Cath Treganna’s Out Of Time was the high point of Torchwood’s first series, and earnt her a hasty recommission to supply the first part of the show’s finale. Thankfully, Meat sees her retaining the same quality of writing in a more action-orientated story, delivering a memorable tale that leaves a permanent mark on the team.
Meat’s central concept involves taking the show’s Rhys sub-plot, and developing it in the only way possible, by introducing Gwen’s boyfriend to her world. It would be easy to say that cashing in the series’ chips in this manner guarantees interesting drama, had Combat and End of Days not proven precisely the opposite. Rather than relying on the central shock of the truth to provide a good one-off scene, Treganna ratchets up the tension by having Gwen’s investigation of Rhys’s affairs paralleled by his shadowing of Torchwood as they go about their business. Once both characters have reached critical mass, she throws them together, using the resulting shockwave to energise the remainder of the story. Although the episode teases the audience with the threat that the format may again be reset using the Retcon tablets, Treganna wisely leaves the central plot point of the story intact, and it’ll be fascinating to see where things go from here- the wedding plotline has just become a lot more interesting.
In concept, this story is represents exactly what Torchwood should be about. It’s a very Doctor Who idea, with a captured alien being exploited by humanity, but one that could never be explored in its present televised incarnation. Although some publicity material described the story as satire on the meat-production industry, this is actually a minor element of the plot, compared to the journey the characters are sent on. Particular credit is due to the performances of the gang who are orchestrating events- clichéd they may be, but their relentless profit seeking helps ground events in the same world as Rhys’s previously humdrum existence. The least successful element of the story lays not the script or performances, but the realisation of the main plot point. “Meat the Space Whale” is convincing in overhead shots, but The Mill’s work on the creature is too rough and ready to retain credibility in close-ups. This critically weakens the scenes where Jack forms a bond with the whale- the audience is too busy goggling at the alien’s low-res skin to be able to take seriously Jack’s show of compassion. That the warehouse scene’s mood is maintained at all is a tribute to other parts of the production team. The lighting in this location is superb, and the vast pool of blood on the floor conveys the tone more immediately than any amount of dialogue.
Treganna magnificently orchestrates the way that the regular characters’ relationships with each other collide. Rhys’s initial jealousy of Jack makes the latter keen to show that he has no particular attachment to Gwen, but he has to be careful not to flirt too much when his butler is present. Ianto is walking on air as a result of his continuing relationship with Jack, and is thus unable to offer any comfort to his downhearted colleagues. Feeling guilty over hiding so much from Rhys, Gwen goes to considerable lengths to reassure him of her feelings for him. As a result of this, Owen, who Gwen had an affair with in series one, sinks into introspection and retires to the conservatory (A.K.A. The Sulking Room). This then renders him blind to Toshiko’s admittedly cack-handed attempts to ask him out, a result of her newfound personal focus from the previous week’s episode. Despite the complex set of interlocking elements, these matters all make perfect sense as they appear on-screen.
Jack is an advantage that the series rarely exploits. While Doctor Who has a fully defined central character, Torchwood’s lead is more malleable, with greater potential to be written as a regular, evolving character. Despite this, writers frequently treat Jack as the show’s resident action figure, showing little emotion and spending most of his time running about. The main exception to this in the show’s first series was in Treganna’s Captain Jack Harkness, and her willingness to drive the character forward is also evident here. We get flashes of Jack in Doctor Who mode, in the form of his Not The Nine O’clock News style “I like trucking” flirtation with Rhys’s secretary. Treganna devises a convincing reason for Jack to break out of his Torchwood mindset, but far more important is his approach to the whale. The writer shows that the Jack’s time in Doctor Who’s third series has had just as big an impact on him as his initial run in the parent show. It’s possible that what drives Jack is the parallels between the whale’s imprisonment and Jack’s year in captivity during Last of the Time Lords. The scenario Treganna constructs, however, of Jack trying to save the whale (sorry!) in the face of Toshiko’s desire to exploit its growth properties and Owen’s willingness to euthanise it, suggests that the Captain has acquired a Doctor-like streak in his personality. The events revisit the familiar “compassionate Doctor versus bloodthirsty human” dynamic introduced to Torchwood’s parent series in the 1970s, and most recently shown in the form of Harriet Jones’ killing of the Sycorax in The Christmas Invasion. The result is a real growth in the character.
In the space of fifty minutes, we get horror, suspense, action and some superb personal drama. There’s something here for everyone.