Friday, March 14, 2008

Torchwood with PJ Hammond Take Two

One foot up and the other foot down
This is the way to Cardiff town!

I felt curiously optimistic about this episode for some reason. Was it that it was by PJ Hammond and my strange baseless hope that he wouldn't simply cut and paste another Sapphire and Steel episode? Was it that the guy everyone swears blind is playing Davros will be in it? Was it simply that we were going to have an episode that, for the first time since Sleeper, DIDN'T totally rely on the main character's fucked up personal lives? As before, Hammond has no time for the crippling emotional problems of the main characters and gets on with the story - but, thankfully remembers it consists of more than just Mulder (Jack) and Scully (Gwen).

Well, Hammond seems to be struggling not to write for Sapphire and Steel (which is odd, because he had no such problems when attempting to write Paradise Five for Doctor Who). It seems there has to be a minium amount of Time Detective material in his scripts, but reduces it simply to one aspect of Assignment 4 - the one with the Man With No Face Who Lives In Photographs, which Tennant's first season couldn't plagiarize enough. The idea is that time can be trapped in photographs (or, in this case film), and thus an entity trapped in that moment can escape from this medium, as some mixture of hologram, chemicals and hallucination.

I dare say most viewers would not notice this angle, the philistines, but thankfully it is not the whole plot. Mind you, they even play some S&S music at some points, like when the spectral parasites loiter around a cafe, which is another Hammond story...

In the Hub, Jack hears the distant sounds of a carnival pipe organ but unfortunately the only other person is the "I'm too busy to listen to you strange man" Tosh. Ianto has decided to take a trip to the Electro, an old movie theatre recentally renovated to provide the old world experience - black and white movies, cartoons, piano player, usherettes... basically, this whole thing is the opening credits to Grizzy Tales for Gruesome Kids, except without Nigel Planner. Apparently the theatre is built over the main part of the rift, but Ianto admits he just wants to check it out for nostalgia for his childhood. Owen and Gwen tag along, with no hint that either one of them is a zombie or one of them should be on their honeymoon. Hammond has clearly paid enough attention at the briefings to ensure that, whatever their criminal arrogance and responsibility, the Torchwood gang actually enjoy each other's presence.

Apart from Tosh, though. Her reformat as 'unlovable bitch' is still on and she's left on teleport duty. Computer duty. Whatever. Even Jack is avoiding her now, ditching her to join Ianto and the others, and the ominous carnivale music isn't the reason. "Where's Ianto? HE'D know," Jack sneers as she brushes off his questions.

The projectionist at the theatre is starting to freak out - his editing of the film (which is supposed to show the history of the theatre) was interrupted when a strange ringmaster appeared on the film silently beckoning him, triggering some ominous gusts of wind and other poltergiestic phenomena. And, actually, that is a bit creepy, but then getting under your skin is something Hammond manages all the time. (There's a parallel universe out there where Paradise Five got made and the expression "I saw an angel" is as popular and disturbing as "Are you my mummy?")

Things get even freakier when the film of Cardiff high society transforms into a looped montage of stuff with the creepy ringmaster and his circus of freaks - leading to Owen and Gwen attempting a reasonably amusing MST3K impression, much to Ianto's embarrassment. But the amusement fades as the projectionist and the manager of the theatre find the projector seemingly possessed; Ianto spots Jack in the movie, seemingly on of the circus acts pretending (or not) to shoot himself in the head; then the movie vanishes and Owen and Gwen decide this is a waste of time and leaving. Their shadows, however, head in another direction. But, and this is the amazing part, Ianto notices and then tells Jack when he turns up, and Jack believes him - you know, the way an omnisexual Time Agent running an alien-hunting organization is SUPPOSED to be open minded? Jack notes the irony of the fact that the carnivale was preserved forever on film, the material that ultimately destroyed the public's interest in travelling shows - preserved by the thing that killed you.

Enough ominous foreshadowing yet?

The Ringmaster and his beautiful assistant are stalking the rain-soaked streets outside the theatre and offer a girl at a bus stop a free ticket, and, when she refuses, a chance to join their circus forever. Then they suck out her soul. Not QUITE as disturbing as Papa Lazarou, but a reasonable effort. The process leaves the girl a dehydrated zombie... like the zombies in The Idiot's Lantern... which was ripping off Sapphire and Steel. Gosh. The viscious circle turns and turns. Tosh discovers this thanks to some computer bollocks and the others make all haste getting there and for once I'm not being in any way sarcastic. They really do head there straight away and try to help her. Unfortunately, Salvador Davros and little Miss Piggy are after more victims, and patronize a night cafe with similar surreal results. "Maker her cry - I want to drink her tears," whispers the ringmaster's assistant. Nice. Is that the door

With the still manifestly unzombified Owen in tow, Jack decides to try to find the source of these mysterious vampiric attacks and checks out the film and, what are the odds, Jack is in that pesky bit of film! He joined the circus as the Indestructible Man because he was shagging the twin acrobats (wow, continuity with series one), but it seems that this film is a youtube-style montage of various circus acts, and one of the clips shows the mythic Night Performers - a ghostly tale of evil travelling players that left devastation in their wake.

So. Basically Torchwood then.

