Torchwood Among Us places the scattered teammates into something uncomfortably close to the real world. But if the enemy this time is modern life itself, how can they possibly win?
First came aliens. Then came God. Now comes Torchwood themselves. The ‘Among Us’ branding for these post-Miracle Day Torchwood stories has probably never been more appropriate. Torchwood are scattered and on the run, hiding out from the sinister forces that have turned the British government against them. Of course, that’s nothing new for the team. In fact, one could argue it’s a trope that we’ve seen a couple of times too often. But it’s rarely been better utilised than in Torchwood Among Us 1. Here we get four episodes showing a clearer picture of what it means to walk in a world you protect while no longer really feeling a part of it, if you ever did. It’s full of stories of quiet desperation, punctuated by moments of very loud desperation indeed.
If it wasn’t for that established Among Us title format, though, a good name for this set would have been Microaggressions. A running theme through the box set is a thousand tiny problems grinding people down. Some until finally they can’t go on any more; others until they’re ready to explode. More, though, it deals with how such things can be weaponised. We meet our sinister new nemesis here, and their favourite tactic of bombarding a target with such nudges and provocations. Ultimately turning that anger and despair either inward, or against someone else.
It’s as accurate, and so as depressing, an allegory of the world’s current state of affairs as you’re likely to see in science fiction today.
Aliens Next Door addresses the elephant Among Us in the room before moving on to provide a tense and claustrophobic cautionary tale
We begin, rather wryly, with Ng and Orr discussing “the elephant in the room.” This particular elephant having a penchant for braces and great big coats. Jack has dumped them in a safe house on a new build council estate and disappeared, and Ng is quietly doubtful that they’ll ever see him again. Although a plot point driven by outside factors, it may be for the best. While Captain Jack was still good value in stories set both earlier and later in his life, he’d become so compromised during the Among Us strand it was increasingly hard to see a path back for him.
Too many secret schemes painted in colours of very, very, dark grey. Too many betrayals of his team mates. And far too many times morally compromising himself ‘for the greater good’ only for his plan to only wind up making everything worse. A protracted break for the character before, hopefully, returning one day may be no bad thing.
Ng receives far more space to grow as a character, becoming one of the team’s most compelling assets
Instead in Torchwood Among Us, that role largely falls to Ng, for whom it’s a better fit anyway. After all, she’s sacrificed billions of lives to the mercies of God. Fusing with Gwen Cooper may have cursed her with human emotions and a conscience. But it does make sense that even as she tries to do right by the human race she almost destroyed, she can go about it with an offhand ruthlessness.
It’s that thought clicks into place that stops first story, with the deceptively CBBC sitcom friendly title Aliens Next Door, becoming unbearably bleak. Ng and Orr have taken over the spare bedroom of sweet little old Mrs. Clerihew. They’re claiming to be government agents observing a suspect in the area. It’s only mostly a lie. But misunderstandings heap upon suspicions heap upon prejudice, until the situation has gotten out of hand. Soon a neighbour is a prisoner in their own home, as the locals moving smoothly from wild theories about him to remarkably detailed past crimes ‘everybody knows’ about.
Through it all, Ng takes a hands off approach to the problem. You may spend much of the episode mentally yelling at the Torchwood agents to speak up. By the end, our two alien defenders of humanity will have seen the darkest side of humanity, and of themselves. But the real enemy here may all those small nudges and pokes life gives those on the margins. The pan of water brought slowly to the boil, turning frustrated people cruel.
Sparks fly as Misty Eyes gives us the long overdue confrontation between Gwen Cooper and Ng
We return to Ng’s story with third episode Misty Eyes. It’s a story which hangs its mandate big and clear over the door frame. Gwen’s last story, chronologically at least, saw the OG Torchwood member resign and quit Cardiff forever mid-crisis. With that exit more Leela-in-Invasion-of-Time than Rose-Tyler-in-Doomsday, Tim Foley works hard to give her story a fitting capstone.
