Review: Torchwood 2×7 – Dead Man Walking

Torchwood - Dead Man Walking

Firstly, a quick word about the Torchwood reviews. Obviously, it’s all getting a bit tricky now that BBC3 is airing the next episode directly after the current BBC2 episode, and BBC America is a couple of weeks behind BBC2. So my general reviewing policy will be to review on Thursdays the episode of Torchwood that aired on BBC2 on Wednesday night. I’ll also keep the spoilers until after the turn.

I figure that people who can only watch the BBC2 episode will then be able to read the review the next day without having to hunt for it with the search engine; people who watched the BBC3 episode will be able to read the review on the front page as well, but the following week; and Americans, well, it’s probably search engine for you guys, but I’ll hopefully not be spoiling you. That’s probably the most equitable arrangement and it does mean I won’t have to stay up late to watch the BBC3 episode, but can watch it at my leisure.

Dead Man Walking then. I believe last week we left the official verdict at: 

Ahahahahah. I’ve seen next week’s. Ahahahahahahaha.

[Pause]

AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

And that’s still a pretty robust verdict. All the same, far from the worst episode of Torchwood there’s ever been.

Plot
Deep in shock, the Torchwood team have to face their darkest hour. However, in an effort to put things right, Captain Jack Harkness unleashes a primal force that uses Torchwood as a conduit to wreck havoc across Earth, aided by the Weevils and their newly-appointed King.

Was it any good?
Well, there were high hopes for this one, given it was by Matt Jones, who put together the Doctor Who
 two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit a while back. Still, was he going to channel The Impossible Planet (great) or The Satan Pit (not so great)? Turned out it was a bit of both.

The plot was relatively simple: Jack’s hacked off that Owen’s dead so goes and gets the matching death glove that resurrected Suzie, from the Church of St Weevil; death glove works, brings Owen back as requested, but doesn’t let him return to the after-life after his 30 seconds of last words. So Owen, whose body is still somewhat dead, wanders around for a bit farting and vomiting, talking in dead languages (à la The impossible Planet) and letting his eyes go black, before realising that Death wants to enter into the world through him. Blah, blah, noble self-sacrifice then school playground shoving match with badly CGI-ed Grim Reaper sends old Skeletor back whence he came. Owen’s still dead, but walking around. The End.

On the whole, though, it wasn’t bad. There were strange jumps and holes in the plot: how did Jack escape from the weevil church? What happened in between his being knocked out and waking up again? Why exactly did Martha get hagged (no jokes about spending too much time with Jack, please)? When did tiny old Welsh church records from the middle ages get digitised?

But Owen’s predicament was interesting. He becomes, in a sense, the flipside of Jack: Jack can’t die, Owen can’t live. It becomes a bit Truly Madly Deeply at times, with everyone perhaps a little uncomfortable with Owen hanging around being all dead and such. There’s some nice Jack/Owen interplay. The Weevil worshipping was quite creepy, as werel the black eyes and talking in tongues (even though we’ve seen them before). And actually making Death (I’m sure there’s some Doctor Who New Adventures cruft about Death being one of the ancient Time Lord gods) the enemy is quite ambitious, similarly creepy and almost awe-inspiring: how do you defeat Death?

Nevertheless, the Devil is in the details. It all felt a little padded out, with too little plot to last the episode’s allotted span; having the glove do an Evil Dead was very misguided to say the least; the CGI Grim Reaper was good right up until it started to walk like it was in a Daft Punk video; the "interdimensional void produced using distorting mirrors" effect was old and bad when they were using it in the Jon Pertwee era; and farting and vomiting gags – where are the Slitheen when you need them?

Still, adventurous and didn’t quite have the ending we were no doubt expecting (Owen dying – again – in a noble act of self-sacrifice after everyone’s been allowed some proper goodbyes, thus avoiding fan clamour for his return since look what happened when he did come back).

