Saturday, 4 April 2015

Everything Changes written by Russell T Davies and directed by Brian Kelly

This story in a nutshell: Gwen Cooper learns that things aren’t quite as simple as they might appear underneath the Millennium Centre…

Hunky Hero: John Barrowman, possibly the world’s greatest entertainer (he can sing, dance and present with equal aplomb) but not the worlds most gifted actor, finally gets his own drama to front the results are variable at best. What baffles me about Barrowman is that on occasion he can bring his performance down to a very sensitive, mesmerising level but more often than not he chooses to overplay his dialogue and murder a scene. He’s a little like Sylvester McCoy in that regard. It’s frustrating because the potential is there for him to be a fine leading man but he just needs somebody to whisper in his ear that he is playing the part a little too tongue in cheek at times. He’s a little like latter day Tom Baker in that regard. Jack’s joke for everybody to ignore Gwen and go about their business as she stands there holding the pizza should work far more effectively than it does but the net result is that this crew seem even more conceited than they already did. Why does Jack spend an inordinate amount of time posing with his hands on his hips atop vertiginous buildings looking out across Cardiff? Surely he isn’t lording it over what he consider to be his town? And if so, wouldn’t have set his sights on something a bit sexier? Bizarrely considering this is a pilot and should be welcoming new viewers to the show, we don’t learn much at all about Jack in Everything Changes. Davies expects the audience to have that knowledge already, which is a little remiss of him.

Welsh Babe: Gwen Cooper is supposed to be our anchor in this series but I never truly bought into the character as an identification figure. To begin with she was a little too naïve for my liking and as the first series continued she became far too seduced by what would be to any rational human being a pretty repulsive way of life (cheating on her boyfriend, loving the sex and violence of her job). Eve Myles is capable of great subtlety (check out episodes like Adrift) but at times she is written for in a highly melodramatic fashion and it encourages an equally melodramatic performance. Considering this was her breakout role I cannot deny that Gwen put Myles on the map (she has recently fronted her own, reasonably successful, series Frankie) but there was such fanfare surrounding Torchwood and it’s inconsistent accomplishments that I don’t see how she could have failed to have achieved a reasonable amount of attention regardless. Gwen’s brilliant scheme to finding a way into Torchwood is to hang around where she last saw them and hopes that she bumps into them again. When that fails she asks the nearest pizza company if they deliver to Torchwood. With that kind of investigative prowess I bet the police were devastated to let her go when she transferred across. It is her conscience that stands out, at least initially, trying to prod at Jack’s humanity and get him to understand that there are people involved in the crimes his team investigates and plunders. Like Rory with (in my eyes) the less successful Amy, Rhys is the one character on this show that feels real to me and that I would enjoy spending more time with. By the time of Miracle Day, Eve Myles will have mastered that vacant look off camera. When Gwen thinks she is going to die, Myles looks more like she is stifling laughter than shitting her pants.

Anti-Hero: ‘That would be me, sorry, I’m a twat…’You said it, mate. Actually, that’s not fair. Burn Gorman is probably the strongest performer of the ensemble but in year one he is handed the least presentable character. Owen is one of the most conceited, abrasive, disagreeable characters it has ever been my displeasure to watch. He starts off in Everything Changes as a medical upstart (and that is their MO, so you have to work pretty hard to stand out like this) and somehow devolves as the season progresses. In his efforts to try and make Owen look hip with alien tech, he turns Owen into a serial rapist (alright I know to become a serial anything you have to commit the crime three times, but I’m willing to bet this isn’t the first time he’s pulled off this obscene trick). How this is supposed to make the character to appeal to anybody but the most sordid of individuals baffles me, unless that is the kind of crowd that Davies was hoping to pull? ‘I’ve got to up early, and I can’t be bothered with all the chat…’ so I’m going to use the alien tech version of rohypnol to brainwash you beneath my sheets, and your boyfriend too. Ugh, tasteless.