We, and Ng, catch up to Gwen and Rhys living in a decommissioned lighthouse in Iceland. They’re settled and happy, even if Rhys doesn’t quite believe his wife’s protests that she doesn’t miss all the action and drama. So the last thing they need is Ng turning up at their door. Ng, the alien interloper who possessed Gwen for months, trapping her in her own mind to watch as used her body to sleep with her husband and murder her mother. Ng, who to add insult to injury Jack then welcomed into the team with open arms. Gwen’s very literal replacement.
One of the best hours of audio drama you’ll hear this year, Misty Eyes is a true character drama of two women and the damage one has inflicted on them both
If there’s any justice come awards season, Among Us 1 and specifically Misty Eyes will be heavily laden. If they’d been an able to stick a camera on it, Eve Myles and Alexandria Riley would be on stage in glittery dresses at BAFTA time. The play’s tight, self-contained feel and focus on searing interpersonal drama stands apart. It’s a powerfully written, beautifully performed character piece centring on two women. Both attempting to grapple with the damage caused by the actions of one of them. And both running out of road in their attempts to run away from confronting it.
Though with the unique challenges of scheduling meaning Myles recorded her portions months in advance, particular praise has to be given to Alexandria Riley and director Scott Handcock for so seamlessly matching and reflecting back her energy. There are moments where the two angrily crosstalk at each other, obscuring where one ends and the other begins. It’s close to magic. Though Blogtor should spare a mention for Kai Owen as Rhys too. He smoothly turns from broad farce in the recent Thirst Trap to heavy character driven drama here, while absolutely portraying the same consistent character. It’s a subtle skill which marks him out as one of the understated cornerstones of Big Finish’s Torchwood range.
Colin Alone places Mr. Colchester’s abandoned husband under close surveillance, as the edges of his life fray all around him
The two Ng stories in the volume alternate with ones featuring perhaps Big Finish’s most successful original Torchwood creation. Mr. Colchester, ‘the Terminator in a cardigan’ as he’s been dubbed, can run, but hiding just isn’t in his nature. We learn that first in second episode Colin Alone, through the eyes of his husband. Colin Colchester-Price (now played by Joplin Sibtain) has been left to pick up the pieces back in Cardiff after Torchwood’s dramatic fall from grace. But instead he struggles to stop them falling even further apart.
Chief amongst his problems are the government agents Mira and Jeff, played with delicious oiliness by Sandra Huggett and Chris Jarman. They seem highly sceptical of Colin’s lack of contact with Colchester. So he endures regular interrogations, confronted with evidence of the Torchwood agent’s ongoing campaign against them. Securing weapons and funds, and getting embroiled in gun battles, Colchester’s obviously preparing to begin the fight back. But what exactly is his mission?
Colin honestly doesn’t know. Just as he doesn’t know why the bus never shows up and he’s always late for work. Or why the building management company refuse to fix the leak in his flat, claiming no record of payment. He also doesn’t know why the safeguarding approval for his new job never seems to go through.
He doesn’t know. But he has his suspicions.
Colin’s troubles provide an effective reminder of just how simple it is to fall through society’s safety nets, even if it a little broad in its condemnation
Una McCormack’s script offers a chilling examination of how our identities are now tied up in the data about us. Simply the theft of Colin’s phone plunges him a nightmare where he can’t access anything or even pay for anything. Yet, in parallel, Mira and Jeff are able to quote him chapter and verse on his every purchase, his every movement, and his every website click.
Though this wouldn’t be an Among Us series if there wasn’t some confused messaging. This is, after all, the strand that gave us a anti-racism allegory where the immigrants actually were eating people and plotting to replace our society. People working at food banks tap away at keyboards, ordering endless office supplies for themselves over lattes. All with hardly a mention of actually helping anyone. It feels a world away from Doctor Who’s Dan Lewis. Meanwhile, it treats safeguarding checks and GDPR as part of the arsenal used to make life just a little bit more unbearable for ordinary people, while removing personal responsibility for our own decisions. Rather than, as is the reality, a key part of our defence against the tactics Colin Alone otherwise rails against.