  • Owen was the character that benefitted the most from the revamp going into Season Two of ‘Torchwood’. Less of that shagging smarminess was all to the good. But still there was something I thought was missing to give him that oomph which could highlight why he was special enough to be in the group.
    (Last year, I thought that they should have capitalized on Burn Gorman’s… different… facial structure and claimed that Owen was from some parallel Earth, from a different evolutionary line than “our” own. At the very least it would have kept the rift in Cardiff in play if a member of the Torchwood team was from some place on the other side of it.)
    At least Toshiko could make the claim of being a crossover character. Ianto was chalked up to be a lost cause as the Peter Lupus of the group without the muscles, but this season it looks like they’re playing that up a bit with him being the goto guy for the humorous asides. Plus as Jack’s boy, that helps.
    So this turn of events with Owen should make for interesting interpretations to their situations, kind of like having an alien in your bridge crew on some Trek-style show.
    (Liked best the scene in the jail cell where he ruminated about the loss of such mundane “pleasures” like farting and erections. It’s the sort of thing one would probably think about in such a situation.)

  • Phoenix

    I watched the latest episode so I could come here and comment on it, only to find out that it was “A day in the death” instead. 🙁
    My thoughts so far:
    Reset: “Oh no, they killed my least favorite character ever!”
    Dead man walking: “Hmm, actually seems to be an OK chap. Too bad he’s on such a crap show.”
    A Day in the death: “No breath? NO BREATH? Did the writers fail basic physics? HOW IS HE SPEAKING? He can clearly move, mechanically speaking; there’s nothing bloody mystical about air going into and out from the lungs. And NOBODY pointed this out the whole time they were shooting this?”
    So, it has its ups and downs.

  • I was going to hold off on mentioning that until next week’s, but yes, that bit makes no sense. But then we’d have to ask, if his heart doesn’t work any more, why his blood isn’t sinking into his legs, etc. And we don’t want to think about science on Torchwood, oh no.

  • Craig Grannell

    “if his heart doesn’t work any more, why his blood isn’t sinking into his legs, etc”
    Um, it’s not real. Really. If we ‘forced’ all shows to be ultra-realistic, we’d have no fantasy stuff at all. Most of Buffy/Angel would be about, respectively, some kids at high school, and Cordelia being a failed actress.
    Oddly enough, I’m almost enjoying Torchwood now. Maybe it’s best to pretend that the first series didn’t happen, because this run is pretty much in that territory (a lot of problems, still finding its feet, but with potential). That said, I really hope they do something very out of the ordinary with Owen, because if there’s something I can’t stand, it’s the ol’ “He’s dead! Oh no! But don’t worry, because we’ve brought him back now! Phew!” See also: most comics, and far too many TV shows and movies.

  • I think I sort of made the point that we don’t want to think about science on Torchwood. Did I not?
    However, it’s worth noting that Torchwood is of the sci-fi genre, which traditionally tries to deal with science, whereas Buffy et al were of the fantasy/horror genre, which tries to deal with magic. In your science-type show, you need a ‘scientific’ explanation for why things are happening; in a fantasy-type show, you can have a non-scientific, ‘magic’ explanation. Mix them up and odd things happen.
    Still, I suppose it’s no worse than Superman v Captain Marvel in that respect.
    Torchwood has definitely been a lot better this series. A few faltering steps at first but definitely been getting stronger. I’m not sure what to make of the trailer for “Something Borrowed” on that score, though.

  • “Matt Jones, who put together the Doctor Who two-parter The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit a while back”
    I didn’t notice that, but it makes sense seeing as though I constantly kept thinking how similar death-possessed Owen was to Satan-possessed… er, whatever his name is.
    By the way, I always seem to watch this on the Thursday repeat, and it never *feels* like I’m missing out on anything. I quite like it.

