Children of Earth: Day Five.

TV Well, I’m spent.

ChrisI have a standing rule when it comes to films and to an extent television programmes which I suspect most people also have in their heart of hearts. If a synopsis/preview features the words “harrowing”, “nihilistic”, “unremitting” or “Adam Sandler” I don’t go/watch/spend a few hours of my life watching. This isn’t because I want to try and convince myself that we all live in a bubblegum world were everything is pink and fluffy and people are nice to each other and everyone listens to ABBA all day because the world isn’t like that. Plus there are exceptions. Sandler made The Wedding Singer and Punch Drunk Love.

It’s simply that with everything which is going on in the real world, watching a fiction in which a wrongly accused prisoner whose wife and child have ironically been murdered being man raped whilst on death row with no possibility of parole, forced to eat liver due to government cutbacks isn’t the kind of thing you can relax with. That film doesn’t exist (yet) but you can bet the art house cinema which block books it for the rest of eternity would still be selling popcorn at the commissary.

But sometimes, just sometimes, there’s nothing you can do to avoid it because without warning something you have a vested interest in goes to the dark place without warning and you’re left to pick up the emotional pieces. Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s The Body is just such an example or the John Travolta film Phenomenum whose trailer gave the impression that we were going to be watching a Capraesque comedy about man with special powers then delivered a gut punching twist that left me depressed for a week. Now Torchwood has done the same.

Needless to say, I'm not in a particularly funny mood.

About the most harrowing, nihilistic, depressing unremitting and to add the most obvious adjective brilliant hours of television this year and potentially ever in the Doctor Who universe (though it has to be said I’ve not read most of the Virgin New Adventures and I’ve heard some of those hug the Brown Bunny), Torchwood: Day Five offered some moments of levity (PC Andy getting stuck in, the country acquiring yet another Prime Minister) but in the main, despite stopping short at actually giving the 456 a win and letting them take the children, began on a dark note (he's still dead) and then kept going.

The skill with which this was accomplished was best expressed in the scene between the anti-Tucker and the Prime Minister. There have been similar summits throughout the week, a confident Capaldi happily taking orders from a determined Farrell, which however characterful have largely been about imparting exposition and moving the governmental subplot forward. Yet we know from the moment the middle-man walks through the door, that his boss, because he doesn't look up and regards his employee with contempt is going to suggest something extraordinary and in the following tense moments we find out what it is.

Tuck In the older Torchwood such a moment would have been blasted with music telling us what to think, how to feel. Instead, the conversation is punctuated by the sound of PM’s pen, probably signing the necessary orders for the upcoming doom, the horror of what is being proposed to Capaldi about his children turned into a function of the process, the scratch of the nib across the papers a reminder that we’re witnessing is simply this newly constructed public relations bureaucracy doing its wicked worst. Just when you think you’ve seen the best scene on tv this year, the show throws in another one.

That the episode was then comfortable enough in its skin to spend the next five excruciating minutes showing us the suicidal results demonstrates a confidence from Davies that we’re all curious about how far humanity needs to be pushed to do terrible things, the "good day to bury bad news" email made fiction. And the civil servant’s desperate, some might say cowardly act (I happen to think that all life is precious and there is always hope) was mirrored at the close of the episode in Jack’s (and his daughter’s) sacrifice, the only real difference being that Frobisher’s act was an attempt to save his family from future pain (see what I mean) whereas Jack’s was to save the world.

Oh how we laughed during Day Two. Little did we know that the series would conclude with the nullification of the one innocuous child’s synaptic pathways as his grandfather looked on hopelessly. Arguably this solution was just as much of a deus ex machina as we’ve seen in countless other stories in other corners of the franchise brought about by a hitherto unnoticed element, but the imagery, the implications, the performances, lifted it outside of that, as Jack, with Alice and Johnson standing as opposite ends of his conscience. finally became what we’d always suspected he was, the anti-Doctor.

Often in the mother series (or should we say sister now?) the timelord inspires the morally ambiguous to make the supreme sacrifice as a way of salving their conscience; instead here we saw the morally ambiguous not asking the innocent to do same. ‘Twas forever thus in Torchwood – Jack has made, it has to be said, many questionable decisions during these thirty-odd episodes but his arc in Children of Earth finally becomes apparent – the road to understanding that Torchwood was just an organisation that did stuff and has only ever been a smoke screen to explain the dark, inhuman, incapable figure he’s always been.

Would he have made the same decision if Gwen had been there? Another well thought out decision was to send Gwen and Rhys back into their home territory to defend the kids on a one by one basis. From a budgetary point of view it meant we could see the civil unrest but without having to hash in some G20 footage, but it also offered a witness to show that the world was aware of the revenge being wrought on the 456 by their channel of communication, by characters that we know and care about instead of (as I said the other day) random ex-soap actors in the street.

