Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Reviews Visiting Hours by Tony J Fyler


Torchwood – Visiting Hours

Tony’s in for more than a routine procedure.

There’s a flippant observation that can be made about most great literary or TV detectives: sooner or later, they become the equivalent of a Jonah, attracting death and devastation wherever they go. It’s the inevitable product of a meta-universe: we the audience want more from them, more murder, more mayhem, more of them getting to the bottom of unspeakable crimes, ergo more unspeakable crimes happening around them than would be the norm for any real human being. In essence, our desire to see them solve cases makes their life less believable than it technically should be.

We mention this because there’s something of that vibe about Torchwood – Visiting Hours. Torchwood itself of course has a get-out-of-WTF-Free card: it has a rift on its doorstep to deliver it monsters of the week or weirdness by the bucketload – that’s its job, so for most of the Torchwood crew, alien weirdness is their bread and butter. But Visiting Hours, by class act David Llewellyn, stars Rhys, Gwen’s anchor to normality and chips, and his mam (it’s a Welsh thing, go with it), Brenda. They’re actually the anti-Torchwood, the norms, the anchors, the honest, ordinary Welsh people into whose lives Torchwood has been thrust because come rain, shine or the end of the world, Rhys loves Gwen, and Gwen is Torchwood. That means Brenda should be able to have a routine hip operation without attracting the attention of nasties from Elsewhere.

When it turned out that’s actually not possible, there’s an intellectual disconnect to a the non-Torchwood Torchwood story that follows, involving only Rhys and Brenda against the weirdness that would normally be Torchwood’s business – it feels, to come full circle, like they’ve been hanging around the weirdness too long, so now they’ve become an anchor for it, because we the audience want to hear how they’d cope on their own.

That said, Visiting Hours gives a believable lesson in the way that being around alien weirdness changes the way you think, be it Torchwood, or the Doctor, or Sarah-Jane’s crew, or UNIT. You stop thinking in the lazy, easy, comfortable clichés that are the bread and butter, the sunrise and sunset of most people’s lives. You learn to spot things that are wrong, that are out of place. Presumably, you drive people stark raving mad by a kind of hyper-alertness to potential weirdness in what they just accept as the world. Remember in Who when the bees were disappearing? Once you’ve been exposed to enough alien weirdness, presumably you start to question headlines like that immediately.

Rhys, played as ever by the reliably naturalistic Kai Owen, certainly pricks up his ears the instant weirdness finds him and his mam in this story, and switches from his normal, everyday mode as haulage guy and mammy’s boy to Children of Earth-style warrior, survivor, outwitter of the forces of alien bastardy.

Brenda – the ever-peerless Nerys Hughes making a very welcome return to the world of Torchwood – is in hospital for a hip replacement. Hospitals of course function very well as an alien environment: the impersonal surroundings; the anodyne maze of confusing corridors; the imminent body-horror of surgical procedures and the inherent trust we place in the hands of strangers, giving up ourselves or our loved ones to the skills we suppose they must possess. When Rhys, arriving late for visiting hours, is allowed to stay through the night with his recovering mam, another element of hospital strangeness is very effectively highlighted here – while by day, they have the appearance of public access and openness as temples of healing, hospitals by night have a much more forbidding persona, more in line with prisons or asylums. There are inmates and there are staff. Except perhaps in Accident and Emergency, outsiders are generally not allowed.

Anything can happen in a place like that.

In Visiting Hours, Llewellyn explores the nature of that fear, with an extra dose of body-horror that has a resonance in a Britain where there’s a great deal of need for donor organs, and a donor register from which one has to specifically opt out. One of the greatest fears of those who choose not to donate their organs is that somehow, the prize of a bodyful of spare parts begins to outweigh the usefulness of a living human being, so doctors are disincentivised to do their best to save their patients, because either way they win, but quite possibly, they win bigger if older patients die. That’s a fear Llewellyn taps into here.

When Rhys overhears a group of organ-snatchers from Elsewhere dragging living patients off for harvesting, Visiting Hours takes on the tone of a Michael Crichton medical malpractice movie…only Welsh. Dark creepy corridors, a pair of intelligent, driven organ-hunters with an eye on Brenda’s innards, and only Rhys and what he’s learned from his wife and her alien-arsekicking mates between his mam and a body bag. It becomes a base under siege story, with the organ-hunters working to a very specific – and highly plot-significant – deadline, to at least give our hero a chance. Rhys and Brenda, the latter bed-bound and morphine-dripped for the pain of her operation, have to find a way to neutralise the hunters and survive till morning, when, they hope, the hospital will revert from being a shadowy place of nightmares and unethical practice back to a place of brightness, help and healing.

Llewellyn puts the pair through the ringer, while exploiting their on-screen dynamic and taking it forward, she is chastising him for his language as he quickly accepts the necessity of going into warrior mode, he biting back at her for her overly nitpicking suggestions and directions, bringing up memories of endless trips to rainy Welsh seaside towns and her back-seat driving when he was a child. Despite the sniping of these stressful moments though, there’s never any doubt that this pair is a proper Welsh Mam and Her Boy – her pride in his accomplishments is cast iron to the point of absurdity, his love and gratitude to her makes him do the things he needs to do for her, because above all else, he wants her to be ‘right,’ to be comfortable and as happy as she can be.

Visiting Hours is not just a nightmare run through dark corridors, outwitting two rent-a-baddies though. Llewellyn’s a better writer than to bother creating rent-a-baddies, and his villains here are villains only in the absence of context. Seen through another lens, as we get to see them eventually, they’re fighting for their own loved ones, just as Rhys is doing, and there’s a handful of late exposition that could well make Visiting Hours the otherwise-enclosed beginning of another series arc. These organ-snatchers are absolutely from Elsewhere…but where? When? And why do they need to come here to get organs? There are hints here that will set your mind reeling with possibilities and theories of what’s to come.

Those late developments, and the questions they make us ask, give an underpinning to Visiting Hours that stop it from being just ‘Rhys and Brenda Versus The Baddies.’ Not that there’d be anything wrong with that – even on that level, Visiting Hours would be an entertaining listen, because the double act of Kai Owen and Nerys Hughes in these roles, clearly relishing each moment of their time together, is both heartwarming and hysterical, and the idea of what someone like Rhys, who’s been exposed to the necessities that Torchwood’s fight entails, but isn’t one of the ‘cool kids’ with the weapons and the brilliance, would do when he finds himself forced to defend his family against the forces of a mundane evil, would be quite enough to make Visiting Hours what it ultimately is – one of the easier Torchwood audios to listen to, bombing along on the creepy environment, the threat of the hunt, and the relationship and the dialogue between these two Everylistener characters. But the extra twists that come towards the end give Visiting Hours a solid forward-spin of plotting and potential, without having gotten in the way of all the running throughout this funny, scary, ultimately heartwarming hour.

You’ll come back to Visiting Hours when some of the Torchwood audios’ more emotionally draining hours feel like too much (Yes, Broken, we’re looking at you), but when you want something darker than, say, the frothy fun of PC Andy’s Ghost Mission. The balance between the character dynamics, the continual chasing pulse of the threat, the creepification of the hospital environment, and the plot-seeding at the end makes Visiting Hours an attractive listen on whatever level you want, giving you things to think about once you’ve finished, without necessarily keeping you up at night.

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