Monday, 29 March 2010

Doctor Who: Smith and Jones

“You’re quite a funny man. And yet, I think, laughing on purpose at the darkness.”

There’s no pre-credits sequence here, which tells us something: this is a relaunch for the show, a chance for new viewers to jump aboard. It’s doing a very similar job to Rose, but with the benefit of two years’ experience it’s much more assured.

The Doctor starts the story travelling alone, although the rawness of his feelings over Rose suggests this hasn’t been for long. I liked the Benjamin Franklin namedrop, which reminded me of the early Hartnells. You can tell the Marathon’s been going for a while as I’m actually getting nostalgic for earlier bits of it…

The central idea behind the story- a hospital on the moon- is utterly fantastic, and the plot works perfectly here. Oh, and the Judoon are great. And all this is all the more impressive considering that this story has a big job to do in introducing Martha. This job is done magnificently, although the early scene of Martha being phone by her entire family in succession felt a bit too obviously crowbarred in. Best of all, Freema is fabulous. Although I should declare an interest at this point: I have a bit of a thing for the lovely Freema.

Martha spends much of the story more or less auditioning for the role of TARDISeer; she impresses the Doctor with her calm acceptance of the situation, her intelligent questions about the oxygen, and her logical acceptance that the only possible explanation is extraterrestrials. Best of all, of course, she comes up with the Planet Zovirax quip. And of course there’s the kiss, which sets up the whole unrequited feelings arc.

The whole thing’s very funny, too, and although Remembrance of the Daleks was probably better it’s the most well-judged season opener possibly since Terror of the Zygons, and that’s a long time. I love the compensation joke, and the Doctor pretending to be an ordinary bloke.

We get a bit of season arc stuff before the very end as the mysterious Mr Saxon gets a verbal mention, and his posters are seen outside just as in Captain Jack Harkness. But the end is great; scenes introducing companions to the TARDIS are always fun, and this is one of the best. I love the Doctor mouthing the words from behind Martha’s back as she exclaims that “It’s bigger on the inside!” And almost as good is the Doctor’s quip about interfering in established events being “strictly forbidden, except for cheap tricks”, which is made even funnier by the distant sound of spinning from Mr Blinovitch’s grave.

Of course, it’s made very clear that the Doctor in no way fancies Martha. And she’s aboard for only one trip, definitely. He’d rather n his own. Well, that’s that then.

Not one of those episodes that hog the limelight, as it has a job to do. But this is great, and I see no earthly reason why it shouldn’t get a 5/5.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane

“Anyway, it’s organic”

I’m going to try and keep these Sarah Jane Adventures reviews a bit shorter because a) I’m a fair bit behind on the Marathon and b) I’m 32 years old, a wee bit older than the target audience, which makes me feel not entirely qualified to judge the series. Of course, I still might get carried away…

Strangely enough, this is our first script involving Gareth Roberts, he of the many splendid novels, and it’s brilliant. The episode introduces the series format very well indeed (the first few minutes introduce the nuances of Maria’s family situation with admirable economy) while still giving us an exciting adventure and loads of laughs.

There are a lot of fun things here: the creature (and the device) from Greeks Bearing Gifts in another context entirely; a villainous henchman who seems to be entirely based on Vernon Kay; a Frankenstein-esque scene with electricity straight out of the James Whale films; sonic lipstick. There’s also a nice cheeky subtext to the whole thing about how kids shouldn’t just believe what adverts tell them. How very BBC.

A good start. 4/5.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride

“This friend of yours, just before she left- did she punch you in the face?”

Blimey. Feels a bit weird getting back to Doctor Who again after my recent diet of Torchwood. And it’s hard to think of an episode which contrasts more with my recent viewing than this one.

The pre-credits sequence shows us the run-up to the end of Doomsday from Donna’s point of view, a great if inevitable idea. And Catherine Tate is great from the get go, a force of nature who makes Tegan look a bit shy. These scenes are very funny (as is pretty much the whole thing) but we get a serious moment as Donna alludes to Rose. Tennant’s expression here is a sight to behold.

Then it’s straight to some top drawer slapstick comedy crossed with action-adventure thrills, just the thing for Christmas Day. The TARDIS car chase is enormous fun, and the whole thing feels like a Christmas day feature film for the whole family.

