Sunday, 2 March 2008

Shag, Marry, Kill, Resurrect

If I've learned one thing from the angst-festival of Torchwood Season Two, then it's that gay men are happy to use the word "shagging" to describe fleshy man-love. Logically, this shouldn't be a surprise, and I've spent so much time amongst gay men over the last ten years that I'm sure one of them must have used the word at some point. But to me, "shagging" indicates a kind of sex that doesn't work without a uterus. It suggests a male woodland creature pinning down a female, and moving his pelvis backwards and forwards very, very fast; it suggests "rutting" rather than "making love", with all the associated mess and fuss of childbirth; it suggests a little internal alarm that says BABY-MAKING BABY-MAKING BABY-MAKING and won't stop until eggs have been fertilised. The idea that "shagging" might describe butch anal antics - or, in the case of Captain Jack and Jones the Hardware, probably a lot of tender licking and sucking with perhaps just the occasional bout of Resurrection Glove abuse - seems aesthetically wrong, to me. Rabbits shag, but it's not a term I'd apply to "out" animals like bonobos, antelope, or giant squid (the great gay leviathans of the deep).

That aside, the only remotely surprising thing about the second series of Torchwood is its pig-headed refusal to do anything remotely surprising. Everybody had problems with the first series, and even those sci-fi geek-scum who'll watch anything with killer robots in it were left feeling vaguely dissatisfied, Mark sodding Braxton included. Which begs the question… why has nothing changed? Did the overall sense of gloom and disappointment really not make an impression on BBC Wales? A standard-issue TV critic would probably describe the programme as "slicker" these days, and it's certainly more confident in its ability to make the same mistakes over and over again, but none of its problems have actually been fixed. Even the worst episode of Doctor Who is worthy of in-depth analysis and point-by-point dissection (indeed, bad episodes are often more deserving of inspection than good ones, given that "Time and the Rani" tells you more about what happened to television in the 1980s than "Doomsday" tells you about life in 2006), yet Torchwood remains resolutely… filler.

Full-scale reviews of Torchwood episodes are therefore unnecessary, since most of them can be boiled down to a single sentence, quite often "what's the point of this?". But in the interests of rational debate, here's a round-up of the season so far, with a whole honest-to-goodness paragraph per story…

1. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang". Of the many, many design flaws in Torchwood, the greatest is this: whereas it's now de rigeuer for any modern SF series to be under the control of a single godlike chief-writer-cum-producer, whose own hand-written episodes are either measurably better than everyone else's or at least define the direction of the programme, Torchwood has a chief-writer-cum-producer who has no clear vision of where the series is meant to be going; who has no ideas other than things he's seen in other SF shows; and, worst of all, who has little or no understanding of how stories work (at least two of Chris Chibnall's scripts have no visible plot, while the rest have all the structural integrity of Muller Rice). In itself, it's telling that a Doctor Who spin-off should be under the creative influence of the man who wrote the least creative Doctor Who episode ever broadcast. However much the recent work of Steven Moffat may have been overrated ("Blink"… I could piss that in my sleep), surely a gadget-heavy sci-fi show about spunk-filled twentysomethings should rightfully be his gig? "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" is the inevitable "lead character meets his evil equivalent" story, and the inclusion of James Marsters just makes it look as if Chibnall's having a competition with himself to see how far he can get Torchwood to look exactly like every other "cult" programme on television.

2. "Sleeper". Of course, if we're making lazy Doctor Who comparisons, then the most obvious problem with the set-up of Torchwood is that it's stuck in modern-day Cardiff every week… or at least, it seems obvious, but look closer. The real trouble isn't that it's tied to Britain circa 2008, but that its attempts to integrate SF ideas into a contemporary setting can alienate us far more than any number of gonzo adventures in time and space. Here, we're supposed to get terribly emotional about a woman who discovers that she's going to cease to exist because she's an alien sleeper agent with an auto-destructing false personality. It's fair to say that very few people in the audience will be able to empathise with this situation, let alone cry in the right places.

3. "To the Last Man". An episode which breaks all the rules of British sci-fi drama by involving a paradoxical timewarp that leads back to World War One instead of World War Two. Although I find it hard to be too critical of Helen Raynor, because frankly, I so would.