Jo It goes without saying (but I will anyway) that the performances were universally superb, with special mention to Liz May Brice who brought colour to the otherwise blankly antagonistic Johnson, unable to compute the schism between the authority she was pledged to defend and what it was capable of. Ben Foster's music was bassy and epic and layered with allusary themes, now than then recalling Murray Gold's Who music but twisting it slightly perhaps as way of expressing the impression the whole series was making that this is the darker end of the Whoniverse. And Euros Lynn's superbly judged direction which knew when to draw out the tension of moment and when to fire off an action sequence, the flight of the children from the estate recalling The Birds (without Tippi Hedren looking deliberately vacant)

Yet, if the comments at Twitter and elsewhere are anything to go by, some people aren’t happy with this conclusion (compared to what? End of Days? Giant demon stomping all over Cardiff?). Some hoped Ianto would be resurrected. Some considered it too easily resolved, that the 456 should have won having taken the kids leading to the world collapsing and this version of Earth presumably plunging into a Children of Men inspired dystopian state. Some were even disappointed that the Doctor didn’t turn up as rumoured (my own fantasy version of that encounter amounting to Tennant tiggerishly bouncing out of the TARDIS all “I would have got hear soon but I was stuck a big nebula” and Barrowman punching him brutally in the face asking where fuck he’d got to).

The first would have been cheap. The second would have caused a fair few problems for The Sarah Jane Adventures (which can probably quiet comfortably totter along without referring to this since the actual reason for the global child’s choir has been nicely covered up. Again.) and for the next production team since they still need to be able to tell stories on this planet going forward. And as for the third – apart from the series being called Torchwood and it needing to stand on its own feet (Gwen’s glorious speech notwithstanding) Russell has categorically stated the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood since it would draw younger kids towards material not necessarily suitable for them.

Instead, Torchwood: Children of Earth presented us with a conclusion that was true to itself, tied up all of the more interesting loose ends, because as Hitchcock says (I’m paraphrasing) only dull people want everything explained to them, and left us gasping for more. Debatably, after a series in which the alien presence has both been central to the story yet also a mcguffin, the sudden influx of cosmos jarred slightly. But for Gwen to meet Jack on what looked suspiciously like Wilf’s hill and for him (as I expected) take her to the new Torchwood HQ would have tonally jarred even more.

Jack After all of that, the last thing that was required was another reset, another slow crane shot through an HQ. There wasn’t actually anything in there to indicate that a Jackless Torchwood Cardiff has already begun operation – the wrist band having been found in the ruins next to the corpse of the Pterodactyl. But unlike this review, as well as everything else I’ve listed over the past week, this series has been about knowing when to stop, when enough is enough. And Jack listing all of the people he’s hurt was certainly sufficient. More than. And suddenly name-checking Suzie was nice present for the fans.

Where next? RTD says a fourth series is already in the planning stages awaiting the green light and given the ratings I think we can already start to speculate about what the new team will look like and who will be there. I’d like to see Johnson and Lois in there and strangely Dekker – Alice looks unlikely now, but you never know. There’s nothing even to say that they won’t use the Skins approach and dump everyone including Jack and Gwen. At this point we don’t even know if it will still be set in Cardiff though it seems unlikely that BBC Cymru would let such an obvious tourist advert slip out of the area. Which points to why this has been the perfect ending. We simply don’t know.

I'm going to bed.

Next: Not a bloody clue.

the shelves were empty

Commerce The Head (formerly Zavvi) shop at the Liverpool One shopping precinct is closing in August. Passing through this morning I noticed half the shelves were empty and much of the stock is heavily discounted. When I ask an assistant what was happening and she told me I could tell she'd been on something of a roller-coaster over it, her job looking secure and now -- not. I picked up a copy of Twister (Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton chasing tornadoes) for £1.76 and left.

There hasn't been anything in the news as far as I can tell so either the management company which bought out these stores has been unable to turn the new business into a going concern or they're scaling back operations and shutting the less profitable stores. Either way, it reduces the number of city centre specialist music and entertainment retailers to HMV and err that's about it -- with CEX picking up the second hand trade and WH Smiths and the hundred odd Tesco stores offering their narrow stock choices.

It's my fault of course, as I've said before. I don't go to these places unless there's a sale on and even then I've a fair idea of what's available online and more often than not it's still cheaper and I'm buying even less music, as predicted, with the advent of Spotify. When entertainment media is so prevalent, so available, the more traditional business models can't cope.

