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.

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