...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, July 09, 2009



In part THREE of the War Games, we learn more about the aliens behind the abductions when their impressive spokesbeing turns up and… gasp… has a sinister connection to a secret in Our Hero's past…

Meanwhile, we WOULD be watching TV's "The Wire", a story about phone-tapping, criminal conspiracies, corrupt politicians and favours for gangsters… but when Mr Roger Stavro Moredick's gang are hacking mobile phones and organising hush money with Mr Balloon providing the payoff for Soldier Coulson, "the Wire" seems somewhat REDUNDANT.

Beyond belief, above the police, out of control… who do they think they are, TORCHWOOD???
"Day Three" is halfway through this mini-series and appropriately it is exactly halfway through the episode that the "456's" ambassador beams down into his specially prepared tank.

By default this makes for a "game of two halves" episode, and the second half is much the more powerful. Before then we get a certain amount of setting up, as Torchwood pull themselves back together re-establishing their operations, drawing Lois further into their plans and rescuing Clem McDonald from police custody. It's like "Mission: Impossible" with a side order of "Hustle" and just a dash of "What Not to Wear".

In fairness, Mr Frobisher – and here it emerges that he is the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office – is also making preparations, and – to throw in a dollop of "Spooks" to the mix – we see his agents close in on Captain Jack's daughter by tracing the phone she's using and – more "Spooks – get some evil CCTV use to spot her. That's actually quite clever, because she borrows someone else's phone to make the call, knowing it will be traced, which is classic tradecraft, but they are smarter still which gets her caught.

Notice how Frobisher sends his hard-faced Agent Johnson to do his dirty work while later in the episode Jack goes in person when he seeks to make a contrasting implied threat to Frobisher's family. This contrast is developed further and Frobisher says it explicitly when in one of the episode's finest moments, he calls Jack's bluff: "You're a better man than I am."

It's a towering, yet impressively delicate performance by Peter Capaldi – a long, long way from his grotesque Malcolm Tucker of "The Thick of It"/"In the Loop" – as Frobisher is clearly doing things he knows to be terrible, and yet it's because he's caught by duty and fear and shame, rather than because he's a cackling villain. This complex web of motivations is the real difference between grown up drama and the stuff that Torchwood has been doing for the last two seasons.

In marked contrast, though, the character of Lois Habiba seems actively to be becoming less interesting as the series goes on. Lois here becomes literally Torchwood's eyes on "Floor 13" (honestly, do evil Government conspiracies™ do this sort of thing deliberately?). But I'm afraid she remains a very one-dimensional character, and they seem to be closing off opportunities for her to reveal some secret background to explain her unexpectedly useful behaviour on "Day Two". It's a great shame, after going to such trouble on "Day One" to flesh out Torchwood's central cast, to apparently be introducing a new cardboard cut-out for the team.

On the other hand, Gwen's ruthlessness in recruiting Lois adds a new dimension to former PC Cooper.

Eve Myles, it has to be said, suddenly seems to have come up to the mark in the acting stakes, with none of her usual unfortunate hooting or tweeness. Here she manages to convince us that this is a Gwen Cooper who has evolved, become a superhero in working hours while still staying true to the very human Gwen who married Rhys, who first joined Torchwood in "Everything Changes".

You can measure it by the two different mini-missions that Gwen performs in the first half of this episode. Her hardness in pressing Lois into service contrasts with the way she uses her (genuine) humanity to connect to PC Andy so that she can get Clem out of lockup and her (again unfeigned) concern is what persuades him to come with her.

Paul Copley as Clem, abduction survivor – we keep referring to him as "Egg's Dad" thanks to a memorable guest star turn in "This Life", but he was also remarkable in the Big Finish audio adventure "Spare Parts" – here does that difficult trick of being sympathetic and deeply creepy, with his twitches, talking to himself and above all smelling of everything. And there's the massively Russell Davies moment of him suddenly accusingly snapping out at Ianto calling him "the queer". It might be, perhaps, a self-rebuke for the "you're so gay" line given to Rose in "Aliens of London", similarly putting a shockingly un-PC line into a sympathetic character's mouth, because here he has Ianto angrily defend himself from the prejudice.

It also adds an edge of doubt when he turns his accusations on Jack at the end. Making it more powerful (even though it has to be said it's pretty obvious by now) when Jack admits that the accusation is true.

This, to return to the contrasts being drawn between Jack and Frobisher, is another difference: Frobisher's instinct is to cover up; Jack's is to confess.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first half hour is, perhaps necessarily after the level to which the tension was raised over the last two days, a pause to relax, gather strength and see Torchwood getting back on the front foot and doing what they do, doing it successfully.

And then, at the halfway point, all the children stop and point to the sky. The arrival is drawn out as long as possible, going twice around the world in news reports – hooray for Lachelle Carl again – and the pillar of fire descending in almost slow motion, rewinding all of that tension, until at last:

"We. Are. Here".

The 456 ambassador is impressively realised: horrifying and unsettling – sold brilliantly by (again) Capaldi's visceral reactions to it – capturing that essential Quatermass "unearthly" quality.

And never mind the Children of Earth, these are, once more, very much the Children of Quatermass: the thrashing, writhing, thing-living-in-tank alien coming directly from "Quatermass II"; while the alien ambassador, communicating from behind a glass window by means of a machine, is out of "The Ambassador's of Death", itself an offspring of "The Quatermass Experiment".

Concealed in its toxic mist, half-seen claw-like appendages flailing… hang on, you don't think it's a Macra, do you?

Its drawn out, I-don't-really-understand-English method of speaking served its alienness and drew up the tension as though it somehow freakishly learned to speak by watching the announcements of the voting results on reality TV shows. "I'm a 456 ambassador, get me out of here!"

Those huge pauses, loaded with Frank'n'furter antici… … … …pation, also allowed us to jump in with what we expected it to say. And I have to admit, I kept getting it wrong.

Mr Frobisher would make some dubious, slimy suggestion and I expected the 456 to go all Vorlon on us with an emphatic: "No!" And instead, it proved to be as dodgy as a duck house on expenses, each time going along with the designs of Perfidious Albion.

There's also the brilliant sucker-punch of first relaxing your expectations when the 456 agree to the request that they no longer use the children for communications, only for them to then demand children as a gift.

One tiny, tiny change I'd have made would have been in the demand for ten percent. I'd have delivered it slightly differently, for another sucker-punch, and also tied it to Captain Jack's confession that they gave the 456 twelve children in 1965.

Frobisher: "How many?"

456 voice: "Twelve… twelve… twelve… percent."

(Mind you, Harriet Jones might say that that's cheap, when the Sycorax demanded half the planet's population as slaves or a third would die.)

The second half of "Day Three" is a tour-de-force, gripping you with a fear of something genuinely uncanny, the uncertainty that comes from having no idea at all what the capabilities or limitations of the 456 actually are, and the certain knowledge that no one, not human, not alien, not Captain Jack himself, no one can be trusted.

This is Earth's First Contact. And it's going very badly wrong.

Next Time…The Truth is Out There… or, more specifically, the Truth is back in 1965. Time for Captain Jack to come clean. Day Four.


1 comment:

Lon Won said...

Yes, spot on about the complexity of the Frobisher character highlighting why the cartoonishness of the previous series was ultimately unsatisfying.

When it first started I really wanted to like Torchwood. But it didn't work for me, and I struggled to work out why. Unsympathetic characters? Too much action and not enough thought? The momentum problems of a static base (a la DS9)? An indestructible hero?

But yes, perhaps it just came down to a lack of subtlety in the characters. Remember how Bilis Manger stood out?