Once more we’re reminded of Rose at the wedding non-reception, but this isn’t allowed to drag down the fun for long. After a brief cameo from the Welsh bloke off of My Family, the rip-roaring adventure / screwball comedy stuff starts up again. There are some Christmassy touches, too, and good ones: this time the Christmas tree finds an entirely new way to be deadly, and the villain’s spaceship is a stonking great star in the middle of the sky.

Then there’s the baddie. Sarah Parish is great, as is the whole look, and the whole effect is perfect for the tone. There’s heartbreak, too, as Donna is betrayed by the slimy Lance (“I love you.” “That’s what made it so easy.”). But the mood is soon lightened because that’s the sort of episode this is; from crying in the TARDIS Donna is soon cheered up by the amazing sight of Earth’s formation. It’s a sort of reversal of the “can we have your liver please?” scene from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

More wonderful moments: Donna swings on a rope and misses; the Doctor, as is now customary, gives the baddie one last chance to repent; we get to see the surfboard from Boom Town again. And, of course, for the first time since the series returned we hear the word “Gallifrey”. I think this is a unique example of the Marathon lessening the impact of something!

All is well, as a tank destroys the webby star thing “by order of Mr Saxon”. Probably just a throwaway line, that. Donna refuses the offer of travelling in the TARDIS, and the Doctor isn’t in the mood for Christmas dinner this time. Donna clearly likes the Doctor, but is also scared by him and his lifestyle. He needs someone to stop him…

Splendid stuff. A 4/5 as it lacked that extra something, but a high one. There’s no reason a light-hearted Christmas romp like this shouldn’t get a high mark.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Torchwood: End of Days

“So, are we going to sit crying into our lattes or are we going to do something about it?”

The good news is that Gwen and Rhys seem to have patched up their relationship troubles. The bad news is that all sort of weird timey-wimey shit is happening, and it’s all Owen’s fault. Oh, and this is our first script by Chris Chibnall for a bit. Some may consider this bad news; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Said weirdness includes a Roman soldier which is giving PC Andy grief, and an outbreak of Black Death which is quickly solved by Owen with his usual charm and tact. Then everyone arrives back in the hub, and the fault lines which have been threatening in the background for a while now finally rip the team asunder.

We begin with the big clash of the alpha males between Jack and Owen, as usual with jack representing the big picture and Owen representing the more human urge to deal with the immediate problem. Jack’s right, as he always is when this argument is played out, particularly as the whole imperative to open the rift comes from Bilis and his manipulations. But in spite of this he handles the situation very badly on a human level, sacking Owen, on a whim, right in front of the rest of the team, thereby weakening their confidence and trust in him.

Owen now has less than 24 hours until he’s retconned, which will essentially take his while life from him. Naturally he deals with this by going to one of those horrible trendy bars he seems to like so much and drowning his sorrows with bottled lager or alcopops. Jack and Gwen, meanwhile, investigate Bilis, discovering that he’s a time traveller, running an antiques business on the Edward Waterfield model.

Bilis gives Gwen a premonition of Rhys dying, and shortly after this stabs Rhys to death. Eve Myles is brilliant at portraying Gwen’s grief, and this is what causes Jack’s authority to ebb away as first Gwen and then the others agree to open the rift. Even Owen suddenly appears to complete the mutiny. It all starts getting a bit nasty, and then Owen shoots Jack, which seems to be the fashionable thing to do in Torchwood these days.

We now discover that all this was a plot by Bilis to bring back his god, Abbadon. The CGI’s a bit unfortunate here, but never mind. The solution is satisfying, with Jack’s immortality ultimately saving the day. Jack’s resurrection is a bit long-winded (I’m sure nobody watching thought for a moment that he was actually dead) but the final scene is great; the hand in the jar starts bubbling, and we hear a familiar sound. It definitely came from within the hub, so the time we see the corresponding scene in Doctor Who it will definitely be set in the Hub and not outside or anything.

Another good ‘un, with some good character stuff, but not quite up there with the best. A strong 4/5.

