Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Torchwood: Something Borrowed

“By day you’re chasing the scum of the universe. Come midnight, you’re the wedding fairy…”

Of all the weeks to watch this one…!

It occurs to me before watching this that there’s something quite clever in making sure that the previous story features a wedding ruined by the death of the groom. Let’s face it: there are all sorts of tropes and genre conventions indicating Rhys should be dead meat. And the similarities between this series and Angel remind me that Joss Whedon would have definitely killed him off. So it’s not only nice, but a genuine twist, that it doesn’t happen.

I’ll be honest; I didn’t really get the humour in this episode. It’s not necessarily that it’s a farce; I’m not exactly the world’s biggest fan of them but I liked The Romans. Then again I don’t exactly have a wide frame of reference when it comes to farces. No, I think it’s the mother-in-law jokes (even if they’re about Nerys Hughes) and seeing this kind of humour in a modern context for which put me off for some reason. I can accept farce in The Romans; that was made in 1965 and is now archive television. It doesn’t feel very Torchwood. Still, lots of individual moments were great, and Ianto gets some nice one-liners. Plus Jack gets his fashion sense critiqued by Rhys’ mum, and Rhys says a very naughty word.

There’s some good character stuff, too; I like the moments with Gwen and Tosh, alone with the wedding dress, unable to really connect with each other, as always. And still we’re being told that Gwen and Jack have a forbidden attraction to each other; it might actually be the shape shifter, but for a moment it looks as though Gwen is actually going to kiss Jack. And, gentleman that he is, it’s clear throughout that he’s jealous of Rhys. There’s always potential for this as a possible future love triangle. After all, the scene with Rhys’ chainsaw cutting out just before Jack shoots the alien dead with a Very Big Gun might be seen to symbolise something by those with dirty minds.

There are other good moments, of course: the shop assistant’s scepticism at Ianto buying a wedding dress for a “friend”; Owen dancing with Tosh to Paul Weller (aaah!); “That’s for calling my mother an ugly thing”. The final revelation that Jack was married long ago isn’t one of them, though; random revelations from Jack’s past are a much devalued currency by now. There’s no sense of any thought-out pattern to his history.

So, an amusing bit of fluff, little more. 3/5. Oh, and is it just me but is it only weddings in pop culture where you get asked if there’s any reason why the couple shouldn’t get married? I’ve been to a fair few weddings, and this never seems to happen in real life.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Torchwood: A Day in the Death

“I am literally too cool for school.”

I’ve never come across any of Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish work so this is the first work of his I’ve encountered, and it’s a damned impressive debut. After a short and almost perfunctory introductory few seconds of “Torchwood is ready” we move straight to Owen via a monologue and montage, showcasing the excellence of both writer and director.

To briefly cover the regulars who are not Owen, this episode sees a lot of mentions of Gwen’s now very imminent wedding, while she very capably seems to assume the mantle of leadership for large chunks of the “B” plot (concerning an energy spike from an item in a collection of alien artefacts kept by eccentric millionaire Henry Parker) and, interestingly, Jack lets her. I’m not sure whether this comes across as strength or weakness. Certainly, he makes a hash of things early on while relieving Owen of duty to have medical tests and make coffee(!)- surely he could have put that a bit more diplomatically and got a slightly less negative reaction.

Tosh gets a hard time this week, with an upset Owen saying some very hurtful things to her. And by now it’s clear that she really does love him, or thinks she does at any rate. Is this going to go anywhere in the long-term? Tosh hasn’t necessarily looked weak in earlier episodes which dealt with her apparently unrequited feelings for Owen, but there now seems to be a very real risk that she may do so. That would not be good.

But of course, this is all about Owen, and the episode is more or less dedicated to an almost poetic reflection on what has happened to him and the implications of what it does to a person. Particularly horrifying is the moment, after Owen (accidentally?) cuts his hand, when Martha makes it clear that neither this nor any other injury he suffers will ever heal again. Owen is, as he says, made of glass. Ageless, sexless, unable to eat, drink, or even feel Martha’s hand, he has continued existence but is unable to truly live; what, then, is there to live for? This is our main character theme, achieved through great dialogue and great direction. The episode is full of great little visual sequences and great little monologues which are quite staggeringly effective.