However, the film does not feature the creepy ringmaster or his assistant, who have vanished from the film, leaving seemingly pointless shots of circus tents empty (Ianto discovers this in a scene identical to Sapphire noticing a photo of a water fountain originally featured children drinking from it - still, Hammond, who's going to notice that bit of self-plagiarizm? Any more than Jack trying to describe the escape of the circus freaks without saying "Time's broken through!") Unfortunately this is undermined by the fact the film still seems to have the ringmaster in it at the time everyone says he's missing. Dear dear...

Jack decides that "No one sleeps till we find them!", a stupid move even by his standard, and within minutes Tosh is cracking up, claiming that the sea has somehow materialized in the middle of Cardiff and vanished again - allowing the Night Creatures to collect a few more souls on the way (small children, of course, to ensure maximum emotional damage to the audience), apparently a new audience as revenge for the ones cinema stole. Sounds a bit petty, especially when Jack correctly guesses this with about two seconds of thought.

Jack also smashes the laws of logic and somehow manages to mutter "They say they came from out of the rain" in front of the one nurse who worked at a psychiatric hospital and also knew the one little old lady patient who also said the words, claiming some insane circus freaks were after her. The gang head there and, wouldn't you know it, the little old lady ISN'T just some complete loonbag, but able to do stuff like tell Jack "he doesn't belong" because "his eyes are older than his face", but apart from confirming the same freaks after her are the ones Torchwood already knows are on the loose, she doesn't do much except reveal the ringmaster calls himself the Ghostmaker, and his victims are turned into an eternal audience. This of course leads to a scene at the Hub were Gwen repeats all this info from countless sources who they only just discover after the little old lady has told them it all already.

Yep, one long ramble telling us all stuff we already know. Hammond, loathsome as they are, the Torchwood Three gang are capable of explaining stuff simply the first time because they're not the consciousness-busting outside time beings like Sapphire and Steel? WE GOT IT THE FIRST TIME!

Meanwhile, Ghostmaker and Mermaid-girl steal the film cannister from the projectionist in order to summon up the rest of the act. By the time the projectionist contacts Jack at the others, the Night Circus has taken over the Electrode, but this merely causes the cheerful note that Hammond can come up with plot solutions NOT involving the pointless sacrifice of innocents or simply reset buttoning the whole world. Trouble is, he seems to have nicked that from The Idiot's Lantern as well. Jack's plan is to film the circus, trapping them in another reel of film, then exposing it to light, destroying them.

Elsewhere, the Ghostmaker confronts Owen and we have the now traditional scene of the monster of the week grabbing Zombie Boy, sniffing his ridiculously huge mouth and then dubbing him crap. But this allows Ianto to steal the Ghostmaker's flask of bottled souls, and then a fight ends with the Ghostmaker uncorking the bottle - releasing the souls in the wrong manner causes all the unwitting doners to drop dead - before Jack can expose the film and wipe out the bastards forever.

Unfortunately, this means that everyone except one small little boy is instantly murdered.

Oh well, at least for once Torchwood weren't directly responsible for the massacre and did everything they could to fix it. But then Hammond tries to impress us by ripping off the end of Blink and having Jack warn the audience that these Night Traveller bastards might have been filmed in other circumstances and thus might return?! (Uh, why exactly is this bunch so special? Surely anyone caught in the film can escape? And wasn't the escape down to the time rift?)

Elsewhere, people are buying reels of old film to watch... and back in the Hub, Jack hears the music.

Give me strength. It's like the end of Polymorph where we find out the amnesiac crew have to face ANOTHER chameleonic life form, so you have to watch the episode again to see what happens (avoiding the last scene). Basically, the "the end or is it?" ending translates as "part one of two but you don't need to see part two as it's basically part one with hopefully less casualties."

Ironically From Out Of The Rain is more of an S&S ripoff than Small Worlds - except instead of giving us a new S&S adventure, he's pitted the Torchood gang against a rehashed old one. Why he didn't simply have them confront The Man Without A Face - who, after all was only temporarily imprisoned by S&S and after their 'fall from favor' most likely would have got out of the kaleadescope anyway... - I don't know, but this is a vast improvement over last week's and is, in my humble opinion, a way forward.

The problems of Torchwood in the first series are:
1) Why is Jack such an arsehole?
2) Why do these people stay together?
3) Are they supposed to be competent?
4) Why are the Welsh such morons?

This series has answered or fixed the first three - Jack's happy-go-lucky act only works when he is travelling through time and space rather than festering in Cardiff; believe it or not the gang actually care about each other; and no, they are a bigger danger to humanity than a Cyber army and you're not supposed to like them. Stories which focus more on the alien/ghost/looney of the week are required, and when the alien/ghost/looney has NOT been deliberately activated/awoken/enraged by Torchwood. Oh, and some happy endings would make a change.

Next Week - PC Andy, the only regular in Torchwood even more ignored than Rhys, returns. And people are going missing. And Gwen decides to rebel against Jack and take on her own investigation. With Tosh of all people. You gotta be kidding me - MORE fucking angst, the Welsh's steadfast refusal to accept anything in front of their own eyes, and focussing the story on the two biggest ungrateful wretches in the show? Fifty minutes of Jack and Ianto shagging Weevils would be more enticing... OTOH, Chris Chibnall returns to see what horrors have been wreaked on his creation since he left it with the incomparable KKBB. Let's hope he can turn this ship around before the iceberg does further damage.

PS - yeah, that guy would be great as Davros. He wouldn't need much of a mask, either.