As for the season, it averages 3.615/5, which may not be that great (if fitted in with the first 28 seasons of Doctor Who it would be a fair bit below average) but represents a creditable showing. I was far more impressed with this season than I was expecting to be, with a lot of underlying themes and character stuff which I didn’t properly register the first time round.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Torchwood: Captain Jack Harkness

“Of course. I was just discussing strategies with the Captain.”

We begin with Tosh and Jack outside a derelict building, with a poster just visible which bears the legend “Vote Saxon”. It probably doesn’t mean anything. Don’t know why I mentioned it.

Anyway, it’s another script by Catherine Tregenna again and Tosh and Jack have slipped back in time to 1941 while back in the present the pieces get moved for what it’s been fashionable to call the season finale. Thing is, though, Torchwood doesn’t really have that format (this isn’t the first episode of a two-parter), but perhaps it doesn’t need one; it has much more prominent character and plot arcs than Doctor Who, which work a hell of a lot better in hindsight than they did at the time.

A case in point is the friction between Ianto and Owen here, in which both dig up one another’s demons from the recent past. Oh, and there’s also the small detail of Ianto shooting Owen. The bigger significance of this, Owen opening the rift, is going to have big consequences, but those consequences were set in time a long time ago.

Tosh gets to be brave, resourceful and intelligent, setting up a cross-time treasure hunt and even writing with her own blood, and we get a bit of her discomfort at her wartime surroundings, being of Japanese extraction, but this is rightly not dwelt upon. There’s also the introduction of a rather cool villain, the Kenneth Williams-esque Bilis Manger. There’s some cool timey-wimey stuff too- I love the directorial trick of panning from Tosh and Jack to Gwen, 65 years later, in the same shot.

And while this episode is unusually Gwen-lite, kudos to her for knowing what all those squiggly mathematical symbols are. Because I certainly don’t.

But the episode is mainly about Jack. Both of them. And it’s going to be a bit of a pain discussing two characters with the same name. Anyway, face to face with the real Captain Jack Harkness, doomed to die the following day, our Jack (awkward, this) tells Tosh about his past as a conman, stealing the identity of the recently deceased Harkness. But it eventually becomes clear that the real Jack is in the closet (his girlfriend tells him she loves him, which is tragic for both of them), and finally gets to be himself at the end before his death tomorrow. Of course, there’s no way two men could have got away with publically kissing each other in 1941, but I think in this case it’s more than justified by poetic licence.

We also get another glimpse of Jack’s past that even we, the audience, were not aware of: he was involved in a war as a child. Interestingly, it’s the other Jack he imparts this to, and to hell with the fact it hardly fits with his cover story of being an American volunteer in the RAF.

A good episode, but somehow lacking in the specialness to put it above a 3/5.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Torchwood: Combat

“I didn’t want saving.”

The first rule is: you do not talk about Combat. The second rule is: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT COMBAT. But nobody tells me what to do. I’m a rebel, me. I live life right out there on the edge.

This is our first and so far only script by Noel Clarke, which reminds me I must get around to watching Kidulthood sometime. It’s much better than I remembered; bloody brilliant in fact. And once again there’s a lot of story arc stuff, some of which passed me by the first time round. Not the Gwen / Rhys stuff, of course. Their relationship hits a real low here; “What’s happening to us, Gwen?” asks a despairing Rhys, just before things start to get worse. Even Jack is warning Gwen, not exactly without hypocrisy, that she should take a bit more care of her personal life, but she doesn’t get it: “Rhys will get over it. He always does.”

Things don’t get better; Gwen has to give the bad news to a bereaved wife and immediately gets snapped at by a particularly depressed and nasty Owen (of whom much later, obviously). He surpasses even his own history of nasty putdowns with “I was getting tired of your fuck-tricks anyway”. It’s clearly over between them.

And then, the climax: Gwen confesses her infidelity to Rhys. His reaction is to say “But you wouldn’t do that,” bless him. But Gwen makes her confession meaningless by revealing that she’s drugged Rhys with retcon, desperate for forgiveness. Ever since Gwen joined Torchwood it’s been changing her for the worse; this is rock bottom. And this is where she discovers Torchwood is no replacement for her life with Rhys. Symbolically, she turns up at the Hub with a pizza in a parallel scene to the one in Everything Changes. But this time the team aren’t there for her and she sits alone, crying.

