Tony Fyler faces the nightmares of Real Life.
People go missing every day. Every day, last words become real last words – you’re a plonker, you’re late, don’t forget to buy sprouts, I love you, I hate you.
In the blinking of an eye, the world can change, can freeze, and those are the last links in the chain of connections that bound you into someone’s life.
Some people turn up again, to show you how big a part of your lives they really are when the relief washes over you and the clock of your shared life starts again.
Some people turn up dead, or changed and never quite the same again, and force you to bend your life around some horrible thing that’s happened.
But some people just vanish.
Some people just disappear. And part of your life stops forever. All the memories you’ve shared, all the things you’ve said and done to one another build to nothing but an aching, endless question-mark.
Welcome to Adrift.
The concept of the episode is so ghastly in its simplicity that it took someone with the chops of Chris Chibnall, head writer on Torchwood’s first two series, to build the elements into and around it that warrant a place in a science fiction show. That Chibnall does that with an aplomb of which Newton would be proud is a mark of his skills. The Rift, famous for dropping flotsam and jetsam from all over the universe in Cardiff, would be a strange anomaly indeed if it only worked one way, but that’s the assumption we’ve worked on all the way through most of two series. Adrift rips that up, and opens up the terrifying possibility that it takes things too.
That it takes people.
It takes Jonah Bevan, aged fifteen, on his way home, and leaves his mother Nikki with no answers. What Adrift shows for most of its length is what lies on the other side of the question-mark – how people survive, what they do to try and fit a disappearance into the world of the logical and rational. Nikki forms a support group, because really there’s nothing else she can do. Her search for some clue as to what’s happened to her son is fruitless, leading to eye-strain and borderline madness as she scans every inch of crowd footage she can find, desperate to suddenly see his face again, to have a thread she can hold on to. When no such thread comes, all you can do is try to find people who understand.
And she does – uncovering an epidemic of missing people in Cardiff, elevating the potential threat of the Rift as a swallower-up of lives. Gwen, who’s frequently the heart of the Torchwood team, faces a tough journey in Adrift, with people telling her she’s becoming inured to the ‘ordinary people’ she used to care about. Almost in direct reaction to that, to the idea that the work she does with Torchwood is changing her too much, she makes Jonah her special project, even when Jack categorically tells her to drop it.
This is Gwen we’re talking about, so of course, she pokes it with sticks instead, and with a little help here and there, uncovers a horrifying truth. Not only does the Rift steal people. Sometimes it brings them back.
It’s brought Jonah back, but time is relative – he’s been gone forty years from his point of view, and only seven months from his mother’s. What’s so much more, he’s seen things he should never have seen, suffered things no human should have to go through. He’s been to Hell and back out there in the universe. Jack has been keeping him, and sixteen other returnees, safe and cared for, on Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel.
Nevertheless, Gwen acts as Nikki’s champion, to help her get beyond the question-mark. To help bring her answers, and knowledge, and peace.
She brings mother and child back together, and for long, loving, precious moments, everything is all right in Nikki’s world again. The question-mark that has stopped the clock of her life dissolves, and she has her son back.
And then, mercilessly, Chibnall delivers his coup de grace.
People go missing every day.
People go mad every day too.
Suddenly, the ‘good phase’ of Jonah’s life ends, as it ends every day, after a cruelly short four hours. His eyes bulge. His mouth opens. And the scream begins. The scream that whips him through twenty hours of every day, the scream of a mind bent beyond endurance, scarred and snapped by the things he’s seen and endured on his way home. The scream of a man gone mad.
People go mad every day. Just as they go missing, so people go into places, or ways of thinking, where the people who love them can’t reach them, can’t touch them. People see demons, hear voices, know the world is talking about them, plotting against them, needing them to do themselves some harm, or do some harm to others. People’s memories dissolve as disease dismembers who they are.
And more often than not, their loved ones have to watch.
Still think the question-mark of not knowing is the worst thing in the world?
The episode brings Nikki and Gwen full circle – Nikki telling Torchwood’s best-meaning heart that while her son was only missing, there was hope. Yes, hope was agony, a thorn in her life, a desperate scanning of crowds and a need to hold on to the smell of him. But hope, nonetheless. Hope of one day seeing him in one of those crowds. Hope of a miracle.
The reality of Jonah’s madness kills all hope, replacing the million maybe-futures he was having with one horrifying image, one sound, the sound of her baby in inexpressible agony and the hopelessness of not being able to help him even a little.
Adrift is Torchwood at its most grown-up. Far more than snarling aliens or nightmare men on pieces of film, Adrift slams the mundanity of horror into our minds, by showing us not one but two real life scenarios that turn people into things that just mark time, things that do whatever they can to get by. Adrift never offers any easy solutions – its villain is not an alien to be vanquished, not an invasion to be stopped. It’s two realities that make even Gwen question the point of talking about a ‘normal life,’ and which allow only Rhys, who doesn’t know the nature of the threat, to advocate the worth of such a life. Adrift is some of the strongest writing Chibnall ever did for the show, and it brings the best out of its two guest performers – Ruth Jones as Nikki, proving to the world that she had the range for drama as well as comedy, and Robert Pugh, of Casualty, Doctor Who (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood), Game of Thrones and, to be fair most other quality TV, breaking hearts and chilling blood as the adult Jonah, locked for twenty hours a day in his memories, and in that scream.
Adrift is the kind of science fiction you can’t make too often, for fear of frightening the audience out of its escapism. It’s the kind of science fiction that needs to be watched semi-regularly, to make sure we remember the world we really live in.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk