Friday, 26 February 2010

Torchwood: Small Worlds

“…For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

I’m not that familiar with P.J. Hammond’s work, having only seen the first one-and-a-half “assignments” of Sapphire and Steel in spite of having owned the box set for ages, but he’s impressed me here and no mistake. It’s a brilliant, bleak, imaginative treatment of a fantasy archetype and yet another genre / mood for Torchwood. It’s just a shame that Tosh, Owen and Ianto make little more than token appearances, although it’s noticeable that Tosh shows some medical skills here.

We (and Gwen) get to see a little more of Jack’s past as we’re introduced to Estelle, his ex-girlfriend from before the war, and Gwen realises he’s not only immortal but apparently ageless; “He’d be in his early nineties now,” says Estelle of Jack’s “father”. We also learn that he was in India (well, Lahore was in India then…) in 1909 at some point, although where exactly this slots in is not yet clear. All this nicely develops the mystery of Jack and promises us a lot of juicy goodness to come. All the same, though, this new serious version of Jack is now looking to be a worryingly permanent presence, and John Barrowman isn’t quite as convincing as this version of the character.

But the story is about the faeries (I’m going to spell them that way, ‘cos it’s cooler), of course, and to make them sinister, all-powerful beings whose origin is shrouded in mystery but hinted at in a really cool way (“lost lands”) is a masterstroke. The story focuses on their “chosen one”, Jasmine, perhaps to the extent of neglecting most of the regulars but successfully nonetheless. Her fairy protectors deal with bullies, a sinister paedophile (an eyebrow-raising inclusion) and her stepfather Roy, who quite cleverly is shown to be just about nasty enough to deserve his fate, at one point telling Jasmine “…No wonder your dad left,” and later striking her. Worst of all, of course, he drinks horrible lager from a can. You’ve got to say it for the bloke, though; if you want a fence putting up lightning quick then he’s your man.

The ending is bleak and powerful; there’s absolutely nothing our heroes could have done. Jack is absolutely right to give in, as the only alternative is the end of all life on the planet. The team’s reaction to him is a bit callous, though, and stinks more than a little of moral cowardice. What else do they think he could have done, exactly?

There are a couple of niggles over Jack’s character and the neglect of members of the team other than Jack, Gwen, and to a lesser extent Owen- this is starting to look like a running sore- but as an episode this was superb. Not perfect, but still enough for a 5/5.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Torchwood: Cyberwoman

“I’ll hide the body. Everything’s going to be ok.”

At last Ianto gets to come out of the background and show himself, and the results are… rather embarrassing.

It all starts out intriguingly enough- Ianto is hiding something in the hub, and rather impressively he speaks Japanese. But the revelation that he’s been hiding his half-cybernised girlfriend somewhere in the hub is impossible to take seriously. Admittedly a lot of this is to do with the costume- what were they thinking with the metal bra and high heels?- but there are all sorts of problems. At first I was thinking there was a continuity error, as it’s been established that the alternate universe Cybermen simply transpose brains into metal bodies. But this is explained, if not too convincingly; Lisa was one of the last to be cybernised, where whole bodies were used out of desperation. Worse than this is the suggestion that Ianto could somehow manage to hide her from the rest of Torchwood for all these months, which just won’t wash.

Unsurprisingly, Lisa goes bad, and there’s some rather gruesome body horror with those nasty looking cybernisation machines from Rise of the Cybermen. Gareth David Lloyd is impressive playing Ianto’s conflicted reaction to finding the Japanese doctor’s body, but the character doesn’t feel quite convincing at any point, and I suspect this is down to the script.

I like Owen’s reaction to the Cyber-tech, but as soon as the place goes into lockdown it’s clear that the whole thing’s going to be a boringly formulaic base under siege story. Ianto and Jack pulling guns on each other doesn’t work either, failing at every point to generate any real drama; you don’t believe at any point that either of them is going to shoot. And why on Earth is Ianto not sacked after what he’s done? Allowing him to stay completely undermines the seriousness of his actions and is completely implausible.

Still, at least the pterodactyl gets something to do. And this snog between Owen and Gwen suggests consequences…

An implausible plot, unconvincing characterisation, an episode so bad that it comes alarmingly close to permanently damaging the viability of the characters and the show… it has to be a 1/5, and I don’t give out many of those. And for the second story in a row we have an uber-serious Jack.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Torchwood: Ghost Machine

“I wouldn’t even piss on him if he was on fire.”

