Dishonest John twirls His moustache to the tune of "Bob Clampett cartoon".
Torchwood: From Out Of The Rain
In the Captain Scarlet episode 'Winged Assassin' (only the second episode broadcast, take note), the Mysterons replicate a large passenger jet, and send it barreling down the runway towards the plane of the foreign president whom Spectrum have been assigned to protect. There's no time to safely avert a collision between the two, so Captain Scarlet does the only thing he can; he attempts to drive the jet off the runway by rubbing his Pursuit Vehicle against the tyres, blowing out the undercarriage and causing the jet to overturn. He succeeds, but the effort also causes him to lose control of the SPV, costing him his life for the second time. Then, on taking off, the President's plane just about fails to gain enough height, clips the erect tail rudder of the downed jet, and plunges to the ground in a colossal explosion.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to properly script a catastrophic 'well, fuck' ending and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Not even Dick Cheney could pass that one off as a triumph.
When I was a kid, I didn't know dick about sartorial elegance (and still don't). My mother, in one of her more lucidly sociopathic trains of thought, would pick out her new clothes on the basis that if I didn't like them, they had to be good. You get kind of blase about this after thirty-eight years, so it's with nary a sigh and a shrug that I greet the stark fact of being the odd man out over From Out Of The Rain. Because I enjoyed it this week. Quit looking at me like that.
From Out Of The Rain is nearly brilliant. Nearly. You know the narrow borderline between madness and genius? That kind of 'nearly'. All the basic ingredients are in their own way sublime, they just happen to be hopelessly and utterly wrong. It's a slick Nigel Kneale ghost story - the problem is that nobody had the guts to tell PJ Hammond it wasn't supposed to be one, or drag him out of the videotape of the space-trap service station he's been stuck in since his own series folded in 1982. But nobody can say that Hammond isn't also a master of the high concept (albeit the same ones have worked for him dozens of times before); so either it's a gourmet souffle made with only the finest quality fish heads, or else unlike my esteemed colleagues, I lack the necessary background in Sapphire & Steel to see For Out Of The Rain for what it really is. It's hard to tell.
"A gourmet souffle made with only the finest quality fish heads"
What's much easier to get a handle on is that if you still expect Torchwood the series to resemble something approaching honest-to-God science fiction (and for heaven's sake, why would you be after blowfish in sports cars, undead angst and marital disunity?), it's a given that you're going to have really, really, really, really, really hated this one. To you, it's PJ Hammond waving his wrinkled nob and going 'Woooo! Spooky! Wooooooooooooooo!' in your face. The impeccable atmosphere, helped hugely by an evocative background mix of Brian Hodgson and Mark Snow, won't do a single thing for you if all you can see is a virtual retread of Small Worlds in style and structure, where absolutely nothing is properly explained or rationalised - great for Sapphire & Steel, not so hot for proper sequential drama. There's also no getting around that From Out Of The Rain is the living embodiment of the term 'spooky-do', almost all set-up with very little payoff. It even takes place in the site of an abandoned fairground, for Christ's sake. With a comedy chase scene. All it needs now is the maze of doors for everyone to run in and out of, while Catatonia belts out a bouncy bubblegum version of Mulder & Scully behind them. Meanwhile, in one the obvious script-edited bits which Hammond didn't write, Owen's mystical dead powers, which they could have done much more with as a plot device this week, are briefly and ineptly trucked out as an unsubtle boxing-glove reminder for viewers too addled by alcohol to remember seven days ago (and they'll have their work cut out for them now that the show has moved to Friday nights), and Tosh is given precious little to do again but stay home and stick virtual letter-shaped fridge magnets on her computer screen. Can you buy those on Second Life?
