Torchwood 1.5 – Uncanny Valley
Tony’s fairly sure he lives in an uncanny valley
The fifth Torchwood tale from Big Finish brings the return of Jack Harkness, still on the trail of ‘The Committee,’ the aliens who run the world and the fodder of a thousand conspiracy theories. But Uncanny Valley by David Llewelyn is not what you’d call gung-ho. It has few of the traditional Harkness trademarks, as least until near the end. Instead it’s something smaller and sexier and creepier and more intimate than that, telling the story of zillionaire Neil Redmond, one-time Tony Stark-alike, then, following a horrific car crash in which he nearly died, a man with a double life.
Which is the real Neil Redmond? The man back from the almost dead, bestriding the globe, making deal after deal with increasingly suspect people, bedding men and women indiscriminately, running his business as he always did, but with a new verve, a new gusto gained from his near-death experience? Or the other man, holed up alone in a Welsh castle? The man Jack Harkness has come to see.
Llewelyn’s script touches on some of the great gothic stories – there’s a pinch of Frankenstein here, a touch of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but there’s much more that’s modern too. There’s the pressure of business confidence, the ease with which a life’s work can be taken away, there’s bonding, and most importantly and most complex of all, there’s love.
It’s difficult to say more without giving away core elements of the plot, but Redmond has a doppelganger, with whom he has a relationship that it would be fair to characterise as ‘It’s Complicated.’ The story raises issues of personal pride, business confidence, the vulnerable spots we all have as human beings, and how we can be pressurised, but most of all it focuses on love in all its complexity – not simple adoration, not simple sex (or even complex, inventive sweaty sex, though there’s some of that here too – Jack-fans, bite down on something hard), but love. There are themes familiar to Red Dwarf fans, and themes that resonate with the likes of Edward Albee’s 1962 play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, elements of a love and hate dependency that would be enough to drive anyone mad.
But here’s the thing. When you’ve done something of the standard of Robots of Death, it’s almost impossible to make the same vibe as shocking, as painful, as perfect again.
Without being in any way connected to the Tom Baker story, Uncanny Valley carries the same sort of shock in its climax, and you may actually shudder the next time someone tells you they love you once you’ve heard it, because Uncanny Valley makes you question the meaning, and the meaninglessness of such sentiments, such human expressions of an elevated animalistic care response. It’ll shake you, this Torchwood story, without doing lasting damage. You’ll certainly carry it round in your head for a day or two.
For those with a specific set of references in their brain, there’s a resonance to dark destinies here too – if you’ve seen The Omen II, you might recognise a vibration of ‘Why me?!’ in the questions Uncanny Valley asks. If you have a doppelganger, and you’ve made it like a second version of yourself, but you don’t ultimately control it, then how much are you responsible for what ‘you’ do? If ‘you’ take somebody to bed, for instance, and you can watch it, hear it, but cannot stop it, are you responsible for the consequences? Or are ‘you’? Similarly, if ‘you’ bring about the end of the world, won’t everybody have a point when they lay the blame for it at your door? How much is Jekyll to blame for the crimes of Hyde? Will the mob with their flaming torches blame Dr Frankenstein for the crimes of his monster?
It seems redundant to say that John Barrowman is faultless as Captain Jack – Barrowman lives and breathes Jack, and here, Llewelyn’s script calls for him to be, for the most part, subdued, quiet, listening, so Barrowman dials the essential ‘Jackness’ of his performance down to an intense and intimate sense of the man we know. All praise though to Steven Cree who necessarily takes on double duty as Redmond and his doppelganger, NJ, and so almost delivers a one-man show in this episode. His conversations with himself here are enough to give you a migraine if you see them written down, but Cree delivers a sense of similarity which makes the story convincing, and a sense of difference that lets the emotional dynamics of one man and his other self work extremely well too. As the drama winds up towards the end, the differences between Redmond and NJ become more marked and Cree delivers a widening gulf of ideas and responses between the two.
Llewelyn, for all the tight intimacy of what is practically a duologue, seeds his wider, Committee-based story-hooks well, and at the end, pulls the drawstring of storytelling tight, to give a much wider range of consequences to the action than we’ve seen coming. The result is a compelling hour of Torchwood that makes it increasingly difficult to rank the episodes so far for favourites. Even comparing Uncanny Valley with the launch episode is almost futile, because there are two very different sides, two very different interpretations of Captain Jack at work in them. So stop trying to put the Torchwood episodes in order of enjoyability – they each bring a facet and a flavour of the show into focus, so just enjoy them as they come.
Enjoy Uncanny Valley today. Think about it for days to come.