BBCHD - 8th July 2009 - 9.00pm
That. Was. Scary.
I wonder if this is how we'll have to conduct diplomatic relations with the North Koreans when they decide to hold us to ransom by nuking the entire planet? I've not been as chilled to the bone by an hour of television as much as that in a very long time. Day Three's rendition of an archetypical science fiction genre trope - 'first contact' (except in this case, it was more like...er...second contact) - was magnificently done. More of that later.
We do, unfortunately, have to deal with the rest of the episode first. Round of applause please for Lachele Carl as the ever reliable Trinity Wells. The first half of the script's pincer movement from James Moran and Russell T Davies to try and convince us that, yeah, this a global event. Look out for the French newsreader and American general plus various extras of ethnic diversity to complete the manoeuvre. However, we did get interminable, grating scenes of newreaders with various close ups of their mouths and eyes scattered throughout the hour. Enough! I know the world's hanging by a thread but judging by this we'll all probably suffocate under swathes of rolling 24 hour news bulletins first before the slimy, boomy voiced aliens get us.
The script strikes an ironic note with Ianto's 'All together. The old team' because of course it's not the old team. Torchwood's reputation for early retirement has seen to that and instead we've got Jack fretting about his track suit bottoms fashion faux pas, Rhys throwing a strop with Gwen about sharing her good news and Ianto getting the horn. Erm...excuse me? The Prime Minister's on the telly doing a 'swine flu pandemic' closing the schools type announcement thing. Focus. Despite this fluff, there's a sweet and funny scene where Ianto passes a message on to Rhiannon and we find out that her husband Jonny has reacted with entrepreneurial zeal ('ten quid a kid!') and is getting her to mind the neighbours kids. I really like the efforts to fill in Ianto's background and with Davies trademark ability to write naturalistic dialogue and characters it's been easy to warm to Rhiannon and Jonny. We also check back in with Jack's daughter, Alice and there's a gently percolating build up to giving her more involvement in Day Three.
I say you can never go wrong having a spare Lemsip so sod recovering the Hub software and put the kettle on. Oh, well. Time for our rag-tag team to remember what they learned from The Real Hustle and use various cons to snaffle themselves enough equipment and money to set themselves up a temporary Hub and get Gwen some clean knickers and Jack a new army surplus coat. Again, this has that comic book feel to it where our heroes simply can't just go out and deal with the problem until they've sorted out their sartorial arrangements. What baffles me is how on earth they cracked the chip and pin on those cards they ran off with? More delaying tactics really and enough to get Ocean's 3 and a half set up so that they can snoop in on the diplomatic talks of the century. And Rhys gets to cook a nice pan of beans, Ianto's got the coffee on and there's loo paper in the shitter. Back in business.
Fortunately, Moran and Davies centre a good portion of the episode on Lois Habiba as our point of view at the meeting with the 456. This is thanks to that ubiquitous Bond gadget, tried and tested by one Martha Jones in Reset, the ACME Contact Lens Camera™. There is perhaps a suggestion here that Lois was pretty much created as a replacement for the rumoured idea of Martha joining Torchwood. In the end, Cush Jumbo has by now already made the role her very own and she communicates great vulnerability and fear when Gwen pleads with her to use the camera to spy on their behalf. We also start to get details of Jack's connection to the incident in 1965 and his relationship to one of Torchwood's former employees. It's at this point that the episode drops all the fluffy caper nonsense and really starts getting hard nosed. Agent Johnson's found Alice and is ordered to bring her in, Gwen gets help from PC Andy to release the recently arrested Clem in a very emotional reunion with some superb playing from Paul Copley, whilst Frobisher prepares for the arrival of the 456.
Lois bluffs her way into persuading Bridget to allow her into the meeting with the 456 by intimating that her relationship with Frobisher is based on more than taking a letter. It's another superb little character moment where Susan Brown, who has been brilliant as the dour Bridget, succinctly reveals all of Bridget's personal history with Frobisher with her tart remark to Lois of 'You're not the first, you know. Don't go thinking you're the first'. Meanwhile, Alice goes all Captain Jack on us, and she even has a matching coat, in an attempt to escape Johnson's clutches ('certainly your father's daughter') but suddenly all the kids go weird and do lots of pointing to the sky. The 456 are here. Lois gets ready to pop her contacts in as, in scenes reminiscent of Euston Films 1979 Quatermass, a column of fire descends to earth and we are treated to probably the finest, and scariest minutes of British telefantasy in a long while.
The encounters with the 456 work because they follow the simplest and most effective premise for generating genuine terror. Don't show the creature. Merely suggest it. The build up to the scene where they arrive and Frobisher converses with them completely rested on how Moran, Davies and director Lyn were going to scare the pants off you. It's really a tour de force of writing, directing and acting as well as the use of impressive and highly suggestive sound effects which again takes us right back to Kneale's early Quatermass serials where alien visitors are only briefly glimpsed but given fantastic presence by good reactions from actors and, more importantly, from the work of the fledgling Radiophonic Workshop. Here, all is required is the combination of brilliant sound effects, Ben Foster's very sensitive scoring, the subtlest of movements broken by violent thrashing and the spilling of lots of very unpleasant looking body fluids in the gas filled chamber to provide fuel for over active imaginations and sleepless nights. And then you get that dead pan, slightly synthesised voice as a bonus. Close Encounters this ain't. Stunning.
Add Peter Capaldi in, quite frankly, what should be an award winning performance as Frobisher, his stress summed up by that exhausted slump against the corridor wall after the first encounter, and this is very definitely must see television. I also loved the contrast between this and the then tit for tat squabble between General Pierce, Colonel Oduya of UNIT and Prime Minister Green in a sort of G8 for alien encounters where, similarly, much hot air fills the vaulted ceilings of rooms bearing witness to the cut and thrust of international relations. Green decides to leave it to the 'middle men' like Frobisher, claiming he's 'expendable' and suggesting that he's possibly unlikely to survive beyond Day Five. As Gwen cuts through traffic to get Clem a cup of tea and a hotdog ('I bloody love 'em'), there's that lovely, rather humanising, moment between Bridget and Lois as she suggests that perhaps her eagerness to 'trot after John Frobisher' didn't forsee meetings with slimy beasties from outer space. Likewise, Frobisher's admission that Jack is the better man because he won't take Frobisher's wife and children as hostage tells us that he's very determined for Jack not to reacquaint himself with the 456.
As we watch, director Lyn covers the formal diplomatic negotiations through Frobisher's reactions, Lois's eyes, through the laptop screens and translations via shorthand in the makeshift Hub, beautifully building the tension of the scene and also using that lovely bit of tension breaking humour with Gwen's typo of 'Need his moth' and Rhys' comment about smileys. The pieces start to come together and, shockingly, it is clear that Jack and Torchwood originally did a deal with the 456 back in 1965, as recalled by Clem, and now they're back and they want their further 10%. In the end, the story positions both Jack and Frobisher not as opposites but very much men as on the same side in their dealings with the 456.
Let's hope we get more scary Torchwood with Day Four because Day Three was, quite simply, excellent.
Day One review
Day Two review
Cathode Ray Tube Children Of Earth Torchwood Series 3 Day Three
- 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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