Chris Chibnall, how do I feel about thee? One week you’re writing garbage like Day One and then you made Cyberwoman, which was somehow even worse – but then this happens! I’m going to put my cards on the table up front: Countrycide is a masterpiece!
Not only is it crap-your-pants scary, it also manages to keep you guessing right up to the big reveal while effortlessly developing the cast of characters at the same time. Right out the starting blocks Chibs’s script and Andy Goddard’s pitch-perfect direction come together to establish the tone. Up to now we’ve had murder mystery stories, alien invasion stories and base under siege stories, but while we’ve been shocked and surprised by many things (right from the start of the pilot in fact) nothing yet has managed to be truly scary. But then we get Countrycide. It’s opening scenes are nothing we haven’t seen or heard before – young woman, empty road, man stalking her, death – but immediately you know: This is when Torchwood finally goes for the horror genre!
The location shooting in the Brecon Beacons is a highlight of the episode. It’s good to get outside Cardiff occasionally, even if only by 25 miles.
As this is Torchwood, the immediate assumption we make is that the killer is an alien. As the five members of Torchwood go to investigate (all of whom are well-utilised for a change) aliens is the assumption they make as well. But it’s not! This time the villains are human beings… well that’s their species anyway; when we learn what they’re up to and why it becomes difficult to still call them humans. These are humans who are EATING OTHER HUMANS!!! And their explanation for it is that they “like” it. We’ve come a long way since the Androgums now, haven’t we?
The first two-thirds of the episode are all about the buildup to this reveal as our five protagonists set off to investigate the missing people. Chibs takes the time to flesh out the characters here and explore the relationship between them. Ianto still hasn’t got over Lisa’s death (See: Cyberwoman) while Tosh clearly has a thing for Owen, but he makes that complicated by revealing he and Gwen have kissed (also from Cyberwoman). The end of the episode picks up on that with the two of them taking it further and actually sleeping together. This is Gwen, our likable hero, cheating on her boyfriend Rhys, but this is a believable thing for them to be doing, especially after the horrifying ordeals the two of them experience in this episode.
The question of Gwen’s relationship with Owen versus her commitment to Rhys will be a subplot that develops for a little while yet and I’m not convinced it was a necessary storyline – we would all have got along fine without it – but the symbolism of the tricky balancing act of “Torchwood Gwen” and “Real Life Gwen” is certainly effective. When season two comes around and both of her worlds finally, inevitably, collide it all comes together nicely and the story arc gets itself a satisfying conclusion.
Torchwood is only ever as good a show as its villains and that’s what makes Countrycide stand out. The Harvesters, as they sickeningly call themselves, are all well realised by the actors playing them. Owen Teale takes the crown for his portrayal of their leader Evan. The look on his face as he calmly approaches Tosh, while holding a baseball bat, and tells her that she’s going to be tenderised is particularly chilling. Any actor who can make a monster like him a believable character has my respect!
He’s not the only one to knock it out the park with his performance. Shot entirely on location and with virtually zero special effects to be seen; this episode needs strong actors to make it work. Eve Myles is convincing throughout with the confused and tormented moment that Gwen has when she tries and fails to see why The Harvesters would eat people being her crowning moment, and her struggle torn between Owen and Rhys being worth a mention too, Burn Gorman helping her along well with that. Gareth David-Lloyd and Naoko Mori both pull off being scared, not an easy emotion to act, with their discovery of the human meat and their confrontations with Evan and his associates.
And then there’s John Barrowman. He’s an actor that is always a joy to watch because he always keeps you on your toes. What’s Jack gonna do next? No one knows but you can bet Barrowman will make you believe whatever it is! That’s a tall order when we talk about Jack Harkness, but that’s why we love the character. He’ll be the hero in the Doctor’s absence but it won’t be easy. His cocky demeanor is fun to watch but he has regrets and a difficult burden, and Barrowman gets the tricky balance of the two sides to Jack just right.
And now, here he comes in a ruddy-great tractor! It’s a satisfying action sequence that would put any Hollywood blockbuster to shame as he rides through in a blaze of glory rescuing his friends and making their enemies pay. Taking them all down with a shotgun, this is Jack doing what needs to be done and being all cocky about it – Barrowman gives a subtlety to his performance leaving the impression that Jack didn’t enjoy killing these people but felt he had no other options left.
Overall then, Countrycide is Torchwood at its best. Jack gets to be the over-the-top antihero, the villains are compelling creeps that you don’t feel bad to see dispatched violently, it’s scary and the right kind of disturbing, the location work is superb and the acting is outstanding. By a wide margin, this is one of Torchwood’s finest moments. If you, like me, are worried about what Doctor Who will be like under Chibs then we can take solace in the fact that this is what he is truly capable of when at his best.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.