...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Day 2174: TORCHWOOD: Out of Time


The BEST think on the telly at the moment! Yes, I am watching the new DOCTOR WHO TRAILER! Meanwhile, Daddy is still banging on about Torchwood:

Life after death again, this week: three people who ought to be long since dead, believed lost at sea in their aircraft, discover a new life and a new world in Torchwood's Cardiff.

Like Goldilocks in reverse, our three innocent bears arrive in the 21st Century: one of them finds it too much, one of them finds it not enough and one of them finds it just right. But in each case, Goldilocks gobbles them up.

The "people from the past" storyline is as old as the hills – literally if you think of tales of men lost to time in the land of fairy under the hill – but it is easy to do it badly. It is, for example, by far the most tedious part of Star Trek's "The Neutral Zone" (a show only saved at the death by five minutes of Marc Alaimo and a brilliant sodding great Warbird). Fifty minutes of culture-shock is just not that entertaining, especially when your audience is sat there thinking "well we can cope with the Star Trek/X Files/Torchwood universe, get with the programme, people!"

"Out of Time" on the other hand does rather well. A moving and bittersweet sentimental piece, that takes the three strangers in time – adventurous pilot Diane Holmes, businessman John Ellis and lost daughter Emma Cowell – and uses them to reflect new light on three of the regular cast.

Before that, I do just want to mention the lovely scene for Ianto where he takes them around the local (generic, unnamed) supermarket (okay, it's ASDA) to introduce them to the wonderful world of the consumer society. Gareth David-Lloyd plays it all with a wonderful, long-suffering "I'm really not coping with this" coping with it expression, particularly the moment that bananas win out over his geeky explanation of how the automatic sliding doors work. Don't you just want to give him a cuddle?

We are well used to Gwen's big heart by now, but it was interesting to see her controlling maternal instincts come on so strong, trying to give Emma the "birds and the bees" talk updated for the new millennium. In a nice twist, Emma's anachronistic questions – Rhys must be Gwen's best sex because he's her special one – expose some of Gwen's own inner doubts. Matters are made worse when Rhys discovers that Gwen has deceived him about Emma's origins, and he starts asking her the difficult questions that she has been avoiding all season.

That serial shagger Owen seduces Diane hardly comes as a surprise, but then the tables are turned on him when he realises that in fact he has fallen in love and she is the one who won't be tied down. On top of the growing alienation between Owen and Gwen, this looks like it might be a straw breaking the camel's back moment for the illicit affair between them. The feeling that Owen's heart is broken and he can't tell anyone does have a tragic irony to it.

Most tragic, though, is Jack and John's story, as Jack is harrowed to see the way that upright fifties patrician John comes apart on learning that his family is dead, his son senile and his place in the world gone. That they both end up in a garage breathing carbon monoxide fumes only underlines that John's story is really Jack's story: there is a price to falling through time, and it can be far more than Rose had to pay when she lost twelve months in one trip with the Doctor to the future and past.

These emotional stories are powerful and they resonate, because this story works best on the level of metaphor. Almost like those fairy stories of people under the hill, the tree travellers from the past are archetypes for the three Torchwood team members. Gwen, Owen and Jack meet themselves and learn from it.

On the other hand, as a first line of defence against aliens coming through the Rift, Torchwood are incredibly rubbish this week.

They instantly accept that the plane and people from 1953 are exactly who and what they claim to be. It's not like we haven't had phoney aliens try and invade through this rift before… apart from the very first time we encountered it in Doctor Who's "The Unquiet Dead".

It exposes again the almost impossibly amateur way that Torchwood Cardiff carries on. If aliens invade they can hardly contain them, there are only five of them and Countrycide showed up the inadequacies of their combat training. They play around with the quirky gizmo effects of the alien odds and ends they find but they do not appear to be making any systematic search for artefacts, nor have anyone qualified to reverse-engineer anything more advanced than a stick. And, what they needed this week, they have no people trained in receiving displaced persons, in debriefing or counselling.

Yvonne Hartman would have been just brilliant at this, a perfect call upon her people skills:

"Well done you, oh very well done. You've come through a rift in time and space. Bravo! Now, are any of you any use to us or am I just going to have you shot?"

But rather than call in any professionals, Jack and crew just take it upon themselves to drop these folk into modern life, bringing them home to mother them, have sex with them or allow them to gas themselves to death as merrily as you please.

The series has been set up to have a group of disparate, quirky characters in order to be interesting dramatically. Unfortunately this just keeps undermining the reality because clearly none of them are any good at their jobs.

Also, Tosh gets nothing to do again.

None of these thing matter in the course of the episode though, because the big stories are enough to carry you along emotionally. "Out of Time" rises above these flaws that seem built into the series. As with all proper science fiction, the story isn't about the future or the past but about here and now, about how the lives of people today are difficult and complicated and tragic and sometimes we can only cope by running, whether that's running away or running to something new is the question.

It is also a quiet intake of breath, charging the emotional pressure points of the series, anticipating the explosion. It looks like those internal tensions are about to be released: can Torchwood survive?

And a Very Merry 20th Day of Advent to All of You at Home!

No comments: