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Nov 13, 2006

Kinda Surprise

Another dispiriting fifty minutes in the company of Torchwood.  I mean I've been largely positive about the series up until now, but this was a mess, and everything you could fear that show might descend into being.  I really, really left tonight's episode afraid for the safety of Season Three of Doctor Who.  They're different series, to be sure, but the same production team were happy to see tonight's drama broadcast as is despite the litany of problems.  Why is it for every very cool moment, there's some bit of dialogue, or acting, or direction that makes you want to throw a pillow at the screen?

The positives first.  Captain Jack's mystery is developing nicely and the revelation that he was knocking around on the planet in the very early 190os was a nice surprise and beautifully ambiguous in relation to whether those scenes happened before or after The Doctor Dances.  The flashback scene was shot well too, and it wasn't made completely clear whose side he was on in the war.  My impression is that they didn't and that in fact he was romancing the old fairy woman before he went traveling in the Tardis and looked her up when he reappeared on Earth just recently.  Otherwise we're in Highlander/Angel/Eighth Doctor Earth-arc territory, which wouldn't be such a bad thing as confusing -- were two of them knocking around during World War Two?  The touching scenes between Jack and his old girlfriend helped to fill out this background -- he obviously loved her very much.

It was a good premise too, building upon the famous hoax pictures, fairies being some elemental shadows looking for children to join with them.  In fact one of the highlights were the exposition scenes in which those photos were debunked again and the nature of the beasts was revealed even if 'evil since the dawn of time' seems a bit incongruous in a series that was supposed to be priding itself on its reliance on the gritty urban landscape and crap which haunts those street.   You can see the actual pictures and the camera that took them at the National Museum for Film, Television and Photography in Bradford and the facts mentioned here were completely correct.  For all of his cleverness, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was seduced by the children's story.  The eventual monsters were very pretty, perfectly painterly like those fairies, almost the product of some late Victorian painted picture book.

Shame it was dogged by some extraordinarily listless storytelling and poor structuring.  As with The Ghost Machine, the teaser was good and the first few scenes in which Jack looked up an old friend were sweet (although would Gwen really have been that rude in the talk about the fairies with all the eye-rolling?  Surely that's more like Owen behaviour?  This inconsistency of character from episode to episode is really irritating)  The chase through through Cardiff Market and the flower petals were pleasingly gruesome (even if that imagery wasn't satisfactorily explained). 

Beyond that once and again, we were treated to the girl being threatened, the timeless ones using the weather to defend her, Torchwood noticing the weather fluctuation and then chasing it up.  It was a bit like watching an episode of Treasure Hunt, without Wincy Willis, the magenta jumpsuits or cross looking pensioners in stately homes on a coach trip.  This isn't necessarily just a problem with Mr. P J Hammond's work.  All of the episodes have suffered from this repetition of action in one form or another, almost as though no one can get a grip of those extra five minutes which have been added to Doctor Who's usual running time.  They've also suffered from moments of threat going on far too long, the cutting back, over and over to something which has already been established, like the kids in peril in the wind, or the spooky monsters looking at our heroes from above.  This stylistic holdover from the parent series and seems out of place in the 'adult' world.

It was a bit like watching an episode of Treasure Hunt, without Wincy Willis, the magenta jumpsuits or cross looking pensioners in stately homes on a coach trip.

Time which could better be spent charting Jack's passage through history or providing Tosh with some character development outside of an upcoming episode that will no doubt include all of her character development or giving the characters a believable social life was instead used in the company of a vast range of characters that were no doubt supposed to be normal but were instead, well, boring.  The strategy of the series is no doubt for largely than life characters to brush up against the realistic, but that's no reason for the so-called 'real people' to have nothing in the way of interesting characterisation, or anything to make you actually care if they lived or died.  Compare and contrast the sinister lump of a step-father here with any of Gwen's colleagues from the first episode and there are some massive inconsistencies at play.  Normal doesn't have to mean dull.  Look at Spooks.

