Torchwood: Dead Man Walking
When speaking about the first series of Torchwood, Russell T Davies openly nominated They Keep Killing Suzie as his favourite episode, although adding that “we couldn’t be this dark all the time”. Obviously, he feels that once a year is about right.
Rather than tease the audience with the possibility that Owen is gone from the show, Matt Jones hastily makes clear the mechanics of his resurrection, sending Jack on a chase around Cardiff. The pre-titles sequence is brilliant- by moving so quickly, and making such a striking addition to the series’ furniture, it confounds the viewer’s expectations of a purely introspective episode. Hopefully the element introduced here will be retained, as the omnipotent tarot girl has considerable potential as a running gag (more so than the pterodactyl, at any rate). The writer’s high concept for the episode was a story about sudden death and grief, where the main character is mourning the end of his own life. The implementation of this idea is structured as a straight sequel to They Keep Killing Suzie, involving the second of the two Risen Mittens. Although it’s nice to see the hook at the end of the original story taken up, the results here aren’t as successful. At first it seems that Dead Man Walking will retain the nihilistic view of death from the original story, but this element is softened through Owen’s confession that he might simply be unable to remember what happened after his death. Unfortunately, the attempts to make Suzie’s references to a creature “waiting in the darkness” beyond life refer to this week’s enemy fall rather flat- presumably we’re supposed to have forgotten that it was actually Jack that the creature was described as “waiting for”. Still, it’s fun watching the only lead-in to the end of series one’s big bad threat being casually appropriated.
For the second time this series, the main problem with an episode is one of basic plotting. During their first episode, Paul Tomalin & Daniel McCulloch recognised that their concept was sufficiently removed from the viewers’ personal experiences to necessitate a clear set of rules, which Jones causally ignores. Why doesn’t destroying the Mitten halt Owen’s involuntary resurrection, and why didn’t the team at least try this, instead of freeze-drying his unloving brain? The police-cell probing of Owen’s biological status was obviously intended to provide a few moments of comedy after Harper’s slide into depression, but instead concentrates the viewer’s mind on questions that would be better left unasked. Surely Owen must be breathing to be able to speak? Another niggle is the origins of the glove- it’s hinted that it was constructed by Death as a trap to enable him to enter reality, but how did he achieve this? And why construct so few gloves? Resorting to an openly supernatural enemy, more so than even Small World’s fairies, creates problems that the script only makes a vague attempt to solve. Where the threat is a metaphor or extrapolation, such as Meat’s look at battery farming, it’s more acceptable for the writer to leave the viewer to fill in some of the elements of the story for themselves. Here, however, the climax is severely weakened by this approach. Even overlooking the moment when Death itself is halted by a glass door, the ambiguous talk of “energy” leaves it unclear whether Owen has somehow been restored to normal (like Martha), or remains an externally animated corpse.
After being in the driving seat of last week’s episode, guest star Freema Agyeman has little to do here. Jones attempts to tie her more tightly into the action by selecting her as the Mitten’s victim, but this move backfires badly. The advance publicity for Doctor Who Series Four results in the viewer being aware that Martha will recover from her predicament, so her aging is involving only as a puzzle- how will it be reversed? Sadly, Martha is completely restored only as a side effect of the main plot’s resolution, creating an unfortunate anti-climax. Another problem with the episode concerns the Weevils. While it’s nice to finally see the hoards of the creatures that the Torchwood team has always spoken off, the concept is beginning to look a little weak, having been drained for too long without nourishment. The basic idea of having a resident species of monster remains a good one (they were very suited to the role of Professor Copley’s victims last week), but the causal tying of Death to the species as their “King” is a bit of a stretch. If it wasn’t for their poor dress sense, they’d be well on the way to becoming Torchwood’s mafia- connections everywhere.
The direction is a rather mixed bag. Andy Goddard’s use of lighting is extremely good, with the psychedelic tone to the scenes in the club underlining Owen’s disassociation from the basic elements of living, and the climax in the hospital has a spooky atmosphere without making the building look disused or abandoned. However, there are some rather dubious decisions, most notably the fixed-camera-in-front-of-character shots used as Owen flees alone. This sort of footage can remind the viewer of one of two things: the Torchwood episode Day One, or Mitchell & Webb’s Surprising Adventures of Sir Digby Chicken-Caesar. Neither of these references is entirely conducive to the nature of Harper’s predicament. The climactic struggle is another slightly dubious-looking part of the show, although a man wrestling a gaseous skeleton was always going to be challenging to shoot. Looking on the bright side, if the show is recommissioned for a third run, this sequence should provide a wonderful new passage to add to the Jack voiceover at the start of each episode. Is there any sane person who would want “Arming the Human Race Against the Future” when you could have “Scuffling with Death”?
The episode never dips quite as low as parts of series one- some element will always recapture the viewer’s attention before it can wander too far. But it’s Burn Gorman doing the work here, not Jones or Goddard.