BBC3/BBCHD - 27th February 2008 - 10.00pm
‘Like Jesus but without the beard’
Oh, Torchwood...what are we going to do with you!
This is such a frustrating episode. Joseph Lidster hands the producers a good script, in the main well written (even though some of the narrative devices have been overused in many other shows) and through a combination of realisation, performances and rather daft ideas it withers on the vine. This should have had the nation rending its garments and crying at the sheer profoundity of it all. Personally I was unmoved and if a 'Doctor Who' episode can reduce me to tears then why can't a 'Torchwood' episode? There is still something wrong about the DNA of this series that prevents it from giving us fully dramatic and emotional catharsis at least once or twice a season. In my opinion, they spent the whole of Series One making all the characters so unsympathetic that the damage it has inflicted on the show is to make any attempt at emotional development a seriously difficult task. The producers have made an attempt to change this but the series still suffers from a group of characters that are still unlikeable.
OK. Some good things. Burn Gorman was excellent and his portrayal of the 'broken' Owen was the best thing he's given us since the series began. My problem is that Owen is still such an audience intolerant character (and has been since day one) that any attempts to now change him and sentimentalise his situation unfortunately fails for me. Even here, when he's actually going through massive changes he's still thoroughly obnoxious to both Martha and Tosh. Granted, this is about coping with extreme situations and finding a glimmer of hope in the darkness, in your soul as it were, and lashing out is part and parcel of the experience. This is a story about how you can cope with the most terrible, awful situations, but only if there is the merest bit of hope left in your soul. It's a search for the smallest splinter of diamond in a very dark room.
The episode then dives into Bondian pastiche when we get to the raid on Richard Briers as the dying Parker. His lair and the subsequent raid on it by Owen change the tone of the episode briefly to a rather sub-super spy / Captain Scarlet homage. After the all the navel gazing, and some of that, annoyingly, is emotionally thin I have to say, it's amusing and ridiculous at the same time to see Owen talk down trigger happy security guards. However, the scenes with Parker and Owen are better and Briers is fine (I was half afraid he would suddenly put a glittery peaked cap on and start muttering about the Great Architect) and this seals the running theme between Owen, Parker and Maggie, the suicidal ex-bride. The loneliness of three people, all 'dead' variants, finding some kind of solace and hopefully a meaning to their lives/deaths and an attempt to move on is Lidster's main theme in the script. Parker wants to know that life is worthwhile and that death is not the end, the ex-bride and Owen just want enough hope to go on with. The alien device, the Pulse, is the weakest element here. Lidster struggles to cap the episode with an emblem of hope. A daft bit of visual effects isn't the way to do this. The light in the darkness is too literal a symbol here and I did feel that the final scenes seriously failed to provide enough reasons to prevent Owen from rotting in a hole and for the ex-bride Maggie to actually fling herself off the roof. The audience were probably expecting Owen to be cured and for the ex-bride to commit suicide and at least the episode avoided that resolution but what was put in its place wasn't good enough.
At its worst, this episode shunted all the other characters to one side, completely underused Martha again (which to me indicates that they really didn't know what to do with her once the decision was made to put her in the series) and then offered Owen a job as 'tea boy' when quite clearly anyone else's reaction to such a demotion would have been to tell them all to bugger off. Sure, Owen's supposed redundancy is a key part of the plot but having him as a comic stooge making coffee? Frankly, Jack's died that many times, it's a wonder he isn't impersonating a hat stand in the office (oh...sorry, this week he was!) going by the standard procedures outlined here. It was also inevitable that a situation would crop up where Owen's status as a dead man would be positives to add to the mission and again this was very obviously going to happen.
Not all the performances are good. John Barrowman unfortunately did his tailor's dummy impression again this week, Christine Bottomley, as the bride, carved herself a huge slice of ham and really tried much too hard to emote and the rest of Team Torchwood dithered in the background desperately doing concerned expressions. The danger of focusing on one character is that you ultimately give others little to do and they hang around like bad smells.
Don't get me wrong, this was much better than the attempt to tell exactly the same story tried out in last week's episode and Lidster writes very well but if you are going to examine how a dead person functions then ideas that the person has no breath, when clearly they have, are unconvincing uses of 'pseudo science' that undermine the story. It's trying to be clever but it then gives us a 'dead' man who can see, breathe and talk. I love the central premise and Lidster's attempt to articulate it but a further polish on the script, better use of Martha and the rest of the team, and a director who can marshal it all emotionally rather than fart about getting pretty pictures would have helped. What could have been a truly outstanding episode is let down by an ill-thought out conclusion, silly science, variable acting, over-fussy direction and some rather over-enthusiastic music scoring.
Now that we've had the loose 'Owen' trilogy, I would have preferred Owen to have remained properly dead at the end of this. As far as I'm concerned he's still a thoroughly unlikeable character and his supposed enlightenment hasn't convinced me at all. And what exactly are they going to do with this 'man of glass'? By the end of the series he'll be an animated set of bruises, broken bones and cuts. And he'll still be obnoxious. Have the producers really thought this out? Is it sustainable?
A decent Martha episode and then two weeks of naval gazing make Torchwood a very frustrating and schizophrenic programme. I thought by now I would not be in the situation I was in last year - hoping the next episode will be the one finally where they get it right - but I feel I'm still there. Never mind, I might be bothered to tune in for that Nerys Hughes comedy that's on next week...
Previous episode reviews:
Dead Man Walking
To The Last Man
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
- Freelance writer and film and television researcher (for hire).
He has contributed to a number of books and websites about British archive television and cinema as well as recent television series including work for Moviemail, Frame Rated and Arrow Video. Publications include I.B Tauris's 'Doctor Who: The Eleventh Hour - A Critical
Celebration of the Matt Smith and Steven Moffat Era' (2013) and 'Doctor
Who - The Pandorica Opens' (2010).
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