If I get a ying to listen to some of Julie London's back catalogue and its something I haven't already got, I just need to fire of the software, do the search, click and few times and there she is. It might be clinical, it might not have the same resonance of being in a record shop with the shared experience, but it is cheaper (free) and in these times, the price of eggs, bacon and sausage trumps almost everything else...
Elsewhere The reason I didn't go to bed until half one this morning.

links for 2009-07-10

Children of Earth: Day Four.

"Six thousand, seven hundred units. Deal or no deal?"

TV I didn’t cry. Not this time. This time I was shouting at the injustice of it all, as in “How dare they…” (‘they’ being the writers and production team rather than the 456) “How dare they kill Ianto?” I swore, a lot, only pausing to hear his final lines of dialogue ‘enjoying’ the extra resonance provided by Jones’s speech from his final radio appearance, The Dead Line, about Jack remembering him, and the repeated sentiment here. I was waiting for the last minute reprieve, the only testing speech from the 456. Then I remembered that this wasn’t Doctor Who and realised that he was gone. Then we unexpectedly saw the body (as if to give the viewer visual evidence).

Ianto Then Gwen straightened his tie. Then I cried. If one were to look for a reason why Torchwood has gone from being a show that you love to hate to must see television (at least this week) it's that it now has the time to include the small moments, imperceptible perhaps, that collectively add to a whole picture. Like the discussion, so beautifully acted, about putting a positive spin on the selling out of the children, which in a few short sentences crystalised the inhumanity of what was being proposed which also happened to be acted by Nick Briggs otherwise voice of the Daleks. Johnson numbed by what she’s just heard realising that she’s out of her depth then taking orders from her former enemy.

There were dozens of similar tiny moments, something in a performance, the music, the direction easily missed by the viewer but collectively adding the kind of texture not often seen in action adventure series. Imagine if in the 1980s JNT had decided to finally spin-off UNIT and after a couple of series of the Brig and pals getting into scrapes he then turned around and delivered something that had all the weight and waft of Edge of Darkness and brought Nigel Kneale in to write it giving him the freedom to inject his concerns. It feels like that. A few people on Twitter have wondered if its possible for a show to jump the shark in reverse – and on the basis of Torchwood it really is.

The closest example I can think of for a show going from being one you love to hate to something you genuinely love is Star Trek: The Next Generation which was reviled for its first few seasons after producing some of the very worst episodes of television in that franchise (Home Soil! Up The Long Ladder! the clip show!) before pitching up at the beginning of the third season with Evolution, a complex, literate story about life's various stages that somehow even managed to turn Wesley Crusher into a likeable unit (though obviously that word has a very different resonance these days).

Regular readers will know that in the past I’ve tended to take great pleasure in yanking the wings off Torchwood even as I defend some of Doctor Who’s wildest excesses and up to about forty minutes into the episode I was sharpening my typing fingers. Because there is no more hackneyed idea than the hero tape recording/videoing the most salacious behaviour of an otherwise publicly respected figure and threatening to make it public. For all of its sophistication it was even the pay off at the close of the environmental legal drama Michael Clayton.

Caves Then as has been so often the case in this series, smug bastards like me (slapping my own back for using the phrase ‘protection racket’ last night) received a well-deserved punch in the nose as Torchwood grand plan didn’t work and in fact, made things worse. There’s an interesting article somewhere about how The Caves of Androzani ruined Doctor Who because it showed that the timelord can lose. I wonder what they made of the hash job Captain Jack made of this situation on the back of the revelation about his nefarious past – for that matter was the not-we audience prepared to meet the dark Jack?

A similar rug pulling exercise happened during the inevitable conversation about how best to select the children. Last night I predicted a lottery and sure enough that’s how it seemed Cobra were headed and then Jackie Smith, Harriet Harmon or whatever the character’s name was proposed a cull of the working classes with the ultimate kiss off line “Well, the league tables have to be useful for something”. At that moment, the show took on a political dimension as it implied how the ruling classes still view the proletariat – an expendable drain on national resources.

Those scenes about the cabinet table, in which even the language used to describe the children was neutralised were all to reminiscent of the Wannsee Conference were Nazi middle men Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich hashed out the Final Solution phase of the Holocaust in which human beings were reduced to numbers to be negotiated on something akin to a commodity market. When that meeting was clinically dramatised in the tv movie Conspiracy with Stanley Tucci and Ken Branagh, the topic of conversation only present in the form of servants (I think). Here, writer John Fay immediately cut to those in question, the children in Ianto’s family’s house, explaining in fact why we’ve kept returning to them the comic relief turning to tragedy.

