Torchwood One: Nightmares presents three very different twists on the Torchwood format that showcases its tremendous cast
Big Finish take us back in time once more, to a world where for mobile phones smaller was better, Lord of the Rings films were omnipresent in every multiplex, and jeans waistbands rose so low they presumably stayed up with witchcraft. Yes, it’s another outing for Torchwood One. The Torchwood of the early 00s is still at the very height of its power. It’s a shadow agency with deep pockets and tentacles of influence spreading everywhere. And, almost uniquely for Torchwood through the ages, there’s a dedicated, tough, and, well, competent leader at the top. Tracy-Ann Oberman’s unstoppable and fearsome Yvonne Hartman.
The Torchwood One team of Yvonne, Ianto and Tommy remain one of Big Finish’s finest line ups
Set before Yvonne met her terrible end in Doomsday, the Torchwood One sets give Tracy-Ann Oberman a real chance to shine in the role. Despite Yvonne’s surface polish and smooth talking the sharp edge of her disapproval is never far away. Yet somehow it’s equally satisfying whether turned on some interplanetary invader or some hapless innocent who’s made the mistake of falling into Torchwood’s path. But one of the real joys of these sets is the greater depths we get to see of Yvonne. Particularly in her day to day exasperations when a normal day in the office includes alien invasions, and regular staff mutinies. Worst of all, there’s only one man in the whole building who can make her coffee how she likes it.
That man with the caffeine plan is, of course, Ianto Jones. It might require a little squint at continuity to imagine Ianto as Yvonne’s bagman, always on hand with a spare pair of high heeled shoes for her, it more than justified by how well Gareth David-Lloyd and Oberman work together. Joining them on many of these adventures is the blunt, irritable, never-more-Yorkshire Tommy as Torchwood’s resident scientific genius. The dynamic of both Yvonne and Tommy knowing full well that Tommy’s indispensable, and him therefore being supremely rude to her the entire time, is pure gold.
My Guest Tonight is the one true nightmare of the set in an unnerving dreamscape of terrors
Nightmares is the most loosely defined of these Torchwood One sets so far. There’s no overhanging arc, or even linking theme. But in the end that’s a strength as we get three wildly different tales which show off different aspects of our cast. Opening story My Guest Tonight is the one which clearly inspired the box set name. The other two are nightmares purely in the sense of Yvonne have a total ‘mare of a day in work. (So far, so Torchwood.) But My Guest Tonight plunges deep into a threatening and sinister dreamscape. Nigel Best is a TV talk show host that’s somehow bagged an interview with the elusive Yvonne Hartman. But when he breaches the agreed guidelines and dares utter the word ‘Torchwood’ on national television, he plunges into a Kafkaesque nightmare of shifting realities.
Jon Culshaw guest stars as Best in a fantastic performance as an odious, but very human, celebrity
Like all three of the stories in Nightmares, My Guest Tonight is difficult to review without spoiling the experience of listening to it. It weaves a claustrophobic web of atmosphere around the central question of what exactly is happening. It’s only by looking backwards from the ultimate reveal that you can appreciate just how skilfully it’s all done. The twists and turns towards the end are worthy of classic anthology series like Hammer House of Horror, and well worth the journey. But that journey itself is a tremendous showcase for our two lead actors. As the obnoxious and self-centred Best, impressionist Jon Culshaw seizes the opportunity to dispense with using other actors’ voices with both hands.
His performance is also central to making My Guest Tonight’s central conceit work. In Culshaw’s capable hands, he’s sympathetic enough to empathise with as we live through this nightmarish world alongside him. But he’s still odious enough to keep you guessing if he doesn’t deserve it. Meanwhile, with this hellish dreamscape populated almost entirely by variants of Tracy-Ann Oberman, from a gigglesome teen pop starlet, to a louche Oscar winner, and a sinister singing puppet mule, it’s a tour de force from the actor.
