After successfully reinventing the series for audio back in 2015, Big Finish is bringing listeners the seventh series of Torchwood this May. George Hewitt had the opportunity to speak to producer and co-writer of the series, James Goss, to discuss his early days with the BBC, producing Torchwood, and previewing the upcoming Among Us series. This exclusive interview is presented here in full.
When did your connection with Doctor Who and Torchwood first start, and what sorts of things did you do in the early days?
Well, I ran the Doctor Who website from 2000 to 2007 and for the last few years had an office down in BBC Wales, where I worked on the website for the first series of Torchwood, and wrote all sorts of things, including a short story which was the inspiration for an episode of Series 2 (To the Last Man). We did lots of silly things. I mean, if you want to talk about the thing I’m proudest of, it’ll be those animated episodes of The Invasion – so much of what I did at the BBC was achieved through pain and misery and horror and those just happened and were joyous (what happened afterwards wasn’t quite so joyous, but at least I got some truly jaw-dropping stories out of that).
Following that, how and when did you start writing for Big Finish?
I think after I’d written my first Torchwood novel and my first BBC Audio (Dead Air), David Richardson very kindly offered me the chance to write a Companion Chronicle [2012’s The Time Museum]. I think I was also helping Joe Lidster out on Dark Shadows around that time. I owe it to Gary Russell and Russell [T Davies] who liked my Torchwood novel so much they put in a good word for me. Weirdly good words for me.
At what point were you approached to produce Torchwood on audio?
2015. I know they’d had the licence for a while and were working out what to do with it and I think, for want of anything better, they thought, “let’s let James make six and see where we go”. And now, a hundred stories later…
What made you decide to focus on character-driven stories for the Big Finish range rather than sticking to the ensemble nature of the TV series?
This was entirely from working on the Dark Shadows range with Joe Lidster. Stories focussed around single characters worked really well and were very popular there, so we wondered if the model would move across. And it did. It also seemed to be easier to schedule.
How did Series 5 and 6 come about, and what was the process in creating them?
Continuing Torchwood was a thing that had been in development for some time at Big Finish and then it had fizzled out for reasons I never really was across. Because the monthly releases were selling so well, we were asked to continue. We talked about it with Russell. We also talked with Titan who were looking at doing a ‘Torchwood Continues’ comic. We were going to see if the two ranges could match up, but they had a series of characters all ready to go, and we had a set of characters developed for us by Russell, so we went with those.
We then approached a set of writers – it was very much a learning curve – we ended up being able to give them a fairly lengthy series bible, which we thought would be helpful. Most authors went, “Russell’s created these characters and wants these things doing with them? Okay, amazing!” and others went, “oh well, actually, I think it should be about humans in handbags,” or whatever and there was no budging them from that, so they sort of fizzled out. That was a massive learning curve, mostly a delightful one, but occasionally hair-raising. I remember one author who’d come up with a brilliant idea and suddenly emailed to withdraw: “Oh, I’ve been offered a Doctor Who main range, so I’ll be too busy, and that’s proper Doctor Who,” which was… well, it was a thing.
It was a bit of a juggling act, around cast availability and what we wanted to do. I couldn’t have done it without [director] Scott Handcock. He was just so helpful and creative and patient and bombproof.
Aliens Among Us wasn’t easy, but it went in all sorts of wild and crazy directions, so maybe it was a good spiritual successor to the first two TV series. I also loved that Russell let us bring back Yvonne Hartman. That was a magnificent cliffhanger, and a truly exciting thing. Suddenly it felt like it was all coming together.
God Among Us was a lot easier – we planned it out a lot more didactically and thought it through a lot more. There were still some bumps – one author wrote a completely different episode to the one we’d assigned them as they fancied that one more, but we sorted it all out in the end – and it was a very good script. We also had some extreme fun in experimenting with how we told stories that could only be told on audio – and with doing a bonus podcast episode. The absolute great thing was how into it the cast were. We couldn’t have got there without every single one of them being into it so much.
