Monday, 11 February 2008

Questions Raised By Torchwood: Meat

Not wishing to be repetitive here, but Torchwood is a polyp on the colon of British TV, but sometimes, even when it's at its horrible worst, it raises questions that demand answers. At gunpoint, obviously. Here are some that came up during last week's episode, "Meat". Just to get you up to speed if you didn't see it, our team of bumbling sex addicts investigated metaphorical cruelty towards animals that manifested as big chunks of space meat, while Gwen dealt with her trust issues as her stupid fiance finally found out about the existence of Torchwood. That was something that made absolutely no sense, as the first episode of the season featured an old lady taking the appearance of Mr. Fish in her stride before grumbling about Torchwood running around in their ridiculous SUV, so it's not like they're that secret. There's a question posed straight away. If Rhys is that stupid, how did he get the job at Harwoods Haulage?

How technologically advanced are Torchwood?

They totally have computers that project onto walls instead of just on screens! Star Trek looks so analogue and unsexxy now.

Of course, such incredible technology means sod all if the wall is white and makes the information all smeary.

How feeble is Tosh?

As I've said before, Toshiko Sato has no defined personality at all, other than being the kind of desperate person who stares longingly at those she loves and is too nervous to do anything about it (exactly the kind of panicky insecure person you'd want protecting the world from alien encroachment). Her yearning hopefully reached its zenith (nadir? Apogee? LaGrange point?) when supplying the object of her desire (Owen) with some sandwiches, and did a little half-hearted gesture to denote how much she wanted to touch him and hug him and kiss him and love him love him love him right up!

All through the episode she makes sad little comments about how it is possible to have relationships while working as world-saving nymphomaniacs while staring pointedly at Owen, but all she gets in return are glances like this as the man in question tries to tolerate her needy whimperings.

Keep dreaming, Tosh! At least they have their dreary love for people thrown through time to talk about.

Is Gwen blind?

Several times during the episode Rhys stands within Gwen's eyeline, and yet she doesn't see him. Here is a representation of the lack of stealth employed by the haulage company manager.

Later on, he drives a few feet behind the Torchwoodmobile for several miles, and then continues the pursuit onto an abandoned industrial estate, and yet they still don't notice him, even though he's driving his car, something that surely Gwen should have noticed. So, is she blind, or is this just lazy contrivance and shoddy direction at play? (Clue: The answer to a lot of questions will be the latter.)

How long will it take for Jack to make a laboured double entendre revolving around the meat plot?

Nine minutes forty, which was shocking considering we'd run through several possible candidates by that point. Delightfully, after Gwen asks how it was eating alien meat, prompting Jack to respond, "He seemed to enjoy it," it takes Gwen a good few seconds of intense duh-face to get it.

I love his rakish grin as he waits for her to figure it out.

Will someone please stop Owen using guns or teach him how to look cool?

Because seriously, this made me laugh so hard I scared Canyon. I do this terrible wheezing thing when I get too amused, and this episode made me do it about four times.

And here's a gif of it for when that clip gets taken down. Accidental brilliance. That said, a lot of Burn Gorman's choices are a little peculiar. The face he pulls when staring at space meat is inexplicable.

I note that the character has been toned down a lot since the first season. His loathsome nature was show-wrecking, but this season, as he dials down the dreadful misanthropy, his position as Torchwood Gupta is being seriously challenged by the increasingly vile Gwen. Here, for instance, is how she looks at Jack while kissing her fiancee.

Considering Jack is very very old, you'd think he'd see through high school bitchery like that, but apparently no, he's heartbroken by it all. Remember the cool, sexy, confident, raffish gadabout who thrilled and delighted us in Doctor Who? He's been absorbed and replicated by pods from the planet WeakassLoser.

Do you remember the pterodactyl?

The showrunners finally did. It's been missing for ages and now it's back.

It was probably hiding from the rest of the team just in case they tried to shag it.

Is the poor, hacked-up space whale/metaphor for poorly treated livestock as cool as a pet pterodactyl?

In a word, no.

Sadly it looks, as Canyon pointed out, like a slightly-melted Snickers bar, but while the low-budget for the effect excuses the execution, the design is pretty crummy, being nothing more than a long blob with a silly mouth that splits open for no reason. Here is a picture of that as well, in the emotional finale when it goes bonkers and starts thrashing about to such an extent that Owen has to inject it with a bucket full of drugs and then snarl, "Mercy killing!" in his best tortured Toughguyese.