Jack's own existence as one of the two people still living who can remember the Night Travellers first hand also flatly contradicts the basic 'memories captured on film' premise of the episode. I've had all sorts of apologetic excuses for this thrown at me; that Jack was an infiltrating agent, he wasn't one of them, and wasn't even part of the same show since the film reel was a compilation of different footage (and let's throw that one under the bus right now; can you see Vorg and Shima from Carnival Of Monsters wanting to go anywhere near a man who blows his own brains out on an daily basis? Robert Holmes wasn't that morbid). I'm not buying a word of it, and if Hammond's script insists upon leaving the explanations up to the viewer, then it's got to expect this shit. What about all the parish records on the Travellers and newspaper clippings about the disappearances in their wake? Do these not count? The info-nerd phenomenon didn't start with the digital age, so are you also saying that nobody has ever kept a diary and written them down? Or taken photographs of the show? You know, on film? Besides, since the Travellers have been reduced to creatures of light and shadow, then why shouldn't they be able to step out of Jack's head?
In actual fact though, the biggest inspiration of all behind this episode may not be The Stone Tapes or PJ Hammond's own cult following, but Disney's Pinocchio, of which I won't be at all surprised if PJ turns out to have been traumatised by it as a child. I hereby cite the sideshow Italian named Stromboli as further proof. But even though I can expect a long wooden nose if I deny that I happened to like From Out Of The Rain, the only thing that's going to turn into a donkey is PJ Hammond's reputation if he tries anything like this again.
No mum, those pink crocs look really good on you. Bitch.
This has to be a very quick review because the BBC are throwing episodes of Torchwood around like confetti at a wedding this week. My personal theory is that they are putting Adrift on later tonight in an attempt to make us forget that the depressingly awful From Out of the Rain ever happened. Scheduling retcon, if you like. In fact, there's a rumour going around that Chris Chibnall's final episode is so disappointing it aired on Sky HD last Sunday at 4am.
As luck would have it, this was the episode that I was looking forward to the most. And I had to fight tooth and nail to watch it. Every Wednesday night in the Tachyon TV volcano the wife and I always end up having a heated row about what we are going to watch come 9 o'clock:
"Oh please, love! I want to watch the programme with the tall, scary man who wants to take over the world!"
"Sod Gavin McCloud!" I cry. "Torchwood's on!"
Oh, if only I had a drum kit...
But, I pleaded, this week's episode would be worth watching. Some of the characters might even remember what happened to them at the end! I pointed out that the trailer looked fantastic and that it was written by a bona fide living legend. Sadly, she'd never heard of PJ Hammond and by the time I'd started gushing over the seminal Sapphire and Steel her eyes had already glazed over. She didn't even want to hear about Midsomer Murders! Luckily, she could tell that I would flounce into a strop if I didn't get my weekly fix of Owen Harper and his rapidly deteriorating fingers, so I won this particular battle.
It will take me weeks to make it up to her.
This was the worst episode of Torchwood that I've ever seen. And I've seen them all. At least Cyberwoman was funny and, more importantly, it didn't piss somebody's reputation up the wall for 50 tedious minutes.
I didn't realise you could take a bunch of psychotic, supernatural clowns and make them non-threatening. I used to wet my pants at the briefest glimpse of Ronald McDonald but this lot exuded about as much menace as Rod, Jane and Freddy. Not so much IT as SHIT. The Snidley Whiplash 'Ghostmaker" and his "erotically dangerous" Mermaid lady (think Mrs Saxon in swimming trunks) looked striking in publicity stills but their villainy was pure pantomime. Julian Bleach gave one of the archest performances I've seen this side of season 24 and I wanted to reach into the screen so I could twirl his mustache for him. His Paul Darrow impression was spot-on, though.
The climatic moment when the "whatever-the-fucks" finally emerged from the cinema screen should have been an iconic tour de force of surreal horror. Instead of an ethereal version of Stars in Their Eyes. "Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be corporeal!" And when the so-called evil bastards finally emerged into the world after decades of having to share shelf space with John Barrowman (what are the chances?), they celebrated with a lovely group hug and some firm but friendly handshakes. Fair enough but it's not exactly scary, is it? Meanwhile, Ianto and Jack are left peering out from behind the stalls like a couple of teenagers who have sneaked into a porno.
And I'm truly sorry PJ, but no amount of bigging up this so-called threat is going to help.
"They have all of Cardiff to choose from", warns Gwen during one particularly dreary info-dump.
"....and the world." interjects Jack - WITH A STRAIGHT FACE!