Lola takes teases listeners with seemingly standard Torchwood storylines before neatly subverting them
Second entry Lola similarly pivots around a core mystery, but is much more the Torchwood One we expect. There’s an alien spaceship in the lab needing cutting open, a possible conspiracy to dethrone Yvonne, and a devil hidden in the details of the paperwork. It kicks off with Ianto obsessing about an out of place cappuccino mug on Yvonne’s desk. It’s possibly the most Torchwood One beginning ever, in fact. But Lola is a story built on the keen awareness that Torchwood has now been around long enough to develop its own reliable story tropes, and delights in subverting them. Every time you think ‘ah, it’s one of those Torchwood stories’ it pivots away in a new and surprising direction.
Lola also gives Tim Bentinck’s Tommy a well deserved moment at centre stage. Largely thanks to Bentinck’s performance, Tommy’s moved steadily from a colourful supporting character to a core part of the formula. Here, his baseline emotional state of deep paranoia (nobody survives that many decades in Torchwood without the default assumption all their colleagues are out to get them) is fundamental to the story as he peels back the various levels of what on Earth might actually be going on. There’s also a lot of good value in Ianto’s increasingly frantic investigations with Torchwood newbie Kayleigh by his side. Every move they make just raises new questions.
Less Majesty brings farce to Torchwood in a fast-paced and hilarious script
If Lola played with expectations of what a ‘standard’ Torchwood story looks like, final episode Less Majesty doesn’t so much bust the usual Torchwood One format, as take it outside, douse it with petrol, and light a match. In principle, this should be familiar territory. Yvonne wakes up in a hotel room, with no idea of how she got there. And for good measure there’s a dead body next to her. Keen to control the narrative, she calls in only the trusted Ianto and attempts to solve the murder and escape the frame she’s been put in. But over the course of the opening minutes it became clear that this is Torchwood One as comedy. And not just comedy – it’s a classic bedroom farce.
A rare showcase for Tracy-Ann Oberman’s comic skills as Yvonne, Less Majesty flies on the audible fun its three leads are having
The script immediately establishes the sense of the preposterous with the identity of the body in question. Referred to throughout as “HRH,” with a conscientious discretion to avoid naming him, he’s nevertheless established as “heir to the throne” and “not Liz’s favourite anyway,” which doesn’t leave much doubt. The transplanting of the usual Torchwood cover-up shenanigans to a cramped hotel room is amusingly ridiculous in and of itself. And while there are passing references to being a five star hotel, fit for a prince, there’s definitely more of the Travelodge than the Ritz about the travel kettles and the maids banging on the door demanding “I’m not disturbing! I’m cleaning!”
The fact paced banter as things spiral quickly out of control is beautifully played by all involved, and takes full advantage of Tracy-Ann Oberman’s credentials as a comic actor as seen in the likes of Toast of London. James Goss’ script is full of proper gags too. While this being Torchwood taken to farcical extremes makes it all the funnier. As the tight ‘need to know’ loop expands, Tommy’s innate paranoia and monarchist fervour (well, HRH did give Bentinck his MBE) proves more hindrance than help. But the highlight of Less Majesty has to be Tommy’s latest pharmaceutical toy, which induces a state of peaceful calm. (“I thought we were using Retcon too much,” he says, and it’s not clear if he doesn’t mean as a plot device.)
The accompanying interviews even raise the prospect of mounting a stage production of Less Majesty at a convention one day. Which would certainly be a Big Finish Day to remember.
If Torchwood continues to be a central jewel in the Big Finish crown, Torchwood One remains its most glittering facet
Torchwood One: Nightmares may be only in part the dark, twisted tale the title and cover promise. But in providing three diverse windows into the world of Torchwood, they stretch the format in exciting ways which allows the fantastic cast to really spread their wings. It also makes for a great entry point into the series; one which underlines one of Big Finish’s greatest accomplishments in building their own distinct Torchwood teams as good as any line-ups from the series itself, whether it be the Norton/Hayhoe team of 1950s Soho, or the Colchester, Ng and more in the 2020s. Let’s hope we visit Canary Wharf again for more soon from Yvonne, Ianto and Tommy soon.
Torchwood One: Nightmares
Torchwood wake up to three nightmares. Yvonne Hartman finds herself in an endless chat show; lying next to a dead member of the royal family; and Torchwood One has been invaded. Is it too late to save the world this time?