I really don't want to bitch about those effects too much, but honestly, if the budget could have been spent on a cool alien used sparingly instead of on a rough looking alien that is displayed in crane shot after crane shot after superfluous crane shot, it could have been a memorable visual. Of course, the show has a lot of time to kill (about eight minutes longer than a US show), and they have to fill that out with a lot of nonsense. Sadly, this time it was Spacey the Space Whale that suffered. As Jack melodramatically intones upon meeting it, "What have they done to you, my poor friend?"

Who has the most intense grief face?

Is it Jack, bemoaning the imminent death of Spacey the Space Whale?

Is it Owen, grieving over his decision to give Spacey a "MERCY KILLING!"?

Or is it the chap in the background, responsible for drugging Spacey, and horrified at the turn of events when his employers turn out to be trigger-happy scumbags?

Tough call.

Is John Barrowman taking the piss?

We're fans, don't get us wrong, but some of his line-readings in this episode buried the ham needle (steady on!). Here he is slamming Gwen against a wall because she was about to leap to the defence of Rhys.

He growls, he gesticulates, he hints at giving her a good old Captain Jack rogering right up against that wall! Barrowman is seriously operating on Warp Acting Speed 9 right now, and I love it love it love it. Shame he's not getting much opportunity to be dashing, but it's just not going to happen while he's on this show.

What's the main bad guy's major malfunction?

Not that the main antagonist is particularly effective, what with him bitching at his staff for not working hard enough and whining about how he's never had any luck and now a big slab of alien meat has landed in his lap and no one is going to take that from him, but he does have a bizarre intolerance for lying. About five minutes of the show is taken up by him asking hostages how many people are in the warehouse, and warning them not to lie, which of course they do immediately. He gets so pissed off by this that he tries to shoot Gwen even though she poses no threat. He's just so mad that she lied to him! Do real people do things like this? Perhaps, but it strains credibility somewhat. God help his friends when he gets a bad new haircut and they pretend to like it.

This silliness is eclipsed by this awful moment. Even though Gwen has plenty of time to get out of the way of this guy shooting at her, she stands stock still, and it's up to Rhys to further their trust plot by clumsily struggling to get past her and take the bullet instead, which is the catalyst for her acceptance of him at the end.

As he lies bleeding, she administers medical help to him by stroking his hair and telling him he's going to be alright. For about five minutes. And he lives. And walks around at the end of the episode with his arm in a sling laughing and joking and acting like nothing has happened. ::bangs head against table:: Why why why why why why why!??!?!?!

Why is Ianto suddenly such a wisecracking hardass?

In the first season Ianto was the sketchily written teaboy in an improbable suit with his half-human, half-Cyberman girlfriend hidden in the basement. He was so anonymous that when he turned his guns on the rest of the team and repeatedly lied to them about how deadly she was in an attempt to save her from their intervention, I thought he would get written out. But no. Now he's Jack's lover (another event that came out of nowhere), and after the first episode (where he reverted to whiny needy type) suddenly morphed into the snarky action hero we see now. Don't believe me? Here he is on a taser rampage. First, he uses jokes to distract a guy before electrifying his stomach.

A few minutes later, he saves Owen by blasting the vet guy with volts. Note that this doesn't affect Owen, probably as he is made from cardboard.

This guy gets a door in the face before Ianto shocks him, causing some amazing painface.

Then he gets the guy who shot Rhys, kicking his gun away (it looks like he connects as well, which must have stung), and with a barely convincing threat ("Pray he survives!"), tasers the guy right in the forehead! Nice!

So by rights I should have enjoyed Ianto's rampage, but early on in the episode we see him eating pizza, with what looks like a tablecloth protecting his nice suit.

Would Wolverine worry about grease-stains? Did Anton Chigurh ever do anything so prissy? I think not. Sorry, Ianto, but you get a FAIL rating for that one. Thanks for the mayhem, though. It was the episode highlight.

Which is the worst scene of the episode?

Is it the scene where Gwen confronts Rhys about his involvement in the meat factory, during which her gesture circuits explode so hard that the cameraman loses his footing and whip-pans right past his mark, missing Rhys and ending up looking at the bookcase behind him?

Or is it the meeting-room scene featuring Jack imitating Tom Cruise from the recent Scientology video, Ianto betraying his ignorance of the plot of Moby Dick, Gwen being remarkably childish to the embarrassed horror of the rest of the team, and a final line delivered so ineptly that I did the gaspy overlaugh thing again?

Or is it the final scene where Gwen tells Jack she won't neuralise Rhys because she loves him and what does he know about it? Again her gesture circuits blow, and it fries what's left of Jack's subtlety chip, leading to possibly my favourite line delivery of the entire episode, which occurs right at the end of the clip.

