Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Review: FROM OUT OF THE RAIN
Episode ten of Torchwood series two, written by Peter J Hammond, directed by Jonathan Fox Bassett, 2008
A one-off review of a single episode from Torchwood’s second series might seem random, but consider it the episode that broke the camel’s back.
I haven’t actually watched that much Torchwood – I’ve recently caught a few from the first series (which is so awful it’s quite compulsive), but only iPlayered a few from the second series at the time. I’ve mainly become desensitised to the sustained awfulness, though the recently repeated End of Days was particularly heinous: an illogical, tediously obligatory end-of-the-world scenario, with bizarre pacing and a ‘climactic’ giant demonic monster that was dispatched literally two minutes after appearing.
Admittedly, Children of Earth was a massive step up, and heartening because, at the time of From Out of the Rain’s original broadcast, I thought the only way to salvage some potential from Torchwood would be to restructure the entire show. Great minds, and all that. Children of Earth is almost a whole different beast though, so let’s put that aside for the time being. Pretty much all the previous episodes have been flaccid, but From Out of the Rain has to be the most irritating, seeing as it actually appeared to have potential. Sometimes you just have to write a review in the hope of catharsis, because something’s bugging you so much; this is one of them.
This episode feels as if it was made by people who have never seen, let alone made, a TV programme before. It’s like a student film; even the lighting is abysmal. All but the most ineffectual of programmes can at least make you suspend your disbelief, but Torchwood doesn’t succeed there on even the most basic of levels, as it never fails to feel like exactly what it is: some actors in a room, or running around with prop guns. Even the extras are noticeably shit, which is quite an achievement!
For an episode that is clearly attempting to be creepy and sinister, damningly, there’s just no atmosphere. Compare this to, say, HBO’s (Depression-set last-days-of-magic carnie-drama) Carnivàle (which, okay, is only really relevant here because of the travelling show element) – a show that is intriguing, intelligent, and, despite having supernatural elements, grounded by characters who are recognisably human beings… Torchwood, I’m afraid, is laughably small fry by comparison, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be at least aiming for the level of visual beauty and expansive reality that show occupies.
Okay, that HBO gave Carnivàle $4 million per episode to play with probably helps, but – I’m sorry, I’m not just being a bitch here – much as I hate American domination, British TV just doesn’t measure up to the more worthwhile programmes America makes. The Fox pilot that’s been commissioned for a US version of Torchwood doesn’t make me feel any better though, because the worst American shows are so bad they don’t even make it over here, and I’m pretty certain which end of the scale this will fall. (And, while we’re at it, the concept of an American version of Doctor Who would be a massive betrayal. And anyone who thinks otherwise – ie, the people who’d commission it - are morons.)
To even approach the level of individuality of something like Carnivàle, a show like Torchwood needs a cohesive guiding hand, in the sense of something like Lars von Trier’s (fantastic) hospital-set supernatural black comedy/horror The Kingdom (aka Riget), or Lynch’s Twin Peaks – both products of the imagination of a single figure. Torchwood lacks this completely, more specifically, admittedly, in its first two seasons, but its basic structure is fundamentally flawed. It’s so obviously engineered so that the team will encounter a new enemy each week – rather than taking the more difficult, but inestimably more satisfying approach of shows like Being Human or True Blood, where the characters have real lives, houses and jobs, and encounter supernatural situations in a less highly-regulated way. Programmes like that highlight how cynically Torchwood is put together; it’s meant to be an adult show, but still relies on a straightforwardly episodic format, rather than a more sophisticated layered, long-term format which carries various threads through every episode of the season, and therefore doesn't talk down to its audience.
I fail to see who actually accepts Torchwood’s crashingly straight-forward structure, and thinks it’s even vaguely worthy of their time. Which is particularly depressing as the elements in this episode specifically – a creepy travelling show comes to town – should write themselves. But, instead, it’s like an episode of The Demon Headmaster. (Even Papa Lazarou was scarier than this.) I seriously mean that – it’s no more adult than that, and doesn’t even have the excuse that it’s children’s TV. There’s not even a plot, for Christ’s sake, let alone characters (I know the previous couple of episodes tried, with Owen), and reveals the team as the dull ciphers they shouldn’t still be after a series-and-a-half.
The ‘plot,’ such as it is: supernatural baddies arrive. They kill some people. Jack does something very un-dramatic. The baddies die. The tagged on ‘sentimental’ bit was bollocks too, and shows a lack of bravery by being so formulaic (presumably an attempt to lighten the series, but it just makes it seem even more contrived – ‘we’re gritty and adult… but can still be life-affirming!’). And the ‘it’s the end... or is it!?!?’ moment at the bootsale is cringeworthily cack-handed.
I do feel bad slating this episode, because it had the most potential of the ones I’d seen so far… but that’s why it’s such a shame. Something Borrowed, for example, was crap, but far better simply because it was a stupid-but-fun bit of fluff. Subsequently, I caught PJ Hammond’s previous contribution, Small Worlds, and I have to say, that episode is what I hoped From Out of the Rain would be like. Ie, genuinely atmospheric, and with a less literal than usual sensibility, dealing with a threat that is explicitly ‘more’ than alien, and which defies science and reductive explanation.
I suppose part of the problem with Torchwood is that the ‘fantastical’ elements of the series make the week-in, week-out modern day elements seem painfully boring. The backdrop of bus-stops and streetlights doesn’t even seem like a part of the series, more a default that is made do with because they couldn’t afford anything more interesting. (Compare to, say, ITV’s Dexter import, which makes the same sort of locales look quite beautiful.)
Also – while I’m getting this stuff off my chest – Jack as a character really is awful outside of the context of companion. John Barrowman isn’t a strong enough actor to carry an entire series, and is far too light entertainment to seem genuinely butch. (Also, has he had work done?!) In Something Borrowed, his transformation into a monster is so camp that even Nerys Hughes makes a more convincing slavering alien.
PS Why is it even called ‘From Out of the Rain’? It only bastard rains once! And what’s with Tosh “detecting the sea” in the middle of Cardiff? Who even were the Night Travellers? And why do I even give a shit?