We don't talk about TORCHWOOD quite as much as we talk about DOCTOR WHO round these parts, probably because people like Rich and I were not so tolerant of the terrible, mawkish directions the first two series took in the writing department. We wanted to like it, but it wasn't as inventive or funny or witty as DOCTOR WHO, and more often than not went for the obvious solution to every problem, which made it too predictable. The characters often acted like complete idiots and out of character in order for the plot to occur, which felt insulting to the audience's intelligence. The show had all the hallmarks of the type of show we would like, but its execution was… less than how it should have been. Those same hallmarks, cool basic SF genre premise, characters with layers, ongoing mythology, were tailor-made to engender fannish devotion, enough to ensure the show was a success and got new fans.
It wasn't till the third series, CHILDREN OF EARTH, that I finally felt the show finally packed the kind of punch it should have had. It also ruthlessly got rid of the elements that determined its original format and got it fans in the first place, the flash car, the flashy headquarters, and a fan-favourite character. The appeal of Ianto Jones is something I've never understood, personally, maybe because I'm a bloke and not a fangirl, and it's hard for me to be a fan of a character who bursts into tears so easily and so often throughout a show's run. That's not even the actor's fault. He could only work with the scripts he was given.
But anyway, what I really want to talk about is radio plays. While radio drama is largely forgotten and neglected in America with the rise of TV (there are still some being recorded in America, but those are largely niche and little-known), for those of us who grew up listening to the BBC, radio dramas are as much a part of our everyday lives as the telly is. And now they've even become part of a marketing strategy for popular franchises. In Japan, radio drama spinoffs of popular manga and anime series are not just normal but a big market, and actors in radio plays actually become celebrities in their own right. Right before CHILDREN OF EARTH was broadcast in 2008, BBC Radio 4 produced and broadcast three TORCHWOOD radio plays to promote the upcoming TV show, which were sold later on CD and on the iTunes store, generating further income for the BBC and raising brand awareness so it's all win-win.
Last week, Radio 4 broadcast three new TORCHWOOD plays as a lead-in to the new series TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY. What was fun about radio plays is that they're not hampered by budgets, so they could set stories in places the TV version never afford to go to, like the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland (for a really cheesy story in the 2008 series) or India (again 2008) or the Mariana Trench (as in the second one from this year).
Now, normally I might not spend much time talking about the radio plays beyond, say, alerting readers who might otherwise be unaware of them to check them out if they like the show, but the three this year actually sort of impressed me. Once again, the three plays from TORCHWOOD: THE LOST FILES take place before CHILDREN OF EARTH and MIRACLE DAY, so Ianto Jones is in them with Gwen and Jack, which would have sent fangirls rampaging for their internets if they knew these were on.
The three plays, "The Devil and Miss Carew", "Submission" and "House of the Dead" are somewhat better than last year's. They're really the equivalent of those old ghost stories on the radio, depending on dialogue and sound effects to create mood. "The Devil and Miss Carew" has Torchwood investigating an alien that makes a Faustian deal with a woman in an old folks' home to restore her vitality in exchange for developing technology that would enable it to come to Earth and plunge it back into the Dark Ages. "Submission" has the Torchwood team meeting up with an American colleague at the Marianna Trench to encounter the last survivor of an alien race. "House of the Dead" has Jack and Ianto stuck in the most haunted pub in Wales on a night where a psychic is calling forth not only the ghosts of the attendees' loved ones, but a demonic entity that's using the Rift to cross over into the world where it would consume the living.
These plays are not masterpieces of radio drama or Science Fiction by any means, but are interesting as story adjuncts to the main version of a franchise, mainly the TV version. They're like slightly genteel versions of stories you might find in the TV version, only since it's on Radio 4, has a lot less swearing or shagging, and might be mawkishly moralistic in the way Radio 4 dramas tend to be. However, there's actually something that's rather impressive about the three plays this year: they're unified by a single theme, which is that of Death. Each play deals with people facing their own death or the death of a loved one and the pain and mourning that comes with it. The theme is contrasted by Captain Jack's own immortality and his pain at losing loved ones through the ages. This is especially true in "House of the Dead", the last play, which had a couple of twists I didn't see coming, not only revealing what happened to the Rift and why no one talks about it in the TV show anymore, and turns out to be the final chapter in the love story between Jack and Ianto, with especially somber and anguished performances from Gareth David-Lloyd and John Barrowman. The latter was the type of call-back that would send fans into fits of joy and melancholy, if it had only been publicized properly so that more of them tuned in. The theme of death and loss is especially interesting when you consider that these plays come right before MIRACLE DAY, whose central premise is that nobody in the world dies anymore and the consequences and horrors that result from it. I don't know if the introduction of a unified theme in the radio plays that contrasts with the overall theme of the new TV show was a conscious decision on the part of the producers, but I was impressed at how well they all play out in the head when you take them in together. It seems to show once again that despite its flaws – and it has some gaping ones – TORCHWOOD still has something going for it to earn its fans.
By the time you read this, The Devil and Miss Carew won't be available online anymore, but the other two can still be streamed here. Listen while you still can.
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stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.
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