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Torchwood, UK cover

Torchwood, US cover

Torchwood made a monkey out of me. Back before season one started airing, promotional posters were prominently plastered all over public transport here in the UK. One in particular featured Captain Jack, greatcoat billowing, as he pointed his 1940s-style revolver at some threat beyond our sight. "That," I said confidently to my girlfriend of the time, "is a statement of intent. Right there. None of your ray-gun nonsense. I'm going to enjoy this."

I was wrong. Very, very wrong, and I say again: Torchwood made a monkey out of me.

Imagine for a second, if you will, that you're a TV show yourself. Let's narrow the field a bit—picture yourself as a programme from the same fictional universe as Doctor Who. You're having a nice evening with your other half, you've enjoyed a good meal and some fine wine, and now things are getting a little more... intimate. When the phone rings at some crucial moment, what do you do? If you ignore it entirely, demurring from answering or checking to see who's calling, then it's likely that you're The Sarah Jane Adventures—all about the excitement, and not really having time for distractions within the confines of your 25-minute running time. If you look at who's calling, and probably take a short break to answer it if it's from an immediate relative who might be calling for some emergency reason, then it's likely that you're Doctor Who—still about the excitement, but very conscious of the needs of a family audience. If, on the other hand, you're more the type to grab the phone and, without checking who's on the other end, yodel "Not now, I'm shagging!" before abruptly hanging up and carrying on regardless, then you're Torchwood. The adult Doctor Who spin-off we've waited years for. Yes, you are, you cheeky minx.

Torchwood's main problem from its first season was an identity crisis. It didn't know what it wanted to be, none of its writers appeared to be writing for the same show from episode to episode, and none of the characters appeared to have any, well, character. The production staff have made efforts to fix this in season two, they really have, and you have to give them credit for the effort. But it's not quite enough. Once again, the season's episodes are patchy and moments of promise are overwhelmed by moments of clunking awfulness—though at least this time it's more often just offensively stupid rather than offensively boring and stupid.

Consider each of the episodes in turn, m'lud. Season opener "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" attempts to make us realise that this show isn't a poor man's Angel retread by casting James Marsters as Spike. Oh, he's not called Spike, but he may as well be. A cocky mockney dressed like someone from early 1980s subculture educating the main cast about their central character's murky past? Two men struggling ruggedly on top of buildings and throwing each other on to cars? Come on. About the only difference is that Angel and Spike's homoerotic subtext is (almost) subtext, whereas Jack and Spike are explicitly shown to have a history of being up each other as often as possible. And this is before you get to the nitty gritty stupidity of the episode itself, in which apparently a woman has posthumously identified Spike as her killer and sent a bomb after him, only for the bomb to be confused by Spike getting an injection of, er, DNA from the rest of the cast.

I mean. Come on. I watched this episode at 3am when I was nearly blind drunk, and even then I could do little else but shout at my TV to go forth and multiply. The only scenario in which I can understand how the resolution ever possibly seemed a good idea is if the writer asked John Barrowman what he thought the Torchwood team should do if they got Marsters as a guest star and Barrowman, well-known purveyor of filth, replied "Fill him full of my DNA, hur hur hur." The writer for this one, incidentally, was Chris Chibnall, to whom "subtlety" and "plot logic" appear to be alien concepts. Remember that name, because you'll be hearing more of it later.

Then there's "Sleeper." The emotional core here is akin to season one's "Cyberwoman," except that it doesn't involve a comedy cyborg vs. pterodactyl fight. The writer for this one was James Moran, who also wrote the really very decent Doctor Who episode "The Fires of Pompeii." Similarly, "To The Last Man" is actually pretty good—a World War I British soldier brought to the present day with all the accompanying future shock. It's also surprisingly poignant, until Torchwood does that Torchwood thing it does of declining any offered opportunity for subtlety. The final five minutes are, frankly, bobbins of the highest order designed for cheap emotional manipulation. And while I'm all for a bit of that (hey, I like The OC), the sole reasoning behind Torchwood doing it appears to be that the writing staff thought, "Well, we've established that this is a bit upsetting for everyone involved, but really, we want it to be traumatic—how do we get the pity yanked up to 11?"

Episode 4, "Meat," I didn't watch. Apparently it involves an enormous alien being held captive in a warehouse so that bits of it can be cut off and passed off as sirloin steaks, or something. I could have watched it, but everything on the trailers made it look like the alien was a gigantic comedy poo so, to be honest, I couldn't summon up the willpower. In retrospect, given that the next episode, "Adam," was also passable and written by Catherine Treganna, I should perhaps have given "Meat" a go. "Adam" poses an interesting problem for anyone looking to analyse it at all—fundamentally, it's another Buffy retread with an alien who forces his way into people's memories (a la the Buffy episode "Superstar") so it should automatically be crap, like most of Torchwood's attempts to be Whedone-esque. So it's a pleasant surprise that, despite the titular guest star being so wooden, it's mostly watchable. Then you get to the final scenes and it all goes Horribly Wrong again—we're meant to be seeing some terrible emotional trauma for Jack, as he remembers and then is forced to misremember his father and brother, and instead we're just left bewildered as to why the episode didn't finish five minutes ago when it should have done. If I were a kinder man, I'd think better of the episode, I'm sure. But I'm not, and it made me angry that I was beginning to spot an awful threat of mishandled emotional manipulation. I'm not sure what it says about me that I find cackhanded attempts to make me feel sympathy to be more openly offensive than any other type of attempt to twist my emotions, but there you go. It's just the way I am.

