Sunday, 21 August 2011

Torchwood – Episode Six – The Middle Men

 And so we’re back to it.  I shuddered a little inside when the end credits rolled, knowing that I would be writing this review, with so little to say in a positive vein.  Torchwood has, once again, become terrible.  After showing so much promise last week with interesting characters and a fast-paced, enjoyable plot, this week has returned to the trite pap we saw the weeks previous, in episodes one through four.

Once again, RTD has brought on board another relatively prolific writer of American Sci-Fi, this time in the guise of former X Files scribe John Shiban – who gave away his background with the screen shot of “Searching – The Truth” in the Torchwood bat-cave.  Unfortunately, “The Middle Men” features none of the interesting pacing of X Files, instead focussing on an entire episode of padding to a story that needed none.

This episode opens with Ernie Hudson (which I was incredibly excited about) watching the TV.  Once again, this week RTD and his cronies have tried to introduce a new and ‘interesting’ strand into the show, and once again they’ve failed.  Much like the Soulless marching the street and the Tea Party demanding ‘Dead is Dead’.  Each time one of these interesting prospects is brought in, it is no sooner forgotten by the following episode, and the “45 Club”, a group of thrill-seeking suicidal people jumping from 45 floors or higher, is almost certainly another one of these ideas.  Indeed, it had no relevance over the episode whatsoever, other than to point a huge arrow at the ‘surprise’ suicide of the Chinese spy.

Speaking of whom – was it just me that thought that the Chinese gentleman, Zheng Yibao, sounded, and indeed looked, strangely French?  It may have been the black turtleneck jumper and constantly smouldering cigarette – but his accent was certainly a strange one.  Intrigue was no doubt expected to be inspired by his suicide, as we were expected to wonder just what he’d seen at the PfiCorp site that would lead him to kill himself.  Similarly, Shanghai was a bit of a letdown – it was clearly just a back street of somewhere in America, with a few Chinese lanterns hung up on rope.

Ernie Hudson’s middle man Stuart Owens was the high point of the episode – a restrained performance, from an actor renowned for his comedy roles, including the excellent Ghostbusters.  He makes it clear in his conversation with Jack that he isn’t a good man, nor a bad man either.  Just a ‘Middle Man’.  My biggest issue with this episode was that it simply served to play up to the title, which seems a rather basic way of making television.  In a series with only four episodes to go, nothing much is happening.  Of course, the point of the episode was to heavily criticise the types of middle management who allow horrendous things to happen by simply ‘doing their job’.  Again, though, this is being spoon-fed to the audience in such a way that it is difficult to not feel patronised by it.

When we moved back to the action proper, we see Rex, following the demise of Vera at the tail end of last week’s episode, talking to camera.  When he says “I’m with Torchwood!” a little bit of me died inside.  We really didn’t need such a blatant reminder – sadly, he currently is Torchwood, gaining more screen-time than Jack and Gwen.  Meanwhile, Esther is also stepping it up a touch with the activity.  With both of them trapped in the San Pedro Overflow Camp following a lock-down, it was only a matter of time before these inexperienced bumbling fools got caught.  Watching the two of them, cluelessly wandering around and incapable of coming up with a believable lie, was painful – particularly the bland Esther, who is becoming increasingly irritating in every episode.

Jack’s emasculation has continued, for the sixth week in a row – his omnisexual status is no longer a plot device, instead ‘demoting’ him to simply a sleazy old gay man, as can be found in any gay bar in any city in any country – believe me, I know.  Much like the sequence in the bar with Barman Brad, his come-on to the busboy in the restaurant made my skin crawl.  It is telling that his coat now has more sex appeal than he does.  A similar removal of his sex symbol status was seen in the sequence with Janet at the bar.  Janet, a beautiful and buxom young woman, has been sleeping with her boss, Stuart Owens, and Jack decides to turn her against him in an effort to find information from Owens.  In the good old days of Torchwood, as well as in his appearances in Doctor Who, he would simply have used his charm, and no doubt slept with her, to get the information required.  In this new version of Torchwood, he instead simply bemoans men in general, and then comes up with his catty, bitchy plot to break up Owens and his wife.  Whatever happened to the heroic stud of the past?!

