Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Torchwood: Small Worlds

Small Worlds has a beautiful opening: an old woman walks through a dark forest late at night, speaking into a recorder that she doesn't want to wake "them".   Finally, we see what she's referring to: fairies.  They're a wonderful visual effect, accompanied by Elfman-ish strings, enhancing a truly lovely scene.  And then, the music gets scary, and they morph into laughably bad monsters.  Because we're obviously too stupid to figure out that they're creepy when they start killing people later.  Jumping the gun on the music ruins any chance of creepiness and actually kills the magic, too. The lousy CGI demons are only the final nail in the coffin.

I don't know who, exactly, it was that ruined that opening.  It could have been in Peter Hammond's script, but given what a good script it is on the whole, I sort of doubt it.  My suspicions tend toward Chibnall; in fact, I suspect most of the significant flaws were his additions or changes.  But I don't know that.

And that's sort of how Small Worlds goes.  It's a story both wonderful and terrifying that powerfully delivers on Torchwood's promise for the first time.  But there are massive, fundamental flaws in the execution, many and possibly all of which came not from writer PJ Hammond, but from the production team themselves.  Still, given what leaps and bounds this is above everything before this (and after for a good while), I can't be too hard.  After all, on the whole, I really liked this episode both times I watched it, even if a couple of key scenes are inexcusably blown.  For the first time, this actually feels like we’re somewhere in the Doctor Who universe. (and a good TV show)

First off, Gwen is finally used well.  So far, she's been a good character with little to do except be the new girl.  Here's, she's a full-fledged member of the team, and a good one. She’s whip-smart, totally staying with Jack no matter how ambiguous he’s being about things without being unbelievably clever. Jack has a little too much brooding, but for the most part, he’s also nicely shaded and given good material. The other three members barely appear, but since Owen’s the kind of guy who uses date-rape alien pheremones just for the hell of it, Ianto is apparently a lobotomized 12-year-old girl, and Toshiko has the personality of a particularly dull rock thus far, it’s no loss.

The Fairies are a wonderful idea, and the mythology is fantastic – dark, mysterious, and wondrous. In Fairy mode, they also look quite beautiful. Unfortunately, when they turn into demons, they just look like lazily-designed CGI demons. I'm generally pretty forgiving of low-budget effects when there was no other way to effectively tell the story, but there weren't needed at all.  Every scene they’re in would have been vastly more effective if they weren’t shown at all anyway. The scene near the end where they kill the guy by growing flowers in his throat (a brilliant and uniquely creepy idea) would be terrifying if we simply saw the man struggling,

Not that the script is perfect. It’s never really explained why the fairy-demons kill the old lady, given that their other two victims are a) a pedophile, and b) the little girl’s pointlessly evil stepfather.  Their entire M.O. seems to be to kill those threatening the girl, both of whom are irredeemably cruel. Maybe if they hadn’t gone out of their way to make the stepfather a one-dimensional jerk, it might have worked as they killed anything that threatened the girl in their eyes, innocent or not.  But as it is, the killing of the old lady is just gratuitous.  It's one thing to be ambiguous, it's another entirely to be simply contradictory.

Further, her death is caused when, after not only telling Jack that a bad demon is after her, but being told by Jack to be careful, she walks outside in the dark.

Where the demons are.

As rough as some spots may be, however, it's a compelling story that builds up to a genuinely brilliant final scene.  After all the build-up, it turns out the fairies aren't threatening the girl - they want her to become one of them.  And she wants to.  And while Gwen tries desperately to find a way out, Jack simply holds her back, asks for an assurance that they won't actually hurt the girl, and then lets them have her.

And that's where the show hits its full potential.  In one moment, we have Gwen, arguing to do the right thing, and Jack, arguing to do the only thing they can do.  And then Jack wins, and does something horrific because he sees no better way out.  It's a chilling moment of astounding moral complexity that punches you in the gut.  Hard.  It asks a difficult question and then gives an even more difficult answer.

So why doesn't the rest of the season approach this level of quality?

I think, honestly, it's the flaws in this story that show why.  The Demon CGI should never have been attempted in the first place; clearly they should be off-screen.  It's not like Who, where kids are watching and might be disappointed if a monster didn't pop up every once in a while. (I would dispute that, but it's at least a valid argument) This is adult sci-fi; we can figure it out.  But once it was obvious that it wasn't looking good, they should have cut them out anyway.  Somebody somewhere on the production team - director Alice Troughton, producer Richard Stokes, exec producers RTD and Julie Gardner, or producer/lead writer Chris Chibnall - should have realized that.

As for the characters, once the team is reduced to Gwen and Jack, everything clicks much better.  No douchebaggery or incompetence or sexual harassment from Owen, no whining from Ianto, and the two competent, intriguing characters get to do their thing.  And the one-dimensional stepfather?  Honestly, that's something Chibnall or script editor Brian Menchin should have weeded out.  (Honestly, I half-suspect Chibnall made him so awful in the first place.) 

So the problem, actually, is that this show has the wrong production team.  Chibnall has the Terry Nation problem of great ideas but an extremely uneven ability to accomplish those correctly.  For ever clever line he writes, he writes a dozen plodding ones.  RTD seems to indulge in his flaws.  RTD has a great concept here, but the only time they really get a solid hit is when they outsource it to old pro Peter J Hammond.

Oh well.  Again, Chibnall has the ability to write well.  Maybe he'll get the next one right.


* * *

  • The cinematography is a minor detriment - the colorful opening scenes look nice, but afterwards, it's just a generic grayish that doesn’t really tell anything storywise. This is very much an X-Files sorta story, and could have taken a cue from that show and used deep shadows in the colorful settings.  But no, it takes a too-modern popular tact of looking as bland as possible.  Granted, shooting on video is never going to look as good as the high-quality film used on X-Files, but it could at least try.

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