  • Once I’d started laughing at the Thing From The Addams Family scene, I couldn’t stop. And then they forgot the plot in the hospital and Gwen had to explain it to Jack again. And I started laughing again. Owen having to fight bad CGI for the second time in the series (and doing exactly the same moves, I swear) was also a highlight.
    Not as bad as Cyberbra, but then very, very few things are.
    Oh, and those sinister magic words? Taken straight from a Stephen Donaldson novel, apparently.

  • Daf Jones.

    Having just watched what i presume was the latest episode i can’t help but comment on the physics in it “phoenix” alludes to…
    I also watched “Dead man walking” and finding that “Owen” has to fight death at the end of the one, for the character to have lines about “the darkness” in the other episode struck me as a bit odd.
    Not getting into a big theological debate but isn’t R. Davies or whoever scripts it a little hypocritical in putting forth their apparent atheisisms after previously inferring another world “beyond”?
    I know it’s sci-fi but shouldn’t there be some logic?

  • MediumRob

    It could be they’re aiming for some consistent, pan-Who version of evil and death, sort of a Whovian theology. Either that or they liked it so much the first time, they thought they’d do it again.
    The earlier repeat is supposed to be edited only for language, I think (and maybe a little violence). Which means that only Chris “Inappropriate” Chibnall is likely to be getting edited in the repeats.

  • MediumRob

    Logic? Internal consistency? Is this your first time with Torchwood? 😉
    Anyway, Rusty is the high priest of being an atheist while exploiting Christian imagery and concepts at every turn. Look at Second Coming, Last of the Time Lords et al. I would guess his get-out clause, being Rusty, is that this is all make-believe and does not, in any way, represent his real-life views. Plus putting science in the place of God, even metaphorically, is quite an atheistic thing to do.

  • “Plus putting science in the place of God, even metaphorically, is quite an atheistic thing to do.”
    Nah, it’s what religious types say atheists do, thus giving them a nice, easy way to attack them which is very hard to argue against. I’ve never met an atheist who ‘believes’ in science in the same way that relgious people believe in God.

  • Depends what you mean by “putting science in the place of God”, though. I don’t mean worship it in the same way you might worship a god/God (that’s for the Richard Dawkinses of this world). I mean substituting scientific explanations of processes for explanations that previously required a god/God.
    I know of no atheists – of which I am one – who would dispose of God as a mechanism for everything that happens in the universe and replace Him with absolutely nothing at all. “How’d that ball fall? It wasn’t God, but I don’t believe in gravity.” Most go for gravity, evolution, atoms, Big Bangs, etc.

  • But in doing that you have to substitute God with a rational explanation (ie, by saying ‘gravity’, you’re invoking all the theories and assumptions behind gravity, including the gaps where we don’t know what’s going on).
    And (bringing it back to Torchwood with a whiplash-inducing swerve) that’s exactly what RTD and many of his writers don’t do. They just assume by saying ‘it’s science’ and throwing in some gobbledegook that everyone will be satisfied. Unfortunately, they’re working on shows with a substantial adult audience and that won’t wash. Hence the rubbishness of Helen Raynor’s scripts for TW and Doctor Who.
    Incidentally, I don’t think that discussion of an afterlife is incompatible with atheism. Philip Pullman seemed to manage it rather well.