Actually, that final scene did do something I liked; Rhys keeps his memory! If the showrunners had erased his memory and made him ignorant of Gwen's career, it would have shown, once and for all, that they have no ideas and no courage whatsoever. Allowing him to move beyond his current role as bewildered and cuckolded plot element to actual proper character bodes well for the show. See also Buffy (when she told her mother about her calling) and Journeyman (the first brilliant decision on that show was for Dan to tell Katie about his time-travelling. It opened up numerous interesting plot avenues as a result).

Is Torchwood salvageable?

In my previous excoriating post I expressed a hope that even though the show is regularly awful, it could, in time, become good, though perhaps never great. The premise isn't particularly promising, and the characters don't make much sense from episode to episode, but surely there's some way to make it work.

Then, while finishing off this post today I stumbled across this interview with Meat writer Catherine Tregenna, where she reveals that Russell T. Davies never created a show bible, and encourages the writers to write fast and loose.

“As long as you stay faithful to their past, the characters really are up for grabs. With a series like EastEnders or Casualty you are sent the story bible. Although you do write entire episodes with EastEnders, it has been pre-planned by the production team and they know what they want to happen. You work out the structure – give them a scene breakdown describing what happens in each scene, so people can see how the episode builds. The dialogue comes right at the end.

"Casualty is slightly different when you bring your guest stories. It has been running for years and goes out 50 times a year, so there the problem can be when you pitch your medical story, it might have been done before. Someone looks out for that at a very early stage. But inevitably your character will bring a new angle to it, so it isn’t a case of what an interesting piece of medicine but who is going through the interesting piece of medicine.”

But she says writing for Torchwood is a “very liberating” experience.

“There is no bible at all. I said to Russell T Davies when I first met him I felt agoraphobic because I didn’t have the limitations and boundaries of, say, being in an emergency ward.The danger, however, is sometimes just sticking to a guest story in that episode and having the Torchwood team reacting to it. The best episodes are where they are personally on some sort of journey. I have noticed in this series how Torchwood can hold different genres, so you can have a very character-driven episode followed by an action alien invasion episode but it all holds together quite well.”

That's all very nice for Tregenna and her buddies to have this liberating freeform writing experiment to practice their craft on, but it makes for some particularly shoddy TV for the rest of us. And what journeys are they going on? Tosh in love? It's rather Niles and Daphne, isn't it? And Gwen? She's gone from dork to adulterer (which made some sense) to harridan (which makes none) in a few episodes. Earlier I asked why is Ianto suddenly a tough guy with a sarcastic sense of humour, and why does Tosh have no personality. It's because they have no inner life, and will be whatever the writers want them to be from episode to episode. Sadly, the writers seem to think they're doing the opposite. Tregenna says:

The unsung hero is the script editor. I have worked with Helen Raynor who also writes for Torchwood and Brian Minchin and they will help you with the overall continuity of the character’s voice, for example they will say Ianto has a very dry sense of humour, so don’t be afraid to give him the very dark gags.

But why? When did he become the guy with the dark jokes? For the entire first season he wasn't like that, but suddenly this year he ineptly tells snippy jokes. Maybe someone noticed the show didn't have someone who tells jokes, and Ianto got forced into that joker-shaped hole, which is dumb but understandable, but please don't tell me he's always been like that. I've watched the show. He wasn't. He just was suddenly written differently.

Perhaps with a competent showrunner to keep things consistent this wouldn't matter so much. Joss Whedon is notorious (in a good way) for running a very tight ship, polishing his writers' scripts and ensuring nothing appeared on his shows that ever contradicted anything that had happened before. His characters (and those of many other professionally made shows) could be imagined offscreen behaving in exactly the same way as onscreen because they had been fully worked out.

With Torchwood, you don't get that sense at all. I have no idea who these people are or what their motivations are (other than that they are perpetually horny and not very bright). No matter how often they say the showrunners make sure the characters are consistent from week to week, anyone watching the show with open eyes would see that this is anything but the case. Knowing that the show is being run by Chris Chibnall and Helen Raynor (who wrote the appallingly bad Daleks in Manhattan double bill from Doctor Who last season, not to mention two dreadful Torchwood episodes), it's a miracle the next episode doesn't show our heroes inexplicably transformed into otter/potato hybrids working as sanitation engineers on the moon. No show bible, no coherence or consistent internal logic, no hope of improvement.

Did Russell T. Davies not bother with the show bible because that's just how he works? It's possible. I didn't see Queer As Folk so I have no idea how coherent it is, and the one thing of his I saw before Doctor Who was The Second Coming, possibly the best non-Cracker drama on ITV in the past twenty years. That didn't need a show bible, and Doctor Who didn't really, what with the huge mythos of the previous series to draw from.