The episode’s framing device is great, too. Owen is narrating this to Maggie (only named, significantly, at the end when we know she won’t jump), about to commit suicide exactly one year after her husband died in a cruelly random car accident just an hour after they were married. She and Owen are both faced with the consequences that come from life’s random cruelties, and have to decide whether life is worth living.

But there’s a deeper theme, too; that we are all mortal, and that this makes us all mortal in the end. The whole episode pretty much functions as a memento mori; there’s a series of shots of Owen’s extremely luxurious apartment making it very clear that he’s a very wealthy man, but it all means nothing now. There’s a direct parallel here with our villain (well, sort of), Henry Parker (Richard Briers, this time without a toothbrush moustache). Parker is an old man who has experienced so much of life- fighting in the war, travelling, marrying, becoming widowed- and has made himself rich from his own efforts. But he is dying; like Owen, he finds that his power, status and material possessions mean nothing to him now. He is alone, as we all are in the end, afraid of death and the strange “darkness” of the Torchwood afterlife, which both is and isn’t oblivion. This is classic memento mori stuff; every time I watch it I’m reminded of lecturers banging on about Hans Holstein’s The Ambassadors.

Importantly, the episode never allows the bleakness to be undermined by a too life-affirming message; the message seems to be that life is mostly crap, but there’s also the odd bit of hope- that’s pretty much what Owen says to Maggie, and pretty much the message that the alien McGuffin of the week is there to symbolise. It gives false hope to Parker, who dies in spite of his clinging to the belief that it is keeping him alive, but real hope to both Maggie and Owen. There’s also a lot of this, I reckon, in Owen’s fantastic speech to the security guard.

A triumph of both writing and direction, and an acting masterclass from Burn Gorman, mean this gets an easy 5/5, and it goes straight into the chart at number two.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Torchwood: Dead Man Walking

“I’ve been looking for the phrase ‘I shall walk the Earth and my hunger shall know no bounds’ but I keep getting redirected to Weight Watchers.”

The feeling of shock continues as we open with Martha is about to start performing an obituary on Owen- who was, apparently, 27 years old and “Torchwood officer 565.” But Jack dramatically intervenes before she makes the first cut. In a dramatic and eventful pre-titles sequence, Jack goes to visit a mysterious little girl, a soothsayer (to be heard from again?), and learns about the location of the second of that pair of gloves.

It’s quite an opening, and quite an episode. Yet again, Matt Jones (I had to correct that- I originally wrote it as Matt Smith!), who gave us the Devil in The Impossible Planet, presents us with a supernatural theme. And together with the opening that makes this feel very much like a later episode of Angel- always a good thing in my book.

There are obvious echoes of They Keep Killing Suzie as Owen is brought back to life- and stays alive. But then again, he isn’t; he can’t eat, drink, sleep or, er, supply blood to a certain part of his anatomy. And it seems that date between Tosh and Owen is not to be; when it looks as though Owen is only back for a couple of minutes Tosh tells him that she loves him, only for him to rather too enthusiastically help her to backtrack later. It seems their moment has forever passed.

Martha, although obviously necessary as to the plot, takes a back seat here character-wise. This is appropriate; we need to see the reactions of the whole team here, and this we do. We see Gwen holding things together most of the time but when she’s on the phone to Rhys her true feelings show- an illustration that Rhys’ initiation into the ways of Torchwood has been good both for Gwen and their relationship. Tosh, of course, hasn’t got a Rhys and behind the professionalism she’s devastated. Jack, meanwhile, is quite aware of the extent both Owen’s death and the consequences of his resurrection are his own fault, as we see in the fantastic cell scene as well as his reaction to Owen’s comments at the end of the episode.

But, of course, this is all about Owen’s situation, and some old themes arising from this: there being “nothing” after death even though this is a “nothing” that stuff can happen in; the “darkness”; and something moving in it. And it seems that this something is “Death”, although true to The Impossible Planet form the idea is never really defined in the usual terms of the show. Like Small Worlds last season, this is fantasy rather than science fiction. Still, unlike The Impossible Planet with its musings on exploration and Victorian imperialistic poetry, there’s no discernible subtext to the iconic supernatural figure here; it’s all about the characters.

We get to compare Owen’s life to his old one as he cruises the bars as he has done many times before, drinks beer as he has many times before, and pulls as he has many times before. Except that he is now unable to perform on both counts. A pity, especially regarding the beer; it looks as though it could be a pint of something decent rather than the usual bottled lager.

