3 years, 8 months ago
|Did you know that the New York Times Crossword Puzzle|
has something called the "breakfast test," which declares
that you can't use any words in a crossword that would be
upsetting to read over breakfast? This is one difference
between the New York Times Crossword Puzzle and TARDIS
It’s November 19th, 2006. Akon and Eminem are at number one with “Smack That,” a subtle and nuanced look at contemporary sexual relations in much the way Day One isn’t. Justin Timberlake, Take That, Robbie Williams, and Westlife also chart. In news, around 98% of the population of South Ossetia votes for independence from Georgia. Nobody cares. Java is released under the GPL. Mitch McConnell becomes Republican leader in Congress, succeeding Bill Frist. Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, becomes Speaker of the House. The Playstation 3 comes out, Tony Blair describes Iraq as “pretty much a disaster,” and, the day this story airs, the Nintendo Wii comes out.
The story, of course, is Countrycide, which is widely beloved and popular and which nobody has anything bad to say about. Ah, no, you’re not going to buy that? Fine. Countrycide is Torchwood’s second effort at a big spectacle of a story. Much like Chris Chibnall’s previous contribution, Cyberwoman, it’s a straight action story, designed primarily to be thrilling. It’s not what you’d call an enormously complex concept. That said, it’s still at least somewhat clever in its approach - this is the first televised Doctor Who thing to feature no alien or supernatural intervention since Black Orchid nearly a quarter-century earlier.
No, “it’s not aliens, it’s humans, who are far worse than any aliens” is not exactly the most innovative twist in the history of Doctor Who. But it’s a solid one worth dusting off every once in a while, and the fact that Torchwood can take the “rational explanation behind seemingly irrational events” motif from Scooby Doo and make it into a piece of sickening horror is a fair justification for doing it. The ingredients of this are all familiar, but that’s writing for you. There’s a perfectly serviceable nexus of ideas underlying this story.
The problem is that the execution is a bit… well, but even here there’s a defense to be mustered. The story amounts to doing The Wicker Man for the modern day. We should pause and contextualize that. For all that The Wicker Man is treated as being primarily about pagan rites, mostly by geeky pagan types who are understandably eager to lay cultural claim to one of the best movies ever made, it is in fact not about the supernatural at all, but rather about the fear of the rural. The closest cousin to The Wicker Man is probably Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes, the latter remade in 2006 as part of a general and unfortunate trend in . It’s a story about the remote parts of the country and the bizarre things they get up to there.
So basically we have Torchwood trying to do horror in a particularly bad era of horror. In this regard we can just declare Countrycide a success due to it beating out the actual 2006 bad horror remake of The Wicker Man. Given this, Countrycide surely passes the bar of reasonably clever, managing to reanimate the flirtation with the supernatural that makes The Wicker Man so particularly compelling. For most of Countrycide we assume that, because we are watching Torchwood, we’re dealing with aliens. When we get to the bit about how every ten years they take people for “the harvest” it sounds like the most bog-standard Doctor Who plot ever. It is, in other words, the Scooby Doo narrative done in a show where all the standard narrative conventions say that it’s not going to just be a person. It’s almost as good as the twist that makes The Rescue absolutely brilliant, and, like The Rescue, is impossible to really experience once you know how it works.
Is there something wrong with the basic narrative tradition of “the country people are going to eat us?” Well… I don’t know, honestly. It’s not great, certainly - even in the mid-70s one can imagine that people who actually lived in the Scottish Isles might have been a bit miffed about the implication that they practice human sacrifice and have sex in the streets. But the underlying metaphor about the edge of civilization is so compelling that it’s hard to pass it up completely. The image of unseemly things going on where the pavement gives out and the Earth itself rises up is terribly powerful.
The larger problem is perhaps that horror in the era of Hostel is just a terribly blighted and unfortunate thing. It’s really not hard to make the case that we’re living in a sort of twisted anti-golden age of cinematic horror right now where most of the innovation consists of doing things in more spectacularly and viscerally upsetting ways and on smaller budgets. Yes, Countrycide is a basically functional piece of rural horror in 2006, but who cares? Your competition is Nicholas Cage and Hostel - if you can’t come out on top in that dogfight, you have bigger problems.
Still, within Torchwood’s developing schema all of this makes sense. The countryside becomes another wondrous space, this time filled with horror, but horror that comes from within. This, in particular, is a key development in Torchwood, because it establishes in a new way that the line between mundane and wondrous spaces is not, in fact, a line based on humans and aliens. This isn’t exactly a new development - Ghost Machine was all humans too, for instance, just with some alien tech, as was, in the end, Everything Changes. But here the claim is absolute - human depravity is more stark and shocking than any aliens could possibly be, and doesn’t need anything “magical” to exist. This fact fundamentally changes what Torchwood as a show is about.
This is mirrored in a large shift in the season’s metaplot, with the beginning of a proper affair between Owen and Gwen. This is awkward - the revelation at the end is not entirely sound, not least because the dialogue around it is pure cheese. Nevertheless, it works, and marks an important change in how we understand Gwen as a character. Prior to this Gwen is the moral center of Torchwood - the character who provides the authorial viewpoint and could be relied upon to express the themes in clear “tell-don’t-show” fashion. But in one stroke she becomes profoundly unsympathetic, even though she remains perfectly understandable. This is a tough switch to do - it’s genuinely very hard to take a sympathetic character and have them start doing things the audience doesn’t want them to do while still having the audience completely understand why they’re doing it and see it as coming logically from what we’ve previously seen.