4. "Meat". When Buffy the Vampire Slayer pioneered the fantasy / soap-opera hybrid, it was wise enough to understand that all the fantasy elements have to resonate with the "real" elements: the monsters are hormone-driven manifestations of the characters' own teenage angst, so the fantasy and the soap-opera are ultimately the same thing. Every fantasy-soap since Buffy has completely missed this (fairly essential) point, and given us stories about giant scorpions with "relationship" scenes thrown randomly into the mix, as if giant scorpions aren't interesting enough without the occasional detour into Sex and the City. Here we have a story about an enormously bloated whale-beast that sits around having chunks of fat cut off its body, but which is also about… Gwen having issues with her boyfriend. If I were the actor playing Rhys, then I'd feel offended by the subtext. Naturally, we care more about a six-hundred-ton slab of manatee than about any of the characters' whining, tedious love-lives.

5. "Adam". SF screenwriting is a specific skill, which is why it's not necessarily a good idea to hire a writer who cut her teeth on EastEnders and let her talk about aliens. If you don't know precisely how to pitch a slightly-off-the-wall story involving an interdimensional memory-parasite, then you end up with hideously overwrought dialogue like 'you crave flesh!' or 'it was so beautiful, after the darkness and the stench of fear!', and that's before we even start to process the unintentionally hilarious "Flashback Jack" segments (which are, let's face it, like clips from the worst war movie ever made). But the fundamental problem with "Adam" is that there's no point doing a story about the characters' personal demons when the characters aren't complex enough to have demons, or when the Male Lead is so far-removed from us that it's impossible to take any of his problems seriously, let alone his unresolved issues with his dad. Imagine an episode of Primeval in which the girl from S Club 7 suddenly has memories of childhood sexual abuse while running away from sabre-tooth tigers… that's what Torchwood is like.

6. "Reset". Leaving aside the fact that it begins the most counter-productive story-arc in television history (Owen dies, thus allowing him to mope more), "Reset" actually verges on competence at times, yet it's still hampered by the question of what this episode is actually about. The Mad Doctors aren't making a point about the state of medical research in a twenty-first-century world, they're just… Mad Doctors. So mad, in fact, that they're prepared to go berserk and shoot people dead even though it makes no rational sense for them to do so. In much the same way that you can judge a man by the quality of his enemies, you can judge an episode of TV sci-fi fodder by the quality of the villains, and here they're just evil for the sake of convenience.

7. "Dead Man Walking". Oh, Christ, it's a resurrection: that's almost as bad as reversing time. Worse, it leads to a script full of portentous, overbaked conversations about the nature of mortality and the trauma of human existence (you'd be forgiven for thinking that 'we fight monsters, but what do we do when we turn out to be the monsters?' is as bad as dialogue can possibly get, yet it's very nearly topped by Martha's histrionic 'it must be death… because it's stolen my life!'), padded out with every terminal cliché of modern fantasy. A black-eyed demonic possession (again?); one of the regulars turning into a geriatric for absolutely no good dramatic reason (again?); a desperate attempt to give some depth to a bog-standard Malevolent Alien Power by wrapping it up in a Medieval legend; an even more desperate attempt to introduce some sort of tension by putting a sick child in jeopardy… all this, plus a conclusion that makes the ending of "The Daemons" look convincing, and might as well have Owen defeating the monster with the Power of Love. Ultimately, though, the real problem with "Dead Man Walking" is that it's got even less to say about death than "The Satan Pit" had to say about religion. Only the vomit remains memorable.

8. "A Day in the Death". What baffles me is that anyone might consider "forty-five minutes of a corpse complaining about being dead" to be a workable basis for a drama programme. Although the fact that the script editor here is Gary Russell - a man who has no background in television scriptwork, whose own attempts at writing have been unfailingly risible, and whose sole qualification for the job is that he's spent the last two decades making everyone else in Doctor Who fandom as miserable as possible - says a lot about this programme's general level of care, attention and competency.

Actually, now I think about it... 'the darkness and the stench of fear' is how the memory-parasite describes the experience of travelling through an interdimensional void. Can you have a stench, in a void? If there's no air, then how do you smell? (Like a dog with no nose, possibly.)