Red Herring: Indira Varma is a terrific actress and I have seen her in a number of shows where she has been superb. Handed a character as vacant (and as disposable) as Susie though and she struggles to bring anything to the part. You can’t escape the fact that she was never going to be anything but a red herring, a supposed member of the ensemble that dies before the end of the first episode. Mind you to be fair the rest of the cast are so ill defined at this point it could have been any one of them.

Tech Support: The opposite of Gorman/Owen, Naoko Mori is the weakest member of the ensemble but she has been handed the most likable character. Go figure.

Butler: As an example of how inconsistent Torchwood can be, Ianto is threatening Jack with sexual harassment after his flirtatious comments in Everything Changes and yet come They Keep Killing Susie he is playing timed rounds of hide the purple parsnip with him. Sometimes I can’t keep up with the sexual games on this show.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘CSI Cardiff, I’d like to see that. They’ll be measuring the velocity of a kebab!’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘It’s a fucking disgrace’ – Torchwood pretends to be trendy and winds up falling flat on it’s face. And that’s three minutes in to the episode.
‘Contraceptives in the rain, love this planet’ – not only is Barrowman far too aware of the camera in his first scene but he’s also talking a load of bollocks.
‘The 21st century is when it all changes…and you’ve got to be ready’ is not the best tagline for a series.
‘And your work is more important’ ‘Now you got it’ – and therein lies the fundamental difference between Doctor Who and Torchwood. The former celebrates humanity whereas the latter (some episodes excepted) treads on it to get to the sleaze.
‘How come we get all the Weevils and bollocks and shit? Is that what alien life is – filth?’ - the antithesis of Doctor Who which promotes the universe as a playground to play in, Torchwood seems to suggest it is a cesspool that flings its excrement our way. Nice.

The Good:
  • The whole idea of Cardiff CSI is laughable with ariel shots of the city at night looking for all the world like the most chic place to hang out in England. To Brian Kelly’s credit he takes hold of this risible challenge and almost makes it work. The photography is gorgeous as we zoom over the streets, veins pumped with neon light, with an almost omnipotent POV. It sets the camp tone for the series, certainly. The bloodied corpse in a rain soaked alley is another arresting image.
  • The Resurrection Glove is the sort of outlandish notion that Torchwood should have played about with each week, pushing the boundaries of what a show like Doctor Who could get away with. The whole notion seems to play into Russell T. Davies’ poke in the eye to Christianity and the name seems designed to cause at least minor offence but at least it is an idea with storytelling possibilities.
  • I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Hub set is a marvel of design, combining all manner of influences into an eccentric patchwork of style unique to itself. I especially love that the water feature outside the Millennium Centre plunges straight through the heart of the facility and that there is a sewer system that runs through the base. They are well and truly in the gutter (and it allows for an atmospheric reflecting water lighting effect). Perhaps a top secret base built like something out of a superhero comic wasn’t the best way of convincing people that this series needed taking seriously, though (Sarah Jane’s attic is far more convincing in that respect).
  • Maybe he was just being facetious (surely not?) but the mystery of the missing Torchwood four would have made for a great episode.
The Bad:

  • There is nothing worse than people trying to be cool. It either happens naturally or you shouldn’t bother but this show is constantly trying to make it’s regulars look as hip as possible and the result is akin to your parents attempting to get down ‘wiv da kidz’ - toe curlingly embarrassing. During the second season they tried to drop the pretence and simply get on with telling good stories but they fell back into bad habits more often than not. It wasn’t until the advent of Children of Earth, a story so exceptional in it’s own right, that Davies felt the show had found it’s feet and the characters stopped trying to convince they were trendy. Standing on tall buildings, coats flapping in the wind, sexual morality going out the window, waving guns around as though they were play things, murdering people without compunction, emotional disloyalty, swearing as though it is going out of fashion…perhaps the title for this episode should be Anything Goes. Compared with something like The Sarah Jane Adventures which just got on with telling decent yarn and treating its characters intelligently, the two approaches couldn’t be more different. The result is the SJA cast are instantly sophisticated whilst the Torchwood bunch look like a bunch of children playing at being adult. A trap that they fell into time and time again is the idea that Torchwood storms a crime scene dressed up like they have walked from a designer catalogue; dressed to the nines, exuding arrogance and each character fully aware of their gait. It makes me howl with laughter every time I see it.
  • I’m going to sound like a cantankerous old fart but I don’t care – I like a proper title sequence which introduces and identifies a show visually and musically. There was a period about ten years ago where the American penchant for holding up a title card and having a quick snatch of a theme music kick in was all the rage and it started to infect the show over here too. It just doesn’t have the same impact. In Torchwood’s case if I could see the argument being made that the blink and you’ll miss it title sequence meant there was more time for quality material within the episode itself then I would be more than happy to let it slide. But the condition of the show in it’s first year is so dismaying that a longer sequence would be most welcome.
  • The heavy rain in the first scene is not doing the Cardiff tourist board much of a favour. Nor is the least convincing bar room brawl ever committed to film. Come to Cardiff and get the sniffles, and a pint glass in your face.
  • The whole sequence with the Weevil makes me grind my teeth because it is so lacking in any refinement. It has nothing to do with the story itself (it is merely the excuse why Torchwood is visiting the hospital but it could have been any number of other, less ridiculous, reasons). Surely a highly trained police officer would recognise that even from a distance that this creature is not a person. Surely she wouldn’t go storming towards it. And the throat ripping nastiness that ensues is simply there to show how far that this show is willing to go in order to repulse it’s audience, and is completely unnecessary. This scene is symptomatic of all Torchwood’s problems – it is the series’ flaws in a microcosm. Not thought through well enough, and with no kind of censor. Even the make up is only half-perfected.
  • Of course the Hub has a ruddy great Pterodactyl flying about the place! Fucks galore, rape allusions, throats torn out…and Pterodactyl’s? You can’t on the one hand shine a light on the least salubrious aspects of life on Earth and then try and suggest the wonder inherent in it too. Everything Changes inharmoniously switches its emphasis throughout, tearing me in two incompatible directions.
  • The rationale behind Torchwood seems to be that they don’t know how any of this alien tech works but they use it anyway. Given their propensity for cocking things up, I predict serious consequences in the future.
  • I have no problem with The Sarah Jane Adventures mentioning and exploiting events from Doctor Who because they are aiming for the same kind of audience but slipping Torchwood into the same universe as those two opens an ethical can of worms I’m not sure they were ready to handle. I would take issue with youngsters catching this show and yet with discussions of important events in the Doctor’s life, the two shows seaguing into each other at times (Exit Wounds/Utopia) and even featuring the occasional Doctor Who monster (Cybermen) I can understand why they would want to.
  • I love the fact that Jack mentions that Torchwood is ‘beyond the United Nations.’ He’s basically saying ‘we’re UNIT with sex and swearing!’
  • Ret-con? Naming a drug that serves as a plot device after a contemporary term for a narrative device? Stop trying to be cool, Torchwood!
  • This is a murder mystery based on some pretty astonishing co-incidences. Gwen just happened to spot the knife when she visited Torchwood, she just happened to pass the drawing of it in the police station and despite the supposedly infallible ret-con she puts the two together and realises that one of the Torchwood crew is responsible for the murders. Is it just me or is that all a little to insubstantial? They can make the realisation look as though it took days to come to, but if any one of those co-incidences hadn’t happened then this mystery would have no resolution.
  • Jack slowly gliding up from the Hub in the background as Susie confronts Gwen is the most hilarious moment Torchwood ever committed to film. Played this earnestly, it is wet your pants time.
  • Everything Changes commits the cardinal sin of a pilot, it doesn’t really give the audience a clue of what the series is really about (because at this stage the writers don’t have a clue) or what to expect. No wonder it haemorrhaged viewers if they thought it was going to be more like this. A shame because Small Worlds, Random Shoes and Captain Jack Harkness were just around the corner.
The Shallow Bit: With Torchwood, this section of my reviews really comes into its own.

