Tuesday, 5 May 2015

To The Last Man written by Helen Raynor and directed by Andy Goddard

This story in a nutshell: Tosh finally meets the man of her dreams...and he's only thawed out once a year.

Hunky Hero: Jack gives a brilliant and completely comprehensible explanation of what is going on with time by using nothing but his imagination and a piece of paper. Raynor should give Steven Moffat some lessons in how to articulate ideas in an elementary way. Jack admits in a quiet moment that he left home many years ago and he doesn't really know where he belongs. He's not even sure that it matters any more. Isn't John Barrowman great when he gets to underplay?

Brainiac: A long overdue episode that gives Tosh centre stage but doesn't resort to desperate tactics to try and make her interesting. She has always been the quietest and least interesting member of the team and the apparent remedy to that was the season one disaster Greeks Bearing Gifts that saw her shacking up with a alien lesbian and allowing her to read minds. It wasn't any entire useless piece (some of the ideas were decent even if the execution was way off the mark) but this is a far more responsible take on the character and one that uses a clever and atmospheric plot to tell a sweet romance between Toshiko and a young war teen. Scenes of Tosh getting ready for work are hardly thrill a minute but it is the first sign in ages that this woman has any kind of life outside of the organisation. Jack and Gwen are the embarrassing parents when Tosh tells them that she and Tommy are going to the movies, awkwardly giving their approval. Tosh is one of those people that is always planning to do things to make her personal life more interesting (learn Spanish and how to play the piano) but never quite manages to get around to it because of work commitments. Or rather avoids having a personal life by embracing her work. Tosh understands that a relationship with Tommy is absurd, not only is he only defrosted once a year but he is also from a different time period and considerably younger than her. And yet strangely the fact that it is a bit bizarre is what makes it so endearing. You just can't imagine Tosh with anybody contemporary, she's too awkward for that. If she was going to fall in love it would be with a time jumping, war teen with little experience in the world. And they do have lovely chemistry. Tommy sums up Tosh in one sentence when he finally gets to visit her place: 'It's very neat.' The way Tosh very gently convinces Tommy to go back to 1918 and sacrifice himself is her finest moment in the series, it is beautifully scripted and acted. 'Because you're my brave, handsome hero...'should be the most cringe-inducing line but in this context it is powerful and poignant. Poor lonely Tosh loses her love to a time anomaly and the emotion consequences are played out through some lovely reaction shots in the Hub. I'm sure I can get a handle on this ultra-subtle Torchwood, it's really rather good.

Jack's Crew: I love Ianto's smile when Tommy wakes up and his look of despair when he realises that he will have to make the cup of tea he has requested. Sweetly, Owen gives his blessing to Tosh even though it is clear that he has a bit of a thing for her. When he warns her to be careful it isn't borne of jealousy but of genuinely not wanting to see her get hurt. This is just the beginning of his character turn around in season two. He's finally giving something back to the people who have stuck by him whilst he has behaved appallingly. The little coda where he tenderly tells Tosh that the world is still in one piece because of her warms the cockles.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Once a year for you, it's every day for me.'
'It seems like there's always a war somewhere...'
'The War to End All Wars, they said. And then three weeks later they had the Second World War' - what an inspired piece of dialogue.

