Torching the Wood V: Another One Bites The Torch…

It may be late, the debate may be over, nobody may care anymore- but I’ve finally watched the entirety of Torchwood, meaning that- for the final part of this unexpected series- I’ve got six episodes to get through. Time to torch some wood. Beware the spoilers…

TORCHWOOD: Eps 8-13

There are two Torchwoods. There’s the show it desperately wants to be. And then, there’s the show it actually is.

Torchwood is, of course, all over now, and the in-built Who audience (along with those who’ll watch anything on BBC3 as long as it features gore, sex and the word ‘fuck’) have guarenteed not only that Torchwood will be back for a second season, but it’ll be appearing on BBC2 this time. The question is whether or not they’ll have sorted out the conflict at the heart of the show and decided what kind of programme they’re making, and while I’d like to be optimistic, I suspect the answer is probably going to be no. Torchwood has been characterised by tonal changes so gigantic they almost defy description, and a set of episodes so inconsistent and jumbled together, it’s hard to believe it’s all the same series. At least, as far as I’m concerned, it’ll probably follow the same pattern of occasional watchable episodes interspersed with jaw-dropping dreck– Russell T. Davies adheres to the rule of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ as far as Who is concerned, and given the thumbs up the show has apparently been given, it seems unlikely there’ll be a change of strategy.

If they follow the model of the second half of the season, there’s at least a chance of some halfway decent episodes, however, as there was a significant upturn in the quality of the show from 8-13. There were still plenty of examples of the phenomena I’ve seen elsewhere wonderfully referred to as TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE, and when it was bad it was eye-wateringly bad– but there were at least two episodes that actually did what they set out to do, and also acheived things that weren’t simply rip-offs of ideas done better elsewhere.

‘They Keep Killing Suzie’ brought back suicidal Suzie from the first episode, along with the daft alien Medieval-looking Resurrection Gauntlet, for a tale of vengeance and old wounds, and was the first episode since ‘Ghost Machine’ that actually felt like it was sticking to the series brief. The biggest change was probably that, for once, the Alien Technology actually behaved like technology- the whole ‘transfer’ idea of Suzie gradually leeching the life out of Gwen felt like a proper process rather than the generic magic-substitute that SF tech often gets played at in both Torchwood and Who. Yes, you can argue that certain aspects are on the silly side (particularly Gwen developing a gaping head wound), but it worked, and didn’t derail the storytelling. Even the tensions between the various team members caused by Suzie’s return were fairly well played (although the whole set-up was suspiciously similar to the ‘let’s bring back Angelus’ storyline in series 4 of Angel).

Trouble was, we also had the traditional absurdly overblown climax, which is turning into a small tradition with Torchwood, where Suzie decides to make a run for it with Gwen to a ferry, apparently going to the ‘Islands’ (off the coast of Cardiff?!?), and we get the most gratiutous usage of blood squibs since… oooh… about episode 6. We also got the grotesquely unfunny ‘running gag’ of rhyming names for alien technology, the ridiculous slow-motion shots of the cast attempting to look cool while striding along, and this week’s out-of-nowhere, when-the-hell-did-that-happen? moment, as Ianto decides that the best way of following up his weeks of mourning and moping (considering that he seemed to be reciting mournful haikus in his head only an episode previously) is declaring that he’s up for a quick one with Captain Jack in the photocopy room. Perhaps if they’d led up to that a bit more than just the ‘kiss of life’ scene in Cyberwoman, it might have worked, but otherwise it felt both gigantically out of character, and a desperate attempt to shake up the chemistry by adding another link to Torchwood’s overdone relationships.

It also doesn’t help that, when it comes down to it, Suzie’s plan of arranging murders so she’ll be resurrected seems like the kind of insane longshot that only Bond Villains usually go for, especially as she comitted suicide without knowing whether or not anyone would be able to use the Gauntlet to bring her back. If she’d actually been killed by Jack, and this whole plan was her chance at a ‘get out of jail free’ card, I could understand it- but factoring her death by suicide in and it doesn’t work. On top of everything else, the story also confirms the growing suspicion that Torchwood’s supposed menacing and badass reputation isn’t actually built on anything, as the team seem to be a shambling bunch of half-witted amateurs who cause more havoc than they actually solve. More on this later, but the scene with the police laughing at Torchwood on the phone for getting locked in their base might have been a little more telling than anybody wanted it to be.

