Torching the Wood III: The Search for Torch

I guess I should be grateful to Russell T. Davies for at least giving me plenty of things to write about. Once again, it’s time to hit the Torchwood trail, and examine episodes 5 and 6. Beware, for here there be spoilers aplenty (including some for an M. Night Shyamalan film- which will, I promise, make sense in context…)

TORCHWOOD: Episode 5- “Small Worlds”, Episode 6- “Countrycide”

I keep happening across quotes from Russell T. Davies where he says how he really doesn’t like fantasy, and much prefers science fiction. Those kind of quotes make me smile, because they remind me that the world is truly a mixed up place, so crazy and mixed up that people don’t actually realise it. Particularly, when you’ve got someone like Russell T. Davies, who’s both determined to revitalise British TV science fiction, and also has absolutely no clue as to how science fiction works. I admire his drive, I admire his ambition, but the man has no clue, and TORCHWOOD just keeps on proving this.

One of the things I said in my first Torchwood-related post was that I’d be interested to see whether the show would actually be able to form its own identity, or if it would simply remain a grab-bag of other and better ideas. Well, we’re now almost halfway through the season, and, if anything, there’s fewer signs of a coherent identity appearing than before. There’s certainly very little that you could point to as yet and say- yes, that’s Torchwood. That’s something that no other show would even attempt. At the moment, it’s so uneven it’s almost as if it’s an anthology show where recurring cast members crop up out of pure coincidence. Even when starting out, US genre shows are usually able to actually keep some level of tonal consistency from episode to episode, but Torchwood so far has been spectacularly all over the shop, and the most recent episodes show this in different ways.

“Small Worlds” was one I was relatively interested in, simply because it’s one of the first things I’ve seen in decades that’s written by Peter J. Hammond- more commonly known as P.J. Hammond, the creator and main writer of the bewitchingly strange cult show Sapphire and Steel. As it turns out, we got an episode that actually shares a number of similarities with the 2nd season Who episode “Fear Her” (which itself echoed earlier episode “The Idiots Lantern”), but which carried off some aspects that hobbled the Who episode. At the least, the world of a common-or-garden suburban estate felt more real, and the relationship between Jasmine and her stepdad was at least verging on realism, even if it was seriously predictable where it was going. The echoes are also interesting because “Fear Her” was the Who episode most directly influenced by Sapphire and Steel, but while Hammond’s love of off-kilter weirdness in S+S often resulted in gorgeous strangeness, here what we got was slightly muted. It didn’t help that for a supposed ‘gritty sci-fi’ show, what we got was pretty close to a set of Buffy villains directly transposed in with very little effort at coming up with a sci-fi explanation. All we really got was an ‘evil fairies’ story that gives a little background to Captain Jack (although no explanation as to what the hell he was doing in Lahore in 1909- a very Angel-style flashback), but with very little actual dramatic drive.

We don’t really find out why the fairies decided to kill Estelle, other than “we needed something creepy to happen halfway through the episode”, and the eventual climax- should Jack allow the girl to be handed over to the fairies or risk the entire world being destroyed- tries to set the stakes so high that it ultimately doesn’t convince, especially thanks to the fact that Jasmine actually wants to go and has no emotional connection with her old life. It’s very similar to the end of Sapphire and Steel Adventure Two (a beautifully oppressive tale of wartime ghosts inhabiting a train station), where a character who we’ve gotten to know over eight episodes is pretty brutally sacrificed for what appears to be the greater good- but there, the emotional impact is major. Here, the question is, what else was Jack going to do? When the Torchwood team are piling back into their pimped-up Mystery Machine (I laughed my head off when I spotted the funky blue lights at the edge of the windscreen) in a major sulk, I did think it might have been wise for Jack to mention the whole “wiping out the human race” issue. And apparently, we are now informed that, despite the women involved confessing, the Cottingley Fairies weren’t faked- or were done by someone with a Time Machine and a halfway decent knowledge of Photoshop.

It certainly isn’t a story that really fits in tone with the rest of the series- and it also points out that using full CG creatures in British TV is still a hazardous game- they should be kept to swift, fraction-of-a-second shots, rather than giving you the chance to admire how lifeless the eyes on the CG fairies look. I’m also not really sure exactly what it was trying to say about childhood, other than pulling up a few archetypes and going “oooooo- scary!!!” At the least, there were no high-heeled cyber-booties for me to gawp at, so that was one small positive, but the whole thing was so desperately determined to take itself completely seriously- especially in the overplayed ending- that it was hard to feel something when the show was determinedly trying to bash the audience over the head with emotion.

