5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Well, it’s not Sapphire And Steel, is it? But thanks to PJ Hammond, for once it’s a Torchwood that’s at least vaguely watchable.
You can kind of see the ghosts of Sapphire and Steel in here: it’s an obvious two-hander, with the other Torchwood hangers-on grafted on only peripherally. If we were Burn Gorman and/or Naoko Mori, we’d be pretty pissed off, but since we’re just the hapless audience, despise Owen and haven’t yet registered Tosh on the radar, we don’t mind at all.
And it’s not just the hovering shades of our favourite medium atomic-weight elements, either. PJ Hammond is the master of no-budget creepy, and while Small Worlds never quite makes it to zero-degree chillfest, there are some powerfully effective eerie moments which undeniably place an icy finger on the back of the neck. The sound of fluttering wings. The flower petals. The train carriage as it pulls out of the tunnel. And most creepy of all, Jasmine’s smile as her stepfather gets a deep-throating to die for.
So for once, it’s got a bit of heft. However, despite all the Hammondy goodness, it still trips itself up on its own Torchwoodness.
We’ve quasi-liked Jack in previous episodes: John Barrowman’s pretty good at the Angelesque contained broodiness they required. Here, though, he has dollops of angst to get over to the audience, and ouch, he really needs to dial down the emoting. His anguished expression when Estelle dies is pitched at the back of the circle, not the camera. While the “I need a drink” line that follows fortunately empties a bucket of ice over the overwroughtness, it’s not enough: it would have been so much more effective if they’d just reeled it in a bit. (That ghastly line about how they promised to be together unto death is ripe for the chop, for a start.)
In fact, now we come to think of it, that’s one of Torchwood’s problems in general: the whole thing needs damping down. It’s falling over itself to be cool, but all the excess comes across less as wildly glamorous decadence and more like an overexcitable puppy. The hilarious pimp my ride Torchwood SUV so lovingly featured in Small Worlds is a great example: the lingering shots of the Torchwood logo et al are clearly meant to convey just how drop-dead cool it all is, but instead it just provokes snorts of laughter.
It’s an interesting exercise comparing Torchwood to its SF stablemate Ultraviolet: while they’re both about teams hunting the Other, Ultraviolet’s a lot more reined in, and the sweat on its brow isn’t half as obvious. As a result, the tone’s markedly different: Ultraviolet really is for adults, and what’s more, it really is cool as well. It can be done: just not here.
Where were we? Ah yes, excess. So while PJ Hammond’s setup is chilling and intriguing, they couldn’t let it lie: instead of trusting that audience won’t crumble under the weight of a little ambiguity, they have to shine a torch on the fairies. As a result, it all falls apart in a welter of typical Torchwood overornamentation. Instead of the much more terrifying oblique references to the fairies, they have to drag out the CGI: not only is it horribly done (that scene in the garden with the actors punching hopefully at thin air is one giant wince), but it deflates the horror like a pin in a balloon. The dead with mouths stuffed with petals are infinitely scarier than CGI demons will ever be.
The plot’s also far too limp. The little girl instantly targeted by a paedophile on the single occasion when she walks home on her own is way too lazy. The flower petals are great, but there’s no explanation other than the fairies having a laugh: while we don’t need everything explained, if you’re going to feature something as strongly as that, you’d better pay it off or you piss off the audience. There’s no explanation either for Estelle’s death: it’s terribly poignant and all, but that’s not enough when it comes completely out of the blue.
And while we’re talking about the plot: the Torchwood bunch do a lot of racing hither and thither here, but what, exactly, does it achieve? As far as we can see, you could snip out the lot of them and things would have played out exactly as they did. (Apart, possibly, from Estelle still being alive, since the fairies killing her for telling Jack about them is the only explanation we can scrape up for her death.) Although this lends itself to an agreeably dark ending, it also gives the whole thing a leaden weight of whybotherness. So much for them being the thin red line between Earth and peril. No wonder they play so much basketball: they might as well.
Small Worlds is far and away the standout of the series so far. But what makes it good is PJ Hammond and what makes it bad is Torchwood. That’s not encouraging.
This and Cyberwoman were originally meant to be shown the other way round, yeah? Because the whole Ianto “what are you doing here?” scene makes a lot more sense when Lisa is still alive.
THE GLOVES ARE OFF
In her Silence Of The Lambs moment with the corpse, Gwen’s yanking his mouth open and heaving out petals without benefit of glove. What were they saying about her being a trained police officer?
IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR UNIT
The tricked-out SUV is even funnier given that they’re supposed to be a secret organisation. Still, since half of Cardiff has them on speed dial, we don’t suppose it matters much.
Owen opines that it looks like Estelle died from drowning. Since she looks perfectly normal (aside from being dead, that is), how the hell did he work that out?
Is it just us, or does Gwen’s wallpaper look suspiciously like roundels?
SOMEBODY ELSE’S PROBLEM FIELD
We can’t say we’re impressed by Jack’s problem-solving skills. Telling the fairies to find someone else? How is another victim better than Jasmine?