Moderation brings us into the dark world of modern media chasing engagement at any cost
At times finale Moderation teeters on the brink with its broad stroke cynicism about modern journalism. And certainly, when one minor plot point validates 5G conspiracy fantasies, in the real world responsible for hundreds of attacks against property and workers, it hits a loudly off key note. But otherwise James Goss composes his piece with deadly precision.
Perhaps Moderation’s greatest achievement is also its most unlikely: making Tyler likeable
The story’s great master stroke is in placing Johnny Green’s Tyler Steele at the centre of the action. Introduced in one of Aliens Among Us’ earliest scenes he’s previously embodied all the worst qualities of a tabloid journalist. Even after he joined forces with Torchwood, he remained selfish and duplicitous, with an almost Adric-like willingness to change sides with the wind. But placing him in his old Fleet Street stomping ground allows us to see how much he’s grown, while also contrasting how bad things have gotten even since ‘his day.’ He’s back, embedded in his old newspaper as a comment section moderator, to investigate a spate of recent suicides. Are progressive journalists really taking their own lives? And even if they are, is the almighty algorithm giving them a push? And this time, Tyler actually seems to care.
It is, dare Blogtor Who say it, the first time he’s actually been likeable. It’s a change Mr. Colchester sees too. If Tyler is Moderation’s version of David Callan, undercover but wanting to be certain of his fact before taking life-ruining actions, then Colchester is marvellously cast as its Lonely. He drives Tyler around under his own cover as a cab driver, and ferrets our information from the street. Though Lonely would never have dared talk to Callan as Colchester does to Tyler. From having openly despised the journalist in the beginning, the older man now moves into an almost fatherly role. A grumpy, cuttingly sardonic, permanently unimpressed Dad, perhaps. But all the same. Needless to say, his voice like a strong, quality whiskey hitting rounded glass, and his wit like a cut throat razor, Paul Clayton as Colchester continues to commit Grand Theft Scene with his ever appearance.
It’s a fun partnership, and a nice relief in the surrounding darkness.
As perfectly conceived, written an performed as it is, Moderation is not a tale that will leave you skipping through the daisies afterward
Indeed, one word of warning may be appropriate. The episode is a season’s worth of features from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight show distilled into one traumatic hour. There’s the genuine, well documented desensitising effect on comment moderators of ploughing through thousands and violent murder and rape threats day in, day out. Then the increasing normalisation of extreme hate speech on social media. While the heart of the drama is really the increasingly algorithm driven quest for engagement at any cost. Platforming racists and bigots in the media is the order of the day. Hate sells. And facts are literally yesterday’s news.
Meanwhile, alongside all of this, Silas Carson’s marvellously odious editor Barry rubs his hands in anticipation of the coming day he can replace all his writers with ChatGPT. He’s the type of character who successfully leaves you hoping for something terrible to happen to him by the end. Taken all together the result is a starkly real portrait of the challenges the world faces today, with no answers in sight.
Moderation, then, is maybe not one to stick on to cheer yourself up.
This first volume provides Torchwood Among Us with the best start of all the Among Us series so far. Best of all, there’s a month to wait for volume two
Threaded through all four episodes is the slow emergence of a new villain. Their nature is too delicately teased throughout Torchwood Among Us to possibly risk spoiling here. But it’s enough to say that as the shroud is slowly pulled back, the emerging shape is that of a Frankenstein patchwork of all modern life’s deepest anxieties. If anything, it’s clear that whether the remaining box sets coming next month and in July rip reveal bug eyed monsters, obsessed scientists, or evil robots behind everything, the true opponent is the relentless direction the real world is taking.
Which begs the question: who can Torchwood possibly win this time?
Torchwood Among Us 1 is easily the strongest, and most resonant, opening salvo of any of the Among Us series yet. Though be prepared to pull on a (preferably not blood stained) cardigan. Because you just may feel a chill even when listening on a summer’s day.
Torchwood Among Us 1
Torchwood are on the run. As the world puts itself back together, Torchwood are there to pick up the pieces. And they find something nasty hiding in them.
A housing estate where everyone’s gone mad, an industrial estate interrogation facility, a lighthouse in Iceland, the comments section of a newspaper. Trouble is everywhere. And so are Torchwood.