"Reset," okay, that's another one I didn't watch. Except for the last five minutes. So it could be great, who knows? Actually, if anyone reading this did bother to watch that one, can you let me know if it was any good? Thanks. The main thing to take away from it is that Jim Robinson from Neighbours (or Caleb Nicol from The OC, depending on your demographic) ends up killing Owen. Owen then becomes the subject of the next two episodes which are respectively the most incredibly ridiculous and very-nearly-the-best episodes that season two produced.

The first of these, "Dead Man Walking," almost succeeds in being spooky. Owen is brought back to life by a resurrection gauntlet—except that, biologically, he's still dead. And apparently he's "brought something back" with him, and that something might be Death itself. Possibly. The episode is maddeningly non-specific on the nature of the threat, which just makes the Torchwood staff look like credulous fools all over again, and then it commits two of the most ridiculous special effects gaffes I've ever had the side-splitting joy of seeing committed to film. The first involves a group of people fighting with a tetchy gauntlet—to all intents and purposes, the Torchwood Institute is being attacked by Thing from The Addams Family. This, when it happens unexpectedly, is beautifully hilarious in all the wrong ways. The episode's denouement then features a manifestation of Death himself (for it is him!) stalking the corridors of a hospital. Owen beats Death by entering into a punch-up with him. Yes, folks, fisticuffs are the only way to defeat the Grim Reaper. Words cannot possibly do justice to how awful the CGI looks for this particular bit of rough and tumble, and any hint of dramatic tension is spectacularly undermined by how clear it is that Burn Gorman had to fight like a girl with nothing but air in front of him. The last five minutes of this episode ruin it, and by this point in the show's run I was beginning to seriously think that their script editor was only part-time and kept knocking off work whenever they got to the last ten pages in the readthrough.

"A Day in the Death" is... frustratingly passable. Dealing with Owen's coming to terms with his own death, through flashback, is a clever device. And it has Richard Briers say "piss." And yet... and yet... I just can't find it within me to care about it. Of all the episodes of this season, this should be the one I like. On paper, anyway, since it does Character Stuff without stupid amounts of unearned angst—but it's just a bit dull and, ironically, lifeless. There's style there but insufficient substance to really keep it interesting. Any emotion here is in Briers bringing an effortless touch of class to a show that, on the whole, doesn't really deserve it.

Guest casting livens up "Something Borrowed" no end, too. Nerys Hughes appears as a flesh-eating shapeshifter with a habit of taking on a demonically perverted version of its target's appearance. There is nothing more you need to know about this episode—either you want to watch Nerys Hughes as a cannibalistic creature from John Carpenter's milder nightmares, or you have no idea what I'm talking about and won't miss anything by not watching.

Episode 10 is called "From Out of the Rain" and has potential—it's written by PJ Hammond, who created Sapphire and Steel and the only good episode of Torchwood's first season. Unfortunately, this episode is utter bobbins and makes no sense. A circus disappears in the pre-credits teaser, apparently taking a little girl with it—why? It's never touched on again. It's a bizarre irrelevance. The remainder of the episode has circus performers from long ago who've somehow been "captured" on film and then brought back to life. They run around stealing peoples' breath, for no apparent reason, trapping it inside a silver bottle. Jack determines, through no apparent logic but that the script is running short of time to reach its denouement, that if the revived circus performers are filmed on a little handicam which then has its film exposed to the light then they'll be killed. Did I mention that this is utter bobbins?

Torchwood's identity crisis isn't really resolved during season two, proven here better than anywhere. But that lack of cohesion is, if anything, made more frustrating in season two because there have obviously been efforts to address it. "From Out of the Rain" just goes too far into the realm of mysticism to work comfortably in a show set in an ostensibly science-based universe. I'd expect no different from PJ Hammond but, to be honest, even though I'd trust him to wipe the floor with Chibnall any day of the week in the quality writing stakes, this episode is Hammond on a bad day.

