“Hello and welcome to Excess Baggage with me Sandi Toksvig. Today, India and slightly different view of the subcontinent with our guest Ianto Jones of Torchwood. Ianto, hello.”
“So Ianto. Tell us about your visit to India.”
“I can’t reeally. It’s classified.”
“Oh. Um, okaaay. So what did you do while you were there?”
”I can’t tell you that either. That’s classified too.”
“And yet we invited you on.”
“I knoow. Strange that. Can I have cup of coffee?”
In its somewhat random history, Torchwood has had a tricky time coping with how to approach it’s own mythology. Not aided by a symbiotic relationship to the mother series and to some extent its younger sister, it’s had to be cautious when establishing anything just in case it interferes with the plans of either Doctor Who or The Sarah Jane Adventures (something us continuity wonks will be fixing our beady eyes on next week). So it’s generally looked inward offering glimpses of earlier Torchwood both in Cardiff and across the world and James Goss’s Golden Age or Torchwood Flies The World, with its excursion to Delhi, is another example of that and crucially in comparison to yesterday afternoon’s story, actually making the most of its radio format to deliver places which would not necessarily be available on the current budget for the show.
Lord knows what the typical audience for this timeslot made of it. I offered the same point in my review of Lost Souls, but do people just tune in every day at 2.15pm no matter what’s on, a continuity heavy blast of sci-fi adventure, or as they may have heard on Tuesday a drama about assisted suicide? Either way, it’s to the good that Goss didn’t attempt to explain everything from the off, preferring to alienate potentially unaware listeners whilst keeping us happy (even hurling in a squee worthy mention for some silver balls) and delivering a fun, sometimes intriguing story that made me laugh on at least a couple of occasions even if ten minutes before the end I realised I was listening to the Soylent Green Corporation doing a cover version of City of Death. And said so. Out loud. With a contraction then a swear word in front.
It took a while, but all of the elements which sounded a bit familiar and niggled throughout began to coalesce. Instead of Scarlioni/Scaroth we have The Duchess, or Charley Pollard’s sister Cecelia with a game face. An old colonial mansion for the chateau. Space age wi-fi rather than the now retro seeming micromeson scanner. General odd-jobber Mr. Mahajan for mad old Dr. Kerensky. And a time bubble designed to recreate a previous status quo. There are only seven stories in the world, or twelve, or two or however many they’re currently teaching in creative writing classes right now and this paragraph belabours the point, but I’m just relaying the experience of listening to the play and once again it was somewhat spent decoding where in the franchise an iteration of this story had appeared before.
Still it its impressive to hear the series reach into thematically complex territory in talking about overpopularion though I can't quite believe that these multitudes could disappear in India without someone noticing (unless they were seeding the water with retcon). A colonial Torchwood is a neat idea, however, and having them previously bruised by Captain Jack following establishment orders underscores the kind of man he became to survive after being plopped in the 19th century first time around as well as demonstrating how this kind of organisation, if it did exist, would clearly be buffeted by world events. Just a pity it's another example of him atoning for another previous fuck-up, this time leaving just the right kind of alien tech in the wrong hands for maximum levels of catastrophe. Also, why Torchwood India not Torchwood Delhi if Torchwood Cardiff is Torchwood Cardiff not Torchwood Wales?
A larger than life character in the spirit of Captain John, The Duchess (who probably looks like Kiera Knightley) proves a decent foil though the chemistry between Jasmine Hyde and the Barrowman was rather low, the latter often sounds uncomfortable without a camera lense to relate to. You'd also think these two would have more to reminisce about than proper dancing, though no doubt the timeslot was a factor in this and we were supposed to read between the lines or childish giggles, an extended version for the cd could feature the untransmittable extended flashbacks utilising the soundtrack from Elvira Madrigan. Or whatever. Not that I've thought too much about it. Then again, having had to sit through a similar conversation in real life ("Do you remember when we went to that hotel with the broken springs on the bed etc") perhaps Goss stopped short at just the right moment.
Eve and Gareth are well served by the material continuing the dynamic we saw in the Doctor Who orgasmo-finale, suggesting a less buttoned up Sarah-Jane and Harry, especially in that lovely moment when Gwen was awakening in captivity and Ianto broke their predicament to her ‘gently’. As lovable as Tosh and eventually Owen were, this new trimmed down configuration seems to work rather better in story telling terms, subtlely fleshing out the remaining characters. Ianto still remains a slightly weird figure though. He's not quite gotten over the cry baby image of the first tv season especially the Cyberwoman thing, or the oddness with watching Paul O'Grady in a crisis much later. 4oD is fabulous but was that the right time? Already worked your way through the whole of Press Gang? Disappointed that Pob isn't available?
I'm babbling now (it's the heat) so I'd best end with this: I spent this past weekend watching some of the BBC’s productions of Shakespeare’s history plays from the 1980s. They’re very good, all the generational skullduggery of I, Claudius except rewriting our own history. Brenda Blethyn plays Joan of Arc like she's just stepped out of a Mike Leigh drama. The Idiot’s Lantern’s Ron Cook does Richard III as a kind of northern spiv. Most of these things are three or four hours long, but none of them feel like it because between the text and the direction it runs like the clappers with battle after unceasing battle spilling across the space as the crown is relayed between successive camps.
By comparison, the first half hour of Golden Age feels twice as long because we're essentially waiting for the villains to reveal their plan to Torchwood, with the inevitable delayed verbally in the case of The Duchess and her feminine whatsits or the guided tour George gave the other two, our/somebody's heroes not really discovering the horror for themselves, but being told what was going on to a narrative timetable. I’m no writer (obviously) but I think I would have probably had the team break free much earlier than that, with Torchwood India/Delhi/whatever chasing them around a bit attempting to protect their secret, with lots of shouting and more blasts of that gun. But with forty-odd minutes worth of drama to fill and a limited cast, what are you going to do?
Tomorrow: "Hello? Hello? I'm in Torchwood. It's ...."