How do you approach mixing new characters with existing characters – do their voices come to you as easily as each other when writing?
Mr Colchester was there from the start. The others arrived as soon as the actors opened their mouths – it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Sam Béart or Jonny Green or Alex Riley being brilliant in those parts, but there was something amazing about my first meeting with Paul Clayton on the way to studio – we’d accidentally got Cardiff’s Worst Taxi Driver and we both dealt with the situation differently. I went very teenage and sulky and Paul just stated very firmly that This Would Not Do and I thought, “gosh, I can see why Scott cast him – he is Mr Colchester”.
The other character that sort of occured was Norton Folgate. Sam Barnett and Tom Price were in studio for a Doctor Who we were doing and got on like a house on fire, and I just said to Scott, “imagine if there was a 1950s Torchwood Agent and he meets Sergeant Andy,” and Scott gave me a basilisk look and said a very slow, “ohhhkay”. The success of Norton is the oddest thing. People have got tattoos of things I’ve done, but someone has named their cat Norton Folgate. There’s no higher praise imaginable.
Certain characters in Torchwood (looking at Norton) have quite confusing timelines – do you have an idea in your head of when things take place, and will there ever be an explanation of the orders of events?
It does makes sense! I’m assuming that someone will explain to me how Norton from Flight 405 got out of that time loop, though.
I do know that someone used to email me after each release to demand which TV story it took place between. My head isn’t like that, I’m afraid. Which means that Joe Lidster will sometimes get very cross with me down the pub.
What was it like having to produce Torchwood through the pandemic, and how did you adapt for that?
Mrrrrf. In some ways it was brilliant – just being able to suddenly get some actors because my god they were bored and Big Finish was just excellent at keeping them busy. But also, it was a bit odd. There was a period when scripts just stopped coming in! We’d commissioned loads, but one by one they fizzled or got delayed as everyone just went through hell with parenting or family or just the daily hell of being locked up in their homes.
So there was a strange period where, once a month, I’d go for my State Mandated Walk and ring up Scott Handcock and go, “what shall we do this month?” and we’d bash out an idea together and then I’d write it in the evenings after I’d finished my BBC job. They were an interesting bunch of scripts – I’m proud of all of them and of the amazing work that the cast put in, but it was a little strange. Sort of like semi-improvised jazz. Especially because at some point I realised I was suddenly living in a cave in Turkey and wasn’t entirely sure how that had happened. That was a bonus of the pandemic – suddenly we all realised we could do our jobs anywhere in the world, but that was probably taking it to extremes.
Scott got Torchwood through that – he and Alfie Shaw pioneered recording from home for some Time Lord Victorious audios and we sort of moved that over to Torchwood. My god, though, we had some disasters, such as a remote recording engineer whose internet access just wasn’t up to seven different actors connecting in and we ended up trapped in an endless loop, sort of like the infamous One Direction Appearance on the 50th Anniversary After Show. We had to remount that one three times, and it’s probably the most expensive thing we’ve ever done. It came out brilliantly, but my god, it was horrible. Like I think I shook for three days afterwards, and even thinking about it now, I fancy a beta blocker.
How much has Among Us changed in the four years you’ve been recording it?
Blee. I’m really proud of where we’ve ended up. But it was originally going to be about a pandemic. A measles pandemic because I thought, “oooh, those anti vaxxers are going to end the world”. HOW TIMELY OF ME IN 2019.
We got a fair way into that, with scripts and all before it became apparent that, oh dear, here we were in the middle of 2020 and no-one would want that. Then there was an ongoing strand about a dodgy member of the English Royal Family which seemed very edgy in 2019 and now just seems a bit ouch.
We’d recorded some of one episode in 2019, and we had various bits of episodes recorded by the end of 2020 and then it all sort of petered out before we remounted it in late 2022.
