Saturday, September 20, 2008

Torchwood - Captain Jack's Big Finish

She's got a heart of gold, she'd never let me down
But you're the woman who always turns me on
You keep me coming round
I know that love is true
But it's so damn easy making love to you

I've got my made up, I need to feel your touch
I'm gonna run to you...

Yeah, I'm gonna run to you!
Coz when the feeling's right
I'm gonna run all night
I'm gonna run to you...

Tomorrow, The Stolen Earth screens on the ABC - completely stuffing up any casual fan yet to see The Sarah-Jane Adventures or Torchwood the Second. When I was reviewing it, I niavely assumed it linked up with their respective season finales, but I was wrong. I admit that now. For a start, all of the junior cast of SJA are out in the countryside away from Dalek Invasions, and Gwen and Ianto are wearing different clothes. I'm not really sharp when it comes to clothes (until I saw The Twin Dilemma, the only problem I had with the Sixth Doctor's outfit was how damn long it took to draw), but no. Apparently much time has passed betwixt Grey's Revenge and the Dalek Dust Device of Death, and this is one of those missing stories.

Putting Torchwood on radio was, in my view, like handing out magnifying glasses to admire the Emperor's New Clothes. For a start, you'll notice how calm and composed Jack is compared to his TV version - mainly because he hasn't run around Camelot twice before each take, so when he's in the middle of a life or death struggle, he doesn't sound like he's even been told to break into sweat. It's the mirror opposite of Sylvester McCoy, who often seems to record whole stories in one take in the middle of a marathon (yet he's so much better in BBV? I wonder why?). The opening scene where he has a (for Torchwood) long philosphical discussion about a Weevil's dress sense with a bouncer case in point. It would have been a touch cleverer if the bouncer had gone "Oh, HIM! He's a regular..." or something like that. Never has Jack's opening monologue seemed more pompous and completely unnecessary, or the theme music so redundant.

I also get a feeling that this story was actually meant to be made for TV. For example, the story opens with Jack getting a mobile call from Martha during a weevil chase as Ianto and Gwen fight in the background, giving such enthusiastic shouts and fights it's like a radio version of Monkey Magic. On TV it could work with Jack on the foreground chattering away on the phone as a Love & Monsters style fight occurs in the background, but on audio it's like Ianto and Gwen are trying to upstage JB.

I'd just like to point out that this episode doesn't seem to have a title or credit, so I had to go to wikipedia to find out it is Lost Souls by Joe Lidster. I'd never have guessed - the story is incredibly linear, and bar some "rough deal about Owen and Tosh huh?" scenes, almost entirely free of emotional introspection. There's also Jack reusing his Nightingale gag about Martha which smacks of DWAD-style parasitic recycling, rather than the bloke who cheerfully kicks logic and continuity in the balls to make a decent twist.

Lost Souls is undoubtedly the most topical and up-to-the-minute-on-the-pulse Torchwood story ever. Nothing else in Doctor Who comes close. This is a good thing and a bad thing. The bad thing is in the week it's taken me to download and listen to, it's old news. The genuine fear and worry it had on offer is now as pointless as Night of the Comet - once Halley's Comet has passed and no one turned to dust, it's kind of hard to get worked up about the film again.

In this case, it is the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, which has been in the news recently - mainly for the terrifying concept they'd accidentally unleash a black hole and destroy the entire Earth. Now, it sounds ridiculous in hindsight, but not so much at the time (ah, the heady days of a week ago). Andrew Denton (admitting live on TV all his knowledge of science is from Doctor Who) brought this possible doomsday scenario to my attention, deliberately drowning out the expert's rather sensible point that any such black hole would barely threaten an atom. Nevertheless, the day of the testing ABC radio went Doomsday-theme. James Valentine found new and ingenious methods to stop working and simply played relevent apocalyptic bits of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, while Richard Glover with his usual brain-donor enthusiasm played REM's song fifteen times and asked people to ring up and guess why he was playing it.

For a few hours, I honestly wondered if this might be the end. I wasn't freaking out - give me a choice between instant spaghettification and Threads, I'll be the one with the T-shirt saying I'm With Omega -->.

But the world didn't end. It didn't tremble. There was a white spot on a TV screen and scientists cheered.

So when Jack gleefully informs Gwen and Ianto that the LHC might trigger the destruction of life on Earth, it sounds really... really stupid. Mainly because is clearly taking the piss at the time. This is why Millennium Shock vaguely works today, since people were vaguely taking it seriously.

