...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, November 17, 2006

Day 2139: TORCHWOOD: Small Worlds


More good stuff for watching from under the duvet. No gore or swearing this week but much more TERROR! Mr Stripy was in need of a good cuddle, I can tell you.

I can appreciate why the makers of "Torchwood" would want to get away from the "Doctor Who" model of "mysterious time-traveller" + "young down to earth human woman". Apart from the obvious desire to give a different dramatic balance to help make "Torchwood" its own show, it is also hell on the actors when there are only two leads and they have to carry every episode.

But this week shows that "Torchwood" really works if you play it exactly that way: Captain Jack has his secrets, which we gradually unfold (ooh, 1909, that's a lot earlier than we were expecting to see him); Gwen has her home and life and we take the journey with her away from them and towards Jack's world. Gwen has the joy and discovery of the believer; Jack has the cynicism and darkness of the man who knows. Together they provide a central axis around which we can explore this week's mystery with them and we can observe the mystery of them.

Owen, Toshiko and Ianto are their support, and trying to make the supporting characters co-equal seems to make the whole become unbalanced.

It's ironic, given how much people were complaining that the other characters were merely ciphers, but perhaps it would have been better to build a solid central relationship first. On that basis we should have up-fronted much more Jack and Gwen episodes, and then later in the series gone to explore the other characters – for example "Cyberwoman" told us too much about Ianto too soon: it could have been better if we built up to it, becoming used to seeing Ianto potter in, do a bit and then disappear, and then discovering he had been keeping a Cyberman in the cellar for the last eight or nine weeks when we though he was a harmless part of the background.

What I'm saying is we should have had a lot more like this!

Expectations were high for an episode from the creator of Sapphire and Steel, and we were not disappointed. We learn more about Jack here than we have yet in the series, and what we see only raises more questions. Was he in 1909 as part of his life as a Time Agent (obviously not the "missing two years") – a possible clue in the Torchwood website suggests that this was one of his scams. Or has he spent a lot longer on Earth than we realised – like the BBC Books eighth Doctor, Alex suggests, spending his century in England awaiting his TARDIS recovery.

The episodes of the eighth Doctor's "trapped on Earth" arc also fixated on the wars of the twentieth century: the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War and (sort of) UNIT's war with the aliens in the 70's/80's (delete as preference takes you).

Certainly, "Small Worlds" makes you reassess Jack's Second World War service too: records referred to in "Everything Changes" indicating a Captain Jack Harkness who disappeared appeared to be alluding to his time in "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances" during the Blitz. But was that the same period as for his relationship with his war-time love, Estelle Cole, or was he there twice?

We also see an opening up of Jack's emotional story: evidenced first by his love for Estelle, and also his compassion – first in leaving rather than letting her age as he clearly hasn't, but then in returning in the role of his own son to see her right. And it was good to see Gwen spotting the obvious exactly as quickly as the audience. Beautiful and subtle (and making last week's "have you ever loved anyone that much" seem oh so crass.)

And this was mirrored at the conclusion by his pain and anger at what he has to do, and then his pain and anger as his team refuse to see that he very much had to do it. These are very much from the human side of Jack.

Alex and I did ask each other if we would have found the ending more shocking if it hadn't been the one from P J Hammond. Here Jack is expected to play the role of Steel and make the sacrifice that will save the world – in fact it would be easy to imagine these Faeries in "Sapphire and Steel", with their elemental power and non-linear lives, part of a plot by Time to destroy the world.

Kudos goes to John Barrowman for playing Jack as sufficiently inhuman to be able to play in Steel's league and still sufficiently human to be unable to bear the price of doing so.

It is an episode full of sly references: Jasmine's face appearing in the Conan Doyle fairy photo is reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel Adventure 4, of course. And the Chosen One in every generation is surely the Vampire Slayer. Then there is Jack's casual suggestion that the faeries are "part Mara" (it's been suggested that Jack linking it to the word "nightmare" means this is actually a reference of the Scandinavian female wraith as this is the correct folkloric source, but one could hardly blame a Doctor Who fan from jumping to spot the "Kinda" / "Snakedance" connection, even though that Mara is in fact based on a completely different Buddhist demon). And the Faery woods – with their stone circle – are named as Roundstone Woods, reminding me of Ringstone Round in Nigel Kneal's Quatermass Conclusion, another site where young people were "taken" by an unearthly force that is not nearly so benign as first believed.

The Faeries themselves are very nicely realised: the daddy-long-legs whickering of their wings throughout the early scenes where they "appear" but always slip out of sight when we (the adults) are looking is particularly effective and unsettling. It does make them feel like that sensation that one sometimes gets when alone in the house of something moving in the corner of the eye that vanishes when you turn to look.

In as much as they were only "visible to children" it might have been better for us adults never to see them, but when we did at least they were some of the better realised CG creatures. They certainly weren't "fair" (hence I'm using "faery" rather than "fairy" – except for their duplicitous Tinkerbelle appearance for photographs) but excellently creepy and otherworldly.

And their killing of Estelle really emphasised how dangerous and malicious and arbitrary they were. The death was shocking as much for its unexpected timing as that it happened at all: it's just not done in drama to introduce a major seeming character and kill them at random half way through – death comes early to establish the threat and at the end to be tragic, but this was unexpected. The time seemed out of joint!

The "prank" devastation in Gwen's home, on the other hand, seemed jarring because it came out of nowhere. Why did they suddenly pick on her? It didn't seem that she had especially threatened them or their Chosen One. And, I'm sorry to say, the child playing Jasmine was just not terribly engaging. Yes, it's harsh to judge the acting talent of a young person. On the other hand, the actor playing her mother was awesome in the rawness of the emotion when she lost first her partner and then her daughter.

As someone on the Outpost Gallifrey boards put it: well she's going to be spending the rest of her life on leather couches!

This, finally, was what we really expected adult drama to mean: from subtle and difficult love stories that intertwine with time to the awfulness of losing a child. The paedophile was caught, and vengeance was extracted, and it didn't make the outcome any better: the child was still lost.

This isn't yet what "Torchwood" should be about, but it is certainly what drama should do.

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