...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Day 2132: TORCHWOOD: Cyberwoman


There is one word for this one: "Eww!"

It was especially cool when the dinosaur fought the cyberwoman. Mr Stripy and I have been playing that all day with Daddy Alex's action figures!

This one seems to have divided opinions quite sharply: those who think it was a terrific base under siege action piece and those who think it was a poorly scripted run-around that literally goes in a big circle and ends up back at the start.

For the record, I'm with the former: yes, it might be a bit rubbish when you analyse it, but watching it, it was very tense and exciting, and that works for me.

The episode hangs on Ianto and we learn why he's been keeping so quiet for the last few weeks. Partly it's because he's the bag man who just gets left to clean up the mess that the others leave behind, but mostly it's because he's been looking after his girlfriend in the cellar.

Why's she in the cellar? Well, unfortunately, it's because she's half way to becoming a Cyberman.

(We do hear that Ianto made her a life support unit out of a broken Cyber-conversion machine, but did he also fix up the Seven-of-Nine-esque Cyber bustiere and thong look, not to mention the Cyber kitten-heels? If so, he's one mixed up puppy!)

It seems like they could have focused more on Lisa's story: finding herself trapped between human and Cyberman and the disintegration of her mind. But maybe they thought that would be too much of a cliché. Instead the story is more based on Ianto, trying to do absolutely the right thing in totally the wrong way, his discovery that he has messed up big time, and his inability to cope with the outcome.

It is pretty obvious that Lisa's brain has been converted into a Cyberman even if the rest of her body hasn't and (at least as far as the writer is concerned) Jack is completely right: there is no way back. Anyone confused by Lisa's final transplantation of her brain into a human body is mistaken if they think she is trying to become human again – it follows entirely naturally from the earlier scene where she sees her partially upgraded form and finds it "disgusting". Her logic is to go back to the beginning and start again – to reboot, Alex puts it, cleverly. Obviously (and for dramatic reasons) this is why Franken-Lisa doesn't get blown away by the rest of Torchwood until she condemns herself with the phrase: "we can upgrade together!"

Gareth David-Lloyd as Ianto gets to do some marvellous acting. Okay, a lot of it is blubbing, but there is also the nice touch of jealous anger at the start as cybernetic specialist Dr Tanizaki (also a lovely, if short lived, performance) starts prodding girlfriend Lisa as though she's an object not a person.

Nice that in the end he couldn't bring himself to shoot her even though he knew he should do – very human that. But Ianto really should be very sacked after this. In fact, for a moment there, I did think he'd been given the black bag treatment and was supposed to clear his desk, but Gwen's question: "will he stay" suggests that the ball is very much in Ianto's court on that. That could have been a shock and a shake up – people would certainly not be expecting a second main cast member to go after the surprise ending to episode one.

One observation that I've found myself agreeing with is that – aside from trimming a little language and gore (though what kid wouldn't have gone "Eww" with delight at the sight of Dr Tanizaki with half a cyber dinner service inelegantly stuck in his head?) – this could have been a "Doctor Who" episode. The base under siege is a staple of "Doctor Who", of course, and this kind of emotional dilemma is also very new series. And using barbecue sauce to sic a pterosaur on a Cyberman is a very Doctorish thing to do, too. All we really needed was for Jack to say "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry" as he squirted Lisa with the ketchup.

Just to be a little critical for a moment, though, this seems to be one of "Torchwood's" problems, because as a series "Torchwood" hasn't really decided what it is for, yet.

With other ongoing genre series like "The X Files", "Buffy", "Deep Space Nine" or "Babylon 5", you do quite quickly get an idea what the through line, the main thrust of the series is going to be. Put simply it's Mulder looks for the truth about aliens and sometimes gets distracted by other weird stuff; Buffy fights Vampires, as metaphor for teen angst, and sometimes gets distracted by other weird stuff; Sisko deals with things coming through the Wormhole and sometimes gets distracted by Bajoran weird religious stuff; Commander Sinclair holds the ring while the aliens duke it out and sometimes gets distracted by Minbari weird religious stuff.

The opening of each of these series sets out the stall, as it were: "Pilot" and "Deep Throat" set up the aliens, abductions and conspiracy theme of "The X Files"; "Welcome to the Hellmouth" introduces Sunnydale and its Hellmouth, Vampires and Buffy's (pointy) relationship to them, and the season big bad The Master; "Emissary" shows us how the Deep Space Nine station is so clunky and broken down compared to the shiny USS Enterprise, establishes the political tensions between Federation and Cardassia and on Bajor, and finds the magical Wormhole that will change everything; "The Gathering" and "Midnight on the Firing Line" are both, in their different ways, about the imminence of war, and the tightrope that Commander Sinclair and his crew have to walk to keep everyone on the side of peace, especially when their own superiors seem to be at best disinterested.

And, of course, "Doctor Who" is about adventures in time and space, and both seasons of the new series begin with three adventures that come together to sell that: "Rose", "The End of the World" and "The Unquiet Dead" (present, future, past) or "The Christmas Invasion", "New Earth" and "Tooth and Claw" (likewise) both say "the Doctor stops the Earth being invaded and travels to meet fantastic aliens from the future and terrifying monsters in the past". (You could do a trailer based on that…)

"Rose" shook Rose Tyler's world to pieces; "Everything Changes" barely disturbed Gwen Cooper's existence, more of a knee-trembler actually. "Torchwood" needed a much bigger opening, one that left an open-ended threat unresolved to give us that central core to the series: some uber-alien controlling the rift and ready to invade, or Gwen's partner Rhys kidnapped and carried off so her joining Torchwood is in part a quest to get him back (and think how much that might add to any kind of relationship she establishes with Captain Jack). Yes, those are both clich̩s РI don't get paid Russell T Davies big bucks, do I Рbut it would give "Torchwood" the sort of core idea that I think is so far not apparent.