Episode 6, on the other hand, was a return to writing for Chris Chibnall, the man responsible for two of the worst episodes so far. “Countrycide” was a minor step in the right direction, but it does also point out that Torchwood is really only up to recycling horror cliches in a slick and watchable manner, not doing anything remotely original with them. Here, the team heads out to the Brecon Beacons, encounters a hilarious level of fake blood, and proves that as well as never watching The Terminator, Aliens, or any halfway decent SF B-movie (as proved by Episode 4), they’ve also never watched Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or The League of Gentlemen. The episode was actually a pretty well put together pastiche of the Backwoods horror genre, and does at least prove that the team behind the camera know what they’re doing in terms of visuals- the whole thing had the correct look of grubby squalour, and there were even some pretty well managed ‘jump’ moments. Of course, in terms of storytelling, it doesn’t hold up in the slightest, and is probably most fascinating for that fact that the big sci-fi ‘twist’ is… that there isn’t one. What’s presumably supposed to be a big bait-and-switch to make some scary statement about the darkness of the human condition turns out to be the equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, where the shocking secret behind the man-in-suit monsters in the woods turned out to be that they actually were men-in-suits- intelligent, post-modern, and terribly dull in what’s been sold as a horror film. In “Countrycide”, there isn’t even any kind of explanation as to why a small village decided to have a big “All-you-can-eat” Cannibal Buffet every ten years, aside from “It made me happy!” (Followed by traditional psycho-smile from what looked like Hilary Bris’ slightly more downmarket brother). We’re just meant to shiver, and understand Gwen leaping into bed with obnoxious date-rapist Owen, when it’s basically a case of the show throwing out its own rulebook in search of a decent scare, and definite proof that they’re making it all up as they go.

As with many of the episodes (and most of New Who), the closer you look at it, the more it falls apart. What exactly was the point of Mrs Cannibal Bride pretending to be a helpless bystander forced into holding Tosh and Ianto at gunpoint, only to immediately turn into snogging Queen of the Flesh-Eaters minutes later? If they’ve been doing this every decade for, one presumes, a long time, why aren’t they a little better organised? How exactly did Torchwood not notice that- hmm- there had been a similar set of ‘disappearences’ in 1996, 1986, 1976 and so on? (That’s one of the problems with the ‘Backwoods’ genre- you really need to be in the middle of nowhere for it to work, and while various areas of America are prime territory, you’re never that far away from civillisation in Britain) And why every ten years? And surely, wouldn’t it rather depress property prices if they slaughter most of the village inhabitants every ten years? (Plus- a note- I think four houses and a town hall qualifies as a “hamlet”. Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

It’s the determination to be serious that keeps sinking the show, as every time it tries to be deeply profound (usually with a burst of purple dialogue), it then trips itself up in its desperate attempts to inject fun, frolicks, shagging or swearing into the mix. Certainly, the ‘sexual tension’ aspect is fast becoming ridiculous in the extreme, with Tosh obviously interested in Owen (for some unknown reason), while the boringly predictable tryst between Gwen and Owen finally happens thanks to charming chat-up lines like “I bet you’ve never come so hard that you’ve forgotten where you were”. If they’d wanted this to be a surprise, maybe they should have made Gwen’s boyfriend more than a two-line-an-episode character so dull I predicted back in the first post he’d be dumped or dead by episode 6. Okay, I may have overestimated, but I firmly predict either decased or ex by the end of the season. He’s another of RTD’s stock characters who we’re told what to feel about- like Mickey in Season 1 of Who. It’s a thin plotline, and again most of the attempts at adult relationships are coming over like a 15 year old imagining what they would be like.

Possibly the strangest thing about Torchwood- especially considering it was supposedly designed around him- is how badly they’re handling Captain Jack, and how they’re exposing the flaws in John Barrowman’s acting abilities by giving him stuff he simply isn’t up to doing. I can remember alarm bells ringing when Barrowman was first cast in Season 1- at that point, the only thing I really knew him for was co-presenting the first season of BBC kids magazine program Live and Kicking back in the early Nineties, and it did seem very much like the kind of ‘Light Entertainment’ casting that previous producer John Nathan Turner used to specialise in. Then, Season 1 came along, and I have to admit that Barrowman proved me wrong- some of the campness and the “aren’t we being daring?” was annoying, but the character added nicely to the mix, and managed to make me genuinely shocked when he was exterminated in “The Parting of the Ways” (which, of course, RTD had to foolishly reverse only a few minutes later, in a manner that Old Who fans will remember from Peri’s exit as a companion…). He managed to carry off the daft, charming swagger of the character well, and a spin-off didn’t sound like an insane idea. Why, then, they’ve decided to switch Jack’s previous devil-may-care confidence-trickster style persona for an Angel-style brooder who likes to extravagently stand on top of buildings, torture prisoners, and blow away cannibals with a pump-action shotgun is completely beyond me. On top of everything else, Barrowman simply isn’t a straight dramatic actor- he seems to be much better at comedy, and Jack’s hardly gotten any chance to play comedy in what’s been a determinedly grim, gritty and maudlin show. Episode 5 particularly suffers from this kind of “let’s be dark”, and it seems bizarre to not play to your actor’s strengths. I can’t help feeling, it’s rather as if Joss Whedon had launched the spin-off show Angel- and decided that what Angel needed to be was a goofy romantic comedy with slapstick vampires. It’s a mixture that simply doesn’t fit- and once again, we have another episode with absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with science fiction.

If Torchwood was prepared to simply let its hair down and be a camp adult romp with shagging aliens and ridiculous plots, I might be able to like it more, and Barrowman would definitely fit in better- but it’s so desperate to be taken seriously, that it’s impossible not to notice that it’s all been done before, and nothing new is being added to the mix. (Hell, even The X-Files did a Texas Chainsaw-style episode, and they managed to add a few twisted wrinkles beyond “AaahhH! Cannibals!!)

I’m going to continue watching, from a purely clinical point of view- although by next week’s trailer, it seems that the writers haven’t quite got the Lesbian Chic out of their systems. The show may pull a fast one and suddenly get good- but at this rate, I’m going to be extremely surprised…

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