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Nov 25, 2006

The Blaidd Sick Project

Torchwood: Countrycide

(Silly music. Hanna-Barbera cartoon title sequence finishing with the episode name, 'Leeks, Geeks and Mass-Murdering Freaks'. Cut to the Riftery Machine driving along.)

UGLY DAPHNE: Freddy, are you sure we're going the right way?
CAPTAIN FREDDY: Don't ask me, Shagger is the one reading the map.
SHAGGER: Like, I can't find Signalmidcall on it.
VERMA DINKREY: What?
SHAGGER: Freddy said the person we're looking for was dropped off in Signalmidcall.
CAPTAIN FREDDY (stopping the van): Get out. NOW.
*canned laughter*

Ye Gods, I barely made it to the end this week.

I don't consider myself particularly squeamish or prudish. Visually and conceptually, there was nothing within Countrycide that was any more graphic or nasty than a slew of early and very good X-Files episodes. So how did this week's Torchwood spiral down into one of the ugliest, most repugnant pieces of television I can ever remember witnessing?

It all boils down once again to the damn characters. Anyone else who has found themselves on the lowest rungs of Torchwood opinion is unlikely to disagree overmuch that slasher-horror is very, very difficult to make work on anything but the basest level if the viewers cannot bring themselves to like or care about any of protaganists within it. At no time did most of the 'good guys' exhibit any commendable or even human behaviour beyond the blind unthinking instinct of the desperate, much less anything remotely heroic. At no time were the 'bad guys' given any sort of identifiable reason, motive or insight into their actions that made any sort of sense, just so the viewers would be left as thoroughly in the dark at the end of it as Gwen was. Even the excuse that murder frequently is meaningless cuts no ice when it was deliberately constructed to betray the basic premise of the show itself, and the purpose of anyone being there, as a total lie. There is no maturity in an 'adult' show that treats its audience like imbeciles. The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is effective horror. Our Town and Home are effective horror. Countrycide is merely witless.

To be scrupulously fair, it's not Torchwood's fault that the very nature of graphic horror has changed in the last number of years from the shock of sudden death and what becomes of you afterwards, to the drawn-out agonies that you can be put through while you are still alive. But without that essential spark of humanity, the show ceases to have anything to do with heroes and villains, and instead devolves into torturer and victim, which is FAR harder to watch - particularly when the episode sucker-punches you in the gut no less than three times when you think it might be over.

And remember, THIS IS A SHOW THAT MADE IT TO THE SCREEN ON THE BACK OF DOCTOR WHO.

SHAGGER: Like, I've got bad news about the van, guys.
UGLY DAPHNE: Don't tell us the Riftery Machine has run out of gas again?
SHAGGER (points to patch of oil on the ground): Like, the fuel is still here but the van's gone.
VERMA DINKREY: Slightly different.
CAPTAIN FREDDY: We'll just have to split up and look for clues.
SHAGGER: Oh no. Every week we split up, Scooby and I head off to the kitchen and the monster finds us first. Well this week I'm going with the other dog instead, it's not like she has any chance with you anyway.

UGLY DAPHNE: I wondered why they call you Shagger.
SHAGGER: Give me ten seconds against a tree and you'll find out.
*canned laughter*

Ah, the Riftery Inc. gang. How do I hate them? Let me count the ways. AGAIN.

Gwen is the anti-Scully. She's supposed to be the Arthur Dent character, the everyman in a strange world that the audience identifies with, but in 50 minutes, she deftly overturns every scrap of sympathy and compassion we ever had for her. We knew she was crap as a copper, but for the love of Graham Williams; how did such a meek, willing control-victim ever make it into the police force in the first place? If she's finding Torchwood so traumatic, why doesn't she just LEAVE? Nobody is putting pressure her to remain there (another reason Torchwood is the most laughable 'covert organization' to have ever existed); have Jack use one of his shitty amnesia drugs or something and WALK AWAY. By the time Dana Scully got to the point where her work experiences were changing her life, she had in quick succession lost her father and her sister, been abducted and afflicted with cancer, and was far too drawn in to be able to back out, even if she weren't to place herself in even greater danger by doing so. THAT is personal conflict. Gwen on the other hand has no personal stake in Torchwood, making the ending scene utterly insulting; she stil has a shot at her old career and her old boyfriend, although looking him in the face again might be difficult after ditching him for a sexual predator and whining about all the weirdo alien stuff after a case with nary a hide nor hair of an alien to be found. FAILURE.

Owen is a c**t. There is no other adequate word for this contemptible Eric Cartman oxygen-thief; he's the worst kind of asshole, one who smugly knows full well that he can pull any shit he wants and never has to face the consequences because his MAD DOCTOR SK1LLZ make him supposedly indispensible to the team (such as it is). It's not hard to imagine why he's finished up at Torchwood after being struck off the medical register and even UNIT doesn't want him. Every fuck-up this gash-faced clown ever makes, from copping an illicit feel to leaving the keys in the van, is followed by a look or tone of voice that says "Well? What are you going to do about it?" Never mind his virtual date-rape; if they can't be bothered to ditch an arch-traitor like Ianto, what chance has Owen's sense of decorum got of ever growing up?