Oh fuck off. They were rubbish. That slab of blubber in Meat had more chance of taking over the world than these, er, clowns. But at least the episode managed to evoke some of the magic and charm of early cinema. Admit it, who wasn't thinking about Harold Lloyd during the thrilling chase scene?
HAPPY MUSIC SWELLS MAJESTICALLY. IT IS RUDELY INTERRUPTED BY THE SOUND OF A NEEDLE SCRATCHING VINYL.
JACK: Oh by the way kid, the rest of your family were slaughtered by some magical circus freaks. Sorry about that, kiddo. We fucked up again.
NURSE: Now, where have I heard those words before?
Proceedings, if you can even call them that, are capped off with an unexpected cameo by Steve Roberts from the Restoration Team. There he is, minding his own business at a car boot sale, when he stumbles upon episode 3 of The Web of Fear. "That's handy," he thinks. "The Yeti are due to appear in one of next year's specials and we could do a tie-in release. If only we did that kind of thing. Which we don't". However, instead of unleashing more VID-Fired goodness on the populace he inadvertently sets free the evil whatchamacallits from ghostly ga-ga magic-land. The bastard!
Of course the coda was nothing at all like Blink. Not a bit of it. I mean, statues are pretty terrifying at the best of times and kids encounter them all the time. But film canisters? What are the chances of a kid coming across one of those, unless they're being dragged around a car boot sale by Steve Roberts? The youth of today can barely recognise VHS tapes let alone dusty old reels of film. And what would they play it on? Their PS3 isn't that backwards compatible. What's next? Fear white dog shit?
at the travelling circus. You've seen the pinheads, torso man and the
chicken lady. What next? "The Man Who Couldn't Die". Imagine the
disappointment when a man with no freak deformities other than a
massive desire to be on television stands in front of you, tops himself
amusingly (i.e. he smiles when he's doing it), and then you wait ten
minutes before he comes round looking troubled. Great. Give me
a decent bearded lady anyday. Or a zombie doctor who keeps forgetting
he can't breathe or feel. That'd be good. Mind you any of those acts
would be better than watching From Out of the Rain. PJ Hammond's Sapphire and Steel
still holds up very well as far as I'm concerned, and this was such a
pale shadow of his earlier work that it was almost painful. The only
charitable explanation I can think of is that working on Midsomer Murders must be severely damaging to the brain and body.
I don't want to dwell on Sapphire and Steel, but it brilliantly fucked up a whole generation of children. In the same way that in Blink
Steven Moffat splendidly and gratuitously did his best to give kids an
irrational fear of statues, so Hammond caused the little ones to
shudder in terror at the prospect of being photographed, quail at the
thought of spending time on a railway station, and above all never to
trust walls made of living meat. The outstanding thing about Hammond's
writing was that you were thrown in at the deep end and never given
much of an explanation as to what the hell was going on. The central
characters were unexplained. Their motives were unclear, and while
they could be quite nice sometimes, they were equally likely to
sacrifice you horribly in order to keep things 'balanced'. When they
did explain what they were doing, you almost wished that they hadn't.
For instance in the assignment featuring the entity that was in every
photograph that had ever been taken (an obvious precursor to From Out of the Rain)
Steel explained that the creature was now trapped in a kaleidoscope
that they would shortly put into a ship that was due to be sunk under an
iceberg. End of episode, and cue the young me to start whimpering and
ask for a cold flannel to be applied to my feverish brow.
no-one can do anything but spout
back at the circus and it seems that no-one can do anything but spout
expository dialogue. And not just that, but redundant expository
dialogue. After watching the bloke getting spooked by the film, then
taking it to the cinema and getting freaked by the runaway projector, I
didn't then need a scene where he recounts the exact same action, at
length, to Jack and Ianto. It could have been a couple of lines. And
Jack's repetitive lines about the Night Travellers' habit of popping up
at the circus made them seem more like annoying neighbours than
fearsome projections of evil. The flipside of the recent good, scary
stuff from Moffat is that everyone thinks they can write something as
disturbing as "Are you my mummy" or have a threat as weird as the
Weeping Angels. The frustrating thing about From Out of the Rain is
that Hammond's early work was of massive importance in creating a genre
of television that treated children with enough respect to feel free and give them The Fear. In a deeply psychological and traumatic way. So it's a shame to see him
reshaping his old ideas through the prism of his successors' work. The characters manifesting themselves from within the film
looked like an old-hat rip-off of Ringu, a film that reeks of PJ
Hammond even if Hideo Nakata has never heard of him. The whole sorry
mess is akin to Bram Stoker writing an episode of Moonlight.