It’s early days for the series, the format is still being established- time for an alien artefact story then. It’s not the most expensive-looking of episodes but it’s surprisingly good, and a promising first script from Helen Raynor with only a little awkwardness in the dialogue letting it down.

We see this for the first time in the scene with John Normington; it just doesn’t feel natural for the character to be coming out with that information to Gwen, who he’s only just met. Why is he going into so much detail without prompting on the subject that Gwen coincidentally wants to know about? It’s a crude info-dump, exposition without enough excuse for being there in character terms, and we’ll be seeing a lot of this sort of thing.

Otherwise, though, this is an assured debut script. The plot is watertight and clever, the regulars all get something to do, and the fact that everyone in Cardiff seems to hate Bernie is funny. This seems to be the debut of uber-serious Jack, though; he gets well mardy with the team when they seem to give up on finding Bernie.

The scene where Owen experiences Lizzie’s rape and murder is suitably powerful, and an interesting thing to happen for the character’s development. Burn Gorman is truly excellent here. Of course, he goes vigilante, and the murderer Ed Morgan proves to be none other than Blake himself, Gareth Thomas. It’s a startlingly different role for the actor, a deeply unpleasant and deeply damaged sociopath.

There’s a problem with the murder scene though; once again the characters are blatantly telling each other things they already know for the benefit of the viewer. It’s very notable that both Lizzie and Ed address each other by their full names, a very unnatural thing to do. It’s a pity, because aside from this awkwardness with the dialogue it’s a brilliant piece of drama.

In what rather brilliantly turns out not to be a coincidence, Owen finds Bernie and there follows a rather amusing chase through peoples’ gardens. We then get the revelation that there’s another half to the device, and that once assembled it allows people to see their own future. Very timey-wimey. Bernie has seen his own death, as he is now, on the road outside, and the rules of television sci-fi instantly tell us that he’s doomed. There’s a bit of a problem with this though; why does he not simply resolve never to set foot in that street again, or at least never again where the clothes he saw himself wearing to his death?

The stakes are raised by Gwen’s vision, which inevitably comes true. It’s all rather bleak, really; there’s nothing Gwen can do to prevent fate working itself out. It seems free will is an illusion after all.

Aside from the awkwardness with the dialogue this is otherwise quite brilliant, but unfortunately I can only give it a 3/5. It’s a promising first script from Helen Raynor, though, and the team are all still getting some nice development.

Torchwood: Day One

“He just…”

“Came and went?”

It’s the second episode, so we get our first sight of the regular introductory spiel we’ll be seeing for the rest of the season. It is just the DVD, or is the sound really poor for this bit?

This is the first script from Chris Chibnall, and I’ll do my best to try and approach this as though I hadn’t seen anything else written by him, which is not going to be easy. It’s not a bad script, although there’s an obvious drop in quality from last episode’s RTD masterclass. And it’s a comparison it’s hard to avoid making; again we see everything from Gwen’s point of view, and again we’re introduced to Torchwood, this time in a different context.

The alien escaping is all Gwen’s fault, of course, but the script is quite right to fully acknowledge this while firmly refusing to dwell on it. It’s a good introduction to Torchwood’s actual working methods, a good proper introduction to the full team, and a good story for Gwen. We even get our first inkling of Tosh’s feelings for Owen. Unfortunately, though, the nature of the alien threat- death by shagging- is very, very silly and a clear example of making something post-watershed for the sheer hell of it. Still, at least there’s a fair bit of successful humour in the way it’s done. I love the facial expressions from the bouncer.

There’s a lot of CCTV in this story, which is very, very British, but it’s good to get an early look at the team using their investigative skills. It’s quite clever how Gwen’s police skills start off being derided but their usefulness becomes gradually more obvious.

The alien tells Gwen that it’s not here for conquest but for “The best hit there is”- bit of foreshadowing there. And then we get the girl on girl action, and the most ridiculous part of the episode- everyone’s reaction to it. Gwen could be in immense danger here; the team’s attitude is shockingly unprofessional and a terrible misjudgement by Chibnall.

The Chinese takeaway scene is great, especially as we haven’t really had a character scene involving the whole team in a relaxed situation. It’s quite a revelation that, as soon as Jack leaves the room, everyone reveals that not only do they know hardly anything about the mysterious Jack but they expect Gwen to know more than they do.