UGLY DAPHNE: So if all this blood is still fresh, wouldn't it be a good idea to radio for backup or something?
(Others look at her quizzically)
UGLY DAPHNE: What?
*canned laughter*

Ianto is a cross between Kevin The Disgruntled Teenager and Orville The Fucking Duck. He is Torchwood's very own chicken-shit cartoon dog. An emotional train-wreck who is never going to bond again with another human being on the face of the planet unless he quits tomorrow and gets some intensive therapy. He is Arnold J Rimmer, but without the redeeming qualities of being funny, self-aware of his own inadequacies, or unfairly picked on. Picked on yes, but not unfairly. He starts the episode threatening to eat worms because nobody likes him AS FUCKING IF, he tries to make the others feel guilty for his own betrayal in Cyberwoman, when they all start panicking he actually has the nerve to have a go at Tosh for getting her shit together before he does, and then ten minutes later when the adrenaline kicks in he's bashing heads in exactly the manner he accused her of. He's weasely, he's in no way a team player, and against all grounds of common sense he's still breathing. He's been scarred for life from having to pick up litter. I 'ATE THAT FOOKIN' IANTO.

"Ianto is a cross between Kevin The Disgruntled Teenager and Orville The Fucking Duck. He is Torchwood's very own chicken-shit cartoon dog"

Tosh, surprise surprise, is a nonentity. Apart from being Ianto's emotional punching bag, she serves no other dramatic function other than to predictably trip up while being chased so they can wring out the tension even more. I can't remember a single thing Tosh actually said this episode apart from the word 'hepatitis'. What's Japanese for 'fire my agent'?

VERMA DINKREY: I've got a plan. We'll set up a complicated trap involving a piece of string, a wad of chewing gum, and a Cyber-Conversion Unit.
CAPTAIN FREDDY (bursting in with guns blazing): HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!
VERMA: Or, that works too.
SHAGGER: Zoinks. I guess he does have masculine urges after all.
*canned laughter*

Jack is the only one who, perversely, manages to exhibit any real human qualities once the chips are down and his ugly side comes out. I'm surprised that aspect of him was the one thing this episode's more appreciative viewers really had a problem with; if you're that disgusted and the power is in your hands, what are you going to realistically do? He may be resorting to torture, but his own invincibility makes him all too aware of his teammates' mortality and he's determined to do whatever it takes to save them. It's more motive than the rest of this ugly spectacle is ever going to willingly give us. But then, since he's in no danger anyway, his last minute rescue is not really any different to Mighty Mouse bursting in to save the day, so really what's the bloody point? Although if the villagers did somehow overpower him they might have found themselves with a never-ending supply of regenerating meat. Do you suppose if they cut off Jack's head and limbs, each piece would grow back into its own mini-Jack? You see how they never think these things through?

If the main characters are so far removed from empathy, then what is it about Torchwood that is resonating with, say, Adam, that isn't with me? It can't be to get some jollies from prolonged human suffering or to feel smugly superior to characters more fucked-up than yourself. Adam doesn't strike me as that sort of bloke; he has strong principles about what he likes and the courage to defend them against all adversity, and who just happens to possess different tastes than I do. Maybe it was the comfort-zone from so many familiar horror elements (ciches, some would say, but not being so well-versed in the horror genre, I won't comment), which is all well and good. But this is the first episode that actually made me slightly worried for that section of the target audience who are falling all over themselves to blindly praise it out of hand. NO series should ever do this.

CAPTAIN FREDDY: Now let's see who the villain really is! (pulls off mask)
ALL: *gasp* CHRIS CHIBNALL!
UGLY DAPHNE: Yes. He was jealous of RTD's clout with the BBC, so he smuggled himself in as co-producer and wrote the vilest, most derivative and sadistic episodes he could in order to scare viewers away!
VERMA: The real clue was us. We've been acting like such unheroic dorks for the last number of weeks, it had to be deliberate.
CHIBNALL: And I'd have gotten away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling bloggers. Little fanboy shits.
*canned laughter*

It's depressing how every episode of Torchwood that endeavours not to be ridiculously overcomplicated actually finishes up being so much the worse. Why did Chibnall feel the need to write this bilge beyond some kind of self-indulgant co-producer power trip? How can he keep a straight face while dredging up this bunch of athropological flotsam as a mirror to the audience? Has he ever been laid in his entire life? I mean, I'm in my late thirties now and I can't with any honestly claim to have ever had it (or even cared), but even I can see that the sociopathic sexual overtones running amok through his episodes in particular are fundamentally wrong. Is it some kind of supressed revenge fantasy? Is it the Tentacle Porn Principle, whereby the most eye-popping bodily humiliation is available to view on Japanese TV because without such vital visceral outlets to excise their personal demons, Japanese society, boxed-in and pigeonholed as it is like battery hens day in and out, would otherwise go completely stark staring mental? What the hell is it?