Next up, was ‘Random Shoes’, and here we discover that the Who Season 2 episode ‘Love and Monsters’ was obviously so utterly fantastic, they just couldn’t stop themselves from making the damn thing all over again, adding in a hefty dollop of Patrick Swayze-thon Ghost for good measure. Again, we’ve got another experimental, ‘Let’s throw the format of the show out and concentrate on a minor character’ episode, but in a show where you’re not even sure what the format is, it’s a crippling mistake. We’re back in the ‘technology as magic’ arena once again, as well as building up a mystery around Eugene’s death only to find that there actually wasn’t one, and he really did die in a normal hit-and-run. There’s a meanness to the episode- particularly in the sequence where the greasy videostore clerk turns out to be behind the Ebay bids- that the makers don’t seem to be aware of, and while it’s an interesting idea to explore the subcultures that may have grown up as a result of Torchwood’s activities, but the result was pretty sluggish, uninteresting drama that once again delivered its messages with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. Paul Chequer (who I remember from teen drama As If) gives another one of those desperate-to-please, puppy-dog performances that make me want to hit something, and the episode didn’t even manage to give any insight into Gwen’s life, instead just continuing the “Gwen is great, because… she is!” strategy of the whole series.

‘Out of Time’ was another slow episode, and yet actually worked thanks to the unusual circumstance of the series playing it straight. There’s humour here, but it comes from the situation, and almost all of the ‘adult material’ feels properly adult, rather than shoe-horned in. Once again (as with ‘Ghost Machine’, unsurprisingly from the same writer), there’s the sense of exploring the grittier, nuts-and-bolts of a science fiction world, looking realistically at how people from the fifties would be able (or not) to fit in now. The performances were mostly very good, the dialogue didn’t hit the ‘Purple’ button too often, and it managed to explore some effective themes, even if it was a little tidy and over-planned the way that the three visitors from the Fifties ended up having precisely seperate reactions to the new world, each illustrating a different point.

It’s an episode that’s badly lacking in true dramatic tension for most of its running time- it almost feels like it needed a B-plot- and the ending briefly goes for complete overdrive once again (especially with the flashbacks- including a scene that we’d only actually seen three minutes previously). There’s also the sense that it’s more of a device to examine the change in attitudes between the Fifties and now than a genuine story, but compared to the rest of the season it’s amazingly good, with no gigantic shifts in tone, inappropriate gore, or camp humour. It also illustrated (as the rest of the season continued to do so) that despite being an obnoxious date-rapist, Owen has somehow ended up as the most interesting character of the entire cast. He’s actually gained a genuine arc, which continues over the remaining episodes, and Burn Owen continues to pull off even the more repulsive lines he’s given to say. Certainly, the romance between Owen and DIane ends up a hell of a lot more interesting than the downright bizarre between him and Gwen, which felt more and more contrived as it went on.

Even the writers seemed to feel the same way, as the Gwen/Owen affair isn’t even mentioned between episodes 7 and 10, and only when they break up in Episode 11- the turgid ‘Combat’- do we get any idea that it’s even still going on. Here, the source material for the week is very obviously Fight Club, along with yet another helping of Angel (this time, from Season 1’s ‘The Ring’), as Noel Clarke’s script tries to explore the darkness of violence, and ends up with Owen gurning and growling at a Weevil as its final shot. To be fair, Clarke’s script is far from the worst the show has seen (and yes, we’re talking to you, Chris Chibnall), but it once again confuses darkness for profundity, and features plenty of out-of-place humour, most notably the frankly ludicrous idea of Owen attempting to blend in undercover by pretending to be an exporter of Jellied Eels.