So was Torchwood created without the bible because RTD thought it was the best way to go? Or was he rushed and just didn't have time? I've got no evidence of the latter, but it strikes me as a plausible theory. The BBC were eager to capitalise on the success of Doctor Who, and hastily developing a promising idea from someone as talented and successful as RTD is bound to seem like a sure-fire proposition. Sadly, it was put into production right after Doctor Who's first triumphant year while RTD was working on the second (plans that were complicated by the departure of Christopher Ecclestone), instead of waiting another year to make sure all the right elements were in place. Without proper foundations to build on, the show was crumbling from the get-go, and isn't getting any better. As far as I can tell, it's not even vaguely salvageable.

Now I'm just watching it for the car crash screw-ups, the FX work from The Mill, and John Barrowman being big, camp, and silly. Plus, I need to keep an eye on it as a barometer of the delusion present in the Guardian Guide, which each week points out how this week it's good, unlike the last week, when it wasn't, and please ignore the fact that we said that that week was good, and better than the week before that, even though we said that was great too, and... erm... ::infinite regress:: Meanwhile, as they praise this neverending horror as, "an improvement on last week," Phelim O'Neill makes pissy comments about Lost being made up as it goes along. Oh boy, oh boy! Anger! Rising!


Santanico said...

God, I love it when this blog rags extensively on Torchwood. I know it's basically shooting dead, rotting, foul-smelling fish in an incredibly spacious barrel, but the show is so dreadful, in so many ways, that you really feel the fish had it coming. And I know I should be surprised by the revelation that there is no show bible, no real baseline of plot or characterization for the writers to operate from, that they are (as the poor Lost writers are so often accused) making it up as they go along - and yet, I'm so very not.

However, that picture of Jack mourning Spacey just might the funniest thing I have ever, ever seen. Ever. If it wasn't followed up by a crane shot of him wailing "SPAAACEEEEEEEEYYYYY!!!" at the heavens, I shall be enormously saddened.

Admiral Neck said...

Sadly there was no crane shot at that point, but there was one as he said the "My poor friend!" line, which was responsible for about five lost minutes of choking laughter. As has been said in the past, how can I be so obsessed with show and profess to hate it? Well, I do hate it and think it's a blot on the televisual landscape, and I also love it for being so damn ridiculous and camp and filled with Barrowman-ny goodness.

See also CSI: Miami and the magnificent Caruso. It was a love/hate that inspired the name of this blog, after all. Bill Hicks often railed against Cops, saying it was hideous but he could not stop watching. It's just like that.

irismagpie said...

God. THANK YOU for finally spelling out what is wrong with Torchwood! I've been trying to figure out why I torture myself by continuing to watch this show. I now have named my disease thanks to you. Knowing is half the battle!

Anonymous said...

Please continue with the Torchwood posts. I know it's a depressing, demoralizing job, but you're performing a valuable service for those of us trying toto slog through it week after week.

I hadn't seen the revelation about the lack of a show bible. It's long been my suspiscion but to see it confirmed both satisfies and bewilders me. They're happy to be working under this kind of format? They don't recognize they've built a show foundation on slippery shit and admit it?


Anonymous said...

That's the hardest I've laughed in months, so...thanks for that. As an American, I'm always horrified and embarrassed by shows like "Am I Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" So the only nice thing about Torchwood is that it reassures me we're not alone in producing garbage TV.

The exchange between Gwen and Jack when he had her up against the wall was so mind-bafflingly awkward. "You follow my orders! I said "no"!" Both of them looked like were reading cue cards imprinted on each other's contact lenses.

I didn't watch much of the first season, but what kills me is that folks are saying it has improved since then. Can that possibly be true?

Canyon said...

Oh, believe me, the UK has its share of idiotic shows -- including the English version of "Fifth Grader," called "Are You Smarter Than a 10-Year-Old?" and hosted by the smarmy fantasist Noel Edmonds, who may even be a worse host than Jeff Foxworthy. Americans (and the British) have an impression that British programming is better and classier than American shows, but believe me, as an American living over here, I can tell you that is a comforting delusion. Maybe a few American shows are worse (though I doubt it -- there are some really awful shows on here), but most of them are better, and at the very least more competently made.

We're both baffled by the comments that Torchwood is better this season -- having a few fairly good actors guest-star (James Marsters, Freema Agyeman) does not a better show make, especially when you drag them down with you. It was dire then and it is dire now. Their major achievement this season is keeping the camera in focus most of the time.