Esther’s uselessness and stupidity continue throughout this episode – the sequences in which she bumbled about the office were painful, and the simple fact that she didn’t try to call anyone other than Vera was frustrating to say the least.  If she were so worried about Vera, since Crazy Colin had returned without her, then why didn’t she try to contact Rex?  After all, she knew that he was on site too!  Similarly, the scene in which she goes to ask “Ralph the Soft” whether the person imprisoned and talking about Torchwood is Rex Matheson, is equally ridiculous – who else could it have been?  And talk about making yourself obvious!  How could she have known that unless she were a spy? 

The Middle Men of the title were of varying levels of repulsion – Stuart Owens’ character came out of this best, as he showed that whilst he was ultimately complicit with PfiCorp’s role in the miracle, he was at least trying to discover what had happened, and if there were any way to stop it.  Sadly, several of the others were more than complicit – Dr Patel in the Cow Bridge Overflow Camp insisted that, despite knowing what was happening, she was simply “following orders”.  The fat man in the tank top working at San Pedro was equally vile – but unfortunately believable as the jobs-worth who cried “I’m reporting you!” at Esther, not long after his horrendously racist tirade that it “might be right in Mexico” whilst looking through some incorrect filing. 

The worst type of middle man, of course, was Marc Vann as Crazy Colin, whose verbal and physical tics created a truly despicable, murderous creation.  His mispronunciation of “Badminton” and whining, as he runs his hands over his body, thinking about his fresh shirt were brilliant – he was by far the stand-out of this episode.  Much like a hideous John Malkovich character, he twitched his way through some shaky dialogue with a respectable gravitas, and was one of the most believable characters in this one-dimensional production.  Colin nearly even had the chance to swear, the “F...” being subdued as he calmed himself down.  As he broke down, his childish “It’s been a long day.  I just want to go home...” was perfectly delivered, a petulant school boy, forced to make terrible decisions and follow horrific orders, and yet taking pleasure in the sadism it allows him.

Gwen’s continued mission back in Wales remains as fruitless and irritating as ever.  Rhys continues to look like a dundering fool, unable to come up with any original ideas of his own, following his orders like the middle men of the title.  Indeed, as he has no brain of his own, he gave up the name “Captain Jack Harkness”, which surely should have raised some admin-based red flags?  That Gwen destroyed the modules and the Overflow Camp, despite the people, alive, inside, undermines her point slightly.  Similarly, considering what happens to her family later in the episode, I think it sort of serves her right – surely she didn’t think that she could record herself destroying an Overflow Camp and get away with it scot-free?  The struggles to save her father have been thwarted by whoever has intercepted the contact lenses.  As she tries to wheel her unconscious father out of the compound, and has a fight with a door, it is ridiculous – why couldn’t she simply have used the door handle, like the racial stereotype cleaner that assisted her? 

Also, we were led to believe, following the explosive first episode, that Gwen had to go undercover to avoid detection and capture at the hands of the government.  It once again stretches credulity that she should answer a phone call reported over the speaker system of an airport, calling for “Gwen Cooper”.  Again, continuity seems to matter not a jot here.

Of course, the biggest issue with this episode is that absolutely nothing has happened.  No narrative has been continued, nothing has progressed.  And this is the major shortfall of this series so far.  Up until now, we had been led to believe that PfiCorp were responsible for the miracle, along with the intervention of some unseen involvement.  The problem is, after six episodes, to change this expectation, means that the final four instalments are going to have to work overtime to compensate for our failure to understand what is happening.  No character arcs have been furthered – indeed, what we learnt of value from this episode could have been condensed into a five minute section at the tail-end of last week’s episode.

In addition to this, there was the distinct absence of, up to now, the two most interesting characters – Oswald Danes and Jilly Kitzinger.  Admittedly, by removing this particular strand, it allows a heavier focus on the other strands of the story.  In any other series, this may well work.  Unfortunately, the strands which this episode focuses on are relatively dull, proving that the characters are increasingly incompetent, and clueless as to what is going on and what they are doing. 

Overall, this was the most disappointing episode of this new series.  Where there should be some kind of explanation evolving, we instead have little or no plot movement, other than the introduction of the term “The Blessing”.  The ‘next time’ clip looks like another flash-back led story, which was an interestingly integrated plot device in Children of Earth.  Similarly, it looks like Eve Myles is actually being given some interesting script and ideas to work with next week.  I hope, and pray, that the show starts to pick up soon – in the words of Soft-Boy Ralph the army guard – “This has got to stop!”  Oh, how right you are, Ralph...

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