"Adrift"—Chris Chibnall again—is offensively bad. It's straight out of season one and I don't really want to dignify it by talking about it. But, since we're here, let's talk about it anyway. So it turns out that the time-space rift on which Torchwood is built has been making people disappear for years. All this time, Jack has been secreting these people in an offshore prison/hospital when they turn up again. In all cases, they've been driven insane and/or physically disfigured by their experiences. Jack doesn't want to tell Gwen about it, for no reason other than that he appears to have mutated into an insensitive and willfully obscure pillock for the week. Gwen tells the mother of one of the disappeared, who is then there to see her child aged by 40-odd years on his return. But, as if that weren't upsetting enough for the characters, Chibnall's need for TRAUMA! reappears and we find that the son is insane and screams non-stop for twenty hours a day. And has the mental age of a kid in his early teens. And looks a bit like Chunk from The Goonies. The whole thing just seems utterly pointless, like we're supposed to feel moved that Chibnall has invented a mother whose distress we can watch. Did I stop watching and think I'd learned something profound, gained some insight into the human condition, been moved by someone else's emotional experience? No. Did I stop watching and wonder why on Earth Chibnall thinks that making up shallow characters who have their lives irrevocably destroyed makes for good telly? Yes. Did I also wonder how it is that Chibnall can toss out all the decent aspects of Torchwood's main cast of characters and go straight back to season one with an apparently clear conscience? Yes.

Did I still make it through the Chibnall-penned two-part finalé? Apparently, yes, I did. "Fragments" is a pointless attempt to remake Firefly's "Out of Gas" episode, in that each of the Torchwood team lie semi-buried in the rubble of a collapsed building and remember why they joined up in the first place. Except that there's no reason for the framing narrative—what links these memories to the present day? Why are we being shown this? It's almost as if Chibnall saw a motif being used once, thought "Ooh, that's clever, I'll reuse that later" and then forgot why it was effective in the first place.

I mean, I've seen people play guitars before now, and it's been quite an affecting experience. But I don't go out and play a guitar in front of people because I know I would be rubbish—while I can tell you academically all sorts of things about how it makes a noise and the history of 20th Century guitar-based music, I can't play one for shit. By "Adrift," I'd started to think that Chibnall has a similar thing with putting words on paper and then "Fragments" pretty much confirmed it.

And then there's the season's final episode. "Exit Wounds." Oh, "Exit Wounds," you with your expensive returning American guest star and your revelations about Jack's past. You with your Spike action scenes and your stupidly nonsensical attempts to be Important by blowing up most of Cardiff in a way that will inevitably be entirely forgotten by next season. You and your awful miscasting that makes Jack's long-lost brother the bad guy, played by an actor only slightly more wooden than Pinocchio. There's so much wrong with "Exit Wounds" that I don't know where to begin.

There are the unnecessary deaths, apparently designed purely to cause us, the audience, TRAUMA. There's the fact that Jack is buried for a thousand years, repeatedly dying and being resurrected, and yet turns up in the present day with not a scratch on him (though he is quite muddy) and no apparent emotional scars whatsoever. When even your main character doesn't believe in your TRAUMA, you'd think that you'd take a step back from the writing pad and reconsider exactly you're trying to achieve. There's the fact that there's no plot logic to Owen apparently having to vent toxic gases from a power station right into the middle of its monitoring facility (why would you even make that slightly possible, if you were building a power station?). But, worst of all, there's the fact that Chibnall can come up with no better motivation for Jack's brother to be destroying the entire city than to have him petulantly whine that "You let go of my hand!" Well, boo hoo. Even worse is his rendition of the line "I long for death!", which just made me want to slap him.

Unlike for "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," I wasn't drunk for "Exit Wounds." I wish I had been. The Torchwood habit of losing everything in the last five minutes is writ large in this episode—to keep the theme going, Exit Wounds can be compared to being the last figurative five minutes of the season, because the entire episode is one big mouth-gaping train crash. Its characters act like plonkers again, it has no logic, and it makes you wonder why you've bothered sticking around for this long. I've seen it being compared to bad hurt/comfort fanfic in its need to inflict TRAUMA on its main characters—and I can't honestly see it as anything else. Season one, in its attempts to be adult, mistook human relationships for a series of people swearing at and then shagging each other—and thus attained all the maturity of a 15-year old boy. Season two has advanced somewhat, because it now feels more like a 17-year old has written it—someone who's convinced that the world is nothing but loss and angst and TRAUMA and revolves around a very, very small number of people.

So imagine that you're a TV show. You're having a nice evening with your other half, you've enjoyed a good meal and some fine wine, and now things are getting a little more... intimate. When the phone rings at some crucial moment, what do you do? You do nothing, because you've got no friends and there's no woman stupid enough to be left alone with you—everyone's worked out that all you do is talk about your pain like it's big and impressive. So you sit there, hope for renewal, and wonder where it all went so wrong. Because you're Torchwood.

Tim was born at a very early age, and plans to die shortly. He suspects that only people who know him will get the joke in the second half of that sentence. For anyone else wondering, the joke is that he's not very tall. In idle moments, Tim also wishes that he hadn't subcontracted the writing of his jokes to a cut-rate Tommy Cooper knockoff.



Tim doesn’t write as often as he should, because every time he does he fears disappearing up his own wormhole.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
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Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
Tuesday: Genre Fiction: The Roaring Years by Peter Nicholls 
Wednesday: HellSans by Ever Dundas 
Thursday: Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi 
Friday: House of the Dragon Season One 
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2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
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By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
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