  • Have you read Edward de Bono on the various levels of explanation relating to his “black box” demo? He gives a talk, at the beginning of which he puts a black box on the table next to him. About halfway through, it falls over of its own accord and he gets the audience to write down their explanations.
    The most basic is “because of something inside it”; they then range through some kind of explanation (type a: “there’s a clockwork mechanism inside”); to the more detailed (type b: “there’s a clockwork mechanism inside that shifts a weight that moves its centre of balance to the point where it falls over”); to the intricate (type c: “there’s a clockwork mechanism inside that shifts a weight that moves its centre of balance to the point where it falls over because the turning moment clockwise is greater than the turning moment of the reaction force anticlockwise”). None of course ever gives a full explanation (type d: “there’s a clockwork mechanism inside that shifts a weight that moves its centre of balance to the point where it falls over because the turning moment clockwise is greater than the turning moment of the reaction force anticlockwise. The clockwork is made of an alloy composed of 95% steel, 5% iron. Iron consists of atoms with 56 protons and neutrons in its nucleus, typically arranged in a lattice structure. An atom is…”)
    Do you need to have anything better than a type a) explanation? Depends on who you are and what you’re doing. If you just want a vague idea of what happened but aren’t that fussed, no. If you want to be sure it wasn’t ghosts, you need a b). If you want to build it, you need c). d) is useless to everyone unless you’re writing an infinitely long encylopaedia.
    So does the lack of decent explanation (ie c) or above) in Doctor Who really matter? Well, we got by on “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” for years without much damage. Would any ‘scientific’ explanation for something that hasn’t yet been demonstrated by science make any sense? You might want to provide a type d) explanation for why Owen can walk around despite being dead (“the arteron energy has energised his nerve cells in the exact same pattern as his living self through a combination of morphic resonance and quantum entanglement that also allows his speech to be heard through field interactions with other people’s morphic fields”), but ultimately, he’s dead so no matter what explanation you give, it’s going to be cobblers. So why bother? You end up with ghastly technobabble of Star Trek or Stargate. BSG manages to have all sorts of things happen without the need for technobabble.
    My only real problem with it is that no one notices it on-screen and says, “How come if I have no breath, I can talk? That’s odd. Oh well, moving on to the slightly more important current emergency…” They’re scientists, damn it! They should be more curious than that.
    Discussing the afterlife is fine in atheism, provided it’s an afterlife that doesn’t require a god…

  • I was watching an episode of Angel last night (Offspring, the one where he finds out that Darla’s pregnant), which had the ‘no breath’ plot point in it. And it wasn’t as glaring as when it was in Torchwood. It certainly wasn’t because of better writing (the dialogue was pretty clunky) or acting, so maybe it’s the pedestrian direction that’s the problem? It makes the inconsistencies more glaring, perhaps?
    The problem with science in the Nu-Whoniverse is the inconsistency. In Who, it’s the complete jumble of actual-science with not-science, like the completely bonkers treatment of DNA in the Dalek episodes. It’s just annoying, and doesn’t make sense within the confines of the story. Rusty’s stuff about EMP blasts in Smith and Jones didn’t make sense in science terms, but it did in terms of the story, so it worked.
    And in Torchwood, as you said, it’s because these people are supposed to be scientists, and yet they’re completely incurious. A better way of handling it might have been for Tosh and Martha to start throwing arguments backwards and forwards until either Jack or Owen yelled at them to stop because it didn’t matter, they just had to deal with the fact of it. Would have taken 20 seconds of screen time, and it would have shut all of us up.
    I don’t subscribe to the view that good sf can only be written by scientists, but the best has certainly been written by people who are interested in science. Iain M Banks cheerfully admits that he knows bog-all about spaceflight or genetics, and he’ll use ‘it’s all done with fields’ as a catch-all explanation, but he knows to read up about his subjects, he can dovetail between actual bits of science and stuff he’s made up, and he’s consistent. I don’t think Rusty and Co — or some of them, at least — think about it much beyond ‘just make something up’. Which is fine for kids, but as I said, they’ve got a wide adult audience who thinks about this stuff, and sloppy writing is a sure way of pulling you out of a story. Going back to your example, not only do they not even invent an explanation up to (b), they will often have two different (a)s that contradict each other.

  • MediumRob

    “but the best has certainly been written by people who are interested in science”
    And the worst. Think Kevin Anderson.
    Actually, think Ray Bradbury and Phil Dick who weren’t really interested in science at all (cf Martian Chronicles with people waltzing around on Mars without a hint of terraforming) yet arguably produced some of the world’s best science fiction.

  • Philip K Dick (only Michael Moorcock is allowed to call him Phil) was very interested in science. He experimented on himself all the time.

  • MediumRob

    Good point, Sir! A toast!

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