In this vein, were we supposed to care for Jasmine, the little girl?  The Chosen One (and really, people, you're invoking Buffyology here?) needed to either be a sweetheart, someone the audience could really get behind, or The Omen's Damien in a dress.  She was neither, and although the opening near abduction scene was winceful and said lump probably deserved to die for hitting the poor lamb, she was largely left standing around grinning as the elementals snuffed out her enemies.  The resolution was troubling too -- Jack essentially advocated that offering up the odd small child for sacrifice was perfectly fair if it kept the 'aliens' at bay.  Err, right.  And you're expecting us to like Captain Jack after this?  I mean his story doesn't really resolve itself.  Perhaps if they'd spinned it into something related to him trying and failing to be The Doctor but ... oh no ... this is all we've got time for ...

[This article about episode structure in Firefly describes what I think the Torchwood team are trying to accomplish.]

On the subject of characters, a continuing annoyance is the non-reappearance of Gwen's police partner from the first episode.  By making the police's participation irrelevant, they've lost one of the characters who could have been a secret weapon throughout -- he was the source of the oft quoted CSI: Kebab joke and his good humour would have provided much needed levity, particularly in a story like this.  Why not make him the person who picked up the mad childcatcher at Cardiff Market?  Recurring characters are a good thing.

But this was an episode filled with mini-irritations.  The close-up of the name of the street in which the Chosen One lives as though this was supposed to be a big important plot point.  The over reliance on that music cue which ends loudly and abruptly to signal 'ooh sinister'.  The caption on the flashback even though Jack's voiceover was actually telling us the time and place.  Oh and Jack holding back vital information about the enemy they were fighting to create false tension and fake climaxes when he reveals some piece of information, even though most of it was probably jibberish.  UNIT syndrome strikes the van too -- they're a secret organisation (outside the government etc) so we'll have the name of it carved in the side -- did anyone else find it's sliding appearance into shot retina searingly irritating?  And hey, why not the Mara?  What's to say the Krotons didn't have a hand in it also?

[Well alright that reference was nice, and PJ might not have included it as a direct Doctor Who reference, but you can imagine Russell squealing with glee when he read it).

It takes me no pleasure in writing this, since obviously everyone involved had the best of intentions and it makes me look like the judges who lambasted Carol Smilie on Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday (I mean do they want Emma Bunton to win or what?)  The cast were doing their best with the material and some of the direction was OK.  But there are ongoing issues with the series, a kind of unsurety of tone and writing which is making it very difficult to watch, amplifying the faults rather than the successes.  Fundamentally, the question must be -- was it scary?  And unfortunately on this occasion, I'm sorry, no it wasn't.  At least not in the way that was intended.


The current BTS banner picture says it all, really.

You have been pretty supportive of Torchwood, Stuart, so I guess this isn't too good if you didn't like it much.

I've caught up with all 4 previous episodes now, and I'm kind of between the two extremes...I'm certainly not feeling the kind of disgust others have here for the episodes, but I'm also not feeling a whole lot of interest in rewatching them again. Ghost Machine was my favourite so far but even that wasn't that much of an attention-grabber.

I'll check this episode out on Wednesday, but so far I'm just feeling a bit underwhelmed by Torchwood. Not angry, not revolted, just kinda...meh.

I thought this one was far better to be honest. Still flawed but far better.

Much better than cyberwoman but I was disappointed by the lack of any attempt at a rational explanation for the faeries, which to me means they don't fit in the Who canon. Spirits of dead children flitting through time? Jack even talking about children being closer to the "spirit world" This isn't Afterlife eh? It did seem to be suggesting that Jack has seen "the other side" when he died. Doctor Who isn't supposed to do things like this so you'd expect the spin off to follow suit. No magic, no spirits of the dead, nothing supernatural basically. Anyway rant over, it was still probably the best episode of the series so far. The whole choking on flowers thing was quite spooky.

It was all very 70s, wasn't it? Scary children, stone circles and ley lines, fairies with wind machines... About the only thing that made it modern was the use of CGI for the fairies instead of leggy Isla St Clair lookalikes in twinkly leotards. Although, given the quality of the CGI, twinkly leotards might have been better.