The creature’s escape gives us another script problem, though; why on Earth is Owen not subjected to death by shagging? Otherwise it’s a fine ending, though, with lots of nice character stuff for Gwen in particular, and we get teased a bit about this mysterious hand in a jar, clearly something very important to Jack…

The plot’s quite well done, there’s some good character stuff and some good dialogue, but the central premise is very silly indeed and there are a couple of worrying misjudgements with the script. Not as bad as I was expecting but no more than a 3/5.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Torchwood: Everything Changes

“That is so Welsh.”

“What is?”

“I show you something fantastic, you find fault.”

I remember reading RTD (I think it was him) saying in an interview somewhere that he loves the way Torchwood makes Cardiff look like LA, and it’s so true! The very first thing you notice is how fantastic the city looks, how very similar its presentation is to the treatment of LA in Angel. There’s even a similar style of directing (jump cuts, dissolves within a single short scene) which works very well and instantly distinguishes the programme from its parent.

We get a nice short establishing scene with PC Gwen and PC Andy (Tom Price is great), the arrival of the mysterious Torchwood, their Torchwoodmobile, and the line “It’s a fucking disgrace”, just to tell us we’re not watching Doctor Who any more. Then it’s the big scene with the glove and resurrection, seen by Gwen as well as us viewers. Watching it now this scene is actually quite deep, examining quite deeply the implications of what would happen if someone were to be brought back to life, knowing they’d be dead again in two minutes. The dead man has established he didn’t see his killer; what to talk about for the next thirty seconds? It’s quite profound, even before we get to the “Oh my God, there’s nothing!” climax. And then, of course, we get the quip about the last corpse screaming for an ambulance for two minutes just to counterpoint it all with humour. It’s moments like this that remind me what an awesome writer RTD is.

After this rather perturbing sight, we get to see the contrast with Gwen’s home life, and her rather lovely relationship with Rhys, a thoroughly nice bloke. We get the first of several montages showing us Gwen’s life, incorporating a rather amusing line about a CSI: Cardiff from PC Andy. Then we arrive at the hospital, where Gwen sees a glimpse of Jack, and the pace slows down again. It’s a nice little example of the direction style and the narrative driving each other.

I love the way that neither Gwen nor the porter are bothered about the Weevil at first, both of them assuming it to be a bloke in a rubber mask in the sort of self-referential moment that I’m a right sucker for. But this only adds to the shock as the blood starts coming. And the following scenes emphasise both Gwen’s ordinariness in her reactions and her unusual tenacity in tracking down Torchwood.

Our first sight of the hub and our introduction to the team (Owen comes off best with his “I’m a twat”) give us another big scene. It’s all so much more effective because it happens through Gwen’s eyes. I’d actually forgotten the pterodactyl, incredibly. Oh, and it’s great to see Captain Jack again, the same as ever, in this episode at least…

The explanations come: the Weevils are aliens inhabiting the city’s sewers, but of late they’ve become more confident about coming to the surface and attacking people. But they’re not from a spaceship; they’re here because of the rift. And the vertical exit from Torchwood is directly underneath it, its perception filter probably caused by a chameleon circuit reacting with the rift! Although, it has to be said, this does rather sound a bit like a Somebody Else’s Problem Field from Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything. Then again, that originally started out as Doctor Who and the Krikkitmen so what goes around comes around.

Gwen and Jack proceed to have a very interesting conversation in a very horrible-looking bar, the sort of place that trendy urbanites like to think of as “classy”. I would use other words personally. Plus, they’re drinking lager. Ugh. The campaign for compulsory real ale in all drinking establishments starts here.

Of course, we then get the scenes with various members of Torchwood taking alien stuff home for personal use. And then we come to the one thing I remember being discussed a lot at the time: is Owen a rapist? I would say quite clearly no; crucially he uses the spray on himself, not the woman. But even if it’s not rape it’s still a dodgy thing to do for a number of reasons and not really the sort of thing one of the heroes should be shown doing in a first episode.

Oh, and this is where we first hear all the stuff about “The 21st century is when it all changes, and you’ve got to be ready,” and “separate from the Government, outside the police, beyond the United Nations”. And we’re told that this is Torchwood Three: Torchwood One was in Canary Wharf; Torchwood Two is a “very strange man” in Glasgow, and Torchwood Four (wonder where that was?) has gone missing. Oh, and Torchwood aren’t interested in catching the killer, just testing the glove. Not that Gwen will remember any of this, as her lager contained “a touch of denial and a dash of retcon”. I’m sure it would have improved the taste. Let’s face it, anything would.

