Mr Pugh, does that look even vaguely like a toy spider? No? Then put it back – gently. I don’t want to blow the arse off my car.Gwen Cooper
Hold on to your vortex manipulators, Torchwood fans, Gwen Cooper’s on the warpath.
Four years after the destruction of the Hub that housed Torchwood Three, Gwen’s fed up of saving the world out of the back of her car, and is putting in a planning application to Cardiff Council, to get the world-saving operation back in business on a proper footing.
That means convincing local council peon and Planning Officer, Roger Pugh, that Torchwood is a thing worth having in his city. Yes folks, it’s take a bureaucrat to work day at Torchwood Three.
Let me stop right there before people start taking me seriously. What I’ve just described is essentially accurate, but it’s not what More Than This, the final release in the first series of audio Torchwood adventures from Big Finish, sounds like at all. In fact, it’s what it could have been, and if there hadn’t been comedy-heavy episodes already, like Fall To Earth, where Ianto helps save the world while plummeting towards the ground in a malfunctioning rocket and taking a telesales call, and One Rule, which subjected the eternally-pristine Yvonne Hartmann to a godawful night on the streets of Cardiff, More Than This could have functioned perfectly well in the comedy slot. Eve Myles certainly has the chops to deliver funny lines effectively without sounding like they were written for her as comedy lines, and there are quite a few corkers in this story, as the scenarios in which Gwen involves Mr Pugh go from the sublime to the ridiculous to the massively dangerous, but while he delivers the laughs, writer Guy Adams clearly wants to do more with Torchwood than just be funny.
He also wants to deliver a thoughtful meditation on the universe in both its physical and its potentially metaphysical dimensions, and to debate our place within its vastness.
The script uses Roger Pugh as a narrative construct, allowing him to fill us in on bits of detail and action through the sobering device of him talking to the grave of his wife, who’s been dead ten years, the victim not of some alien plot or some metaphysically significant diabolic scheme, but a simple, horrible, every-day, ordinary accident.
He talks to his wife about the day he’s had, and we’re never entirely sure whether he has a particular belief that she’s there somehow in a spiritual sense, or whether he just talks to her because, at the end of the day, that’s what he used to do, and continuing to do it means he stays the right side of sanity, despite the grief for her that never goes away.
That said, we get a sense that he thinks she’s somewhere towards the end of the story, when the actual depth of his longing for the life he had with her is revealed, and the question of whether there’s anywhere else for her to be, and what he actually believes, is of storytelling relevance, not only because his actions are crucial to saving at least Cardiff and probably the world from something utterly unspeakable from the wrong end of the Rift, but also because the day he spends with Gwen helps him reassess what he thinks of the human race as a whole – since the death of his wife, he’s thought of us all as insignificant and meaningless. Gwen shows him the importance that one life can have in the here and now, eternal consequence be blowed.
It’s a lesson which Adams says rehearses a general debate between himself and his partner. Adams describes himself as a rationalist, one who believes that in fact, there is nothing ‘more than this,’ that this life is all that humanity has, whereas his partner believes there’s more in some ‘hereafter.’ More Than This doesn’t dare to prescribe an absolute answer either way, but it does focus on what we can achieve during the course of any given day. And given the variety of accidents, diseases and other people who could put an end to us on any other given day and the lack of a guaranteed forever, the idea of doing everything we can, every day we have, is a message lightly underscored throughout, whether ‘everything we can’ amounts to saving the world, as Gwen and Roger do, taking care of our responsibilities, as Rhys does, or simply being there when someone needs us, like Constable Andy.
Where does More Than This ultimately sit in any ranking of the first series stories? Despite the very funny lines it includes, and it includes many, it sits in the tender, philosophical corner alongside Uncanny Valley, because it does that thing that science fiction can do perhaps better than any other genre – it examines not only the world we know, but the world we rarely have time to stop and examine, the world behind someone else’s eyes. It would, as I made clear at the start, have been easy for this story to be a runabout romp with a comedy bureaucrat shown how big the universe really is, and mending his ways as a result. But Adams’ writing, served well by sensitive performances from Myles and Richard Nichols as Roger Pugh, makes it literally more than this, makes it a lesson in the fact that we never know what’s behind another person’s actions unless we take the time to understand them. Pugh makes the transition from obstreperous Planning Officer to real, vulnerable human being over the course of the story, but it’s made very clear that he has been that real human being all along, that he’s existed outside of the needs of a Torchwood story, and that it’s been hard, dealing with the sudden, senseless loss of his wife and the long, blank life that stretches on inevitably after something like that. The idea of there being ‘more than this’ to life is central to the emotional core of the story, both in terms of the idea of an afterlife, and in terms of the vastness of the universe we know about. There’s even a touch of Hamlet in this story, Pugh choosing to make one crucial decision at a vital moment, but then recognising it as a mistake – a case of “to be, or not to be” played out with a space-time rift.
Several members of the Torchwood crew have proved they can play this sort of script over the course of the first series – John Barrowman’s quiet, listening take on Jack in Uncanny Valley was certainly very delicately delivered. But for a story of an ordinary Welshman and the impact of loss on his life, it seems entirely fitting that Gwen Cooper, and that Eve Myles, should be the Torchwood connection this time. Frequently described as ‘the heart of Torchwood,’ Gwen’s role was more often than not to blend the high-concept sci-fi with the domestic reality of trying to live a normal human life. Here, Myles pitches Gwen with a highly intelligent balance, offering both adventure and comedy, and when it’s needed, pulling her performance right in and letting her quietness speak eloquently of her human fellow feeling.
The first series of Torchwood audios from Big Finish has had something for everyone in terms of story-type. With the second series scheduled to roll right along in March, just a month after this release, there can hardly be a doubt that this has been some seriously high quality Torchwood. With More Than This, a series that has barely had a dip anywhere along the line goes out on a high, proving there’s years of life left in the format yet.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk