Torchwood: Sonny places Rhys’ mother undercover in a care home, in a psychological drama about need, mortality… and a robot that might be more than he seems
Torchwood have a special mission, and there’s only one person who has what it takes – Brenda Williams. Yes, for the latest in Big Finish’s monthly range of Torchwood audio dramas, the spotlight falls on Rhys’ Mam. When the Sonny series of robots equipped with sophisticated learning AIs are dispatched for a trial run in a care home in Wales, Gwen has her suspicions that they might be more than meets the eye. (And who can blame here, when the last set of AI drones bought by Cardiff City Council; the ones that tried to solve the homeless crisis by burning them alive.) So Rhys moves his mother in for respite care as a pretext for getting a closer look at a Sonny. And the results aren’t quite what anybody expects.
Nerys Hughes, who played Brenda in the television episode Something Borrowed, is one of the crown jewels in the Welsh acting world. She brings that same sophistication and depth of feeling, honed over decades of experience to her return as Brenda. And Kai Owen rises to the challenge of matching her. Sonny follows Big Finish’s trend of giving Rhys more layers and shades than grumping about Gwen’s job. Not only does Owen give one of his best performances yet, but a superb cast excels in what’s very much an actor’s script. There’s Donna Berlin as weary home manager Joy, who views the Sonnys as an attempt to do away with her job. While Amerjet Deju and Shobu Kappor tug violently on the heartstrings as Prudeep and his Sonny unit, as they form what seems like such a deep bond that it leaves his daughter (also Kappor) jealous.
Guest star Steven Kynman succeeds in making Sonny work at the multiple layers of meaning demanded by the script
The most difficult role falls to Steven Kynman as Brenda’s Sonny unit, Sonny (nobody said Brenda had an excess of imagination). Such robots are always challenging roles, and Sonny even more so. He’s synthetic so supposedly incapable of emotion (“How can I care?” as he asks), but programmed to be communicate with people, so has to sound variously kind, helpful, and curious.
This being Torchwood, he also has to serve the drama by playing the potentially sinister double meanings in his dialogue. Is Sonny trying to undermine Rhys by constantly pointing out he keeps forgetting to bring his mother’s favourite red sauce? Or is he just giving a helpful reminder. He keeps changing the subject whenever Brenda tries to discover what’s actually going on his cybernetic noggin, but is he being slyly deceptive or simply not programmed to deal with such philosophical questions? Kynman skillfully walks the tightrope with style throughout.
Less concerned with any shadowy corporate conspiracy behind the scenes, Sonny is first and foremost a compelling study of the human need for connection
That central question about Sonny – is he part of some malicious conspiracy, a machine gone wrong, or simply exactly what he seems – is teased out just a shade too long. By the time the answers come you may not care much any more. But perhaps the point of Sonny. The details of who made them, what they are, and why, are less important than the emotional impact they have on the people they’re interacting with. They hold up a mirror to those they encounter, enhancing the love, fear, and need they find there. And not by any science fiction means. Rather writer Lizzie Hopley displays a keen understanding of human psychology and codependent relationships.
The result is a story that might be low on action, save for an eleventh hour journey into the territory of 80s family adventure films. But it’s a sophisticated science fiction character piece from five minutes into the future.
Sonny is the answer to elderly care. Artificially intelligent robot carers placed in old peoples’ homes that mimic the behaviour of their owners.
Only there are rumours that something is wrong with the Sonny units. That they’re too clever. That they are learning too much. Rhys sends his mother into a home to find out. But what will it cost him?