Owen is really rather brave and heroic here, offering to be injected with formaldehyde and, of course, saving the day at the end, in a way which cleverly makes sense of those cryptic clues of Gwen’s. And he kisses Tosh, although I’m sure he’ll later insist it meant nothing. He does that.

Good stuff. Not even some rather poor age make-up from Martha can prevent this from earning a high 5/5.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Torchwood: Reset

“What’s his… dabbling like?”

“Innovative. Bordering on the avant-garde.”

The first scene is from the point of view of a mystery person (but we know it’s Martha) entering the Torchwood hub, and we briefly get to see the newspaper clipping (New Mayor, New Cardiff”) from Boom Town on the door, a nice touch. Then we get a few minutes to catch up with our old friend. Dr. Jones has passed her exams and has been working for UNIT ever since she was approached on the recommendation of an “impeccable source”. Hmmm. No doubt we can expect the Doctor to respond to her career choice with enthusiasm when next they meet, then.

The potential for friction is not ignored- Martha is after all quite close to Jack after the Year That Never Was, and knows things about him the rest of the team don’t, a tradition al source of conflict- but her natural likeability and obvious abilities quickly bring her to be accepted by the team. It’s interesting here that UNIT and Torchwood seem to rub along well enough, in spite of the obvious scope for conflict in their respective histories. I don’t imagine the Brig who clashed with Chinn in The Claws of Axos would have particularly clicked with Yvonne Hartman, but there you go. Things change.

The actual plot for this story, by Whoniverse newcomer and TV veteran J.C. Wilsher, is as solid as they come, even giving the viewer enough clues to have a fair go at guessing what’s happening. In fact, this part of the episode is so impressive that we even get to see Martha and Owen teaming up for a quick medical montage to the sounds of Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. There’s no doubt about it- Torchwood gets some really rather cool bands for its soundtrack.

The premise, when revealed, is rather a good one; medical experiments to find a cure for all known aliments, with the unfortunate side-effect of infecting people with an alien parasitic insect, leading ultimately to an Alien-style demise. That’s our first major Alien homage for a while, and is a strong concept to boot. The main baddie even gets to protest that his Mengele-like experiments are worth it in order to work real medical wonders. Plus, we get a brief confrontation scene with Jack and Owen before the real stuff begins. This is great, almost like a James Bond film, and it gets even better when Martha gets to go undercover with those camera contact lenses. If that’s not a Bond gadget I don’t know what is, and Ianto makes a rather good Q.

This is an unusually action-oriented episode and has a strong focus on Martha to boot, so we don’t get as much character arc stuff here. There’s one major exception, though, as Owen easily accepts Tosh’s offer of a date. Could this mean the beginning of a long and happy relationship?

There’s another deft touch towards the end, as the script intends us to believe that the alarm is going off because of Martha when it is in fact an escaped mayfly queen which has triggered it. But Martha, alas, is captured, and infected with the parasite. Luckily, Owen manages to save her in a way which has been nicely set up throughout the episode (another sign of good scripting). But the episode ends with a shock as Owen is suddenly shot dead.

Brilliant, an extremely well written and produced piece of work, easily deserving a 5/5. This goes to show that an episode fulfilling a fairly run-of-the-mill role in the season can nevertheless manage to be superb by just doing everything really well.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Torchwood: Adam

“I’m going to marry this bloody mad woman even if it kills me!”

The opening titles start, and there’s a new character in them- yep, this is Torchwood’s version of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Jonathan”, right down to the titles and, indeed, the title. Revealingly, it’s still Gwen who acts as the audience’s proxy and initially realises that Adam hasn’t already been there.

In fact, given the irony inherent in Gwen’s forgetting Rhys completely, given the way the last episode ended, this is the perfect placing in the season for this episode; we’re able to successfully gloss over Jack’s failure to carry out his threat as events take over. Still, the Gwen and Rhys element of this episode, where they almost fall in love over again, is fab. Eve Myles and Kai Owen are again great.

Also interesting and revealing are the changes to Tosh and Owen. Tosh is happy, confident and apparently free of her insecurities in her relationship with “Adam”, although this is at the same time pretty much literally rape. Owen, meanwhile, has become shy and nerdish, and it’s a testament to what a bloody good actor Burn Gorman is that you accept him as the same character. Fascinatingly, Owen here apparently has unrequited feelings for the unattainable Tosh, which seems to indicate he secretly likes her in reality, whatever he may say at the end of the episode. Perhaps most worryingly, both of them exhibit a disturbing fondness for horrible bottled lager.