Gwen’s attempts to remember are cruelly dashed by Ianto wiping her files, and Jack is now free to stand precariously on the roofs of architecturally striking buildings looking cool, without the worry of being discovered. But Gwen’s made of sterner stuff, and she soon finds herself opposite Suzie having a gun pointed at her. Indira Varma is fantastic here and the character really comes alive in the combination of script and performance. It’s genuinely shocking when she shoots herself. Suzie’s words about getting “all the Weevils and bollocks and shit” really pack a punch, as does her powerlessness at having to flee from the job she loved. The climax, of Suzie shooting Jack only for him to get back up, is great, although I seem to recall predicting it at the time. Only Gwen, Suzie’s replacement, knows of Jack’s immortality habit for the moment.

Brilliant, great drama with depth, humour and character. 5/5. So far, at least, Jack is his old self and all the characters are getting stuff to do- can this last, he asked rhetorically? More worryingly, these episodes seem to be 50 minutes long, which might scupper my plan to do two episodes most weekdays!

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Doctor Who: Army of Ghosts / Doomsday

Army of Ghosts

“They can shoot me down, but the moral high ground is mine.”

It’s a most arresting beginning- “This is where I died”- which immediately grabs you, reminding you of a certain line from The Satan Pit. Throw in a few short “nothing can possibly go wrong” scenes, and we’ve been well and truly told that this is going to be epic.

The Doctor and Rose arrive back in the Powell Estate, and naturally Rose has got loads of washing for Jackie. Apparently the TARDIS has no washing machine, which gives rise to all sorts of questions about how the Doctor used to get his washing done way back when. Perhaps he originally landed in Totters Lane to use the local laundry.

Anyway, there are strange apparitions which everyone on the planet seems to assume are a) ghosts and b) not scary, as would be traditional. And actually, seeing David Tennant wait for a ghost to arrive at the appointed time is quite spookily reminiscent of his recently televised Hamlet.

Elsewhere, the actual plot is happening. We’re finally introduced to Torchwood, and its leader Yvonne Hartman, played quite brilliantly by Tracy-Ann Obermann, who is at the same time quite the imperialist and a devotee of the latest management crap. There’s a mysterious sphere, and some lurking Cybermen. Oh, and there’s a one-off actress called Freema Agyeman but we’ll probably never see her again.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is now sporting 3D glasses and has announced the debut of a new catchphrase, “allons-y”. I never noticed the line “Allons-y, Alonso” before! He and Rose head into the TARDIS and trace the “ghosts” to their source in the Torchwood building, momentarily forgetting that Jackie’s still on board. Oops.

There are a lot of great individual scenes in these couple of episodes, the first of which is the Torchwood heavies applauding the Doctor. In fact, the whole sequence which follows between Yvonne and the Doctor is a delight, especially when she casually tells him he’s a prisoner. She’s a great character.

The Doctor explains that the sphere is for travelling through the void which separates universes from one another, and name-drops the Eternals while he’s doing it. Yay! He then proceeds to play mind games with Yvonne, getting her to suspend the “ghost shift”, in another brilliant scene. Billie Piper also adds greatness to her own strand with her hilariously brilliant lying body language, and… it’s Mickey!

The ghosts are Cybermen! They’ve just conquered the entire planet! And… there are Daleks inside the sphere! Yep, that was all a bit good.


“I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye.”

It’s been a while since we last saw the Daleks so naturally they need to remind us how nasty they are. Killing Rajesh (this week’s red-shirt) with their suckers for no particular reason will do nicely. But Rose is a match for them- as is Mickey, who is suddenly yet naturally a bit of a hero with no idiot tendencies whatsoever. That’s good character development.

The Cybermen / Dalek macho stuff is amusing, especially the Daleks boasting about being able to defeat five million Cybermen with one Dalek, let alone four, but this is as much about the environmental damage caused by the hole between universes as it is about them. They still get to be cool, though: the Daleks reminisce about the old days of Terry Nation Dalek annuals by talking about “Rels” while the Cybermen threaten to cybernise Yvonne (Tracy-Ann Obermann plays the fear quite superbly) and Jackie, who is rather fortunate to escape.

Jake and his commando mates suddenly turn up from the other universe to resolve the immediate crisis, and take the Doctor back to their universe to have a chat with Pete. Apparently Harriet Jones is president!

Meanwhile, the chat between Rose and Mickey is halted by a curt “Social interaction will cease!” from Dalek Thay. Naturally the Doctor chooses this very moment to pop in for a chat. We learn that these Daleks are all from the Cult of Skaro, a kind of Dalek freemasonry, and are sufficiently special to have names: Thay, Sec, Jast and Caan. They have a mysterious bit of Time Lord tech called the Genesis Ark, which Mickey helpfully activates for them.

