Torching the Wood Again

Call me a glutton for punishment, but I’m back for more Torchwood with episode four. Spoilers abound…

TORCHWOOD: Episode 4- “Cyberwoman”

Be careful what you wish for. Last entry, I casually mentioned that the one possibly interesting character in the whole of the Torchwood set-up was the business-suited Ianto Jones, who handled all of the cover-ups and Torchwood paperwork. Well, I really wish I hadn’t, as my wish was granted in episode 4, and the results have definitely proved that nobody working on Torchwood seems to have the faintest idea of what they’re doing. It’s managed to enter the realms of stunningly bad in a way that the first episodes only hinted at, and far from the edgy, gritty drama series RTD seems to think he’s spawned, what we’ve gotten is on a par with the creaky modern day update of The Outer Limits- awkward, sloppy, and as self-consciously ‘adult’ as the average spotty adolescent who’s desperate to prove he’s grown up by throwing in swear-words and erection gags.

Here, we find out that Ianto Jones has actually been hiding his girlfriend in the bowels of the Torchwood complex, thanks to her being caught up in the battle at the end of Who Season 2 and part-converted by the Cybermen (A traumatic event which we see in a rather hilarious flashback of him emoting in front of lots of polythene, which actually comes across like one of the surreal tangents that comedy show Spaced was fond of using). Naturally, he’s not prepared to give up on the woman he loves, even when there’s soon an entertaining collection of corpses piling up and she’s stomping around the Torchwood base like a disco version of the Terminator, and we’ve soon got another one of Torchwood’s entries in the ‘B-movie rip-off’ genre, combining the traditional ‘base under siege’ plot with the ‘I married a werewolf/vampire/cyber-tart’ cliche, resulting in lots of frenzied overacting and some of the silliest stuff to hit my cerebral cortex in some time. It wasn’t so much the complete failure of the story to be dramatically interesting, with its attempts at creating tension between the Torchwood members and say something about secrecy resulting in an atmospherically shot but pretty empty runaround tale, but the shocking calamity that was the central ‘bad guy’. Buffy has proved time and again that if you’re going to try and do a light-hearted, metaphorical horror story, your villains have got to look convincing- but here, we get a very badly executed design that essentially looks like an Eighties glitter and chrome take on Halle Berry’s infamous Catwoman costume. The fact that a conversion unit designed to create soulless automatons is thoughtful enough to provide any females it converts with a metallic bra, a silver thong and charmingly feminine high-heeled boots should tell you everything about how ridiculous this episode was prepared to get. It was a shocking mess of a design shoddily executed, and which never managed to look like anything other than a woman wearing a very silly costume- there didn’t seem to be any attempt to make the ‘cybernisation’ look like part of her, just a chance to have a foxy female villain and show lots of flesh.

The idea of doing a darker, more adult take on a Cyberman story is an interesting one- but all we got here was lots of blood being thrown around for very little discernible effect. Logic flew out of the window almost immediately, especially when the Japanese doctor was being part-converted in a way that made no sense whatsoever (his head was part-converted into a Cyberman’s head- and yet, the ‘new’ Cybermen are created by scooping out people’s brains into metallic bodies, and the same thing hadn’t happenned to the woman), and it all led up to a climactic scene featuring- I kid you not- the heroes using the patented ‘get a Pterodactyl to attack the main villain’ strategy, and the discovery that the Cybermen are now, unaccountably, able to do human brain-swaps in about five minutes. We were obviously supposed to feel terribly conflicted between Captain Jack’s “Kill ’em now!” orders and Ianto flailing around trying to save his killer girlfriend, particularly with lines like “You’re the real monster down here” aimed at Captain Jack, but it never really went anywhere, ending in an overblown hail of bullets and the sound of the audience’s sense of decent entertainment leaving the building.

I’m coming to the firm conclusion that dark and gritty just doesn’t work in the Doctor Who universe. It’s one of the reasons why there’s only a few of the Doctor Who tie-in novels that I actually liked, because Who is, essentially, a silly, wondrous place, and if you turn it into something dark and unpleasent, you lose sight of what made the show work in the first place. It’s one of the things that RTD did get right, even if he’s screwed up an awful lot else in my opinion, and Torchwood is showing so many of the weaknesses of trying to tackle this world in a harsher way, as well as the holes in RTD’s conceptual take on Who. The universe of Who has always had a reset button when it comes to alien invasions- but RTD’s urge for big blockbusting action on present day Earth now relies on everybody conveniently getting amnesia or putting it down to mass hallucinations when you’ve got five million Cybermen appearing across the entire globe! The gap between Torchwood’s intent to be dark and gory and the outrageous campery of the world it inhabits just keeps getting bigger, and it doesn’t matter how many times people say “fuck”- this is a glorious mess of a show that seems to be going all-out to kill the chances of getting another dark sci-fi show onscreen for the next ten years. The influences are now more clearly Firefly than Angel- particularly in the mix between light-hearted banter and graphic violence, while there’s even hints of the whole Simon/River relationship in the ham-fisted stuff between Ianto and his girlfriend- but to be honest, while I had a few issues with Firefly, it’s looking more and more like a masterpiece with each episode of Torchwood that I watch. It’s funny that RTD and his cabal of writers are obviously so influenced by Joss Whedon’s work, when they also seem to have no clue as to how to duplicate or echo what he’s capable of doing. They’ve thrown what they think are the right ingredients into a pan, they’ve mixed them up, but they haven’t bothered to add anything new. No wonder that the viewing figures have apparrently tumbled since the first episode, and I’ll be surprised if anyone’s back, particularly if showrunner Chris Chibnall serves up any more scripts like this farrago and the ‘smoke-shagger’ episode. It’s getting dangerously close to the studied faux-awfulness of the majestic Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and if the ‘next week’ trailer at the end is anything to go by (Hmm! Torchwood takes on paedophiles, by the look of it! More chances to be self-consciously adult!), it looks like it isn’t likely to stop soon…

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