Big Finish: Torchwood COFFEE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Big Finish: Torchwood COFFEE Review

Tony’s brewing up.

There’s a phenomenon. We call it hindsight.

That phenomenon where we look back on the way things played out, and it all seems inevitable. If we remember people who are dead and gone from our perspective, we tend to view their lives, or our interactions with their lives, as being tinged with a sadness of inevitable death.

That’s a thing we bring from our perspective in the here and now because they’re not here or now right with us. It’s likely that their lives didn’t have that sense of impending ending while they and we were living them together. But afterwards, it’s hindsight that shows us how little time we were ‘destined’ to have together.

Usually, hindsight is a bittersweet gift of the old, because they have longer to look back on.

In the age of Covid, sadly and appallingly, you don’t need to be that old to regret the lives no longer lived among us.

Wow – heavy opening, right? Yes, but it feels appropriate for this particular story of Ianto Jones, by James Goss. The sense of knowing the ending ahead of time is threaded all the way through Coffee, which is told as a kind of flip-side to Ianto’s life with Torchwood 3, from his early attempts to get in, to his encounters with Cardiff’s pterodactyl, through the revelation of Lisa in Cyberwoman, to the various apocalypses (apocalypti?) of the on-screen show and his growing relationship with Jack, all the way to the 456 and slightly beyond it.

It’s a snapshot of the Ianto that was always implied on-screen, but never shown because there was always something madder going on in Torchwood. Ianto in between the ends of the world.

Ianto… and a coffee shop named Baps.

Baps when we first encounter it is Cardiff Bay’s only real café. Originally run by the mother of the owner David (Shaun Chambers), it’s been in David’s hands since his mother…disappeared. Kathy (Sarah Griffin) is a well-meaning backpacker from Indiana, who fell for a guy in Cardiff while raising money for the next stage of her adventures, and who has found herself not leaving, but working at Baps, worrying and laughing with David when Ianto Jones first walks through their door.

The tale that unfolds is a kind of bas relief, a story of life in Cardiff as it’s affected by the existence and the actions of Torchwood, a story of the ‘ordinary people’ Torchwood exists to serve, and how the sledgehammer methods the organisation sometimes employs leave imprints on the world around them.

When Ianto arrives, he’s relatively fresh from Torchwood 1 and the cataclysm of Canary Wharf. And having found Baps as an old-fashioned greasy spoon café, he teaches David and Kathy the meaning of really good, “posh” coffee, rather than the instant-with-a-glug-of-milk they’ve been serving since David’s mother’s time.

It’s a providential lesson, because Cardiff Bay is about to change – the yuppies are coming, and Baps, preceding all the Starbucks and Costas and more artisan independents, is able to rake it in when they come by following Ianto’s Canary Wharf coffee voodoo.

The drama only rarely intertwines Ianto’s Torchwood work with the life of Baps directly, but in a sense, the cafe gives Ianto a little of the grounding that Rhys gives Gwen’s Torchwood life. There are, sprinkled along the way like coffee beans of fan-joy, references that fans will love, laugh at, punch the air over, or go “Ohhhh” about – not least the answer to an early but enduring Ianto mystery.

And there are hints of the potential importance of Baps and its people to Ianto too. While his relationship with David is often spiky, Ianto and Kathy are friendly from the beginning. Kathy even drops hints that she might be interested in seeing more of Ianto outside the café, but at the time, he has a relationship for which “It’s complicated” baaaarely scratches the surface of adequate description. Although it is easier to fit on a profile than “My girlfriend’s a half-upgraded Cyberman in deep freeze till someone can turn her human again. Plus I need to walk the pterodactyl.”

Nevertheless as time goes on, the impact Torchwood makes on David and Kathy is interesting and questionable. Yes, sure, saving the world, protecting humanity. But humanity in the abstract is a whole other thing to people in the particular, and that’s a difference underlined here. To be fair, it’s a difference that’s underlined in Torchwood generally and Ianto’s eventual fate specifically, but once you’ve listened to Coffee, it’s a difference that makes a more balanced sense of that fate.

That’s a big statement, but it’s one to which James Goss’ script and the performances in this tight three-hander rise with both aplomb and vigour. David and Kathy have initially differing views on a lot of things represented by Ianto, the sharp-suited wannabe with the coffee voodoo.

Those opinions and how they change in light of various Torchwood-related catastrophes across the running time of Coffee make for a kind of snapshot-reel of the Cardiff rarely shown on-screen. The Cardiff that pays a price for standing too close to Torchwood.

That the price is one it never asked to pay is almost obvious. That there’s little it can do but pay it is a kind of commentary on the unwilling geographical companion of greatness.

The…the what-now?

The people who are impacted simply by standing where they are and not being able to get out of the way. The collateral damage.

We’re trained in Doctor Who and Torchwood to cheer the goodies, because they’re better than the baddies. But sometimes, it’s worth being reminded that the places they choose for their battles never get a say.

As in Human Nature, when Joan Redfern asks the Doctor whether, if he had not chosen to come to her time and place, would people not have died, so in Coffee, the innocent bystanders of a space-time rift, and a less-than-delicate organisation to deal with its fallout, are given a voice that’s rarely heard in the on-screen show.

We know that Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) will eventually pay the ultimate price to save the world, but what Coffee makes clear is the difference between him, who chose, and even strove, to be part of that effort, and those innocent civilians who are sometimes guilty of nothing but living in a place that becomes a battlefield.

Coffee is a beautifully written story of not-Torchwood, a story of the innocent bystanders, and a fabulous snapshot gallery of Ianto’s whole life with Torchwood 3.

As such, while Shaun Chambers and Sarah Griffin do vital work exceptionally well in getting us to care for David and Kathy and what happens to them, the greatest performance plaudits here have to go to Gareth David-Lloyd for pitching his evolving Ianto with the right accent and nuance as he goes through his life, from Torchwood 1 refugee to Torchwood 3’s coffee butler, to valued member of the team, to front-line operative who pays the price for his involvement.

It’s a subtle, natural performance that lends truth to the notion of Coffee taking place in snapshots over time.

One to get and listen to?

Sorry, was that not a given when you walked in? It’s James Goss and Gareth David-Lloyd, of course it’s one to get and listen to. But the joy is that it’s more than the sum of its parts – it’s both fan-service and realistic look at the impossible situations in which we sometimes find ourselves, and the things we can do to get through them.

And above all, it’s a reminder that the courses of our lives are always going to look inevitable eventually, so while we have them, and while we’re in control over what we do, it’s worth living in a way that makes our eventual absence a sadness, rather than a relief.

It’s worth taking time to feel pleasure, and connection, and friendship where we can.

It’s worth drinking the good coffee.

Tony 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

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