story of the set and Blind Summit was the most standalone, then 9 to 5 is probably the wittiest, although all three have dollops of humour that makes things pop. There’s also a big, though not unpredictable twist towards the end, so although things are wrapped up a little too quickly, 9 to 5 is a funny, entertaining and solid way to end the set.
Although devoid a full extras disk, an interview track is attached to the end of each story, providing an insightful snapshot at the team behind the scenes. Of particular interest here are Matt Fitton’s gives a succinct and helpful rundown of the history of WOTAN, and his enthusiasm for the Torchwood One team is self-apparent. Listen out for WOTAN’s ethereal theme played underneath the credits.
Writers Gareth David-Lloyd and Tim Foley share some terrible (yet fascinating) tales of bad part-time job experiences from their respective pasts, and David-Lloyd also reveals the influence Torchwood creator Russell T Davies had on his script.
These are three distinct stories with a wide scope of character and setting, but everything still feels like a single, coherent world. There is a continuing thread creating a loose trilogy, and the full ramifications of what was started in 1966 are only revealed at the climactic point of episode three.
It is fantastic to reflect on how the entire world of Torchwood has been created, expanded and filled with such a depth of story and character possibility – and all from a handful of stories from mother show Doctor Who over 10 years ago.