Anyway, Owen. On the one hand the character is so unlikeable and shallow I have no sympathy for him, even after what’s just happened with Diane. But on the other hand I suspect I’m not expected to. And on the, er, other hand (assume a hypothetical three-armed alien creature, or something), Burn Gorman has been putting in brilliant performances right through the series and is truly outstanding here. It’s a staggering achievement to make such a git of a character so compelling. Especially as we start off with him just being a bit of a mardy git and having a bit of a foreshadow-y fight in a bar with Hot Chip’s “Over and Over” playing in the background. How very 2006.

Also very 2006, and this time not in a good way, is the Crazy Frog ringtone found on the phone of the corpse found by Tosh and Jack. I’d managed to repress my memory of that particular trauma, and now it’s all coming back. Damn you, Torchwood. Fortunately the plot is gripping enough for me to almost forgive this. And once Owen deigns to actually joining in with it by going undercover, things start getting really good.

Owen meets Mark Lynch, who seems to like him in the false belief that he’s found a fellow Nietzchean wanker to be all nihilistic and laddish with. Mark is a fascinating and well-written character, though; for someone with a basically shallow personality whose life revolves around arrogance, crap beer, fighting and cod philosophy he’s made to seem quite compelling. Oh, and we get another line about something coming, “out there, in the darkness”. Gosh, do you reckon this might be a subtle piece of foreshadowing?

Interesting to hear the speech from Mark about the world having no meaning without, among other things, “faith”. On the one hand this fits in with the pessimistic pseudo-atheism of the series, but on the other it hints at a possible religious meaning intended by the author. Either way, it’s a superficially shallow philosophy at the surface level intended by Mark but asks interesting questions about the series themes deeper down.

The stuff with the Weevils and the cage may not be particularly original (Angel did this a year previously), but it’s just a McGuffin; this is another story where theme and character are the main focus. And Owen’s apparent death wish is a very interesting development.

Another interesting point; Jack allows Janet the Weevil to run loose as bait, at the risk of killing innocent bystanders, although Tosh and Ianto both object. And Tosh later calls Jack on his treatment of the Weevil. Once again, we’re shown that Torchwood may be our protagonists but they’re certainly not heroes.

Excellent stuff, the best Torchwood yet. 5/5.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Torchwood: Out of Time

“Of course, bananas are far more interesting.”

Another new writer, then: Catherine Tregenna. A new type of story, too- ten episodes in and we’re still getting an extraordinary diversity of genres and storytelling styles, a pleasantly surprising legacy from the parent show.

For the first time, there’s no physical threat; the whole thing is entirely a character piece. It’s an extraordinary departure, but it works brilliantly. Our three refugees from 1953 are paired off with three of the regulars: Diane with Owen; Emma with Gwen; and John with Jack. All three regulars get a nice bit of development, although once again Tosh and Ianto are neglected, a problem which seems to be intensifying.

The first few minutes are filled with nicely humorous culture clash moments; the bananas line, “I made it myself,” and Diane’s confused reaction to seeing “smoking kills” written on a cigarette packet. But soon we get to see the very different reactions of our three time travellers. Emma eventually adapts, John is unable to cope, and Diane, brilliantly, is rather bored with her new surroundings and embarks on a ridiculously dangerous, thrill-seeking flight through the rift again to face the unknown.

Jack and John are a fascinating pairing, giving Jack what is probably his best bit of characterisation he’s had so far in the series. The two of them quickly bond through having fallen both through time. But John is soon showing signs of being unable to deal with his new surroundings; his tyrannising of Emma shows us that he’s likely to struggle with modern social mores, and his only connection to the life he knew is a son with dementia. Eventually he turns to suicide, as Jack discovers. But there’s a twist: Jack confesses that he is “a man, like you, out of his time, alone and scared.” It’s “bearable” because “it has to be”. As Jack sits alongside John in the car, harmlessly inhaling the fatal fumes, we’re made to suspect the only difference between the two is not that Jack doesn’t want to end it all, but that he can’t.

Emma’s arc is comparatively straightforward; she’s young, and able to adapt. Once again we see the caring side of Gwen as she takes her in, gently introduces her to the modern world (I love their little chat about sex). But this leads to an “oops” moment as Rhys discovers that Gwen’s mother does not, in fact, know anything about Emma. “What worries me is how easy it is for you to lie to me, Gwen,” says Rhys. This particular fault line can only widen as the series approaches its end.

