Reviewed: Big Finish’s Torchwood – The Green Life

You might argue, if you were so inclined, that The Green Death is not only the greatest Doctor Who story of the Seventies (and possibly ever), it’s also among the most magnificent pieces of television to grace our screens in 50 years. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, it weaves a seamless narrative that tips its hat to ecological awareness, vegetarianism, and the decline of the British coal industry, all wrapped in a rollicking action adventure where mankind is plagued by giant maggots and a maniacal sentient computer. It features that rarity among Who episodes – a plausible love story – and the companion departure that follows is among the most touching of them all. Oh, and the Doctor’s dressed as a cleaning lady. And a milkman. In the same episode.

The obvious question this begs, of course, is how on earth you follow something like that – and it’s to their credit that Big Finish have elected not to try. Instead, they’ve concocted an hour-long thrill ride, courtesy of BF regular David Llewellyn, which marries the old and the new by putting them in a dark room together and hurling monsters in their direction. And while The Green Life serves, in many respects, as a sequel of sorts – revisiting the same setting, with similar thematic elements – it brings the action completely up to date and relegates the nods to the past to anecdotal footnotes delivered as expository dialogue by none other than Jo Grant (sorry, Jones) herself, who, when the story begins, is busy running down a tunnel with Captain Jack Harkness.

In a way, it’s a bit of a shame, because Jack himself was around in the Seventies. He says as much to Jo (played, as ever, by the marvellous Katy Manning), in one of the moments of downtime the two experience when they’re not being chased or threatened by giant maggots. How much fun might it have been to see an earlier, marginally younger version of Jack drop in on UNIT in the aftermath of the Global Chemicals fiasco and hang out with Benton and Yates? A retro version of the Torchwood theme, and all sorts of Moog-based sound effects and references to the Brigadier being in Geneva? It’s a bit out of the box but it’d surely be tremendous fun, and if nothing else it could confirm certain suspicions I’ve always had about Benton.

But this is a story about change – about growth, and life, and eventually death. The larvae that plagued the small mining village in the original story would memorably hatch into something far worse, and likewise by 2019 the sleepy community has evolved into a a slick and bustling township – an epicentre of ecological awareness and healthy eating, but gained at the possible cost of its soul. It’s telling that Jo is back in Llanfairfach (in the word of Harrison Ford, you can type this s**t but you can’t say it) to attend a funeral, and her reflections on the passage of time serve as a poignant reminder of all those members of the old guard who’ve passed on. “Life gets divided into four types of get together,” she muses. “The ones where there’s jelly and ice cream, the ones where there’s champagne, the ones where there are children and grandchildren running around… and then there’s the ones where everyone wears black.”

The Green Life opens in the middle of a frenetic pursuit and sets the tone for what is, for much of its running time, a two-hander. It’s a risk, but throwing us in at the deep end turns out to be a masterstroke: it is enough to know that Jack and Jo are being chased by giant maggots without having to explore the buildup, and having the two of them blunder from crisis to crisis turns out to be the perfect way to explore character, with Jack’s cynical pragmatism the perfect foil for the idealistic Jo. There’s plenty of reminiscing about UNIT and the Doctor but another maggot attack is never far away. It’s not all running from sound effects: Stewart Bevan turns up in the story’s final third playing the Voice of the (Bee?) Hive, although the less said about him the better. (That’s purely to avoid spoilers; Bevan is very good.)

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the past is not so much another country as much as a theme park you visited when you were a kid. Sometimes going back is like a second childhood; sometimes it’s best left to memory. But it is possible to bridge the gap; to revisit the old through fresh eyes and find new ways to enjoy familiar characters. Lightweight, topical, and fun, The Green Life hammers another couple of rivets into the bridge, and the bonus interviews following the main feature help reinforce them – Manning gushing with enthusiasm for the present while Barrowman waxes lyrical nostalgia for the past. It’s a lot of fun all round, and well worth your time. You don’t even have to have seen The Green Death in order to enjoy it. But if you haven’t, seriously, what on earth’s keeping you?

The Green Life is currently available to buy exclusively from Big Finish, and will be on general release later this month.