...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, December 04, 2006

Day 2146: TORCHWOOD: Countrycide


My Daddies would not let me watch this one, not even from under the duvet. Not because it was gory but because it was rubbish. So, I have showed Mr Stripy "Goldfinger" instead and we have had a very good time.

Here is what Daddy was watching.

I think I am detecting a bit of a pattern to the Torchwood episodes: there are those that are written by series co-producer Chris Chibnall and there are the good ones.

To be fair though, it might just be me, because to my complete bewilderment, this episode has received a great deal of praise in the online fora. I wish that people would explain why. Mostly it seems to be a visceral response which is unenlightening. Given the conclusion, mind you, that is rather apposite.

Personally, I felt "Countrycide" was a humdrum exercise in cliché. Our party of "young, sexy types" gets lost and isolated in the darkest county and are preyed upon by the horrifying locals. Yes, it's "The Welsh Hills Have Eyes". All the motifs of the genre are present: dangerous sex (Owen and Gwen), parties get separated, locked in the cellar, "don't open the fridge!", they find a lone survivor only for him to be dragged off. Oh, and it's the local funny cannibals.

Far more interesting would have been the suggestion to set the cannibals story in an ordinary suburban street, with disappearing paperboys and unlucky commuters looking for a free parking space. A bit more Hammer House of Horror than Hollywood pulp. The juxtaposition of the horror genre clichés with the ordinary streets of Cardiff might have generated new and interesting sparks. Rather than stealing the whole SUV, for example, why not just steal the wheels: it's almost mundane until you have to try and get them back.

The other variant that occurred to me was that of a community of militant Darwinists: they are quite sane and rational and are eating people because they believe there is an environment niche for a human-predator and they think that this will necessarily make them evolve into homo superior.

But we just get a repackaged retread of some very seventies very American horror flicks.

The "oh it isn't aliens" twist is practically signposted from Cardiff, and the ending with its supposedly "horrifying" insight into the darkest places of the human soul, was an inane cop-out from someone who's research appears to have been a re-read of "Silence of the Lambs". It's not helped by Owen Teale's "I'm MAAAAAD I am" acting as head people-eater Ewen Sherman, either.

It is almost embarrassing to watch the cast and crew on the behind the scenes series "Torchwood Declassified" going on about this cheap schlocker as though it is a psycho-drama on the level of a new Macbeth. (There's certainly nothing here to match Shakespeare's powerful insight into how a decent man can go so completely off the rails!)

The "because I like it" rationale rings hollow because it is the excuse of the lone madman. He is a base creature reduced to pure satisfaction of the id. Of course he eats people.

But here we see an entire community: although there are only three speaking parts there are at least six or seven sitting down to wait for their Torchwood hotpot and they can't all be frothing degenerates like Pa Sherman. His nephew certainly seems able to hold down a day job with the local constabulary.

There is no sense of why – or even how – this community works. Frankly, Tubbs and Edward in "The League of Gentlemen" are more credible: at least there is some internal logic to the way their world works. There is no sense of that here.

Are the villagers in some strange thrall to mad dad? Does he control them with violence? Is he the father-provider figure: they eat the meat and don't ask questions about how he comes by it? Conversely do they keep him as some kind of hunting animal to catch and kill the human meat they all are addicted to? Why is their "harvest" only every ten years? And even if it is, why wasn't it investigated in 1996 – that was hardly the dark ages?

(I find myself imagining the 1976 harvest being investigated by Sam Tyler and DCI Gene Hunt in an ungodly crossover with "Life on Mars" – perhaps the madness is catching!)

Explanation is maddeningly ignored. Instead we spend most of the episode playing Scooby-Doo with "real" corpses, never seeing any of the villagers as they scurry around just out of camera-shot. Once we have met them, the focus is almost all on Pa Sherman.

Ma Sherman Helen, for reasons beyond understanding, pretends to be a nurse being forced into taking Ianto and Toshiko to him, but this goes nowhere. She was bluffing them – goodness knows why; possibly just to fill a minute of screen time – and then she is just an eye-rolling lip-smacking "mad wife" adjunct to Pa.

Sherman's nephew, as I mentioned, is a policeman. In uniform. With a police car. So it isn't that these villagers are isolated and do not interact with the outside community. Which means it is difficult to see how the nephew can rationalise the idea that eating people isn't wrong, in spite of his exposure to outside culture where it is very much wrong. How does he avoid giving himself away to his colleagues by being a bit on the bonkers side? You would think they would notice. Or at least you would hope they would.

Or if he's a sociopath then it's a jolly handy coincidence, because there's no evidence that his family would be able to pass themselves off in everyday Welsh society, what with the drooling and giggling.

In fact, his ability to pass as a superficially entirely sane police officer seems only to exist because otherwise there wouldn't be a twist.

And just how stupid are the Torchwood agents? They leave the keys in their Torchwood-mobile (and isn't this the only time that Ianto doesn’t stay behind to guard the base?), they split up to search the abandoned village, Ianto and Tosh completely fail to watch each other's backs as they search, Jack Owen and Gwen (who in fairness has been shot by this point) overlook the possibility of there being more than one way into the pub, Owen and Gwen rather than use the police car to call for help allow the policeman to lead them into another trap…

Frankly they're making the sort of elementary mistakes that teenagers who've seen "Scream" know to avoid. There's only so much of this you can do before we lose our belief in our heroes.

Worse than that, what does it say about Captain Jack as leader? His strategy, such as it is, appears to be let's get in the way of as much trouble as we can and not take any measures to protect ourselves from it. Unsurprisingly this results in his team getting split up and picked off one by one.

Of course it's possible that they are not supposed to be a team of crack agents but are in fact a group of people Jack fancies…

Speaking of the sexual dynamic, here we have clearly one of the series big turning points: after all that death (more pop psychology alert) Gwen turns to Owen for sex. Owen? Well in fairness, the love-hate tension between them has been building over the series, and last week's episode showed Gwen dramatically that love with Jack would be no faery-tale. Gwen is excited by the danger and the unknown – it's why she joined Torchwood, of course – so in fact an affair with Owen makes sense. And no doubt future weeks will see their affair flagging up the darker side of the series main theme: the need to feel alive.

In fact – looking for the good in this – the series' internal continuity is played well: Toshiko is charmingly crushed several times: rebuffed by Owen and then she has to hear that Gwen has snogged him. Similarly, Ianto continues to brood and when needled by Gwen's do-goodery throws the recent death of his girlfriend Lisa (the eponymous "Cyberwoman") in her face. There isn't much of Jack, though he gets to show some more dark side with a very unpleasant familiarity with torture. (The slo-mo kneecapping massacre at the end is best glossed over though, and I hope that the director is properly embarrassed.)

For me this was a low point in Torchwood. I wouldn't choose to watch a slasher horror film because I don't get much fun from just jumping in fright, which I do all to easily (but actually not watching this: the "shocks" were just too telegraphed). And I wouldn't have watched this if it wasn't supposed to be a Doctor Who spin-off.


And a Merry 4th Day of Advent to Everyone at Home!

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