Everyone’s a critic, says Tony Fyler.
Fact 1 it’s important to know: Peter J Hammond created Sapphire and Steel.
So if you ask him to write an episode of Torchwood, there are some things you can take as read: it’s going to be creepy as all get-out; there are going to be things that happen when they shouldn’t – in this case, films that run when there’s no electricity, and even when there’s no film; there are going to be mysterious figures that transition between states – there’s a famously creepy Sapphire and Steel where a faceless man comes out of, and travels between photographs, and here, the concept is evolved to moving pictures; there will be buildings recreating previous periods in history, creating thin points through which things can travel; and there will be creepy names and phrases, repeated over and over till they achieve a potency and a scare-factor far beyond their normal capacity – from out of the rain, your last breath, the Ghostmaker.
Torchwood in its first two seasons dealt with a range of stories and topics in a range of styles, but it’s hard to beat From Out of the Rain in terms of good old-fashioned creepiness – there’s a gothic style, there are creepy clowns, there is, let’s face facts, Julian Bleach as the Ghostmaker. Julian Bleach, bless him, may be a perfectly pleasant human being in his own private life – many actors with a reputation for playing villains rather perversely are – but that doesn’t stop him being the living embodiment of the heebie-jeebies. It’s no particular coincidence that his three roles in the world of Who and its progeny have built on a pre-existing ability to be terrifying – you don’t get to include the Ghostmaker, the Nightmare Man and Davros on your CV unless you can bring the scary, and Bleach can and does, turning what could be a faintly stereotypical ‘bad circus ringleader’ character into something genuinely unnerving by walking his performance along the thinnest razor-wire between over the top early cinema moustache-twirlery and real psychopathic, vicious thuggery, achieving in the Ghostmaker a kind of theatrical grand guignol grotesque that will punch you in the face if he needs to.
The storyline – again, pretty much as you’d expect from a PJ Hammond script – is a little thin, relying heavily on atmosphere and incident to escalate events. We see the events at the Electro theatre, where retro films of the local area are to be shown to a small smattering of an audience. We see the release of the Ghostmaker and Pearl, the woman who lives in water, and then the bodies begin to accumulate – not corpses, just bodies, robbed of their last breath and the liquid in their bodies, but not killed, the breath extracted to form ‘ghosts,’ an eternal audience for the Ghostmaker, Pearl and the rest of the ‘Night Travellers.’ Cue a fairly standard double-stranded chase – the two leading Night Travellers need to find the rest of their troupe on film and bring them through into the real world, while adding to their audience. The Torchwood team need to find the Ghostmaker with his flask of ‘ghosts,’ find a way to set them free, and presumably deal with the ethical consequences of doing so. It’s not complicated plotting, but it does depend on strong performances and a direction with a solid sense of delivering the beats of both atmospheric gloom, sweeping, growing horror, and the slamming together of an old, stylish evil and a modern, pulsing (apologies, Owen) team who can understand what it is they’re fighting. It makes for a story that while it may not make a whole heap of sense, lives on in the memory long after you stop watching it (which, given the subject matter of lives captured on film even after a living is destroyed by the coming of film, is fairly appropriate).
The ending is pure Hammond hokum, with its own internal logic, but also with the abandonment of plotting for neat device – creatures having escaped from film into the real world, and had a real world effect, are somehow able to re-rendered only film if you point a camera at them? The overexposure of that film sending them into apparent oblivion seems like an unfortunate, glib convenience that could perhaps have been avoided had From Out Of The Rain been more effectively plotted, rather than mostly ‘atmosphered’ along, and the equivocating ending where most of the ‘souls’ are lost, but one saved allows Torchwood to have its gritty cake and still eat its happy ending, leaving us with the sensation of a creepy story with an ending that strips away most of its significance. The postscript, leaving the way open for a potential sequel with the Night Travellers was almost inevitable, but would have made for an interesting return encounter had the option on it ever been taken up.
From Out Of The Rain begins beautifully, horribly, creepily, all atmosphere and smarm and snarl – the rain, the dark, the shadows flickering on screens and walls. It’s when the Night Travellers are exposed to the bright light of day that they become less effective, and when they’re stripped of their atmosphere, they become altogether rather ordinary – at least by Torchwood standards.
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