All rather charming (if, again, less than entirely logical), but has PJ Hammond been stuck in limbo alongside Sapphire & Steel for the past few decades?

Actually, he hasn't - he's just been writing 'The Bill'.

Stewart -- I don't know that Doctor Who shouldn't do magic fantasy, it just needs to have a certain internal coherence that this lacked. After all this is a man who travels through time in a policebox.

Alright, so I only had enough time to watch the first few minutes of Torchwood last night, but the pre-cred sequence brought one thing to mind immediately.

I'm waiting for Wayne Hussey of The Mission to start demanding royalties of RTD for that episode.

I'm not trying to say that Who is hard sci-fi or that the science was always real or even possible. The point is that everything was always explained as rational, scientific or pseudo scientific. Apparent Gods, Daemons or Ghosts were always explained as aliens or some other natural or technological force. I think the closest that the show has ever come to breaking this is probably in the last season with the Beast. There's bound to be something else that breaks the rule but it's outside my limited knowledge of the canon.

It would have been easy last night to explain the faeries as an alien or pre-human reason for the myths and legends of faeries and changelings but it was just more myth.

Changing the subject somewhat, I know someone who thinks that one or both of the girls who took the Cottingley fairy photos was a shapeshifting alien of the reptilian variety. That would have made more sense than Torchwood did. Apologies for the length...

Sure, but I'd like to think that in the flexible format, given everything else the show does, that there is room for some of the unknown or unknowable, that which lacks explanation. Like The Beast.

The problem last night was that Jack's explanations were being used to pinion the story -- he was holding all the cards and not releasing vital information hindered everyone else's progress.

Ironically enough, I don't see the faeries as any less scientifically likely than the Mara from Kinda/Snakedance, or the Great Vampires(and that's not even mentioning Faction Paradox), or even the Sycoraxic Blood Control voodoo/magic.

"Sure, but I'd like to think that in the flexible format, given everything else the show does, that there is room for some of the unknown or unknowable, that which lacks explanation. Like The Beast."

Yes, but the Doctor insisted that there was an explanation. He made you believe that there could be a possible explanation, even though he couldn't think of one. Jack was just blase about any explanation. If he had mentioned even a kind of half arsed explanation of how they control the elements, then it would have been more realistic.

I thought this one was great!

Explanations be damned. There was heaps of atmosphere and tension - a great story. Lovely surreal touches too.

Good direction too (Alice Troughton - any relation?) except for the "tragic" bits which were a bit too histrionic. I wasn't convinced by Gwen's reaction to her apartment being trashed.

Oh and all the effin Torchwood logos and gadgets were irritating too (that bloody SUV...).

I'm glad they're moving into a more horror direction. Looking forward to next week.


Wait, ok, so with no prior knowledge of Doctor Who, could you explain what a Dalek or a Vervoid was at first glance? Sure, Jack may be trying to be like the Doctor, but the operative word is TRYING. He is NOT the Doctor, and will never be, at least until he's lived a few more centuries. Maybe he's not giving us an explanation because he _doesn't have one_ and he's just too insecure about that to admit it.

But he acts as though there isn't one, which is basically equivalent to saying "It's magic.".

Absolutely Mr. Coleman, I'd need to watch it again but I'm sure Jack at one point starts talking about the other side, shadow lands or something. I'd like to think this might all be relevant when he hooks up with the Doctor next series, maybe part of why they don't get on but it could easily just be throw away lines.

JSG, at first glance a Vervoid is a plant monster and a Dalek is a robot (well if you don't know there's a slimy thing inside...). The fairies were set up as mystical beings from the spirit world. In Doctor Who normally they'd eventually be revealed as invisible aliens or something similar. Certainly something rational.

I just thought it went against the tone of the series. Thinking back to the Beast it's possible that could be thought of as an exception that proves the rule as that story was partly about confronting the Doctor with something that confounds his rationality.

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