There are pretty much two writers’ names that can instil fear into the heart of a discerning Doctor Who or Torchwood fan: Chris Chibnall’s and Helen Raynor’s.
Chibnall has been responsible for some appalling pieces of work, with awful plots, awful characterisation and awful dialogue (cf Countrycide). But at least he’s fun. The opening episode of this series of Torchwood, which was one of Chibnall’s best, we all assumed would be a template for the show this series: daft, silly, but well paced and fun.
But no. At Torchwood, it seems “the script editor is out”, so consistency of tone and characterisation is something that we can’t possible hope for. Because here comes another of Helen Raynor’s massive worthy tomes.
As I remarked then,
“There’s something about Helen Raynor’s writing. It’s always nicely put together, doesn’t insult your intelligence too much and has a certain sensibility about it that makes you think she’s trying to write proper drama. But it’s absolutely dull to watch.”
And so it was with last night’s Torchwood episode, To The Last Man.
While you can imagine Chris Chibnall lives in a bedsit surrounded by Playstation games, old takeaway cartons and all of Blockbusters’ “action-adventure” DVD range, Helen Raynor comes across through her writing as the sort of person who cycles to work wearing fairtrade ethnic weave clothing made from recycled nettle flax while listening to Radio 3 podcasts on a solar-powered MP3 player while mentally composing letters to The Guardian about the terrible exploitation of Nicaraguan cantaloupe workers – she does, of course, even in her head, pronounce Nicaraguan authentically, thanks to her three years’ volunteer work there after university.
Accurate or no, the idea of Helen Raynor having fun is about as plausible as the idea of Russell T Davies ‘inning’ himself as having being happily married to a woman called Penny for the past five years and having two sons called Trevor and James.
Sitting through To The Last Man, while there was never a Chibnallian point at which the brain revolted at the sheer abysmal quality of the script – indeed, it was well put together, etc – it was about as enjoyable as a six month course of vaccinations after having been bit by a rabid dog, during which you get to watch nothing but mid-80s Czech cartoons about Marx’s relationship with the Young Hegelians.
Captain Jack was once again back to his grey old series one self with no innuendo and no humour (aw, bless, and John Barrowman was trying so hard to act, too). Gwen was back to her usual Helen Raynor scripts-only self: a former Cardiff PC who supposedly can punch Captain John around a bit still seems to have some trouble and screams and covers here head when faced with a bloke with only one leg and on crutches. Adopt a stance, love, get your gun out or KICK HIS CRUTCH AWAY: do something, you wuss.
Tosh was back to her “I can’t get no loving, not me, I work so hard, except when I jump into bed with anyone I’ve known for four days” self. Ianto is now treading the standard Torchwood path to romance: boy meets girl, girl dies, boy puts girl on ice and turns her into a cyberwoman, man kills cyberwomen, boy wants to kill man, boy has timed wank off with man, man asks boy out on date, boy and man sleep together, boy and man share their first kiss. Ah, how sweet! But it’s only a classic because it’s so true to life.
Still, the general continuity of character development was good. Owen’s rehabilitation into a sensitive type and handy doctor continues anon. And Team Torchwood seemed miraculously competent for a change.
But how much suspense did they think we’d feel when we saw how it was going to end right at the beginning? We could also have done without the heavy-handed, “War is bad, especially this Iraq thing” references. And gosh, wasn’t it awful that PTSD sufferers were shot for cowardice 90 years ago? Is there a fund we can contribute to or something? And think of all the people who didn’t have access to proper cappuccino-making equipment during the Battle of Agincourt! It’s a disgrace. Maybe there’s a photogenic old blind veteran with a cup we could ostentatiously put money into to show how much we care about Issues.
It almost goes without saying that the plot didn’t make a huge amount of sense. It wasn’t completely stupid, and the idea of a man who only samples the world for one day out of every year (so the first and second world wars are only three weeks apart in his world) was a good one. The direction was good as well, even if it couldn’t lift the script out of a pit of dullness.
Yet given the amount of interaction between Torchwood 1918 and Torchwood 2008, it seemed odd that Torchwood 1918 would leave such massive briefings for their successors. How did they know that when Tommy said “You’ve got to take me”, that meant “Please stick me in cryogenic storage for the next 90 years”? How did they know what was happening and how to fix it? Why did they put a temporal lock on it and why on a wooden box you could smack open with a mallet in one easy blow.
We could probably rope in Captain Jack’s time agent knowledge to help out, but hey, it’s Torchwood: sense is not its middle name, assuming it had a last name so it could have a middle name.
Having sad that, Torchwood 1918 seemed moderately interesting and was a nice touch that actually gives the show some proper backstory. I predict a whole range of possible Torchwood fan fic launched off the back of the adventures of previous Torchwoods: kind of like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is to modern-day comics. Anyone want to recruit Richard Hannay for Torchwood 1921?
All in all then, pretty tedious, and enjoyable really only to Tosh fans who are gratified to see her do anything, even if it doesn’t develop her character one iota.
PS I knew it would only be a matter of time before the Norwegian church took centre stage in Torchwood filming. My next prediction for a Cardiff Bay landmark to appear on-screen? The wetlands round the back of the St David’s. Birds: watch out – Torchwood’s coming for you.
PPS The Who team seem obsessed with World War One for some reason (creepier uniforms? Too much Sapphire and Steel when they were younger?). I’m sure the Crimea and Boer wars could do with some remembrance and if we’re talking world wars, the Napoleonic Wars touched pretty much every continent so they could do with some thoughts, too.