There’s also the scene that had me staring in slack-jawed amazement, wondering whether I’d actually imagined it, as Gwen decided the time was right to confess all to her podgy, sad-sack boyfriend Rhys- only to lace him with an amnesia pill on the pretext that she needed him to forgive her, and not actually giving herself enough time to even get him to process the information before the drug kicked in. I don’t know if it’s meant to make the whole situation more realistic or ’emotional’, but all it seemed to be was a character acting in a completely insane fashion in order to justify an OTT piece of emotional button-pushing, as well as another nail in the coffin of Gwen’s likeability. She’s supposed to be the main audience identification figure, and yet they’ve ended up with her acting like a selfish moron (along with much of the cast), while the whole ‘difficult relationship with Rhys’ plotline has been tedious in the extreme. If they really wanted to have fun with that kind of ‘double life’ relationship, they should have watched the first series of Alias, which managed to be far more compelling and imaginative with the whole concept of lying to the ones you love (as well as pulling off some wonderfully ridiculous plotlines without torpedoing the realism of the show).

On top of all this, the question of Gwen’s guilt seems to get completely forgotten, as she and Rhys are blissfully happy by the opening of Episode 13, once again giving the impression that while RTD and co love the idea of story arcs and running plot threads, they really don’t know how to actually pull them off without it looking like they’re making it up as they go.

Anyhow- all this brings us to the final two episodes, a loose two-parter that manages to illustrate both the best and worst of the series. ‘Captain Jack Harkness’ is certainly the best episode of the whole season (once again- from Cath Tregenna, writer of ‘Ghost Machine’ and ‘Out of Time’), as well as being the most Sapphire and Steel-like episode to come yet from the ‘New Who’ stable. Suspiciously, it’s another episode that explores the differences between the past and the present, suggesting that Torchwood might work better as a time travel series, and almost every aspect of the ‘Haunted Dance Hall’ plot works well. Even Toshiko, up until now stranded as Mistress of Exposition and little else, actually works well when on her own with Jack (the dynamic of the team seems to work 100% better when they’re split up), and while Jon Barrowman hasn’t always been up to carrying off the purely dramatic material, he pulls it off here- possibly because, for the first time, this actually feels like the grown-up version of Captain Jack that we were supposed to get in the first place. The relationship between him and the real Captain Jack works very effectively- and right up until the final lip-smacking snog, is actually being played nice and subtly. It’s no surprise that they finally go overboard, but it still manages to work, and it’s a pity that the scenes of Ianto and Owen bickering over the Rift Manipulator get somewhat repetitive and drag the episode down. Even the scenes with the fearsomely camp time-tripping Billis are effectively creepy, and the whole thing ended up making me wish, as ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ in Season 2 of New Who, that they could have managed this level of quality every episode.

Of course, little did I know that the Billis plotline would drag us straight into one of the most unintentionally funny slices of television I’ve ever seen, truly redefining the phrase ‘TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE’. The pity is that the first half of ‘End of Days’ isn’t that bad, and even features a couple of genuinely spooky moments, building up a general sense of apocalypse and only occasionally lapsing into nonsense. Once each of the team are witnessing visions that are very unsubtly telling them to open the rift (proving, once again, that nobody at Torchwood watches many horror movies), however, the episode soon starts spinning towards a jaw-dropping level of hysteria as the show reverts to throwing enough loud noise and effects at the screen that nobody will notice how empty everything is. Certainly, it’s interesting to see that the supposedly ‘gritty and dark’ Who spin-off ends with a plot where a time-travelling satan-worshipper unleashes a pig-faced demon to rampage across Cardiff, leading to the Godzilla homage that absolutely nobody was asking for.

What’s more amazing is that the script once again revolves around Torchwood behaving like idiots, acting mainly out of self-interest and not seeming to learn a thing- especially when their actions result in the deaths of hundreds of people, deaths which don’t seem to get conveniently ‘reset’ along with Rhys’. If Gwen was really cared that much about losing Rhys- why did she leave him alone in a cell in a complex that’s had at least three security breaches this season, especially when she could have given him a guided tour of the Hub, then laced him with an Amnesia pill, and he’d have been none the wiser? I briefly thought that maybe Billis had used him to ‘trojan horse’ into Torchwood, but instead it’s the cue for some spectacular screaming, and the final meltdown of the Torchwood team, before yet another one of New Who/Torchwood’s Buffy rip-offs, as we get a retreaded version of the end of Season 5. Creepily satanic old guy, who’s a servant of the main bad guy? Check. Appearence of gigantic CGI monster? Check. Rift to other dimension opened with catastrophic consequences? Check. Main character sacrificing themselves for the greater good, only to rise again? Check. (A scene which has to be one of the most toe-crawlingly embarrassing in Torchwood, by the way- I never thought poor old Jon Barrowman was going to stop bellowing his heart out…)