Child It’s a measure of how complex this series is that I haven’t yet mentioned such things as the other view of the Torchwood of the past, so cold and professional and morally ambiguous, Eve Myles’s ability to seamlessly slip between slapstick and horror, the death of the remnant so bloody confused and alone and bloody, drawing our attention away from the events in Thames House at a vital moment only doubling our attention instead, the reveal of the Lovecraftian alien perhaps the darkest creature yet seen in the tv version of the franchise (though that probably won't stop Character Editions from releasing ten different versions of it) and Lois (so Cush) finally getting her big moment which if it had been Martha might have seemed a tad derivative of the close of The Last of the Timelords but instead through the curious casting issues gained the resonance of speaking up for the common person and put our heroes in the room.

And talking of rooms, lets finally look at that elephant shall we? Was the death of Ianto and viral infestation of Thames House gratuitous? To cover the second issue first, as way of creating instant panic and to show the 456 mean business it’s as good an idea as any and has the irony of the microbe taking down the human race in a reverse of The War of the Worlds; as the swine flu and sars epidemics have demonstrate, us bags of mostly water (Home Soil!) (stop that) have an innate fear of a danger that we can’t see. As for Ianto …

On the one hand, the death of a lead character shouldn’t be that shocking and so soon (in temporal terms) after the snuffing of Owen and Tosh and Suzie before that at the shocking conclusion of Everything Changes. 24 or Spooks has done this often enough that it's begun to lose its dramatic power (unless the method of mortality is particularly horrific). The reason this worked is because it was the last thing we expected because we assumed we’d seen the last of the deaths within the main cast and the pre-publicity had led us to believe that this was the new stripped down version of Torchwood going forward; Gareth’s all over the publicity and gave interviews which generally gave no indication of something amiss

From an in-universe perspective it’s dramatically brilliant. One of the few solid elements running through the first two series was that you might well join Torchwood but you’ll never leave – you’ll die first – it’s the last job you’ll ever have. That was mentioned again during the radio plays and eluded to on earlier days and the Ianto's death simply confirms it. Now the story focuses on Gwen who like Jack during his Fragments flashback has watched almost all of her colleagues die, but unlike her boss she can die too. What are the implications of that? Frankly, about the only thing that could have made this more tragic would have been if the credits had rolled silently over a shot of some coffee beans …

Tomorrow: The claw! The claw! and the death threats start flooding into Cardiff from Jack/Ianto ‘shippers
Elsewhere Just in case you hadn't already assumed I've posted reviews of Torchwood's Day Three and Day Fourherherheerrrr at Behind The Sofa.

links for 2009-07-09

  • Gary Ross is rewriting Spider-Man 4. Wow. Having had to study his work at university, he's essentially made a career out of 'reimagining' Frank Capra's filmography. Spider-man seems closest to 'John Doe'. At least we can rest easy about it being half literate.

  • These seem to be straight documentaries rather than something presenter led which is a bold step for the channel -- this looks like the kind of thing which you'd expect to turn up on BBC Four or at the very least BBC Two. It certainly makes a change from the usual routine of Rolf Harris patronising us for half an hour. But which end of peak time will it be?

  • Random if amusing speculation. Despite an annoying start Chrissie turned into one of my favourite Whoniverse characters. Any woman who thinks a cherry necklace is acceptable is ok in my book.

  • "The next best thing to being at the match, npower Cricket in the Park allows you, your friends and family to have the best day out of the summer watching the live Ashes action on a big screen with thousands of other fans ... plus much more."

  • Includes a hilarious comment from Kevin Smith on the subject of the failed Clerks tv pilot: "Keri Russell was in it as some chick who worked in a tanning parlor that was also in the strip mall. I was, like, ‘There’s no tanning parlor in the strip mall!’

  • "The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you." Having had some nice comments about the Torchwood reviews which I thought were the rubbish late night meanderings of a tired illiterate this is something I have to keep remembering. But do I really want to be the Lester Bangs of the Whoniverse?

  • Calvin Harris asked to open jam jar as part of ITV's Wireless Festival. Predictable non-hilarity ensues.

  • "Here we are. Gathered together in the very lecture theatre where Henry Morton Stanley once told an enraptured world of his momentous meeting with Dr. Livingstone. Charles Darwin was a member and gave talks in this same hall. Sir Richard Burton lectured here and John Hanning Speke … spoke ..."

  • Last week, The Stage's TV blog offered some excellent Torchwood related content. In here, Scott describes the rationale and comments on the web reaction.

Children of Earth: Day Three.

"Day Three in Thames House. Mr Frobisher is talking to the 456 about nominations."

TV Riveting. It takes some very good writers (in this case Russell T Davies and James Moran) and excellent performances to make a scenario we genre fans have seen played out dozens of times before, human to alien contact, this suspenseful. This showdown had all of the ingredients. Our heroes out of the room having to witness the action via relay leaving the inexperienced middle manager to do the talking, an inability to see the alien properly, our only clues to its true nature that its behaviour and vocabulary closely mirrored that of a delinquent teenager lashed to the gills on white cider ringed by a halo of marijuana smoke and the slow burn of incomprehension as our very British bureaucracy clashed with a culture that didn’t give a stuff about such things.

