Torchwood Soho dives beneath the sands of Ashenden for a deeper look at our anti-heroes. And they won’t be the same when they emerge the other side of these six episodes.
Sometimes it’s a funny old journey from there to here. This week marks fifteen years since the debut of Doctor Who‘s spin-off built around former companion Captain Jack Harkness. For four series it bounced from BBC Three to BBC Two to BBC One to Starz and left only two of the original regulars alive. In 2015 Big Finish resurrected Torchwood with stories set both during, before and after the TV series. There have been releases set thousands of years in the future, and back in the days of Yvonne Hartman, Queen Victoria herself and even… Norton Folgate?
First introduced in 2016’s Ghost Mission as a time traveling Torchwood agent from the 1950s, Norton Folgate has graduated to his own spin-off series. Remarkably, Torchwood Soho (named for Torchwood One’s location in this era) only has one character that ever appeared on TV. That’s Tom Price’s compassionate everyman Andy Davidson (aka Gwen’s mate from the police). It’s a testament to the strength of Russell T Davies’ original concept, and what Big Finish have done that it can sustain this kind of spin-off of a spin-off without collapsing under its own weight. Yet, despite being so many steps removed from the original Torchwood, the team of Andy, Norton (Samuel Barnett), Lizbeth Hayhoe (Dervla Kirwan), and Gideon Lyme (Joe Shire) work so well.
The every-slippery Norton continues to be a mystery even to the people closest too him
Ashenden begins with Andy being once more snatched from 2020s Wales back to 1950s England by Norton’s time travel shenanigans. Only this time he’s thrown together with Lizbeth Hayhoe who has been dragged forward in time. But that’s more than just a convenient out after foolishly killing off such a magnificent lady in the previous boxset. Instead, it provides the story with one of its major themes.
Time and again across the six episodes, Lizbeth and Andy speculate about why Norton has brought them here and exactly why he feels the need to have them with him. But Norton being manipulative, deceptive and, in Hayhoe’s words, ‘an utter git,’ makes it almost impossible to know for sure. In fact, setting aside the Apocalypse du Jour, it’s this dynamic that provides the central thrust of Ashenden. Four people, including Norton’s ex-boyfriend Gideon, struggling to understand, and articulate, or even deliberately obfuscating, what they mean to each other.
Dervla Kirwan‘s Lizbeth Hayhoe proves why resurrecting her was the only possible choice
There’s an unspoken mandate to this boxset to round out some of the Torchwood Soho team. Norton and Hayhoe in particular have up until now been largely list of characteristics, even if wonderfully realized ones. He’s sly, selfish, charming, roguish, and somehow always aligning his own interests with saving the day in a manner that left you wondering which was most important to him. She’s gloriously waspish, fiercely intelligent, frustrated by the advancement of lesser men in her place, and able to stick a pin through a man’s ego at fifty paces. By the end of their Ashenden journey they’ve become real, complicated, messy people. But the real wonder of it is that it’s so subtly done you hardly notice their evolution.
Arguably the transition is most difficult for Kirwan’s back-to-life battleaxe. These episodes feature Hayhoe on the run and increasingly beaten down by events. It means the put downs come slower than in the days she ran her own little kingdom of Room 13. (Though Kirwan’s talent at aiming the word ‘idiot’ at Andy with everything from scorn and dismissal to pity and even affection is as impressive as it joyful.)
Her open anguish when she realizes her dog has been put down during her ‘death’ is about as far as her and Norton’s established witty patter as you can get. But it’s a necessary transformation like Donna Noble’s evolution from Runaway Bride to one of Doctor Who’s most loved companions. Hayhoe similarly moves from being a witticism machine to one of James Goss’ greatest creations for Big Finish.
Ashenden is Torchwood at its bleakest since Children of Earth but also its most poetic
One could argue the plot itself exists mostly to provide an emotional wringer to put the team through. But it has plenty to say for itself too. On the face of it, Ashenden takes us into classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory, with a dash of 1980’s Blood Beach. But it uses that familiar framework to ask more potent questions.
An extended sequence builds on the final scenes of the 1978 remake of Body Snatchers, which teased the possibility of surviving among the aliens so long as you could adopt their mechanical, joyless, way of life. How long could you stand it? And what would it cost you? But it also casts a cynical eye over society in general. There’s a hint of gentrification in how Ashenden works – hollowing out the inner cities of the lower classes, ‘improving’ them in commuter towns before feeding them back into the cities again as a ‘better’ class of people.
The sequence of errors, misjudgements and stupidity on the part of the human race seems all too familiar in these times. Politicians ignore the warning signs because they’re sick of experts. Compounding their misjudgement when they commit to their disastrous course rather than admit they were wrong. Even Hayhoe and Norton fall prey to their blind spots. Her reflexive pushing back against condescending and inadequate men kick starts the problem. Meanwhile his carelessness about the morality of the small decisions exacerbate it and snowballs into massive consequences for all. It’s Torchwood at its bleakest since Children of Earth, but at times it also touches on poetry as people picnic at the end of the world.
Fifteen years on, Torchwood Soho proves that there’s plenty of life in the concept yet
Ashenden‘s structure of six half hour episodes is a departure from the norm for Torchwood. But it works incredibly well, splitting the action into satisfying and highly focused chapters. Like a true Doctor Who fan, James Goss’ script exploits it to give us every flavour of cliffhanger. There are ‘how are they going to get out of that one?’ near death experiences; stomach sinking reveals of what’s really going on; and even ‘what does that mean?’ twists that threaten to repaint everything that’s come before in darker brush strokes. The result is a story that keeps events moving briskly forward, even as it offers a closer look at the personalities that make up Torchwood Soho.
Fifteen years on, Torchwood is still going strong in more forms that one could have imagined. Let’s hope that the Torchwood Soho team endures so well, and that it’s not too long before we hear their ironical banter again.
Torchwood Soho: Ashenden
Return to the world of 1950s Torchwood!
Welcome to Ashenden. An exciting new town just outside London, and also the home of a terrible secret.
London has been infiltrated – a darkness is spreading from the bombsites to the highest ranks of government. A darkness that cannot be stopped. A desperate hunt is on for the man who caused it.
The past has come for Torchwood agent Norton Folgate. This is the hour of the hollow man.
- Samuel Barnett (Norton Folgate)
- Dervla Kirwan (Lizbeth Hayhoe)
- Tom Price (Andy Davidson)
- Joe Shire (Gideon Lyme)
- Rachel Atkins (Miss Pinkerton)
- Russell Bentley (Bowers)
- Daniel Brocklebank (Ornadel )
- Jacob Dudman (Fotheringay)
- Raj Ghatak (Speaker)
- Diveen Henry (Amanda)
- Shvorne Marks (Matron)
- Laura Riseborough (Miss Satterthwaite)