The most interesting couple are Diane and Owen, of course. Diane does not fit either Owen’s or our stereotypes about the ‘50s, being wild and independent yet somehow seeming rather more grown-up than people today. Particularly Owen, who thinks that “We could be fuck-buddies” is a good post-coital line. We get a good conversation about “casual” sex here; Diane has a rather deeper understanding of such things than Owen. In fact, Owen’s his usual self here, by which I mean he’s a bit of an arse; his convoluted confession of love to Diane shows this perfectly. Of course, she means a lot more to him than he does to her. Diane is a free spirit, craving experience and stifled by the ease and convenience of the twenty-first century, while Owen’s a bit clingy and, well, shallow. The manner of Diane’s departure is perfect.

Very good indeed, a high 4/5.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Torchwood: Random Shoes

“Selling life and… still waiting.”

Again, we get a nicely effective pre-credits sequence with a twist; Eugene is dead, but he’s narrating. And he does so throughout the episode, assisted by loads of flashbacks. It’s a nice idea, and a rather clever plot, but in the end it doesn’t quite come off.

I don’t know who Jacquetta May is, so I’ve just googled her. Apparently she’s an actress / writer who’s also written episodes of New Tricks and Where The Heart Is. None of that tells me much, really. There are impressive things here, though; the intricacy of the plot is really quite impressive, and there are lots of nice character bits. I particularly like the enthusiastic voiceover from Eugene about the possibility of alien life as we hear his parents arguing in the background, and the idea of having our sympathetic narrator also being someone who is basically stalking Gwen in a rather creepy way. Probably the most impressive thing about the episode is the way that strong emotions are presented in an understated way and are all the more powerful for it.

All the same, though, this didn’t feel right for me. Partially it’s Eugene’s voiceover; it just doesn’t feel like something anyone would spontaneously say aloud, and feels awkwardly close to being self-consciously poetic, or rather of being “literary” prose. In fact, it’s probably just me but a lot of Eugene’s dialogue reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s prose style, which is not quite the ideal effect. This sort of thing might work on the page, but not as lines to be delivered by an actor. And then there’s the way that the overall subtext of the episode (don’t waste your life waiting for things to happen; they’re happening now so carpe diem) is constantly being alluded to in ways which are in themselves quite clever, but the message itself is too didactic to really work as a subtext, and isn’t actually all that profound anyway.

Oh, and why doesn’t Eugene have a Welsh accent? Everybody else in his family and social circle seems to have one. Also, I should probably start mentioning the actual Torchwood gang. It’s actually quite nice to have Eugene as a framing device so we can see the characters from another POV, and I don’t think the regulars suffer in terms of screen time because of Eugene. Still, the episode is far too Gwen-heavy.

Still, it’s a solid episode, with very strong plotting and characterisation in places, let down only by a sometimes clumsily handled subtext and some overly artificial-sounding dialogue. A solid 3/5.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Torchwood: They Keep Killing Suzie

“That’s all we are in the end- just a pile of boxes.”

For the first time we get some footage from a previous episode in the pre-titles bit; at last the series is starting to acquire a mythology of its own. We then move to the teaser itself and Yasmin Bannerman as Detective- surely Detective Inspector?- Swanson. It’s quite an effective teaser, with the reveal reminding me of Seven. Swanson directly blames Torchwood for the murder; it soon turns out that she’s right. This episode continues the recent run of episodes implying that our protagonists are not the good guys and do much more harm than good.

This episode is by Paul Tomalin and Daniel McCulloch. Who they? I remember at the time there was speculation that this was a pseudonym for RTD, but frankly the dialogue doesn’t feel polished enough for that. Still, it’s a good episode, with the earlier scenes quite strongly foregrounding the themes of the episode, which by now are looking to be the themes of the season. The murder victims are linked by Retcon in their bloodstream; the connection is Torchwood. This in itself implicates Torchwood in some dark stuff, but their decision to use the glove means we see them making a morally troubling decision here and now. Crucially, Gwen, the new girl and still the group’s conscience, is specifically implicated in its use.