Yes certainly we have the ongoing plot strands: I still expect more from the Weevils; Jack's heart of darkness routine is probably going to open up to somewhere; and Gwen's relationship with Rhys has big red danger lights flashing over it. But these are the glue that holds plot arcs together; they are not the raison d'etre for the series as a whole.

There are unexplained ongoing plot strands set up in the other series I mentioned – Mulder's sister in "The X Files", Buffy's relationship with Angel, in "Buffy" – and some mysteries to ponder and unfold (even if in "Babylon 5's" case it is a bit of a red herring as the seemingly central Jeff Sinclair / Earth-Minbari sub-plot gets wrapped up at the start of the second season when the real main story starts to come forward).

But in each of those series you have that main handle on what you think the series is doing and likely to do.

I can't really say that about "Torchwood" yet.

"Torchwood" feels almost like it has skipped straight to mid-season – the point where you do some exploratory and experimental stories that branch away from your main through line, and where you can afford to shake up the viewers' expectations before you pull it all back together for the big finale.

In fact the series that it most reminds me of in this respect – and I'm aware that the series have been compared for other reasons – is "Angel".

In the same way as with "Torchwood" it was decided "let's have a more grown up spin off from our big hit series, Buffy, and stick popular character Angel in as a brooding tormented hero". "Angel's" opening stories all have that "didn't I miss something?" feel, mainly because all the big opening is actually in the previous two seasons of "Buffy". It took the makers of "Angel" a year to realise that they actually wanted to write stories about looking for redemption in all the wrong places and that a series with a brooding Vampire hero would be just the place to do that.

"Torchwood" isn't quite sure what "world" it is supposed to be in. Mulder's FBI is squarely in our real world, which just happens to have more unbelievable things in it than we realise; Buffy's world is a fantasy version of ours where magic really works and people really kind of know about the demons. "Doctor Who" inhabits a hyper-real reality: it's our world but with all the colours turned up to max. Torchwood is trying to do almost a noir version of that hyper-reality and that's not quite working. The "realism" of their investigative techniques sits badly with their batcave and pet pterosaur. Also, playing basketball always bad for a series – look what happened to "Crusade"!

"The X Files" achieves a kind of faux-documentary realism by the style of filming that they use, close to reportage. With their little location labels typing up in the corner, a grainy muted quality to their picture and lots of middle two-shots of Mulder and Scully and hand-held work, they are trying to convince you that there is a real documentary crew actually there following the agents around – it's to fool you into investing the series with extra realism.

Conversely, "Buffy" uses a very comic-book style: the darks are very dark, the lights are very bright and colourful; there's a lot of use of close ups and dynamic shots – Buffy practically has the whiz line drawn on her in some of the hero scenes – and steady-cam and even crane shots all to give you unexpected points of view, and obviously there are the big set piece moments, often in slow motion, that would be the big whole-page frames in a comic book. It is all to sell the Buffy "world" to you so that it is not out of place when a vampire or demon jumps out at you, nor when it gets handed its arse by a little blonde.

"Torchwood" appears to be using a much more naturalistic filming – that is one that takes off some of the rough edges and smoothes the picture and action to disguise the fact that you are watching a performance. Or, more kindly, it tries to try and make you feel that you are actually there, as opposed to a "realistic" form which tries to convince you that you are watching something recorded by people who were actually there. It's the traditional way of making television drama – particularly in this country – but it looks a little odd these days as we've become used to the more "realistic" style of "Spooks" or "Battlestar Galactica" for high-end drama. (I use "realistic" ironically in both cases, as both series employ faux-realistic techniques like fake camera distortion for "CCTV footage" or fake camera shake on entirely CGI shots of spacecraft.)

"Torchwood" uses some of these techniques too, along with the ramping and the snap-zooms and the helicopter shots, but in the midst of all the EastEnders style dinner table scenes it does seem a bit schizoid when it does so.

All too unfortunately, it reminds me of those years when the Doctor Who producer would turn to the script editor and say: "Let's have a Dalek story – what are we going to do with them?" You need to start with your stories first and then – should it turn out that you have maniacal Nazi-like invaders – decide whether it shouldn't be the Daleks after all. It just seems that someone has said "Let's have a series for Captain Jack and set it on Earth – now, what are we going to do with him?"

I don't mean this to be damning: I've enjoyed all four of the episodes so far and John Barrowman and Eve Myles are captivating, particularly when they are given screen time together (in many ways, despite how good the rest of the cast are, I'd rather watch a series that was about Jack and Gwen and lost the contradictory Torchwood back-story).

But I know that so far I am watching it primarily because it's from those Doctor Who people. I hope that it finds its own mojo soon.

1 comment:

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Agree with much of what you say, although I am a bit more of a sceptic both in terms of Torchwood generally and this episode specifically. Particularly agree that Torchwood is a series in search of an idea. I think the mistake was to assume that you could take the sort of eclectic approach that Doctor Who gets away with, when it only does because of the unique idea and character at the centre of the series.