BBCHD - 12th March 2008 - 10.00pm
'I want to drink her tears...'
From the ridiculous to the sublime and perhaps a story that slightly takes itself too seriously. P.J. Hammond, creator of 'Sapphire And Steel' amongst many television credits, contributed an interesting script to the first series which, whilst incredibly poetic, was let down by the bouncy goblins at the barbeque sequence. Once again, he delves deep into his box of tricks and comes up with a fascinating concept. Here figures emerge from old reels of film to claim their right to existence. This was very similar to many of his vengeful history concepts running through 'Sapphire And Steel' but it was still atmospheric, odd and unnerving. The poetic and magical conceits need to be accepted at face value here because you aren't going to get logical explanations for everything going on. The travelling circus background has a seedy, provincial feel to it and was marvellously visualised. The idea of taking a victim's breath or tears away has a fairy tale dimension too.
It's an episode full of striking visuals, from the circus to the disused swimming pool, the period cinema to the rainy street corners and complemented by Julian Bleach's startling performance as The Ghostmaker. He's a potent mix of Max Adrian and Michael Wisher, marrying physicality to a rich, fruity vocal style. He is also contrasted nicely with the subtler, mysterious Pearl, played by Camilla Power. Her almost mime-like movement through the story provides some creepy atmosphere, particularly when she's lying in the bath and lunges for the projectionist. Ianto and Jack take centre stage, which makes for a pleasant change, and we are given controlled performances from Barrowman and Lloyd-David that subtly hint at a strangeness in both their pasts. Jack knows the The Night Travellers from a previous investigation and Ianto has a sensitivity to supernatural matters it seems.
Jonathan Fox Bassett's direction is languidly paced, very much a volte face from the usual frenzied quick cutting of the rest of the episodes, but I did feel that although he showcases a very tactile, visual atmosphere he didn't nail the threat, suspense and fear that this story is begging for. It just simply isn't scary enough. It is rather flat. His biggest problem here was having to cover large sections of exposition and having to lead the audience from scene to scene. This was often clunky and obvious and it's really hard to make long speeches and a series of coincidences feel natural and not forced. The worst example is the scene with the Nurse where she conveniently remembers the old woman in the rest home. Yes, it's a coincidence and yes, it's badly acted. Other problems with exposition abound, especially at the conclusion when the solution to erasing The Night Travellers and releasing the coma victims is like an onscreen narration and rather contrived. There are also some odd scenes. At the beginning when Torchwood are in the cinema and strange things start happening, both Gwen and Owen disappear and Ianto is suddenly left on his own. They reappear magically in the SUV some five minutes later. Where did they go? Talking of disappearing characters also begs the question of what happened to the projectionist Jonathan and his own mum and dad in the cinema. The ending, where the child is restored to life, may be tear inducing for Ianto at least, but this happiness sits rather oddly when you know both the kid's parents are dead. And the coda, suggesting a return match with The Ghostmaker, is lifted directly from Doctor Who's far scarier and effective 'Blink' from 2007.
To me it feels like a strong central concept has been muddied by inconsistent resolution, over long exposition and is lacking a narrative drive to hammer home the scares. The scariest bits are the girl attacked at the bus stop, a genuinely upsetting and surreal moment, and the sudden appearance of the Ghostmaker and Pearl by the car full of passengers. The rest lacks a little something despite the striking visuals and it certainly needs more wit. This is a shame as it ultimately disappoints and I was very much looking forward to this episode. It is, however, not a disaster as some might think (there are far worse episodes in this series). It's a necessary change of pace and an attempt to do something more poetic and dreamlike. Whether something like this has a place in 'Torchwood' is debatable. My disappointment with the series as a whole is that rather than trying to scare, unnerve or frighten the aim is more or less to shock, titillate or gross out. Occasionally, I want proper scares where the hair on the back of my neck stands on end. 'Torchwood' has so far failed to do enough of this and this episode had great potential to achieve that. Pity that it too couldn't get that right.
Previous episode reviews:
A Day In The Death
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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