It’s not all moral murkiness, mind. This episode sees the start of Ianto’s line in dry quips. And the Ianto / Jack thing. And the stopwatch. But from the resurrection of Suzie to her final death all this stuff is pretty much foregrounded. Interestingly, Suzie spend two years confiding in Max and then giving him a retcon pill; this is exactly the same urge to talk to someone about what happens with Torchwood that we saw with Tosh and Mary last episode- in fact it’s such a blatantly exact parallel it pretty much hits you over the head. The implication seems to be that Suzie is the end result of what the Torchwood lifestyle does to you; in the end the moral compromises have turned her into a serial killer. Come to think of it, that’s two separate serial killing sprees…

The scene shifts to a rock club, rather depressingly playing some nu-metal rubbish instead of the sort of thing they used to play in my day. Sigh. I mean, is a bit of White Zombie or Therapy? Or The Almighty really too much to ask?

Anyway, Suzie turns out to be rather clever, having planned this entire situation to happen in the event of her death, making use of Max and Emily Dickinson. Unfortunately, this means Gwen is going to die by being shot in the head. Slowly. Clever but with collateral damage; yep, that’s Torchwood all over.

I’m glad DI Swanson gets to have a good laugh at Torchwood’s expense because let’s face it; she’s the only character in this episode with a speaking part who can possibly be described as a “goodie”. Torchwood aren’t a bunch of incompetent failures who mystifyingly never seem to get fired; these “failures” come from moral failings which arise from who they’ve become by working for Torchwood. And they’re not constantly failing to save the world; they’re not trying to save the world- that’s not the point. Torchwood is a murky, unaccountable organisation with its roots in a fit of xenophobic pique which can do whatever it likes and seems to do little but satisfy its own curiosity and succumb to temptations which lead to very dark places culminating ultimately in killing sprees. Its existence is not a good thing. All its members- even Gwen, even Jack- are corrupted by belonging to it. I’m starting to suspect that the subdued version of Jack I’ve been having such trouble with is supposed to show that he realises all of this but is trapped.

Or, on the other hand, I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely with all those sweeping statements I made just then. I’ll see what I reckon at the end of the season…

Ahem. Interesting description of the afterlife from Suzie, because it seems that there is an afterlife; it may be that there’s “Nothing. Just nothing,” but it seems from the way things are phrased that Suzie was consciously experiencing that nothing. Oh, and there’s something in the darkness, it’s moving, and it’s coming for Jack. Lovely. In no way is this foreboding.

Anyway, another good ‘un but not quite up there. 4/5.

Torchwood: Greeks Bearing Gifts

“So you secretly fight crime. Is that it, Tosh?”

By now I’m getting to quite like these pre-titles sequences and the way they come to appear in quite a different light after a later twist. This is a fine example, as a rather blackguardly soldier from the Napoleonic Wars is apparently about to shoot a lady of the night out of sheer nastiness, but we are eventually to find out all is not as it seems.

The titles, and we find that this episode is by Toby Whithouse. I’d forgotten that. We begin with some nice character stuff with Tosh’s resentment of Gwen and Owen and their amusement at her nerdiness. It’s good to see Tosh getting an episode; she’s been the most neglected character so far, although it doesn’t feel quite so blatant as it did on original transmission.

Tosh ends up at one of these horrible trendy bars that seem to be infesting Cardiff, and is chatted up by Mary, who’s mysterious and manipulative but also quite fit- a fair trade, I’d say. It’s a nice point, and very telling, that Tosh has been waiting for someone to talk to about her rather unusual lifestyle. Tosh also briefly recites her origin, which sounds like a rather dull and typical career trajectory. So, just as was implied last episode, there are definitely no long stays in cells in Tosh’s past, then.

The stuff with the pendant is really quite well scripted. The stuff with the Torchwood team is great, especially Owen’s rather eyebrow-raising assessment of what Tosh would be like in bed, another example of the character being well written as a total arse. But what really impresses me are the dozens of random thoughts from various members of the public we hear throughout.

Mary’s obviously bad, of course. We know this because she smokes. And as soon as she and Tosh have had sex she becomes a totally different person, indeed species, and even gets a name which alludes to Greek mythology, just to justify the episode title. Naturally, she ends up being killed by Jack. It all feels very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is definitely a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It also feels like Angel, though, with all the jump-cuts and everything.