Turns out the 456 are running an intergalactic “protection” racket. Give us x number of children each time we visit or we’ll burn the rest of the planet, our massive rocket shaped baseball bat ready to smash up the windows of the world if you don’t have enough takings to cover the debt each time (or whatever it was that happened in that 80s episode of Eastenders with Ali’s CafĂ©). The Doctor would taken one look at that scenario and laughed, got his game face on, done something wizzy with his sonic screwdriver, perhaps pressed a big red button, jumped in the TARDIS and visited the mothership and had a speedy shout through there as well before returning to Earth to give everyone a hug before buggering off again.

Because at its heart, as I’ve suspected but tonight’s episode confirmed, Children of Earth is really about what happens during an alien invasion when the Doctor isn’t there (just as I suppose both of these spin-offs are). It can’t help it. It’s Turn Left but with events yet to be seen, known unknowns. That could be inadvertent, though Jack’s brief mention of the timelord must surely be part of a subliminal strategy to keep him in our thoughts. The general expression seems to be – even with Torchwood (and perhaps because of) we’d be pants, jurisdictional infighting or geographical cock measuring getting in the way of dealing with something more important. In the next episode the world’s clearly going to appease the alien’s demands and hold a lottery closely followed by some all purpose civil unrest.

We could have a discussion here about how Martha hasn’t phoned her Gallifrayan friend at the first sign of global trouble just as she did in The Sontaran Stratagem (I means she’s only on her honeymoon and not callous) but like the Sarah Jane question that’s just something we’ll have to suspend our disbelief over – this is one big universe, everything is connected, but for narrative purposes we’re just going to have to assume they’re otherwise indisposed. My assumption is that because of what happened in 1965 the last thing they want is the Doctor showing up to give them a right telling off and that if Captain Jack himself was considering it he’s too embarrassed. Or something.

In Jack himself we see the timelord’s influence. The man who sent those kids to their probable doom is the broken version we greeted in the first season, soiled by the influence of the darker version of Torchwood. We know this because he did much the same thing at the end of PJ Hammonds’s Small Worlds (which much surely warrant a mention in the next episode). The Jack we greet these days is the one who spent a year being tortured on the Valiant for a year, the presumably more heroic version, the one who wouldn’t nab Frobisher’s kids, who jokes around and isn’t really comfortable unless he’s wearing army surplice. Perhaps tomorrow such issues will finally be nailed to the ground.

Elsewhere in those jokier ends of the episode we watched Torchwood regrouping or rather re-enacting an episode of Hustle so that they could empty PC World and spend much of the episode in that warehouse. I used to get a bit annoyed when some newsreader would signal impending doom Torchwood Cardiff’s first reaction would to joke about and find the quietest place for a shag but the writing seemed to make clear that it’s a defence mechanism, a way of dealing with the unbelievable. It helps that the cast have developed their comic timing somewhat; the old watch humour always used to seem a bit forced but the baked bean curtailing pre-charver negotiation was nicely played with Kai Owen’s blistering unawareness a joy.

The guest cast also continue to impress. The surprise in this episode was the burst of action from Alice who has clearly been trained by her father to defend herself; did anyone else think when she was asked by Johnson whether she too was invulnerable that Lucy Cohu was going for the ambiguous beat, that it’s something she herself has pondered despite the fact that she’s growing old? Never mind Lois Habiba, Alice is surely the natural new Torchwood member if Cohu’s free and willing, forever digging into her dad about never having been there for him, assuming there is a new series (and given that Day Two was the most watch programme on Tuesday that’s highly likely – people love this show).

So let’s ask the question again. Who are these aliens? Certain editors of this website*  on their twitter feeds have made genius suggestions, but I won’t steal their thunder. I’m still convinced they have something to with the children taken in the 60s, the current smoky box presence a more sophisticated version of the Balok puppet the Enterprise tackled in Star Trek’s The Corbomite Maneuver, the face behind the face. Or the Borad. Or the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal. A triffid. Gonzo the Great. A disembodied tendril from the version of the Sarlacc Pit that appeared in the special editions of the Star Wars films. At this point, I have no real idea. And isn’t that the greatest?

Tomorrow: Before the show, Gary in Stockport selected Arthur and set of balls number three...

* Behind the Sofa.

links for 2009-07-08

Children of Earth: Day Two.

TV Day Two was a demonstration of how a writer can get away with an awful lot if what they’re showing us is entertaining enough. In the main, this was the kind of episode Terrance Dicks describes on the dvd of The War Games as capture and release, in which some of our heroes are thrown in a prison cell and we have to watch them being rescued by the rest of our heroes to play for narrative time. Though it has to be said that it's not often the cell has to not only be broken into but hurled into a quarry.