They’re humming the right tune, but they’re missing the melody that made it work in the first place. In its loudest, crassest moments, Torchwood worships at the feet of Joss Whedon, urgently trying to capture the sense of wit, passion and demented soap opera that he managed to hit in both Buffy and Angel during their best moments. Trouble is, it can’t manage it- it’s like watching a tacky tribute band going through the motions, but they’re overdoing the gore, waving the sex references like it’s proof of their maturity, and missing the wit, humanity and storytelling energy that made Whedon’s shows work.

The Torchwood that actually works- the show that isn’t just ripping off Whedon or whichever movie they’ve just grabbed off the DVD shelves- is far more British than most of their source material. It’s quiet, melancholic, and introspective, and takes itself seriously- which probably means we’ll see even less of it when the show returns.

One thing they definitely need to sort out is the fact that Torchwood are so utterly crap at their jobs, and it’s the gap between making them a so-called paramilitary organisation “outside the government, beyond the police”, and having a workplace-style situation that people can relate to. There’s no chain of command in Torchwood- they’re a total shambles, they cause more problems than they solve, and I’d be interested to see how many deaths they’re indirectly responsible for throughout the season, from the unfortunates shagged to death in episode 2 thanks to Gwen’s incompetence, to the streets of Cardiff being littered with corpses thanks to Mr. CGI Pig-face. If they’re the best, then mankind is in serious trouble- and it’d be interesting to see some consequences of that, with them being raked over the coals and either disbanded (turning them into rogue agents, and the kind of amateurish freelancers most of the scripts seem to want them to be), or kept under a tight leash (maybe introducing a new authority figure to diffuse all the incredibly tiresome shouts of “You’re such a bastard!” in Jack’s direction).

It’s a major difference between the family-centric world of Who, and the supposedly more adult arena of Torchwood. Family audiences will forgive a lot, while adult audiences will be more demanding- and unless you’re after the camp vote (which Torchwood readily obtained, but mostly unwittingly), you’ve got to try harder, and make the show work. Give it a sense of reality. In short, decide what kind of tone you’re going for, and stick to it.

There is potential in Torchwood. From a technical point of view, it’s certainly the best-looking ‘adult’ sci-fi show we’ve ever gotten. It’s managed a couple of largely good episodes. There are some good ideas there- but sadly, it’s more likely to get remembered for being ‘the show with the smoke-shagging alien and that Captain Jack bloke from Who’. I certainly can’t see the good/embarrassing ration improving too much next season. Despite the good moments, when Torchwood was bad, it was stunningly bad.

At the least- I’m intrigued to see (both from the ‘Vote Saxon’ posters in ‘Captain Jack Harkness’, and various internet rumours I’ve heard) that Russell T. Davies is planning to dedicate an entire plotline in the new series of Who to me. Terribly nice of him. Plus, now that large chunks of one of my stories has turned up in Torchwood, I’m going to have to be extra creative, and come up with new ways of making that story work.

Maybe something good will come out from this, after all…

5 thoughts on “Torching the Wood V: Another One Bites The Torch…

    • Thanks very much!
      I first read ‘TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE’ on ‘s blog- mainly before I’d watched the episodes being referred to, and now it is exceedingly difficult to think of most of Torchwood without that phrase rushing through my head. I just want to see if they calm it down next season, or push past the ‘TOTAL BOLLOCKS’ event horizon into new realms of insanity…
      RTD certainly deserves an award for making a spectacularly bad show which still, somehow, I’m curious to watch- even if it’s only to find out how bad it can get.

      Like

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