There was a lot of stuff that sort of had to be worked around – one actor became unavailable in January 2021 and we couldn’t make that work, but it’s all water under the bridge and we’re amazed with what we’ve got. I mean like it’s been a joy listening to edits come in and not just going, “we got away with it,” but, “wow, okay, that’s really good”.
Is it important to you that the Big Finish continuation of Torchwood is so highly political, and if so could you explain why?
Every script has to be ‘about…’ something. It just somehow seems to be what Torchwood was originally there for. We’ve tackled some really current stuff (zero hours contracts and homelessness and immigration) and somehow all the stuff that we were planning for Series 7 proves that good sci-fi should be the next steps of history – we just didn’t anticipate that the world would be walking so fast.
There was one episode in Among Us about the forgotten war in Ukraine which last year seemed too dangerously on-the-nose to ever release and now seems sadly massively timely again.
We’ve ended up with a lot of stuff that was supposed to be very far ahead but now looks timely – there’s stuff about illegal genetic sampling, there’s still a little bit of anti-vaxxer satire, but there’s also stuff about crypto currency, influencers, AI and even drag queen story time. We’ve also got some actual AI cast members in episode 9. They’re hilarious.
When I spoke to Gareth David-Lloyd, he mentioned that at the recording of Less Majesty there was talk of doing it on stage – is this something you’d consider?
I would love to do that. We all joked about it during the recording. Maybe one day we’ll get invited to do a live reading of it at a convention. Wouldn’t that be nice?
We were so lucky with the timing of that. If it had come out a month or two later, it would never have come out. It’s quite something when you’re checking the news going, “please don’t let the Queen be dead”.
Imagine – we did a story about Yvonne waking up in bed with the naked body of the future king. TREASON.
What’s your favourite thing about working on Torchwood?
It’s just amazing that this thing exists and is so popular. Like, how did this happen? I started working on it during THE WORST YEAR OF MY LIFE and it sort of cheered me up and it still cheers me up all these years later. There’s nothing better than chatting with a new author and hearing amazingly novel ideas for what Their version of Torchwood could be. Also, some of the studio days are amazing. Literally the joy of Tracy-Ann Oberman coming in looking like a million dollars in a kimono and sunglasses holding her script and a posh coffee and the atmosphere suddenly crackles. The mad wonder of spending time with Murray Melvin, the only man I know who can begin a sentence with, “well, as Noel Coward said to me— but I mustn’t gossip—”.
And yes, I love that once a year I get to spend time with Tom Price and Sam Barnett and Joe Shire. Twitter spends a lot of time trying to categorize ‘chaotic evil’ and ‘chaotic good’ and no, I still can’t decide.
The love that the original cast has for the show – the way that Kai Owen will drive through the night to make it to studio, and be full of beans when he gets there. The way that Tom Price will WhatsApp to make sure I was okay when my cat died, and persuaded me not to dig her up. The way that Gareth is just an immaculate audio actor, and the first person to go, “I’ll write you one,” and delivered a script that he and Burn cackled their way through, and then did the same with Naoko – those two have a real ‘hungover best friends’ energy. And, of course, the sheer way that both Eve and John would somehow find time to be in studio when we getting the range going – it’s impossible to forget how kind both of them have been when, frankly, they had other calls on their time (I still remember Eve being kidnapped on her way to studio by a car sent to do emergency reshoots on Victoria).
All the original cast are such champions of the brand. They made it feel like it was the time of their lives, and it’s been mine too.
Can you give us a tease for your story in Among Us 1?
Boxset one is about neighbours and how people react to each other (we lost a lovely line where someone says, “oh, you can tell they didn’t clap for the NHS,” which was a hoot in 2020 but seems baffling now). We do have the best guest star imaginable coming up for boxset 3. I mean, really, some people will have no idea who she is, but those who do… oh my god you’re my kind of people. The entire Soundhouse was proper starstruck. Especially when we made her swear.
Many thanks to James for speaking to us. Torchwood: Among Us, the twelve-episode seventh series, releases in three boxsets, starting on the 11th of May. All three are available to pre-order on bigfinish.com now.
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