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February 26, 2008

"That was the most terrifying day of my bloody life, and I had no choice but to trust Owen Bloody Harper."

Thetwilightstreets Bilis Manger’s back and front are back is the headline for Gary Russell’s latest literary opus, his first Torchwood novel The Twilight Streets.  In a story which drifts through Captain Jack’s past and potential future we discover that in all the world there’s a housing estate in Cardiff the inaccurately named Harkness simply can’t enter, his attempts leading to nausea, unconsciousness and loss of memory – all of the conditions in fact some of us experienced on a Sunday morning during our student days.  Though not me.  Whilst investigating the regeneration of the area, the Torchwood team quickly discover that Manger is involved and has revenge and the application of clown faces on his mind.

Click to continue.  Expect mild language and spoilers.

It might be unfashionable to admit, but I’ve always been a fan of Gary Russell’s fiction writing.  Like Steve Lyons, he has the ability to produce Doctor Who stories which perfectly replicate their era, but always with some kind of experimental twist.  He’s also gained something of a reputation for, well, fan wank, masses of continuity references drawing up an encyclopaedic knowledge of the series probably developed when he was writing the Matrix Data Bank column for Doctor Who Magazine.  My argument is that actually, unlike a lot of writers he produced stories that strive to take place in a coherent universe in which characters realistically refer to and remember all the scattershot of memories and experiences and knowledge they should do as travellers in the fourth dimension.  Plus I’d forgive the writer of the Unbound Valeyard starring He Jests At Scars almost anything.

Predictably then in The Twilight Streets, he can’t help himself.  Fans will guffaw at a text which somehow manages to reference everything from Doctor Who’s underrated Terror of the Zygons to The Unquiet Dead via Boomtown (explaining what the older Jack was doing whilst his younger counterpart was bouncing around and creating earthquakes in Cardiff Bay).  But cleverly Russell also laces the text with new continuity regarding Torchwood Three’s past (another era, another team) and Jack’s involvement with them and much more on who the old man in the Glasgow office is.  If there’s a problem its that on this occasion he proves one of the arguments of the anti-Gary camp that his exposition sometimes feels a bit forced and isn’t always relevant to the story.  But to an extent that can’t be helped because it is also one of his many sequels.

On screen, Bilis Manger was always a tease of a character, another casualty of the rushed first tv series, far more interesting when mysterious, less so when you discover it’s all about his worship of a mountain sized demon.  The Twilight Streets extends his character exponentially, filling in a range of his on-screen blanks and in the process somehow manages to return some of that mystery.  At best he has that unhinged quality we enjoyed from Daniel Day-Lewis in the film There Will Be Blood, and it’s never entirely clear whether he’s going to be nice or nasty to whoever in the Torchwood team he’s seeking out.  At worst he trolls about like some septuagenarian Treguard from kids tv 'adventure' series Knightmare, popping in to comment on their progress and laugh when that isn’t very far or they're about to die.

Russell’s grasp of the regulars is extremely good (and so it should be given that he’s a script editor on the series).  Ianto comes out best, offering some rationalisation as to why he’s a bit bouncier this series.  He’s perhaps far chattier than on screen but we find out exactly how he feels about the good Captain and their relationship and his place within the team.  Jack is somewhere between his Doctor Who persona and Mr. Broody – he also gets in some useful roof time.  Other than Manger and a version of Rhys, the only guest is Idris, a worker for the council who Jack’s got to know very, very well.  He’s smart and funny and in fact I was probably reminded of Sam Seabourne from The West Wing.  With a welsh accent.  And an affinity for Welsh politics. 

As a sequel to End of Days then it really shouldn’t be very good.  But Russell’s a talented writer and takes full advantage of the printed page, often pulling away from the narrative to reprint the diary entries and news stories and interrogation transcripts Ianto’s carrying about in his large file all of which are actually printed in a different font to the rest of the story.  The unmistakable Century Gothic is used too during perhaps the most enjoyable passages in which Russell flashes forward to a possible future in which all of the pent up anger our pals seemed to store in the first series is let out and we see what might happen if Captain Jack’s moral compass and arse kicking boots weren’t keeping the team and their predilection of power weren’t kept in check.  Think Star Trek’s Mirror Universe.

Ultimately the conclusion is a bit of a mess, not quite coherently describing exactly how the metaphoric forces of light and dark (which have suddenly made themselves corporeal) are dealt with, and once again Bilis seems a bit wasted even in the Twelve Monkey’s tinged epilogue.  Some of the more visual ideas, such as the clown faces, disconnected personalities and mass possessions don't quite have the same shock and awe as text, but the first 200 hundred odd pages are never less than entertaining and as bonkers as a Torchwood story should be.

Torchwood: The Twilight Streets by Gary Russell
ISBN: 978-1846074394
RRP: £6.99
Release date: 6th March 2008


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