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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Torchwood’ blogging: “Countrycide”

(before commenting, please read the intro to my Doctor Who blogging; the same caveats apply to Torchwood / previous: Episode 5: “Small Worlds”)

I’m probably in the minority on this, but I like that there turned out to be no psychopathic alien influence at work here. I like that Torchwood isn’t pretending that you have to leave the planet or import creatures from outer space in order to find terrible things. That does tend to be the way of these kinds of shows, whether it’s the old Doctor Who or any of the Star Treks, for instance: it’s always the aliens who are up to the worst things while the humans look on in horror. But sometimes we’re the monsters. In reality, we always are, of course, and so the nontwist of a twist to “Countrycide” gives it a greater feeling of existing in the real world we all know and live in, removing it from a fantastical realm and bringing it literally down to earth.
It expands the range of drama Torchwood is open to, as well: the missing-persons-and-gruesome-murder story here could, theoretically, have been part of an episode of, say, CSI or Law or Order, or part of a realistic crime/horror movie like The Silence of the Lambs, but none of those narratives would allow themselves the possibility that the perpetrator could be an extraterrestrial being. But now Torchwood is telling us that we can’t always be so sure what we’re in for — it won’t be able to play the no-aliens card often, or else it wouldn’t be Torchwood, but there’s a whole other layer of suspense at work with the show now, too.

And it underscores that Torchwood is about people, about human beings of the here and now (even 51st-century Jack is stuck in the hear and now, and there’s no question that he’s human). Science fiction always is, when it’s done right, but Torchwood barely even pretends otherwise — you don’t have to root around in the metaphors to connect it to the lives of modern people. Sure, Gwen is having trouble with Rhys and with her “ordinary” life because of all the top-secret stuff. But the same happens to many of us even if we are allowed to talk about our work. It’s hardly a stretch to recognize that many of us see our daily lives so rooted in our work — whether we love our jobs or are tied to them out of necessity — and work such long hours that it affects our relationships with everyone else, and makes it very easy, sometimes, to get especially close to the people we work with so closely and for most of the day, most of the week, most of the year.

The sexual minefield that is this Scooby gang isn’t about sex, for all they can barely shut up about it: it’s about connecting, or not. Oh, comparing recent snogs is so not a good idea with this group: here’s Ianto with his grief over Lisa; Tosh with her loneliness; Jack with his even more yawning loneliness; and Gwen and Owen with their explosive chemistry. Owen might be just about sex, but for Gwen, it’s about being with someone who understands her. It’s not so much that she’s forbidden from talking to Rhys about the details of her work — it’s that even if she could, there’s no way he could possibly understand. He’d be sympathetic, sure, but he’d never really get it.

For all its fantastical elements, Torchwood is shaping up as a startlingly pragmatic — even bleak — assessment of modern life. Never mind the all-too-human cannibals who are “happy” to slaughter and eat their fellows (and who will be echoed, 100 trillion years from now, by the Toclafane in “Last of the Time Lords,” who think it’s “fun” to kill their human ancestors) — they’re enough of an aberration not to hit too close to home for most of us. But someone who’d rather spend time with — even have sex with — a man she doesn’t even like, rather than have a cozy evening at home with the man she loves? That’s a lot closer to reality than many of us would, I suspect, like to acknowledge.

Random thoughts on “Countrycide”:

• Humans are the only species that goes camping? I think Jack is pulling someone’s leg there…

(next: Episode 7: “Greeks Bearing Gifts”)

[Torchwood screencap from The Institute]

MPAA: not rated

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