Behind all the sci-fi / fantasy stuff, though, there’s a rather dark subtext; it’s not Tosh’s betrayal of her friends that’s the most upsetting thing for her, but the insight into human nature she’s had, and the realisation of just how unpleasant people generally are. And because of this, and what we’ve seen, it’s implied that Torchwood, amusing and even likeable they may often be, are morally ambiguous characters, protagonists but not necessarily heroes. Even Gwen, the group’s conscience, is cheerfully cheating on her boyfriend and slowly coming to adopt the group’s attitudes.

Good, solid stuff, this, but not more than that. A good 3/5.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Torchwood: Countrycide

“What is that smell?”

“That would be grass.”

“It’s disgusting.”

Apologies for bothering those of you not based in the UK with a pop culture reference you many not get, but this story’s title reminds me of a certain quip made by the great Stephen Fry. I couldn’t possibly say anything about it without breaching the COC in no uncertain terms, but if you don’t instantly get the reference then Googling “Stephen Fry countryside joke” should do the trick. Anyway…

Might as well start as I mean to finish; I started watching this so unimpressed with Chris Chibnall’s script and, up to a point, the direction of the series (so much so that there’s been a little unintended hiatus…). But I unexpectedly ended up liking this rather a lot, which is odd for a number of reasons.

The opening sequence is great, with the use of “Monster” by The Automatic actually managing to give this rather annoying song a justification for its existence, which is no small achievement. And after the credits we’re thrown straight into a scene with the Torchwood team in the car, which demonstrates the great strengths of this episode; good characterisation and genuinely witty dialogue. After a bit of friction and unevenness with the writing of the characters (which really has to be laid, ironically, at Chibnall’s door), this is the episode where the team seems to gel. All the characters now feel fleshed out and, if not necessarily likeable as people (I’m talking about Owen here, of course), at least entertaining company as characters.

And we get some good character moments in the early scenes. Tosh’s attempt at innuendo (“Need a hand getting it up, Owen?”) gets an unnecessarily cruel single entendre in response (“If I did, I wouldn’t ask you,”), and she’s extremely jealous when Gwen admits to having snogged Owen. There’s also Gwen’s faux pas with Ianto, and the great scene with Owen using psychology to get inside Gwen’s pants. And it’s all just about the shagging, naturally. He may be a total git, but he’s entertaining for us viewers. That’s good writing.

Of course, the plot itself is basically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is not really my sort of thing, hence my initially not expecting to like this episode. I don’t necessarily find the genre unpleasantly violent (it’s done with too much staged artificiality for me to really suspend disbelief enough to be affected much), but I suspect there are all sort of standard slasher movie tropes here which are flying above my head. It doesn’t matter, though; the situation works in terms of how the characters react and how their relationships develop. Oh, and I liked James Moran’s Severance, of course.

Well, except for Jack; I’m getting a bit tired of this miserable git he seems to have turned into. Noticeably he’s the only member of the team who has nothing interesting going on character-wise right through this episode.

This is shot really quite well, with loads of suspense and sudden glimpses of threats suddenly moving in the corner of the screen. The whole situation reminds me of labyrinth-based computer game shooters like Doom. And yes, that really is the most up-to-date relevant computer games reference I can think of.

Ianto and Tosh are captured, where Tosh reveals that “I haven’t met a cell yet I couldn’t get out of.” So we can definitely expect there to be absolutely no long stretches in cells in her past whatsoever.

Of course, the big reveal is that the baddies are not aliens but people who harvest other people every ten years because, well, they’re country people and country people are weird like that. I remember back at the original viewing being genuinely surprised, especially that they’d pulled what seemed like a major genre-subverting trick so early on in the series. This time round, unsurprisingly, it seemed rather more signposted and rather less significant given the lack of surprise.

I like the ending, with the deliberate refusal to give us a psychobabble explanation; the baddies are just bad. And the final scene, with Gwen and Owen clearly having an actual affair, feels in keeping with what we’ve seen.

Not the best episode ever, perhaps- I still have concerns about the uneven tone of the show- but good characterisation earns this a 4/5.