Result: An awkward pilot and coupled with Day One on its opening night was almost enough to drive everybody away from Torchwood for good. I remember being quite miffed after watching 90 minutes of generally badly judged television and wondering how Russell T Davies could have got it so wrong. You only have to check out the rest of his oeuvre to see how this man has written some of the most sophisticated and honest adult drama to have hit the screens. His only New Adventure, Damaged Goods, was a cracking read and whilst it failed as a Doctor Who novel it was a brilliant piece of adult fiction with exceptional characterisation. When I heard Davies was going to be penning a new, grown up (I would debate whether Doctor Who is childish in it’s outlook but that is a debate for another time) I was salivating at the thought of him moulding a show that took all his creativity and mixed it with some developed characterisation and post-watershed themes. I thought it was going to be the greatest show on TV, mixing his penchant for children’s and adult drama. The truth is the result was an awkward fusion of the two that can never settle on a tone of maturity and juvenilia (and with all the sex, swearing and violence the two are treated as exactly the same thing). My real issue with Everything Changes isn’t the childishness of its nature but how none of the characters are especially likable. If Davies really is a fan of Joss Whedon’s work then he really hasn’t taken notes on his ability as creator of a agreeable company – Whedon’s gift is giving the audience a way in to an absurd premise like Buffy through hilarious, flawed but fundamentally decent characters. Davies in comparison fills his show to bursting with unpleasant people; morally bankrupt, egotistical, smug and self important. They aren’t people that you would want to spend any amount of time with and that is a real problem when you are trying to endorse a pilot for a longer series. Reports are that Torchwood was rushed into production and it pains me to say that it does show at times and the reaction of the production staff that perhaps they didn’t bring their A-game to the first series is understandable too. By trying to appeal to the trash brigade, sci/fi fans and a family audience it winds up missing all of it’s targets. So little of the pilot clicks into place as it should; the mystery is poorly introduced and wrapped up, the characters ill defined, the tone all over the place and the shock moments more laugh-out-loud than seat of the pants. The downer is the second episode is even worse. How something as accomplished as Children of Earth was born of this series perplexes me: 3/10

5 comments:

Ben Kirkham said...

Excellent review Joe.

Torchwood has always been a troubled series, in my opinion. I remember watching the first behind-the-scenes feature about the first series and Julie Gardner was asking how far they should go regarding swearing, sex and violence.

They had such a basic (and, it has to be said, childish) misunderstanding of what makes an adult series. Adult series are resolutely adult due to the nature of their storylines - shades of morality and conflict. Difficult decisions and complex emotional resonance. Saying 'fuck' all the time and loading sex and violence just to shock is puerile. And it's a shame because when Torchwood was good, it was terrific.

Series Two was a vast improvement and a far more comfortable show. Series Three (Children of Earth) initially felt like a paradigm shift that went too far (by the end of it there are only two original characters surviving for instance) but it was the correct way to go. All the glossy stuff (the Hub, the SUV) was stripped away. The storyline was truly adult and at times heartbreaking and powerful. Torchwood really grew up.

I wasn't much for Series Four (Miracle Day). Overlong and overblown, but with some bright spots. I think the series has reached its end point now.

Anonymous said...

Can't really disagree with any of this. I still watched it all though because you wait for the point where it clicks and it does click, it also unclicks sadly.

I'm not Welsh but saying Cardiff is in England will get you lynched.

Uirdhein

Anonymous said...

Excellent Comments Joe! I totally agree that if there was a TV series that needed a title sequence montage to anchor the tone and characters with the audience, it was Torchwood

nashvillebookworm said...

You've hit the nail on the head when it comes to your early critical assessment of Torchwood. Its first two seasons felt like the early days of the NAs when they were going for a more "adult" feel by mentioning Ace's bra and having a bit of cussing. Torchwood felt like they had told teenage boys to make an adult show and they immediately did so by having it be full of violence, nudity, language and sex. I was hoping for more adult stories along the lines that we got with Children of Earth -- where there is a situation and there isn't an easy or obvious solution that isn't going to have a hell of a cost associated with it. It took Torchwood two seasons to figure this out and I think having a shorter run for Children of Earth helped. The first two seasons are largely forgettable for me and I have them on DVD only out of some sense of loyalty and completist part of me that wanted to own all of Who and its spin-offs. I was cured of this and do not have series four on DVD.

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