Back to the action. The Torchwood Institute is still shown to be the laughing stock of proper anti-alien organizations, and unknown to the populace at large, and Martha Jones even admits she's only contacted Jack and the others because she is really, really super desperate, and is so ashamed of being with them she gives the Torchwood Trio false identities while in Switzerland. This allows Ianto to camp it up like Servalan in drag as the Welsh Ambassador, musing "I know the feeling," when one of the scientists moans about working in an underground base full of technobabble. Gwen meanwhile is horrifically smart and professional, as if Tosh at the point of death downloaded her mind into the unstable lady cop. Jack meanwhile clearly considers chatting to Martha again a higher priority than damn near anything to do with the plot, and is showing the same Alpha Male disrespect of Martha's fiance that he showed Rhys. Odd how an omnisexual like him is acting so... primitive.

People have been vanishing in the underground base, many complaining of headaches beforehand, but only one of them is still around to quizz, but he is struck down by a malaise that Martha J makes it very VERY clear she has NEVER ever SEEN before! So, add that to the BBC Books writer's guidelines, capiche?

I'm not 100% clear what the problem is as, when Torchwood use their special X-ray specs (as shown in the book, Another Life), it causes the victim to glow and turn transparent and mutter strange biblical things. Ianto finds this see-through bloke 'disgusting', despite the fact he was happy enough to see him sans flesh two minutes ago. Is this a sign of an incipient nervous breakdown? Martha certainly is worried that Jack, Gwen and Ianto are going off the deep end without the stabilizing influences of Owen and Tosh (who had a massive funeral service we never actually got to see). Yeah, I laughed at the idea too. Especially when Martha tells Jack not to blame himself for their deaths just because he recruited them... Hello? They died because of his evil brother! Yes Jack is responsible for their deaths! He's also responsible for the massive drop in Cardiff's population thanks to Weevils, atom bombs and salmonella! Whining about Owen and Tosh because they had coffee together seems to be the height of selfishness.

Just as Jack starts to suspect that Martha only invited them around out of sheer pity at their pathetic life (what with her clearly thinking a sonic screwdriver more helpful than most of the cast), he suddenly notices that the glowy transparent skeletal man is dissolving on atomic level! I bet he and Martha were getting chronic deja vu when Davros revealed his evil masterplan that works the exact same way... and that he was stealing planets... gosh, Journey's End was unoriginal, wasn't it? But never mind, Jack remembers one of his Time Agency jaunts (you know, the ones that were mostly erased from his mind over two thousand years ago), of some kind of freaky alien monster that ate people on the subatomic level...

...the QUARKS!

Nah, just joshing, but it makes more sense to call the freakazoid that than the cute boxy robots. During one of the LHC's tests, it allowed a rift to form in the fabric of reality... stop me if you've heard this before... and allowed one of these bastards loose! And the suspiciously normal scientist in charge (who I think is Lisa "Benny Summerfield" Bowerman, but I might be wrong) might be in on it. Jack immediately runs into the room as they're about to start and screams the "21st century is where it all changes" stuff. No one - and I mean no one - is impressed and note that his anti-alien-invasion-spiel is a complete non sequiter since, you know they're very human scientists doing something which has nothing to do with aliens. So they completely and utterly ignore him. Not that this seems to bother Jack much. Meanwhile, Gwen and Ianto are on bicycles riding around a particle accelerator looking for a monster and bored out of their skulls.

Ah. Can you feel the hatred for the TV series? I warm my frosty digits on it...

Finally, the lost souls of the title turn up. As Ianto marvels that his bike has a bell on it (...yes, that IS nice, isn't it, Ianto?) a typically-filtered androgynous voice calls out to him. Is it Visteen Crane? Is it Pandora? Is it the Spirits of the Mountain? Or Samuel Hower? Or the Scourge? Whoever the hell it is, it's not remotely convincing as it puts on a dodgy accent and calls Ianto "coffee boy" or claims to be "Toshie". Finally it does a halfway convincing impression of Lisa, but Ianto doesn't fall for it a moment. In fact, he seems totally bored by the whole thing. Slightly upset, but totally bored. But when the voices Lisa and Gwen shout at him, Ianto goes bonkers with his usual impeccable timing and starts screaming that, on second thoughts, he DOES want to be with the ghosts. Jeez.

Martha finds the rest of the quantum-munched people in a sealed off building and - pausing only to tell Jack to get off his posterior and actually do something about the particle accelerator test which will unleash more monsters upon the Earth - finds that her immediate superior, a UNIT chap called Oliver, is in fact the evil bastard behind all this. A real "I worship aliens who bring back the dead cause they're angels and do incredibly unconvincing impersonations of people yeah I trust them" Guy Crayford sort of gig.