And Countrycide mostly manages, albeit on the strength of exactly one line - the deliciously upsetting “because it made me happy.” But this line exposes the larger problems with the resolution - ultimately, the horror Gwen responds to by deciding to shag Owen and the horror we’re shown are two different horrors. Countrycide is mostly about this entire large and twisted family that periodically murders everyone in the village. (How, exactly, the village manages to refresh its population every ten years and not notice the cannibalistic family is not made entirely clear, although as plot holes in Doctor Who-related stuff go, it’s pretty mild stuff) Its central horror is collective - it’s not “what made this man do these twisted things,” but “how did this society break down to where it was run by crazed cannibals?” Except that its resolution is the opposite - Gwen interrogates exactly one person, and while she gets a fantastic answer to “why are you a crazy cannibalistic fucker” she doesn’t get anything like an answer to the horror we’ve just spent an hour watching.
On top of that, it’s ever so slightly possible that the horror is too over the top. I mean, the flayed and dismembered bodies are properly gross and all, and the scene of Gwen vomiting in horror as she tries to maintain a defensive posture with Jack is a lovely bit of “oh yes, this is a person, not a CSI cardboard cutout” in amidst the plotting, but there’s a weird sense that Chibnall misunderstood his own ending. The extent to which it works is that the actual horror is so much smaller and more intimate than what the audience had been expecting, but the decision to have a huge cannibal family feels like Chibnall is trying to go large in a context where he should be going small. (This is, incidentally, the single most common error in the new series era - a misjudging of which way to go for dramatic impact.)
There’s a hint that this was a particularly big problem on Countrycide, however. The Declassified episode for this details two separate conflicts in production over the direction of the episode - first, Chibnall, Davies, and Gardner imploring the set designers to get some of the severed limbs out of the kitchen because it was all just a bit too much, and second Davies and Gardner having to oversee some desperate editing of the final action scene because Barrowman and director Andy Goddard had gone too over the top with it.
Still, it is perhaps more worthwhile to look at the big picture instead of the small one. At this point, five weeks and six episodes in, Torchwood has stitched together a sizable tapestry of wondrous and hidden spaces in contemporary life - in our romantic lives, our work lives, in our mythologies, and in our geographies. This is an impressive task in the course of six episodes, all of which are at least vaguely watchable and competent in the same way that a random episode of Spooks is. Even when the show has a misstep - as it kind of does here - it’s usefully and productively developing its overall mythology and approach. The shape of the show is at this point clear. It knows the sorts of things it wants to do, and its errors can all be reasonably chalked up to growing pains.
So let’s go ahead and talk about Chris Chibnall, the primary writer, and the one who’s written half the episodes to date. Because the thing is, by almost any reasonable standard the three best episodes are the ones he didn’t write. And he is a terribly hated writer in fandom. Admittedly this is because nothing he’s written is anybody’s favorite episode. In neither Doctor Who nor Torchwood has he written an episode that’s widely considered one of the best of the season. For this he has an odd reputation - a despised writer where everyone seems to quibble on which one they hated, usually saying things like “Oh, I thought The Power of Three was kind of fun, but Cyberwoman was the worst thing ever.” For my part, I find myself unable to muster anything hate-sized about any of his episodes - he’s more or less the Bob Baker and David Martin (excluding the Graham Williams era) of the new series, producing consistent more-or-less-watchability.
Unfortunately for Torchwood he’s the primary writer in the first two seasons. And he got front-loaded on the series because, again, primary writer, so he has to take the bullets on the “the series is still finding its feet” scripts, just like Davies had to write five of the first seven episodes of the new series. Chibnall being largely good because he can write fast and with baseline competence, this does not lead to an inspiring start.
This does not, however, mean that it's a disaster; it just means that it's particularly likely to piss off the sorts of people who like to spend two thousand words talking about television. Which is perhaps to say that someone who generally churns out middle-of-the-road television scripts is going to piss people like us off more than the general public. And by us I don't just mean writerly critics; I mean fans.
Which is to say that because its initial audience had a large number of Doctor Who fans, who are often vocal on the Internet, and because its first six episodes had three episodes that were not, to the general public, intolerably bad but were, perhaps, not all that great, the start of the series has a particularly rough reputation. But actually, by AI rankings the first six episodes, from best to worst, go Small Worlds, a tie between Ghost Machine and Cyberwoman, a tie between Day One and Countrycide, and then in last Everything Changes. The AIs, from 82-85, encompass the same spread in appreciation as Boom Town and New Earth, which is to say, a range of quality that Doctor Who reliably fell within.
As for popularity. The total viewers between the BBC Three and BBC Two airings dipped after the premiere, but leveled off into the mid-3m range, and only went below that for Combat. The narrative of a rough start wasn’t really born out in its popular success - it got underway much like most television shows do, and delivered what were absolutely stellar ratings for BBC Three. Whatever problems this show may have, and we can pick all manner of technical nits with great accuracy, it was clearly and demonstrably passing the bar for "successful television."
Which is to say that while Countrycide is not very good, and while that is perhaps the most interesting thing about it, this fact does not, strictly speaking, matter at all.
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