It’s nice to slow down for a character-based episode here, and a good way of doing it, but when we turn to Jack things start getting arc-heavy. We get a flashback to the Boeshane Peninsula (so he wasn’t completely lying to the Doctor and Martha in The Sound of Drums), complete with the obligatory CGI city, where Jack’s entire family and community are under attack from an unnamed and unseen alien race which apparently howls a lot. It’s revealed that the mysterious Gray, as mentioned by “Captain John”, is Jack’s younger brother, and that Jack blamed himself for his death. Heavy stuff, and the revelation of all this also offers us our first clue into who Adam is and what he’s up to.

It is Ianto who works out, via his own diary, that Adam is a fake, and the price he pays is horrible. His sheer horror and despair at the false memories, his basically decent behaviour in insisting he must be locked up, and his later composure in front of Adam- who spitefully tells him he “could murder a cup of coffee”- says a lot about Ianto’s character. Jack, of course, knows perfectly well that Ianto is no murderer; Adam is now exposed.

The conclusion is simple but logical; everyone blots out the last 48 hours with amnesia and Adam ceases to exist. It’s rather jarring to think that Adam has only been alive for the 48 hours since the box was opened, and interesting to hear of his speaking of nonexistence as “darkness and the stench of fear”; once again in Torchwood it is implied that nonexistence is a state in which events can happen and be experienced, a very odd and singular philosophy. And Adam’s revenge, depriving Jack of his last good memory of his father, is devastating.

Very good, if again falling just short of excellence: 4/5.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Torchwood: Meat

“If we could find out how it worked, we could feed the world!”

“We could release a single…”

We start with Rhys at work; at last he gets something of a hinterland. But then he finds himself involved in goings-on of a mysterious nature, and watches as Torchwood emerge from the, er, Torchwoodmobile, including his fiancĂ©e…

Just as with Alan in the last series of SJA, Rhys had to find out the truth sooner or later and this feels about the right point for it to happen. Both Eve Myles (great lying acting!) and Kai Owen are fantastic here. And it’s nice that they get one big shouty row scene as had to happen but it doesn’t go on too long; instead of getting loads of tiresome scenes of characters refusing to believe the truth from other characters (my least favourite thing in all of drama), instead we get Rhys doing a pretty cool job investigating the threat and reacting well to his introduction to Torchwood. It has to be said, mind, that Rhys seems to be the only person in Cardiff who’s never heard of them. And Jack seems bizarrely lenient about Gwen’s blatant conflict of interest here; in any real organisation she would be stood down from the case, no question.

I also notice that both Gwen and a female workmate give him the same food because they know what he’s like on an empty stomach- Rhys may be jealous of Jack but he seems to have his own Jack equivalent. Even so, I like Rhys’ confession to Jack that “It’s a bit bigger than mine.” And his entire reaction to the hub is a joy.

As for the episode’s threat, well, as vegetarian propaganda it largely works well, not overdoing it like, say, The Two Doctors, but sadly there are a couple of moments towards the end where things get overly didactic (“It’s just meat, that’s all.”) that said, though, all this is secondary and there largely as a framework on which the characters’ relationships can play out. Rhys getting them into the warehouse, Gwen’s reaction, and Rhys getting shot, are of course the heart of the episode.

Still, other characters get stuff to do too; Owen carries on affecting not to notice that Tosh is coming on to him, and Ianto’s witticisms ascend to a higher plane.

Inevitably, Jack warns Gwen that Rhys will have to be retconned but we, the audience, just couldn’t accept that. Pushing the reset button now would be a massive cop-out; it’s just not going to happen. So Gwen threatens to resign, and Jack seems to accept her resignation, saying he’ll see her in the morning. Ooh…

It’s nice to reflect that Gwen is now going to tell an excited Rhys everything. Possibly except the sleeping with Own stuff.

Some nice character stuff here, but nothing particularly deep or funny. Plus the didacticism steps over the line at times. And it’s a pity they had to throw away the idea of a marooned space whale in the B plot; such a thing will clearly never appear in the Whoniverse again. 3/5.