The Good: The Torchwood 1918 sequences are a real novelty and express the storytelling possibilities of the format across the decades. I wouldn't mind a dip into the different eras of Torchwood past every now and again for a little period drama and a chance to see how they dealt with alien incursions at various stages throughout the 20th Century. The idea of Torchwood from the past investigating a supernatural occurrence which turns out to be the consequence of the actions of Torchwood from the future is whacky enough to generate some real interest in the pre-titles sequence. After the relative madness of the first episode and the desperate invasion tactics of Sleeper, it feels like To the Last Man is return to the standalone glories of the better portions of season one. Andy Goddard's direction is masterful in places; check out the disorienting high angle shot of Jack and the crew about to take Tommy old of cold storage. This could have been shot very simply from the ground but Goddard ensures that this piece is covered from some stylish angles. Tommy is a marvellous viewpoint character because he is an ordinary bloke caught up in the macabre machinations of Torchwood, he exposes the madness of the organisation simply by reacting to it in such a natural way. Gwen was supposed to fulfil this function in season one but it is handled with more aplomb in this one episode than it was with her entire (retarded) arc in the debut year. A man who is woken up every year and is able to see how the country has progressed in 24 hour snapshots - that is the sort of concept that could fuel an entire series. Raynor deserves kudos for realising this most Moffat-like of concepts and yet telling her story in a simple way with some strong emotional beats. It would appear that she is far more proficient at writing Torchwood than she was Doctor Who (Ghost Machine was one of the highlights of the first year). Living your life across the century means that after a few months worth of days everybody you know will have died, a point that is brought home when Tommy discusses the death of his parents. You would lose a connection with everybody that was important in your life. I love the idea of a mystery box with a temporal lock that has been held in the Torchwood vaults for years, one that will only open when it has been told to. There have been so many horror movies told in abandoned hospitals (it's a sub genre that me and friend always wind up watching on movie nights with the lights off under a duvet) that it is almost impossible to do anything novel or chilling that hasn't been done before. This, however, is the first time I have seen any film/TV show attempting to frighten with scenes shot in broad daylight and the result is remarkably eerie. There is a real sense of Sapphire and Steel to the creepy moments of Gwen being menaced with phantoms from the past in the abandoned wards. It is the sort of material that should work but thanks to a director who goes for subtlety (not a word I often throw at Torchwood) and understated chills it really manages to creep under the skin. The man on sticks that clatters towards and through Gwen is genuinely terrifying. And what about the moment when the two timelines touch and the nurse turns the corner and spots Gwen? Brrr... I bet Russell T. Davies was delighted when the rushes of these scenes came in. There is a real ethical dilemma in sending Tommy back to 1918 because he was always supposed to end his days being executed by the British Army for cowardice. Simply because he was shell-shocked. In one blow Raynor finds her dramatic meat and tells a modern audience something dark about how the mentally ill were treated during the First World War. It is wonderful that the ending comes down to a man having to make a brave choice rather than the blood, gore and semen of your average Torchwood climax. More writers should have taken this as their blueprint. Tommy returning to a time that refuses to understand his fear is the most chilling idea of all. The sound of time tearing apart is that of bones cracking.

The Shallow Bit: 'Jack, have you got any more of those pretty boys in the freezer?' It has to be said that Anthony Lewis is quite the catch, not only as cute as a button but a fine actor to boot. In this, the most romantic of Torchwood episodes, a kiss between Jack and Ianto is perfectly reasonable. Actually it's rather lovely.

Foreboding: There is a thread running through this season highlighting that fact that most Torchwood employees die young. It's excellent forewarning for the dramatic events of the finale and a memorable assassination in Children of Earth. 

Result: The Time Traveller's Wife, Torchwood style with some decent frights thrown in for good measure. Some writers are perfectly suited to some shows and a complete mismatch with others. Helen Raynor's Doctor Who contributions have hardly gone down in history as fan favourites, she seems to understand the ethos of the show without being able to tie her ideas to a satisfying narrative. Whereas her two Torchwood scripts were highlights of the first two seasons, stories with simple but heady ideas and plenty of genuine emotional content that have been vital for the audience to get close to some of the harder to understand characters. One of the lesser writers on one show and one the strongest on another. Obviously Torchwood plays to her strengths and exposes how she has matured as a writer. She includes a sweet romance for Tosh, a time bending plot that manages to tie itself up in a very satisfying way, the creepiest abandoned hospital I have visited for some time and lots of lovely character touches that remind us that the Torchwood crew can be presented as people and not grotesques. Naoko Mori isn't the world's finest actress but she does well with this material, she plays the meek and mousy Toshiko very charmingly when the writer remembers to balance her intelligence with sensitivity. Tosh and Tommy have lovely chemistry and their relationship doesn't boil down to the usual Torchwood schlock of hard-ons, cheating and rampant sex. It's just two very sweet people who have found each other through the strangest of means. To the Last Man works because it employs that little seen ingredient in Torchwood: subtlety. The character drama, the scares and the science fiction concepts are all delicately balanced and never swollen beyond their means resulting in a sophisticated piece and the first sign that season two is learning its lessons from the best and the worst of the debut year: 8/10

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