Closely adhering to the old Doctor Who story structure, not much happened in this second episode in terms of the main plot; we found out a bit about the 456 (that they could be ambassadors of death or the people who top up an Orange mobile phone or something) and their timetable for approach and that the government have been aware of this kind of thing for ages (obviously) but mainly this was about re-emphasising the threat and putting some of the human shaped chess pieces in place ready for later in the week.

New writer John Fay took the baton from Russell T and blazed into the bend with it, delivering an episode in which our heroes might not have been running anywhere in particular but did so in just as appealing a way. I must have mentioned this before, but one of my favourite ever moments in new-Who is the chip shop scene in The Parting of the Ways. While Rose silently ponders the battle that is being waged in the future which she’s been exiled from, Jackie and Mickey chat about a new pizza shop which is opening nearby. We discover that it sells pizzas. It’s one of those nonsensical bits of small talk which happens between people who don’t have much else to say and it’s an example of what Russell T Davies has promoted so well throughout his version of the franchise, clashing and comparing the mundane with the fantastic.

What I love most about this new iteration of Torchwood is that it takes that approach and daubs it across every scene. I’ve already seen some complaints that it means that the series lacks that Spooksian sheen of reality (yeah, right), but personally I’d be annoyed if anything set in the Whoniverse did suddenly descend into a more visceral sense of reality and the kind of cartoon humour we saw tonight which balances on a tightrope somewhere between 24, Gavin & Stacey (I expect since I haven’t seen it), Outnumbered and Viz Comic. I’d much rather have anti-Tucker’s kids taking the piss out of him than cowering in terror and if BBC Cymru have any sense they’ll give Ianto’s brother-in-law his own series. I’m sure there would be quite some mileage in watching him and PC Andy chasing weevils.

In most other scenarios Agent Johnson would be a deadly assassin but isn’t it more fun that she just keeps missing our heroes like a leatherclad Wile E Coyote not at all suspecting that they’d have some way of making off with a concrete cell containing the man who cannot die? That the flakey manager of a haulage firm is the linchpin of that plan, a plan predicated on fortuitous information passed down by a governmental Huggy Bear/Deep Throat/PA with a password across a dinner table during the scoffing of pie dinner? Was that even a question?

The point is that whilst other franchises try to pretend that they’re on some dramatic cutting edge but are simply disingenuously burying this stuff under a mountain of technobabble and wizzy special effects, Torchwood’s wearing its goofiness on its sleeve. Except for Jack who at the end of the episode, once he'd been smashed out of the Rachel Whiteread sculpture, didn’t have any sleeves or anything else on for that matter much to the delight of Gwen and presumably Ianto who'll start cracking a smile again. Gareth's face never looks quite right when it has to frown all of the time.

The slow reveal of the aliens is remarkable what with the propensity of the franchise to throw them as soon as possible. If there's a potential weak point its that Mr Dekker (played with all of the charm of a British Leo McGarry by Ian Gelder) is building up tension about them so well that their appearance, as with most mysterious alien races from the Cloverfield monstrosity backwards to the beginning of time, can only be a disappointment.

That's what ultimately ruined The X-Files -- the war on Earth we were shown couldn't match up to the hints and ideas rattling around our heads; arguably the best shows have put the alien menace up front and made the surprise what their plan is. Given the title of the series and the themes, I'm expecting it to be the return of the kids we saw abducted at the opening of the first episode. Hopefully we're not looking forward to the higher production value CGI remergance of some humanoids covered in tin foil who just turn out to be friends of the Sontarans or the Daleks yet again.

Also, how would these first episodes have differed if Sweet FA had been available? Would she have been working undercover within the anti-Tucker's office and if so are we seeing a slightly more depthful version through her replacement, one in which we're getting to see the kind of ethical choices whoever had the MPs expenses cd need to make when trying to decide if the public had a right to know (see John, I can do politics too). The poetically named Cush Jumbo (who surely would have owned an airline in another life) was very fresh and witty and a worthy replacement so hopefully her character will survive beyond the end of the series.

Which isn’t to say I haven’t noticed a couple of in-universe implausibilities. Yes me. Watching that crater which fills the space where the Hub used to be I did wonder about were all of the alien artefacts have gone and why the emergency services were so readily allowed to trample all over the area. When the bits of Jack were carried away on the stretcher I’d half expected them to be revealed to be bits of Suzie or one of the dozens of other people from the vault. How come the guards at the facility holding Jack didn’t know what his other colleagues, still at large looked like, why the security cameras didn’t have some kind of facial recognition software, in other words rather than trying to chat Gwen up why wasn’t he arresting her?

