Thursday, September 6, 2012

Torchwood: Countrycide

I don't like tearing into Chris Chibnall like this.  I mean, I enjoy the part where I sit down and write 1500 words about a spinoff of a cult TV show and then publish it where anyone in the world can read it because I can.  I enjoy analyzing a work of art and why it does or does not work, in my opinion.  And when I'm tearing a movie or TV show a new one, I enjoy coming up with the sarcasm and the fake outrage because I didn't enjoy a TV show.  All that stuff is fun.

But the further I go into this - and it's only going to get worse before it gets better - it feels almost like an attack on an incredibly hard-working writer.  Chibnall has been a fan of Doctor Who since he was a kid, and grew up to get a chance to not only write for that show, but be the lead writer for its spinoff.  And he wasn't lazy about that - he wrote almost a third of the episodes produced while he was there.  Nor are all of them awful.  Two of them are excellent, in fact.  And I can't wait for his Who episode on Saturday.  I mean, it's titled Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.  That's pretty much the best title for any work of fiction since that blind guy improvised a pair of 150,000 word poems about dudes killing each other while their gods screw with them.  So I don't want to come across like I'm attacking Chibnall the guy, or that I hold anything against him personally.  If someone creates a beautiful work of art, it only adds to the beauty of the world.  Chibnall has at least one episode of this very show that qualifies.  And if someone creates art that sucks, it doesn't hurt anything in the world, because one day it's forgotten while the beautiful work shines through.

But bless his heart, he created a lot that sucks.

As always, he starts somewhere interesting.  The idea for Countrycide is to violently yank the Torchwood team out of their comfort zone by having them confront villainy that's neither supernatural nor extraterrestrial.  It's a cool sort of experimental episode to break the mold.  Episode six of the first season is the wrong place for it - the show really hasn't settled down into an actual mold the break.  I mean, despite the opening title being about fighting aliens, so far they've mostly just fumbled around, creating problems by messing with alien tech they should be treating less stupidly.  But still, conceptually, it's a nice idea.

Unfortunately, Chibnall hinges the entire thing on ruining his characters, starting by lobomizing Owen.  Early in the episode, Owen causes the team tremendous grief because he leaves the car keys in the ignition.  Of the high-tech vehicle of a top secret organization.  And Chibnall seems to revel in his stupidity, giving him cartoonish dialogue.
OWEN: What is that smell?
GWEN: That's grass.
OWEN: It's disgusting.
Up until now, Owen was incredibly unsympathetic but seemed mostly competent.  This is now the second time in six episodes the various events of the episode are at least partly his fault.  (and for the record, that's 4/6 where the Torchwood team is partly responsible for the mess they get in)  And he's not the only one.

Ianto is now for some inexplicable reason part of the team out in the field. I mean, it’s not like he was a field guy before, but after Cyberwoman, he shouldn’t even be on this show. But despite the fact that every single thing in Cyberwoman was entirely his fault in every conceivable way, he still tries to guilt-trip the others about it (and succeeds!).
Tosh isn’t much better. Out of nowhere, the episode tries to graft action hero onto her, (which is pretty much the first thing they've tried to graft on her) then throws it right back out the window when, after kicking the villain in the balls, she waits for him to recover rather than, you know, running or capitalizing on it in any way. Then, when she finally does find a moment to run, she trips on a pile of leaves – you read that right – and gets caught again.  Tripping on a pile of leaves is, at this point, far and away her most memorable moment in the series.

But worst of all is Gwen. For most of the episode, she’s sort of okay. It’s not entirely clear why she’s attracted to douchey Owen and his constant sexual harassment that's bordering on assault at this point, but that could be set aside because, hey, sometimes people are just attracted to strange things. But then, there’s the final scene, and in just a single shot, the show kills every likable thing about her. She was one of the only two characters in this whole show I cared for, and now she’s just a whiny little girl who cheats on her perfectly nice, supportive boyfriend just because.

With Owen.

That leaves Jack, and he escapes with his dignity mostly intact. I don’t care for the climax where he rescues the team by kneecapping all the bad guys (with a shotgun, no less) instead of just, you know, killing them. In a gunfight. When they’re shooting at him, too. I mean, this isn’t a guy who has a problem with killing when necessary. It's one thing to put little references to whatever film or show inspired you; it's quite another to just straight rip off one of the most iconic scenes from the most iconic action movie of all time without even making sure it makes sense in context.  And even the Terminator didn't kneecap that room with a frickin' shotgun. (like the occasional shots of the actors having conversations on top of buildings for no reason, it seems to exist to make the characters ultra-cool, and failing because trying to be cool is the one sure-fire way to not be cool)

This is at least partly balanced out by the great revelation about his past when he was well known as someone particularly talented at torture; it adds nicely to his dark, mysterious background.

But all that aside, what is the Torchwood team doing on this mission anyway? The entire purpose of Torchwood’s existence is to fight alien threats. It’s one thing to stretch to the supernatural, but this is just regular serial killer stuff. There’s nothing at the start to indicate this is anything less than human, and it’s then revealed that it is, of course, just humans.

And finally, there's the actual plot.  Basically, the Torchwood team stumbles into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Which, as movies to rip off your plot go, it's an incredibly bad choice.  Not because putting a spin on an old horror movie plot is a bad thing - Brain of Morbius basically approches the plot of Frankenstein with the serio-comic-horror tone of Bride of Frankenstein, and that's one of the greatest Who serials ever.

But Chainsaw is not a great horror movie because of its plot, or its themes, or its characters.  It barely has those.  No, Chainsaw is a great horror movie because after a few subtle but well executed shocks in the first half, the second half is one of the most harrowing, nightmarish cinematic hell rides ever created.  The horrifically discreet violence of the earlier scenes gives way to an endless night of pure terror as the heroine desperately runs, getting steadily more exhausted while a man wearing a human mask chases her through unfamiliar woods and houses with a running chainsaw.  And by filtering the film through a docu-drama aesthetic, Tobe Hooper makes it feel absolutely real.

All of which is to say, Chainsaw is a classic horror movie because of its style, not its substance. (or, more accurately, the style is the substance.  I'm of the opinion that great style can, in itself, be great substance, though, admittedly, that may just be me trying to excuse what a huge De Palma fan I am.)  So ripping it off gives you nothing to work with, leaving the audience with nothing but a reminder of how much better that thing you're referencing was.

It doesn't help, though, when the plotting is so poorly thought through.  Why does Torchwood stop at the side of the road to go camping? Why do the villains just tie up their victims by the hands, leaving them free to easily escape?  And so forth.

What’s really frustrating is that right in the middle is one superb scene where Gwen is blasted with a shotgun and Owen has to field dress her then and there. It would work even better if Owen wasn’t such a prick, but still, it's tense, dramatic, and crisply written.  And given how good the actors are with bad material, it's no surprise they shine with a genuinely good scene. It’s not really clear why Gwen is so energetic and all running around and such after taking a shotgun blast, even to a less-than-vital area, so the effect of the scene doesn’t last. But still, for one brief, shining moment, it’s great.

It's really not like Chris Chibnall is incapable of writing good stuff. His “Pond Life” shorts last week were delightful, and Saturday brings "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", which the trailers assure me does, in fact, includes dinosaurs on a spaceship.  How could that possibly be anything less than the coolest thing ever?



  • Without Owen leaving the keys in the car because he was too busy sexually assaulting seducing Gwen apparently, the list continues.
    • Number of plots largely caused by the incompetence of the Torchwood team: 4/6. 
    • Number of Torchwood Incompetence Plots caused by Owen's douchbaggery: 2/4.

No comments:

Post a Comment