Back in 2005 Torchwood was based in London’s Canary Wharf and run by the single-minded Yvonne Hartman. Hidden in plain sight, the institute was a huge organisation with a vast payroll made up of a myriad of different departments staffed by teams of specialists and experts. The contrast with post-Fall Torchwood (a handful of activists hunkered down in The Hub in central Cardiff) could hardly be greater. It is the busy and bustling pre-Fall era that provides the setting for Big Finish’s latest, and rather unusual, Torchwood audio adventure.
Across three episodes, Torchwood One: Before the Fall follows the unexpected career advancement of new recruit Rachel Allan (an excellent and layered turn by Sophie Winkleman) as she is promoted through the ranks, as the organisation is rocked by a series of disasters. Without giving away too much of the story, Rachel finds the challenges of leadership more acute than she had anticipated as her own ambitions meet increasing resistance from those around her.
Gareth David-Lloyd returns as younger, less-experienced and less self-assured Ianto; himself a relatively new and junior Torchwood probationer. David-Lloyd finds great mileage in depicting Ianto growing in confidence as calamities multiply around him, forcing him to step up to the plate. It allows him to explore self-doubting aspects of his character’s nature (including his sexual orientation and his love life) which have all been left behind by the time he’s trading double-entendres with Captain Jack.
Tracy-Ann Oberman is also on top form as boss Hartman, who is put through the wringer as a miscalculation leads to her sacking. She battles to uncover the truth, and secure the rehabilitation of her reputation, whilst living the life of a renegade and a fugitive. Despite her hard-as-nails exterior, Hartman is clearly outside of her comfort zone and Oberman makes great play of the frustration at the loss of power that her character endures.
It is, however, Rachel who takes centre stage in Joseph Lidster’s opening episode “New Girl”. She’s the awkward “newbie” who arrives, breathless and distracted, for her first day at the organisation’s secret HQ. Lidster has fun refracting the familiar “office life” tropes through the Torchwood prism, as Rachel proves that there’s some tough mettle lurking beneath her naïve exterior.
The highlight of the episode, though, is a chilling conversation, in the claustrophobic setting of a sentient lift, between Rachel and Hartman during which the Torchwood boss sets out her ice-cold mission statement. This opener arguably spends too much time on office “induction and orientation”, and the speed of Rachel’s promotion feels improbable, but this is entertaining stuff.
In “Through The Ruins”, written by Jenny T Colgan, the focus shifts to the “office away day from hell” (think team-building exercise meets high explosives), and to the ousted Hartman’s investigations of the plot to hobble her and Torchwood. This is a more agile and pacey instalment, offering some good twists and turn along the way, although, tonally, the shift between the self-consciously absurd and the poignant does jar on occasion.
Matt Fitton’s closing episode “Uprising” very effectively brings to a head the showdown that will decide who will control the future of Torchwood, as the world itself is threatened by a looming catastrophe. The memorable final scenes reveal both the cause and the consequences of Rachel’s true motives.
This is a well-rendered and intriguingly framed set of Torchwood stories, which push questions of character and of intention to the fore. Those who like their Torchwood big, brash and bombastic are unlikely to add Before the Fall to their favourites playlist. Despite the high stakes, the deception and the power plays, this is intimate, up-close and personal drama. And, in the universe of Torchwood, there should be nothing alien about that.
TORCHWOOD ONE: BEFORE THE FALL / CAST: TRACY-ANN OBERMAN, GARETH DAVID-LLOYD, SOPHIE WINKLEMAN / DIRECTOR: BARNABY EDWARDS / WRITERS: JOSEPH LIDSTER, JENNY T COLGAN, MATT FITTON / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW FROM BIG FINISH / GENERAL RELEASE: MARCH 31ST