"If the villagers did somehow overpower Jack, they might have found themselves with a never-ending supply of regenerating meat"

The closest I've had to a rational explanation is from an Australian, who told me he liked Countrycide because it exhibited what he called a 'British world-weary cynicism'. I can see where he's coming from, but at the same time I'm not buying it. Take a show like Deep Space Nine, the insular opposite to Star Trek's pioneer spirit. Better yet, take Blake's 7; you had a crew that openly hated each other on occasion, a 'cause' that was utterly hopeless which most of them didn't want, character flaws right up to the eyeballs and a 'leader' that was also a hopeless idealist, yet you bonded with them because the alternative was worse, and because they had no choice in the matter and nowhere else to go or do. That's more my idea of world-weary cynicism. Torchwood on the other hand shares no sense of desperate circumstance, and aside from Jack and to a degree Ianto (who threw away his chance), gives us no defining background to the gang that they can't simply say 'screw this', put their toys away, and go home. For a supposedly high-stakes organization, nothing really seems to be at stake at all. They bitch, they moan, they complain, because bitching, moaning and complaining is what they appear to get off on. They're supposed to be doctors, technicians, trained marksmen; it's not like they aren't qualified for some other line of work. If there's any such cynicism present, it's coming from the production team and not the cast.

UGLY DAPHNE: Well that wraps it up for another mystery. Now hopefully we can get back to some plausible character development.
SHAGGER: What will you do once all this is over?
VERMA: I'll probably retire and open a crime mystery bookstore somewhere. I might even have spare time to complete my Xena and k.d. lang collections.
CHICKEN-SHIT DOG: Roh ruck.
(everyone laughs to camera as screen fades out)

Give us some actual SCIENCE FICTION next week. And cheeseburgers aren't funny.

The Humper Book Of Sexually Torchwooded Diseases has this to say about Countrycide: the comedy *pop* as the lights went out was provided by Brian Hodgson with a finger in his mouth.

Comments

Dave - once again you've hit the nail on several heads. You cannot expect an audience to tune in week in and out and enjoy the experience without them empathising with the characters even if they're glorious bastards. The problem with Torchwood is that they're intensely dislikable -- there's nothing for us to root for and unlike say 'Deliverance' were the main characters were generally hateful at least we could see the worst part of ourselves in them. This crowd are now so far removed from reality that you really can't care what happens to them. Even Gwen, who as you say would seem to be out eyes an ears has been shut off because of her attitude to obvious sh*t Owen. We hate her because she's giving up someone who does have our sympathies for someone who does not.

It's funny how Torchwood is essentially following Robin Hood's trajectory in reverse -- that had a dreadful first couple of episodes but Paul Cornell's ep saw a see change and now its really very good -- tonight's was talking about whether torture is justified to defend the kingdom, if the ends justify the means -- very deep for a family show -- and there's lots of undercurrents and deceptions -- Marion's essentially trying to destroy the fake-court from within. Torchwood on the other hand began well (I thought) and has simply degenerated not really sure of its premise or the kinds of stories it should be telling. Really, you do the humans are ugly too story late in the second season when your premise has been set up to make a change. That was far too early ...

Thank you for putting in the effort to say what really needs to be said, Mr. Sanders. There are many forms of disbelief I am willing to suspend for a story, but disbelief in quantifiable stupidity is not one of them.

On the Robin Hood theme, I think there's still a big problem: is it only me or is Guy far more sympathetic than Robin? Or if not sympathetic, then more attractive? I'm constantly routing for him over the inconsistant Hoodie. Still, an excellent episode tonight with oodles of tension, subtext and fantastic visuals.

And a great review Dave, I just pity your keyboard. Must have been thrashed, you typing that out.

Perhaps Torchwood's a series of essays on the on the truly anti-heroic.

I'm all for more glorious bastards. These humdrum bastards just aren't cutting it.

And I did think the intention that we would sympathise or even just plain understand why Gwen would have a fling with Zippy has gone horribly wrong somewhere.

Perhaps its because her spouse was a nice cameo on each show, a grounding for all this fantastical stuff, and now she's ignoring all that for this complete arse of a man instead it means we don't have her as someone we trust so much.

Now, if it was Jack, maybe you'd have somewhere to go with this...but not Owen. A man who's idea of foreplay is introducing you to a tree trunk.

"I'm all for more glorious bastards. These humdrum bastards just aren't cutting it."

Arf!

You can't watch tentacle porn on Japanese TV. Not without checking some VERY specific boxes on your cable subscription form. What you CAN see, if you're surfing terrestrial TV at 2 in the morning and get REALLY lucky, is HILARIOUSLY AWFUL ITALIAN GLAMOUR in which a fat man with a moustache sings to a woman with no clothes on a cardboard cutout of a boat.

The Dirty El Republican Phrasebook has this to say: "Peth-eth-eth-eth-eth Chriswaddle" means "This is still better than Torchwood."

Yeah I'm really loving Robin Hood too!

This episode was all right. I've lowered my expectations though. Nice photography.

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