Back at the ranch, Jack actually gets round to telling the chief scientist (who isn't actually Lisa Bowerman. Shame) to switch off the LHC. But chief scientist doesn't know how. Ahah! With sudden, divine insight and no foreshadowing whatsoever, she reveals she will... REVERSE THE POLARITY!

Please don't hit me. I didn't write this.

As Whining Bitch Ianto starts to glow and turn transparent, Gwen desperately contacts Jack for advice. Jack points out that he's a tad busy since he's having an armed siege as Oliver comes in with a shotgun. Nevertheless, like Martha before him, he has the unerring ability to come up with a practical course of action: run away from the alien monsters. Sweet Onion Chutney, were they ALL so utterly stupid or have I only just noticed? I mean... hell! Or was Martha right and they're all on the brink of total psychosis.

Jack tries to explain to Oliver that the particle accelerator isn't actually a doorway to heaven, but it becomes obvious after about twelve seconds he is completely and utterly insane and it gets damn tedious listening to Martha trying to use logic. Once again, why the hell is Jack so fearful of getting shot? Just charge the bastard and show him some REAL supernatural abilities! Chief Scientist reveals that she doesn't believe a single word that anyone in this room has been screaming at each other, but she's going to switch off the machine. Because, er, she wants to waste millions of dollars for something she doesn't believe in... I think Jack's gag that he's making this up as he goes along could be a bit of self-criticism by Lidster. How the hell did they disarm Oliver anyway?

Apparently, the genuine CERN research facility are big fans of Torchwood (wow... they really do go mental down there...), and helped script this story, albeit with a caveat that the CERN isn't invaded by madmen and ghosts, so it's interesting to spot the script cut from hardcore technobabble and usual TW grittyness as they once again fail to save speaking characters and prevent a depressed, miserable downbeat ending. On the other hand, considering the happy ending of Something Borrowed, maybe this is actually a blessing in disguise. The final scene has Ianto and Gwen, rather pissed off, demand to know why the fuck aliens keep trying to invade and what Jack's '21st century' spiel actually means. Jack gives a long confusing philosophical ramble and then asks for some coffee.

The end.

Well, I have to say that... at the end of the day... deep down... I think I might have been better off with my world where Exit Wounds lead directly into The Stolen Earth. After all, a radio story that might as well have been called Unquiet Dead 2: This Time It's The Hex Particle, is already on a backfoot on the "Consider Me Canon" ladder. John Barrowman and Freema Agyeman also show that they're... well, not crap... but certainly not as good acting in a recording booth than osmotically feeding off each other's performances. Robbed of the visual medium, Ianto comes across as ridiculously smug and camp, while I dare say many a listener would wonder why no one mentions that the Welsh Ambassador has a thirteen year old girl for a wife. Seriously, when Gwen has her token 'life sucks' moment, I was worried Martha would take her aside and tell her that when she's grown up it will all make sense.

If Torchwood tries to live in on in audio form, I'm afraid it'll have to be better than this. Getting a writer who isn't completely disenchanted with the series to write ALL of the script might be a good thing too...


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

Awww, man, you got me so exicted when you said it was The Quarks. Oh, how I *want* to believe...

I guess it would be inevitable that there would be a Whoniverse story about CERN but... Christ. Talk about leaving it to the last minute. The idea is a bad one in the long run and sounds like the execution wasn't much better.

But.. what is this? BF are doing Torchwood stories? Or is this a solo 'pilot' sort of deal?

Anyway, great review. The 'thirteen year old wife' bit really got me.

Youth of Australia said...

Awww, man, you got me so exicted when you said it was The Quarks. Oh, how I *want* to believe...
Yeah. It was almost like a parody of Torchwood as an invisible life-sucking parasite pretending to be the ghosts of loved ones tries to trick people into blowing up the world.

If only...

"It's my wife returned from the grave!"
"Dude... it's a Quark."
"I still love her!"

I guess it would be inevitable that there would be a Whoniverse story about CERN but... Christ. Talk about leaving it to the last minute. The idea is a bad one in the long run and sounds like the execution wasn't much better.
Well, apparently there was a reason for it...

But.. what is this? BF are doing Torchwood stories? Or is this a solo 'pilot' sort of deal?
AFAICT, BBC Radio 4 wanted to celebrate the CERN deal and offered to let Torchwood have a special radio episode. It was played the very day they switched on, so it was very topical and relevent. Probably explains why they couldn't get Gorman or Mori to appear in it.

Probably explains why it was such a rushed thing.

Anyway, great review. The 'thirteen year old wife' bit really got me.
God, there are some really silly bits like her screaming, "You don't want to mess with me!" and yet she doesn't add, "I'm old enough to drive!"

For some reason.