...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Day 2614 (yes, again): TOYCHWUD: Dead Man Walking

Wednesday, once again…

Even with all the excitement of meeting Mr Ed in the Houses of Parliament, I had not forgotten Torchwood was on, and I gave Daddy Alex careful instructions in how to work the DVD recorder to make sure we could watch it.

This episode forms part two of a sort of mid-season trilogy that you might call the "Miss Martha Trilogy"… or maybe the "Owen of the Dead" Trilogy.

Anyway, here's what Daddy Richard thought…

This was Torchwood's Buffy-est opening so far (yes, even more than the "Spike comes to town" teaser for "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang").

Cap'n Jack uses his contacts in the demon, er, alien world – a sinister tarot-reading girl – to track down a spare Resurrection Glove, retrieve it from a lair of Vampires, er, Weevils – it's even a desecrated church – and use it bring Owen back from beyond the grave.

This is a collision of continuities, drawing on the things that we remember from season one (the Resurrection Glove appeared in "Everything Changes" and returned along with its darker consequences in "They Keep Killing Suzie") and things that only look like things we should remember them (most notably that little girl – and, incidentally, 'a little girl' was writer Matt Jones' original idea for the Beast at the bottom of "The Satan Pit" in Doctor Who).

There's also some changes to the continuity, rather quickly skated over. Last year Jack just couldn't use the Glove – that's actually fair enough because it's established that it works by draining the life of the user into the resurrectee; except Jack is proof against death, so it can't drain him. Only this year he can use it – which, you would think, would allow him to genuinely raise the dead since he can't die and so they just get a full dose of life from him. Only that isn't how it works here; there is no drain on Jack, and Owen is still magically alive. More of this in a minute.

Because the other thing that is changed is the idea that there is something out there in the darkness, waiting. Last year, it seemed pretty implicit that this was the rising of Abaddon (ye big CG beastie for the first season, er, 'climax' doesn't seem quite right). This year, we retcon that to be "Death", looking for a way in.

Yes "Death", or at least a creature that takes the form of a sub-Harryhausen CG skeletal being surrounded by black clouds, and is somehow made manifest out of Owen.

The "Death" creature itself has an MO startlingly familiar to anyone who has seen the fourth Doctor adventure "Image of the Fendahl" by Chris Boucher. That story involves a skull that effects a mutation in a human in order to resurrect the long-thought-dead Fendahl, a being that the Doctor describes as "death". The Fendahl consists of the core – the unfortunate victim, Thea Ransome – and twelve giant slug-like Fendahleen, and it must kill twelve times to make itself complete.

Is any of this sounding familiar?

Could you squint and say that Torchwood's "Death" and the Fendahl are one and the same? Tricky, since the Fendahl skull gets removed at the end of "Image of the Fendahl" (setting: mid-seventies) so although it could claim responsibility for the historical incidence of the creature coming to Earth through the girl Faith, it's no longer around to be affecting Owen. And the Doctor said he was going to chuck it into a Supernova and not into that all-purpose repository of the New Series, the Void – which seems to be where it's coming from here.

Quite apart from the large infusion of Fendahl, then, Matt also draws heavily on the ideas and themes of his own "Impossible Planet". The little girl, I've already mentioned, but there's also the ancient language so old it doesn't translate (even if the actual words are allegedly nicked from Thomas Covenant), a nasty case of the "oooh, I'm possessed, me – look at me eyes!", and the Weevils going all Ood on us and worshipping him (actually, weren't they doing that anyway after last year's "Combat", and the implication that Owen is their genetic ancestor, literally the daddy of all Weevils?).

And, of course, the ending is the same as "End of Days": beastie that drains all life, and only one man can stop them because he can't be drained – fortunately Torchwood have him on staff. And this means that "Death" has the same problem as Abaddon: he seems a bit pathetic.

Seriously, "Death" ought to mean something a whole lot more than this cloudy vampiric wraith. The real thing to do would be to stretch it out over two episodes. Have the creature be picky about its victims and stalk them slowly so that the horror and tension mount rather than the slightly tacky "oh no it's in the Children's Ward! " attempt to make it seem really terribly bad.

And, it really needed to kill someone who mattered to the audience. I'm not saying it should have been one of the regulars (though that would have made a great cliff-hanger especially after "killing" Owen last week) but at least someone we'd met over the course of the episode. As it is, it's just another excuse to wheel out the props department's collection of gory plastic skeletons.

The obvious candidate for "Death-ing" is Miss Martha Jones herself, and they seem to half realise that by sticking her in the latex "ageing" makeup. But they can't actually kill her (and I'm jolly glad they didn't) so it makes an unengaging subplot that doesn't really add anything or go anywhere. There's no particularly good reason why she gets "unaged" either, other than it's the end of the story and she's back next week and in Doctor Who later this year.

So in spite of taking over Owen's job and being vaguely central to his plot, she actually has remarkably little to do.

The rest of the regulars are good, though, particularly in the scene where they think they have only a minute to say goodbye. Jack does exceptionally well this episode, not just in his Moody Vampire Hero opening montage, but also his chat in the prison cell and the Weevil chase. And there's also a good turn by the child actor playing the kid left behind in the hospital evacuation.

But obviously the episode hangs on Burn Gorman as undead Owen, and he rises to it pretty well. It's a shame that he ought to have been left dead (again) at the end of it. On the technical side, without the "Death" creature supporting him to live though him, and without a life support from Jack via the Glove, and without magical Vortex energy keeping him alive forever, and without any proper biological digestion going on, just what the hell is sustaining him? But, more importantly, surely the aesthetic of the piece is that Owen alive is a doorway for "Death" to come through – his life is paid for by the beast being free; in order to defeat "Death" you have to close the door and that cuts off whatever is keeping Owen alive too.

His last scene, wrestling "Death", doesn't mean anything if he's still just there afterwards. Even Jack had to spend a month dead after slaying Abaddon! It may be a cliché for Owen to have to give his life to stop Death but otherwise it is all hollow.

And hollow is how this episode feels. Not actually bad, better than a lot of the season one stinkers, but not on a par with others this year. It's the Chinese meal of season two: satisfying while you're watching it but half an hour later you wonder why you're still hungry.

Unless, of course, it's all going to lead up to something later in the season. There's no indication of that, yet, but I'd be willing to reappraise it later if there is more to this than has yet appeared.

Next time… Owen, he's still dead. Not exactly dead and loving it, but finding a way through: "A Day in the Death"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I too am a Torchwood fan - such is my excitement on a Wednesday night I often cheat and watch next weeks episode on BBC3 at 10pm. Excellent show. See we do have something in common after all!