Torchwood: A Day In The Death
Joseph Lidster occupies an unusual place in the array of professional fans working for the Upper Boat. While the likes of Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss and Rob Sherman have enjoyed extensive careers outside Who fiction, it is primarily Lidster’s high quality writing for Big Finish which has given him the basis for his Cardiff employment. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that the conclusion of the programme’s "Post Mortem" arc has been placed in a very skilled pair of hands.
The primary task facing the author is that of consolidating the changes in Owen, while restoring him as a useful member of the team. Lidster grasps this challenge, fading the series’ leads into the background and making the plot a secondary element of the episode. Gwen hardly features in A Day In The Death, and Jack only appears to establish the rules under which the story is played out. The resultant space allows Lidster to not only properly convey the horror of Owen’s situation (his discarding of food and toiletries is a superb touch), but also properly address his relationship with Toshiko. Since Chibnall brought this element to the fore in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, the treatment of this dynamic has ranged from being largely ignored in To The Last Man to a near-comic approach as Owen firstly failed to spot Sato’s invitation to a date and then dismissed her feelings as a manifestation of grief. Lidster casually overwrites much of this material, but the result is a vast improvement. It’s to be expected that Owen would have noticed Toshiko’s interest in him, and just as true to the character that he’d feel no obligation whatsoever to reciprocate. His explosion of anger on realising that she now regards him as her pet is a wonderful piece of writing, and the subsequent reconciliation matures both characters. The Owen/Tosh paring is now arguably the most three dimensional of the relationships contained in the programme, and it’ll be very interesting to see the direction it takes in the final episodes of the series. After the repair work carried out by Cath Treganna on Gwen and Rhys, all we need now is for someone to fully address the issue of Jack and Ianto…
The structuring of the episode around Owen’s conversation with a potential suicide initially appears a little clichéd, but is actually a good method of maintaining the narrative drive while dealing with some very dark material. Every time Owen’s depression threatens to overwhelm him, Lidster is able to have his audience identification character press Harper to drive events forward. Also commendable is the way the author avoids any feeling of gratuitousness when he exercises his option of including post-watershed content. The figure of a bride in her blood-soaked wedding dress is central to the viewer’s sympathy with the character, and Owen’s impulsive destruction of his finger prevents the outburst in his flat seeming childish. Where Owen’s exploitation of his unnatural abilities felt forced in Dead Man Walking, his assault on the country house has a sheen of style that distracts the viewer from its contrived nature. Of equal importance is the way the evasion of the infrared sensors gives a slight sense of cheating. This feeling that Owen has managed to turn his unfair situation to his advantage prepares the ground for the story’s unexpectedly positive ending, without giving its content away. The execution of this sequence is impressive, although Harper’s use of a flashlight appears little more than a genre convention, given how well lit the interior of the mansion is. While the previous episode suffered serious difficulty with the mechanics of the Hub’s zombie resident, Lidster largely manages to avoid such problems, with the only issue arising in the climax, where Owen can speak but not exhale.
While the previous instalment of the show tied its plot directly to Owen’s plight, Lidster instead establishes only thematic links, and the end result is much more successful. The dark tone of the story, with its fractious character interactions, is perfectly balanced by the inclusion of a very Avenger-ish concept: the eccentric millionaire collector. This thread is initially allowed to simmer in the background, primarily serving as a specimen of Torchwood’s normal work for Owen to be shut out from. As the story progresses, Parker becomes an annoyance to the viewer, a diversion from the far more interesting scenes involving Owen. Lidster cunningly flips this scenario on its head halfway through, raising the millionaire to the status of “A Story” and providing an excuse for Harper to be reinstated as a field agent. That’s not to say, however, that this strand is an unqualified success, with the limiting of Parker to just one scene resulting in the character wearing his purpose in the narrative on his sleeve. During the course of his appearance, he moves from lusting after Toshiko (Translation: “Parker is a womaniser, like Owen”), to opening up about his fear of what awaits him (“Everyone must face death”), before seizing on the hope that he will vicariously join in Torchwood’s adventures (“Dr Harper, you can still make a contribution to humanity”). An earlier encounter with another member of the team would have served to round the character out, and give his eventual contribution greater meaning. Presumably Parker’s truncated appearance was due to the limited availability of Richard Briers, but the compression of this element weakens the story. Despite this, the plot becomes sufficiently engrossing that it comes as something of a surprise when the viewer is reminded that this is Martha Jones’ last episode. Superficially it appears that all the character has brought to this arc is publicity, but the relationships between the regular characters are now so tightly structured that the inclusion of a figure to which they can speak freely has greatly aided the storytelling.
A Day In The Death is a first-rate episode, spoilt only by the clumsy nature of its pivotal scene.