Tomorrow: They're here. Though we probably won't actually get to see them until Friday.

offering intelligent discourse

Film This new essay from Roger Ebert is worth posting in-line. It's about the reaction to his review of Transformers 2 in which he was lambasted for being out of touch and/or only giving it a poor review because it's "clearly" not the sort of film he likes. Once particular quote stands out:
"What disturbs me is when I'm specifically told that I know too much about movies, have "studied" them, go into them "too deep," am always looking for things the average person doesn't care about, am always mentioning things like editing or cinematography, and am forever comparing films to other films."
That's me! That's been said to me over and over again, ad infinitum and usually by people (some of whom might even be reading this) who've asked me what I thought of a particular movie in the first place then don't like a proper thought out answer as though being informed and having an opinion is a bad thing.

And hating something like Transformers (I've yet to endure the sequel) has nothing to do with not liking that kind of film or not 'getting' what Michael Bay is trying to do. I'm one of the three people who adores The Island. It's that it's poorly written, horribly directed and pisses a much loved franchise up a wall.

links for 2009-07-07

  • "I decided to use the 19th Century, un-tutored, signmakers' sanserif you see on buildings around the city as a starting point and draw a bespoke font for the job," Baines explains. "The lettering is set in capitals-only to provide maximum character area."

  • "A few days ago I found out about a project that the Liverpool Architecture Society is in the process of launching. The Integrated City Project is a challenge to look at ways of reconnecting the various districts and areas of Liverpool and working out a cohesive set of suggestions and plans for how best to develop the city."

  • One of my favourite films, a cavalcade if imagery that was waay ahead of its time, though you do have to be careful to watch a version with a decent soundtrack. There are few rotters out there.

  • Ben gives his counterpart at The Independent a talking to. The response letter to the editor is hilarious.

  • Frank account of problems with the toilet and visiting thereof. Since it's nearly a week later, I hope you've been. Also, eat lots apples. That tends to shift it for me.
Elsewhere My review of Torchwood: Day Two, in which, much like the episode, I largely reiterate what I've said before.

the voice of a mega-fan

About On of my Radio Torchwood reviews has been mentioned at the Radio 4 blog:
"The most entertaining blog post Shownar exposes is this one, by Stuart Ian Burns on the Behind the Sofa blog. Stuart's not entirely won over by the radio version ("generally underwhelmed" he says) but then this is the voice of a mega-fan and he does find some kind words for writer Anita Sullivan.


I hope that Kate McAll and her team will be reading this one - I think there's a valuable fan's perspective on offer here. This is the kind of direct access to the opinions of listeners that these social media tools make possible. BBC programme makers will inevitably already have bookmarked Shownar."
Thanks Steve!

Children of Earth: Day One.

TV Blimey, that was good.

Aren’t children terrifying? I’ve always thought so, which is probably why I haven’t become a teacher or helped to make any myself yet (well one of the reasons). Individually they’re fine. They spend most their time eating, sleeping, burping and playing with their Wii. But on mass, walking the streets with their mobile phones, playing football and shoplifting, they’re a menace. And they’re even more terrifying if you are a parent or teacher I expect because they’re in your care and anything could happen to them when they're not within sight, or if they’re not eating, sleeping, burping and too tired to play with their Wii. To then have them collectively cease all function on mass and begin chanting in unison (and not at a designated holiday with a collecting tin being passed around) taps into your/our deepest fears that their function might be even deeper than simply growing up to become people like us.

At the close of my radio review trilogy and I suggested that anything could happen in the next five hours. If the first hour of Children of Earth is anything to go by I was right, righter in fact than anything in my short life, including Obama winning (because he had to didn’t he? Really?). After a brilliantly entertaining first fifty minutes the show tipped over into gripping and by the conclusion, despite the coincidental reveal of Jack’s predicament (forgivable because of the thematic subtext new life/old death) I was clamouring for the next episode of this Doctor Who spin-off like never before. Potentially the best hour the show’s ever perpetrated, the promise and premise of Everything Changes finally reaching fruition, this is the Torchwood I at least had hoped and expected and it’s being broadcast in the 9pm drama slot on BBC One for a whole working week. Can you believe it?

It’s as though Russell T Davies has taken his original premise and re-engineered it from the bottom up. Whilst there’s plenty of references to the previous two series, and the elements haven’t changed that much, he has a clearer understanding of how it should work tonally and the audience he’s writing for, that we love such things as subverted expectations and jaw dropping surprises (hey wait, no, he's supposed to be Owen's replacement etc). There’s a detail to Russell’s dialogue, a clarity, and an ability to skip between the funny and the not funny (and less incongruously than when ex-producer Chris Chibnall had greater creative control). He knows that people remember the incidental moments much more than the exposition, though if he can sneak some of that in, so much the better. I laughed like a drain throughout and for a change with the show. That’s a quite development. The scene in which Ianto had his car stolen might well be the funniest moments on television this year.

