Monday, October 15, 2007

“I blame it on magic mushrooms”: two weeks of Torchwood

Probably the worst episode of Torchwood’s first season, ‘Small Worlds’ is an amateur and disappointing story that exemplifies all of Torchwood’s usual problems while throwing on a few more at the same time. What’s most disheartening is that ‘Small Worlds’ reveals a lot of important backstory that is integral to both Jack’s development and the show as a whole. Yet this information is conveyed lazily and with minimal dramatic effect.

I’m talking, of course, about what we learn of Captain Jack’s past. Jack brings Gwen along to visit an old friend of his, Estelle, who is showing off pictures of fairies to a pretty meagre turnout. Jack obviously has great affection for Estelle, and believes in the existence of something akin to fairies. However, he shakes his head disapprovingly at her insistence of the fairies’ good nature. According to him, fairies are evil and dangerous. How does Jack know this? As we are shown via flashback, he once lost an entire squad of troops (in Lahore, 1909) to the fairies after they ran over a ‘Chosen One’. Hold on though – surely Jack wouldn’t even have been born in 1909? Yes, the most important reveal in ‘Small Worlds’ is that thanks to his inability to die, Jack has been living on this Earth for far longer than is typical. The script only brushes on the very surface of this information, offering frustratingly little in the way of explanation or exploration. His scenes with Estelle are well-played by Barrowman and Eve Pearce, but frustratingly, we only get a hint of their relationship before she is needlessly killed-off.

Estelle’s sidelining would have been fine if it was in exchange for an increased focus on Jack. Instead, ‘Small Worlds’ places an inexplicable level of emphasis upon an uninteresting B-plot that practically becomes the A-plot. It revolves around Jasmine, the latest ‘Chosen One’ (a human seen by the fairies as one of their own). When a paedophile tries to persuade her to get in his car, strong winds knock him away and he subsequently chokes to death. When other girls bully her at school, the fairies try and kill them too. When her horrible step-father is horrible to her, they kill him too, in an unnecessarily graphic fashion. Jack’s attempts to save the girl fail, and the story ends on a unsatisfying, depressing note with her mother crying first over her husband’s corpse, and then at losing her daughter. It’s a perfect example of Torchwood’s irritating tendency to gravitate towards the dark without any thematic justification.

‘Small Worlds’ also suffers from horrible effects on the fairies; an obvious and unsubtle Jack monologue which robs his story of any dramatic punch; some pathetic hokum about the fairies being evil creatures from the dawn on time…I could go on. Yet another promising idea bungled by horrendous handling.


Following the muddled ‘Small Worlds’, ‘Countrycide’ at least appears a more appropriate story for the show. After a series of killings out in the middle of nowhere, the team drive to the particular area of countryside to investigate. They make some grisly finds, all the while unaware that they’re being watched. It’s a fine premise, and the first to believably service the writers’ constant desire for graphic violence and gore. It also means getting all the characters together for once (sure, ‘Cyberwoman’ was an ensemble piece too, but it didn’t allow for much interaction). All sounds like a step forward – at least instead of dressing itself up as something more than it is, Torchwood is going for the gross-out extravaganza it really wants to be.

It starts out promising. The team set up camp, Owen whinges about how much he hates the countryside, there are some POV shots showing that they’re being watched; good so far. Then the team shares possibly the most awkward campfire conversation ever, thanks largely to Gwen asking everyone who the last person they kissed was. Apparently she’d forgotten her recent close encounter with Owen, who comes out with it gleefully. Toshiko admits that hers was also Owen, last Christmas, although he can’t recall it. Jack, for once the only one having some fun, asks if non-humans can be included. And Ianto, ever the moment-killer, says his was Lisa (aka Cyberwoman). Awkward glances are exchanged, and the audience wonders exactly how Jack managed to gather such a socially inept gang of misfits.

It starts to go wrong when Gwen and Owen venture into the woods together. Shoving her into a tree, Owen growls at Gwen “When was the last time you came so hard and so long you forgot where you are?” Oh….dear. These two actually have chemistry, and the fact that their characters are so incompatible only makes it more interesting. But dialogue like that is what renders Torchwood so pathetically infantile.

Upon first viewing, I tried to put this horrible moment out of my mind and just enjoy the full-on violence. Which worked – for a time. But devoting the bulk of a forty-five minute show to disgusting corpses, shadowy figures, close-ups of human body parts and shotgun action is not as assured entertainment as it sounds. Things get dull and we become bored, but never are there any of the necessary developments to keep it interesting. Writer/showrunner Chris Chibnall packs in as much stuff as he can: Gwen gets shotguned, Toshiko and Ianto become food, there’s a stand-off at a pub and then some running around in a dark woods. In the end, Jack bursts in to save everyone by blowing all the evil guys to hell with a shotgun. (Well, blowing their legs to hell.) This all sounds a lot better than it is. Gore, shooting and grossness for the sake of all these things is just not entertainment. It’s torture porn. And I hate torture porn. Down with Eli Roth!

Anyway. The best and worst part of ‘Countrycide’ is the final reveal that the perpetrators are in fact not aliens, but humans (the evilest creatures of all, or so Chibnall seems to worry). Within the context of this story, it makes sense. Within the context of Torchwood, it makes no sense. Do we care about cannibals? No, we care about aliens. The only humans that matter to us are our credited cast members. ‘Countrycide’ sets a worrying precedent towards substituting fantasy villains for plain old humans. If ‘Countrycide’ were the only episode to do it, that’d be okay, but it’s an idea that Torchwood keeps coming back to. In principle it may sound okay, but on screen it’s uninteresting.

Gwen is left sickened and horrified by what she has experienced. 'Countrycide' at least does well to advance her torturous journey, one aspect of Torchwood I have always found interesting. She can’t bring herself to quit, but at the same time she can’t deal with what she’s seeing. In the final scene of ‘Countrycide’, Gwen’s journey takes her to the darkest place yet: an affair with Owen. As much as I hate that final scene, in which Gwen basically explains to the audience why she’s having an affair as she does it, it’s an interesting plotline that develops well in future episodes. On a show that has taken so many interesting ideas and screwed them up, it’s a nice relief to see one progress so nicely.


Justin said...

Is it just me or does that picture look suspiciously like Gollum?

Dan said...

Crap fairy effects? Look at your accompanying photo! Personally, I think the fairies are some of the best CGI critters in a long time, for a TV budget. That thing's creepy!

But yes, Countrycide is pretty bad, but it's good in parts and one of the more watchable s1 epiwsodes. I quite liked Small Worlds, too -- it's just not a Torchwood episode.

The writer, P.J Hammond, simply refashioned one of his unused Sapphire & Steel plots for Torchwood's use (it seems).

Joey Sims said...

The particular close-up in that photo is excellent, but an exception. The scene at the party is really, REALLY bad. The fairies aren't very scary, and the way the actors interact with them is so noticeably fake that it detracts from the scene.