Friday, 29 July 2011

Torchwood Series 4 Episode 3 - "Dead of Night"

Episode three of Torchwood is much like episodes one and two.  So far it seems that RTD and co have substituted substance for style – the unfortunate thing being that this new series, whilst ‘flashy’, is lacking in many other aspects.  That isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable – it sort of is.  It’s turned into an insane combination of 24, with touches of Dragnet and countless other cop serials, with only the vaguest hints of the sci-fi which we expect from Torchwood.   Although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Episode three again starts with the ‘haunting’ melancholy theme – the long-lost cousin of the show’s original theme tune, which many bloggers the world over are apparently missing so much.  As numbers rise exponentially across the screen, we run into the ‘previously’, in which we are reminded that several of the main characters should, by rights, be dead;  that Jack thinks the odd thing is that it all happened “at the same time” (which is dubious – I’d think the whole situation was bloody strange, but that’s the sceptic in me!); and then it ends with Gwen’s final line of dialogue from the week before, which had me shaking my head in disdain – “Welcome to Torchwood”.

This instalment of the show begins with Oswald Danes, suddenly the voice of reason in this upside-down world of immortality.  When asked why people accept him as an expert, he plays down the situation with modesty, before pointing out that he knows the answers, but the politicians don’t.  This is the first of several gaping plot holes which we’d assume would be filled in, and sadly isn’t – what is most terrifying is that the child rapist and murderer has suddenly been forgiven by almost the entire United States, with those voices of disgust in the minority, simply because he forced a few crocodile tears in the last episode.  In fact, I almost threw my coffee at the TV when, in the final moments, a chunky housewife rocked up to Jack, asking in awe if he was able to touch Danes.

The following second scene is frightfully Mission Impossible, with an over-the-top car chase being cut short by a track of nails, loud and brash electronic music and swipe screens that would feel at home in a George Lucas movie.

The most unnerving scenes in this episode are the few occasions we see The Soulless marching through the streets of Washington DC.  This cult believes that mankind has lost its soul through becoming immortal.  The haunting scene where they pace down a street, masked and carrying candles, was genuinely jarring, once again proving that it is through subtlety that Torchwood’s strengths lie.  (Incidentally – where are they all getting those identical masks from?!  Who has had time to mass produce them?  - Another plot hole left vacant...)

Subtlety is also the on hand for the comedic scenes, in particular the scene reminiscent of Children of Earth in which Gwen returns from a shopping spree, and receives a lesson in correct American language.  Once again, the audience are being reminded that everything we take for granted about the show has been uprooted and relocated to America, where a mobile is a cell phone, and a packet of crisps are chips.  It is actually fitting, however, that these scenes are included – while our friends over the pond may not find these sections humorous in the same way, these jibes are performed wholly tongue-in-cheek.

Sadly, attention to detail is not high on the list of priorities in this new series – rather, the scene in which Gwen should be “driving on the other side, ‘mate’” is undermined by the fact that car headlights clearly visible through the rear windscreen are blatantly also driving on the wrong side.

As far as characterisation goes, this show has made some progress – Eve Myles’ portrayal of Gwen has become slightly more subtle, and whilst she is clearly relishing the action, she delivers several post-violence lines with a dead pan that is delightful, and a wonderful roll of the eyes.

John Barrowman’s portrayal of Harkness is enjoyable at times, and the delivery of his TARDIS reference made the geek in me giggle, but overall he seems all bluster – although this could be an intentional reminder that now he is all talk and no action, a vulnerable man in a world of immortality.

The character of Rex, as performed by Mekhi Phifer, continues to grate, almost as though he were a pantomime villain, and remains the most unlikeable ‘hero’ of the newly assembled Torchwood team.  This is due, in part, to bad scripting – he’s been written as a one dimensional ‘bad ass’, but Pfifer instead is focussing too heavily on the ‘bad’.

Pficorp PR rep Jilly Kitzinger is an excellent femme fatale, balancing her faux clumsiness with cunning; she is a likeable dislikeable character, played with panache by Lauren Ambrose, and she is a delight to watch, flaunting her girlish charms with that killer lipstick.

That said, the hospital sequences with Dr Vera Juarez are particularly effective – the evocative discussion about the moral ambiguity raised by the concept of murder, and the effectiveness of the police in this case, is wonderfully handled, and should leave a haunting concern floating around in the viewers’ minds.

The over-hyped sex scene must, of course, get a mention – for what it’s worth.  Indeed, this scene was almost certainly only included to rile the contemporary Mary Whitehouses (and the Daily Mail readers) and to remind us that this is ‘grown up Doctor Who’.  But it isn’t.  It couldn’t be further removed from DW at the moment.  The juxtaposition of Jack and Brad the bartender, with Vera and Rex, seemed slap-dash soft core, and contributed absolutely nothing to the plot.  Why, then, was Barrowman so vehement that it was essential to the story, and should not be left on the cutting room floor?

Bill Pullman’s portrayal of Danes is perfectly multi-dimensional; his southern drawl and fixed sneer are awful, and rightly so – yet still, when we see him first pursued by offended locals, and then physically abused by the police, I genuinely felt for him.  His honest conversation with Jack near the end is bile-inducing, and all of my earlier sentimentality faded instantly, filling me with nothing but loathing for this dreadful creature.  This is what makes his televisual martyrdom all the more disturbing – albeit martyrdom in a world without death.  This is easily the stand-out performance of the series, and a difficult character to pitch, yet Pullman seems to have it down pat.

There are several nicely handled references to earlier series – the contact lenses from CofE is a refreshing reminder, and the talk of Ianto is touching, and raised a wry smile on my cynical face.  Unfortunately, though, these elegant touches and references simply serve to remind us that, despite the grand scale and the way that it looks and sounds, this is a follow-up to an older, and superior, show.  

The biggest flaw, then, with new Torchwood is that it is so far removed from the show that we all fell in love with – it has sold out what made the original run so great, and has sacrificed much of its characterisation.  Unlike CofE, which fed nicely into each episode with hooks and reveals, this new show is so far all setup, no payoff, and it is three episodes in.

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