CyberwomanBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 8 November 2006 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

When Torchwood was first announced, it was described as "Doctor Who for adults". On the strength of 'Cyberwoman', it's Doctor Who for adolescent boys. The admittedly ludicrous premise of 'Day One' allowed writer Chris Chibnell to just about get away with a script that married characterization of the regulars with puerile sex scenes and innuendo, but here he attempts a similar blend with a potentially more serious premise and throws horror into the mix as well. The result is an absolute mess.

The idea of a Cyberman on the loose inside Torchwood hub has enormous potential; the idea of a group of people trapped in a confined space with a lone monster on the rampage has long been a winning formula in science fiction and was handled relatively effectively in the Doctor Who episode 'Dalek'. Making the lone monster a scantily clad attractive woman in silver bondage gear is however a case of shooting oneself in the foot. There is no logical reason why a Cyberman would need tits, so why would a Cyber-conversion unit augment them into a metal bust rather than removing them? Why bother to provide a slender strip of metal to cover her crotch but leave her thigh untouched? Because it appeals to adolescent fantasies. There are moments in 'Cyberwoman' which have the potential to be enormously tense, such as Lisa's pursuit of Toshiko towards the exit, a should-be edge-of-your-seat moment made gripping by the usual unstoppable menace of a Cyberman ruined by a stupid costume that shows a woman in a silly hat and a silver thong. It doesn't even look like real metal, which doesn't help.

And this is the problem with 'Cyberwoman'; it has so much potential, but blows it by being superficial. As I've noted in the past, the advantage of Big Finish's Cybermen stories is that, unhindered a pre-watershed timeslot, they can convey the real body horror that the Cybermen represent in a way that Doctor Who on television was never able to, as they successfully did in 'Spare Parts'. Torchwood could do the same, and here there is plenty of gore on display, from Dr. Tanizaki's mutilated corpse ("His upgrade failed") to the copious amounts of blood on display and the brain transplant scene at the end. And yet whenever the tension mounts to effective levels, something puerile happens to scupper it. Trapped in a mortuary draw with a homicidal monster about to find them, Gwen and Owen kiss passionately; I can buy the last kiss idea, but as soon as Lisa is seemingly incapacitated the pair doesn't bother to, for example, go and see if Jack and Ianto are still alive, they stand around bickering about Owen's erection.

On top of all of this, the plot is riddled with holes. The episode establishes that the hub isn't very big, but nevertheless we're expected to believe that Ianto has kept a Cyber-conversion unit with partially converted-occupant hidden in the basement for months, and nobody has stumbled upon it. And how did he get it there, and who helped him? Later, we get Toshiko's unexplained gambit with two cheap plastic light sabers, which don't appear to do anything, but the biggest problem with the plot is Lisa's shifting motivation. Initially, she seems to want to convert people into Cybermen, but later wants to transplant her brain into Ianto's body, before finally transplanting it into the pizza delivery girl's body and then suggesting that she and Ianto should both be converted into Cybermen. Why doesn't she just try and complete her existing conversion? Or be content with her new body? And why does she conveniently stand by and let Jack and Ianto rescue Gwen from the conversion unit? Presumably, her experience has driven her insane, but the script doesn't explain this, or even suggest it, it just makes it look as though Chibnell was drunk when he wrote it and the script-editor didn't bother reading it. Speaking of which, the line "You always told me you didn't love me because of what I looked like" is unintentionally amusing, suggesting that Ianto thinks she has a face like a bag full of spanners in the middle of what is supposed to be a heart-rending tragic scene.

'Cyberwoman' does at least give Gareth David-Lloyd's Ianto some character development, and does it in a way that is presumably designed to remind us that this a dysfunctional group far removed from the "UNIT family" of seventies Doctor Who, despite the other four playing basketball and drinking together near the start. David-Lloyd spends most of the episode portraying a character wracked with grief to the point of being unreasonable and he does convey Ianto's trauma very well, turning to anger as Ianto furiously asks Jack, "I clear up your shit. No questions asked, and that's how you like it. When did you ask any questions about my life?" and begs his companions to try and help Lisa. Not surprisingly, they are more concerned with their own survival, but Ianto's behaviour does at least ring true, even if "Jack, give her a chance to surrender" when she's trying to kill them is pushing it a bit. Still, Gwen's line, "All that deception. All because he couldn't bear to live without her" nicely sums the situation up. The problem is, I rather think it goes too far; the whole episode takes the emotional aspect totally over the top in way that suggests that there is no going back; this may be a crucial point for the series that will be developed further, but it is a little hard to buy Ianto quietly returning to work and tidying up after Lisa has been dispatched.

And then there's Jack. Apparently keen to portray the character's dark side, Chibnell gives us a man totally devoid of empathy, who doesn't even begin to understand what Ianto is feeling and pointlessly orders him at gunpoint to execute his girlfriend, a task he ends up completing himself. The script takes the stance that Jack is forcing Ianto to decide where his loyalties lie, but given the circumstances all it does is make Jack look like a sadistic prick and it doesn't gel with previous characterization. Jack does get some good scenes here though, including his decision to distract Lisa by trying to get her to kill him, over and over again, and the implication at the end is that he was hoping she might succeed. This raises interesting questions about what might happen when he eventually catches up with the Doctor and perhaps finds a way of curing his anti-terminal condition.

'Cyberwoman' does benefit from James Strong's direction, which manages to maintain tension at times in the face of a facile and overwrought script, but Lisa's costume looks horribly like rubber sprayed silver, which jars in the face of the slick production values that Torchwood desperately wants to boast. Presumably most of the budget was blown on the Pterodactyl, which finally gets something useful to do, but still looks like low-budget CGI. There is a sense, throughout 'Cyberwoman', of over ambition poorly realized, of promise not delivered; the ring of stitches around the pizza delivery girl's head at the end of the episode should be horrifying, but it looks like it's been stuck on her forehead by enthusiastic by untalented drama students. Even the incidental music, with its occasional faux-nu-metal riffs, seems designed to appeal to teenagers, even though I must confess to quite liking it.

In spite of all of this, and quite incredibly, there is still something compellingly entertaining about 'Cyberwoman', but this isn't enough to carry a series. If the quality of 'Ghost Machine' can't be maintained then I suspect the series' future is rather shaky; hopefully, Sapphire and Steel creator P. J. Hammond can bring a touch of class to the proceedings?

FILTER: - Television - Torchwood