Elsewhere, Euros Lyn’s direction, particular in the prologue was startling, especially when he pulled the camera away from the action at a vital moment to underscore the grandeur of what’s occurring. The acting was universally superb, with the reliables doing what they've always reliably done, Peter Capaldi offering a kind of anti-Malcolm Tucker who was no less menacing and Paul Copley presenting a study in mental health, the frightened child he once was seeping through his every facial expression. Even John Barrowman somehow managed to produce a Captain Jack (aided by that script), who though still incongruous within his environment, finally worked as a coherent figure, pulling his performance back to the point that he was truly heartbreaking in the scene with his daughter, his hero gene terrifyingly attempting to take advantage of his family ties (whilst simultaneously explaining to the not-we some of his important character tropes, can’t die, always looks the same, promiscuous).

But what I cherished most is that’s it's not afraid to flaunt its Whoniversal backdrop, and not just by explaining to us why Martha Jones isn’t in this series or one of the characters crying over a hand. During one of the many, many pre-broadcast interviews, Davies noted that he’d cut a line about the Daleks from the first episode because it seemed wrong going out in that slot. I’d feared it meant that he’d be pulling back on such elements to try and keep it ‘accessible’, playing once again on the collective population wide amnesia that seems to conveniently afflict the human race so that each new menace can seem real and keep the lilt of reality or even the reset that article in a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine was desperate for. Not a bit of it. Lance Parkin has his work cut out.

This was an episode about the effects these alien encounters are having on the planet from Journey’s End backwards with such oddities as the children stopping just an example of the kind of thing which happens in that version of our planet, Torchwood once again reaching out of its own series to take a whole universe perspective. Most of the weirdness in the last series was fairly localised. When the dodgy doctor is talking about the increase in suicide rates, it has to be as a reaction to the Sycorax, the Slitheen, the spaceship Titanic, the Daleks. Half the planet knows about aliens and the other half have their suspicions. When this new Prime Minister (himself a result of the Doctor bugger up the timeline) compares his premiership with his predessors and speaks of metal from the sky, it shows that the cork has firmly popped out of the bottle and with such force it's now orbiting the Earth.

Tomorrow: Running. Lots of running. And Rhys probably asks Gwen if their baby's another alien.
Elsewhere An initial burst of enthusiasm for the new tv Torchwood. I hope it can keep it up ...

links for 2009-07-06

links for 2009-07-05

stuck with you

Meme The fifteen books which have stuck with you. In no particular order:

Return of the Native
Prozac Nation
Father Time
Have Spacesuit Will Travel
The Midnight Folk
So Long And Thanks For All The Fish
Spike Mike Slackers and Dykes
Public Art Collections In North-West England
Travels With My Radio
William Shakespeare: Complete Works
Adventures In The Screentrade
84 Charing Cross Road
Schott's Miscellany
To The Lighthouse


The Spotify Playlist

gated set, originally uploaded by chameleonic.

Torchwood Titles

Regular readers will know that I generally have a love though mostly hate relationship with the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. It's a bizarre thing, a folly, adult drama played out in the universe of a family adventure which has never settled into one particular tone so desperate is it not to play by any rules even if those rules govern such boring things as narrative coherence and logical character development.

Over time I've realised that best way to watch the show must be with the kind of revere required for some art films in which our usual expectations for what should be happening and what we've been trained to expect from fiction have to be ignored in favour of what's in front of us and that it probably works on its own terms. In other words, if Last Year at Marienbad can be acceptable entertainment why not an arc story about a living corpse who dies anyway?

Most of the following reviews were written in the wee small hours after the late broadcast of an episode as I wrestled with the thorny problem of trying to have a coherent opinion and attempt to word it in a coherent manner before falling asleep at the keyboard. To read them in order is probably to find someone slowly but surely going insane ...

Season One

Everything Changes
Day One
Ghost Machine
Small Worlds
Greeks Bearing Gifts
They Keep Killing Suzie
Random Shoes
Out of Time
Captain Jack Harkness
End of Days

Season Two

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
To the Last Man
Dead Man Walking
A Day in the Death
Something Borrowed
From Out of the Rain
Exit Wounds

Radio Plays

Lost Souls
Golden Age
The Dead Line

[Wow, I'd forgotten about giving Cyberwoman a positive review. And most of the second series...]

links for 2009-07-04

  • Mark schools the Daily Fail on their coverage of the BBC's Glastonbury coverage. One of these days I'd love the BBC to turn around and make a Panarama about the Mail in the same style ripping the piss out of their practices but they won't because they're too polite. And publicly funded.