there was still enough to raise a wry smile. Jack had so much
expository dialogue that Ianto had to perform a very wide range of
'listening acting'. Pursing his lips here, a slight chin stroke there,
he ran the gamut of all the reaction shots that the Central can teach
you. Jack seemed to be telling him that music hall was taking its
ironic revenge through cinema, the medium responsible for destroying it. I must admit that when I watched a documentary yesterday called Auntie's War on Smut
I was vaguely disconcerted by scratchy old footage of Max Miller who certainly looked like a
man who wanted revenge. He was apparently banned from the BBC for
telling a joke about a man on a narrow mountain path who encountered a
beautiful young woman
coming towards him. “I didn’t know whether to block her passage or toss
I digress. Much like this review, the episode was
a dislocated load of mumbo-jumbo. Trying to gum it all together with
interminable scenes of old ladies trying to explain the back-story
didn't work. I'd like to blame the production team, but I suspect it
was just a bad script that somehow made it past the usually impeccable
and rigourous quality control unit. In fact they probably only use PJ
Hammond as a sop to old tossers like me in the hope that at least one
episode will get a free pass from the ming-mongs. But no-one in this
day and age is scared by a piano playing itself. Even ming-mongs.
"They all died so suddenly" intoned a random nurse. Some of us weren't
Often one of Torchwood’s problems is its inability to expand upon an interesting idea that’s tucked away amongst the generic nonsense that fill out the rest of an episode. The main plot here seemed like an attempt to bring the kind of characters from films like the German Expressionist silent The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to life and use them as a cause for murder and mayhem. The problem is that it all seemed rather inauthentic, as though PJ Hammond was imagining what those films are like without having actually seen them and using his own Chinese whispers version instead.
But lost in the midst of that was the idea that, undercover or not, Jack worked in a travelling circus as ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Die…’ shooting himself in the head on a nightly basis for the enjoyment of paying customers. That to me is far more shocking and horrific than the two constructs whipping around Cardiff city centre stealing people’s breath whilst philosophizing esoterically like a steampunk Roy and Priss from Blade Runner. A clever scriptwriter could use it to parallel some modern practice or an alien perhaps who’s being forced to do much the same thing.
The problem with From Out Of The Rain was that it lacked that kind of invention and went the easy route. Hammond himself admitted during Declassified that one of his mainstays is people going in and out of photographs so he thought he’d try it with film and whilst there’s nothing wrong with returning to the well, on this occasion it just seemed old. Buster Keaton was using the gag in the early part of the last century for goodness sake. Of all people I should be excited by the idea of old film holding secrets, but at the climax when Jack wondered in the Blink-a-like finale (serious, Moffat should sue) what else might be hiding in old film cans in people’s basements and attics, all that gave me shivers was the prospect that The Space Pirates might be found.
The episode felt like a hold over from the first series. Jack’s mean and moody? Tosh is hardly in it? Gwen’s acting like a giggling dimwit? Ianto’s crying? About the only character that’s clearly still dead is Owen, even though when the Ghostmaker tried to steal his breath and exclaimed with surprise that he couldn’t breath in the next shot we heard him breathing. Like many of those first series stories, this was essentially a thin chase plot, dipped in some style and served in false emotion. Only one life saved? No! Oh good it’s a small child! Look at the little poppet … flaaagahaagha ...
There’s no denying that Julian Bleach did his best to turn the Ghostmaker into a creepy figure, even to the point of renting out Paul Darrow’s voice for the duration. Some of the production design, particularly in the circus was really well conceived and atmospherically photographed. And the short scene with the old witness in the home particularly touching. Unfortunately, some by-the-numbers direction, annoying acting choices and incessant music undermined all of that and in the end, From Out Of The Rain, was something this kind of television should never be. Boring.