We get another fantastic scene as Jackie and Pete finally meet. The highlight, of course, is Jackie telling the Doctor to shut up, although this is closely followed by the look between Mickey and the Doctor as Jackie tells Pete that “There was never anyone else.”

Things are still pear-shaped though; the Genesis Ark is bigger on the inside and it contains millions of Daleks. The CGI is slightly dodgy at this point, but that only really highlights how great it has otherwise been.

The Doctor comes up with the solution very quickly; he can force everything that’s been through the void to fall through a hole to be trapped there forever. But that means everyone from Pete’s world, plus Rose, has to go back there to be safe, while the Doctor just holds on tight and hopes for the best. Rose isn’t having this, and makes sure she ends up staying behind. This is feeling very much like Adric’s final moments from Earthshock- we know it’s all going to end in tears. Rose’s fall into the vortex is beautifully realised, and Pete’s sudden reappearance to save her comes out of the blue.

We now get shots of both Rose and the Doctor standing next to walls to emphasise the permanency of their separation. Time passes, and we come to the point from which Rose has been narrating everything all this time. Their final meeting at Bad Wolf Bay is perfect and wonderful, and the Doctor’s final failure to say to Rose that he loves her is an inspired moment. It’s just a shame that Catherine Tate’s sudden appearance has lost rather a lot of its shock value in recent years!

Amazing. 5/5, easily, and at last a story to take the top spot from The Caves of Androzani. The season as a whole, though… after last season’s rather successful scoring this is a bit of a letdown and actually a bit below the average with 3.7/5. When it was good it was very, very good but the clunkers really let it down.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Doctor Who: Fear Her

“You just took a council axe from a council van and now you’re chopping up a council road. I’m reporting you to the council!”

It’s Doctor Who, in the surroundings of everyday suburbia, in fact deliberately and exaggeratedly so. Even the slight futurishness(?) of it being the 2012 London Olympics has lost much of its, er, futurishness over the last four years. This feels a bit uneasy- the mundane in Doctor Who basically exists only to be contrasted with the fantastic, and we just don’t get enough of that here. And I’m a bit uneasy about Rose visiting her own very near future. I’m sure the great Mr Blinovitch wouldn’t approve.

Of course, this isn’t actually a normal street at all- everyone’s far too neighbourly for that. This is normal everyday life as defined by television rather than reality, although at least it doesn’t go as far as something like Eastenders where the same few families seem to hardly ever venture beyond the same few square metres and hardly seem to encounter anybody outside their little group.

The teaser and the early scenes aren’t very promising- the premise, of a child’s drawings coming to life, doesn’t have a lot of obvious potential and the main guest star, Nina Sosanya, seems to be wasted in the role of a wet drip. And all this from the pen of Matthew “Life on Mars” Graham.

Oh, there are brief moments of charm and humour, up to a point. The council man is a nice bit of comic relief, although a little too broadly written in the context of the wider story, and there’s a good gag with the TARDIS landing. But it’s all a bit dull. Even the bit with the cat reminding me of Survival just reminded me of how inferior this is. Still- a cat, a box: I’m sure there’s a good joke involving the word Schrödinger in there somewhere.

On the other hand, there are less impressive bits- Huw Edwards getting overexcited, the, er, terrifying chalk drawing in the wardrobe, but just as the good bits aren’t good enough to achieve escape velocity from the general mood of “meh”, nor are the bad bits sufficiently bad.

The fact that the baddie is just a lonely ickle kiddie isn’t actually necessarily a bad idea, and could probably have been done in a way which wasn’t vomit-inducingly twee. Unfortunately it wasn’t. In fact, this is a story where everybody’s emotional lives only seem to work in a cute and superficial way. We hear a lot about the relationship between Chloe, her mother, and her abusive father, but there’s no depth to any of it.

Still- the Doctor tells Rose that “I was a dad once.” Bit of a bombshell there, although of course technically this was pretty heavily implied as early as An Unearthly Child for obvious reasons.

After a succession of cute and sentimental endings the thing finishes, but not before Rose pretty much says to the Doctor that they’ll be together forever and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong. It’s an odd one, this; not so much actively bad but passively lacking in anything of note, Doctor Who by numbers. This is the shortest review I’ve done for a while, but I’m finding it rather hard to say much about it. 2/5, the weakest episode of the twenty-first century so far.