Well this is one of those write ups that you need to take a deep, cleansing breath to begin. Let’s start by addressing the tennis game that has been Torchwood so far. In episode terms, we’ve had good, bad, good, very bad, very good. Odds might look positive: 3 in the range of good, 2 in the range of bad. But if the tennis match is to continue, we won’t be so lucky. Let’s see: who wrote this one? Chris Chibnall, the same writer who gave us some of our weakest Doctor Who episodes of the modern era, and in terms of Torchwood, the rather deplorable Cyberwoman. And the verdict is…
HOLY COW WAS THAT INTENSE!? The truth is, I never forgot this episode from the first viewing and always considered it strong. This was the one that stood out to me from season 1 as the episode. It’s disturbing, gruesome, terrifying … and makes for one hell of a story. Opening with the terrifically chosen song “Monster” (by The Automatic) playing as a young girl drives through the countryside only to encounter a body in the road, the episode never lets go. All the tropes of many horror movies are there, but this has an ending and characters we can’t afford to lose. So it’s just down to how they handle the monster of the episode. And even when the monster is revealed, I was confused, shocked and horrified. But be aware, there is a lot of gruesome imagery in this, including bodies stripped of flesh and covered in maggots. It also has a particularly difficult image of the damage done to flesh by a shotgun!
The problem is, this is such a favorite of mine, I’m reluctant to spoil the big reveal but I can talk about a lot of the plot. Team Torchwood get separated in an old and barely inhabited country village and they get picked off to be used as food… well as “meat”. That’s the very specific term and it’s horrible to think about. They find plenty of evidence of others who have gone missing over the years, including bodies stored in the ‘fridge, wrapped in plastic (like Laura Palmer). Everything about this realization is horrific. But the tension refuses to let go; Face of Boe forbid you try to blink! It’s effectively Torchwood meets Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. With a human flesh-eating monster. Of sorts.
I would be doing you an injustice though not to warn you about some things that grated on my nerves. In the beginning, when the girl is investigating the “dead body” on the road, someone runs in front of her car but somehow doesn’t break the beams of light from her headlights to alert her to their presence – it’s a silly oversight, made sense only by the tension that the young woman might have been under that she could have missed it. Also, I’m still unsure why Jack is so afraid when the monsters are coming. He knows he can’t die and has faced Cyberwomen without fear, but somehow he’s afraid of this thing and we don’t know why. I can perhaps accept that it is a human reaction to the unknown, so again, I could accept it… just. But the real thorn for me is the sexual tension between Owen and Gwen. It doesn’t work when they are against the tree pressing their faces so close and talking about how not cozy they are together. It felt so forced. I felt like Chibnall wanted them to be together and wanted it to be a violent thing, and I just hated that. Yes, it makes sense at the end of the episode, because Owen saves Gwen’s life and she has no one at home to talk to, so at that point, I can accept it, but not the early scenes.
Ianto may give us the real clue we need to understand Gwen’s actions. Based on his comments to Tosh, these are still fairly early days for him, just as they are for her. He sees that his teammates get off on this sort of action and he asks how long it can go on. It’s a fair question too. And when he talks about Lisa as the last girl he kissed (Cyberwoman) the sadness of their existence is evident. These people are doing a terrifying job that ultimately lead to a lonely existence because they have no one but each other to talk to about it. Gwen needs to talk to someone or she could become like Ianto or worse. So after Gwen takes a blast from a shotgun at close range and Owen has to save her, it’s inevitable that Gwen will see him as that outlet. I just hated that it was Owen because there is, in fact, nothing cozy about him. And Rhys is such an incredibly likable fellow.
And that leaves us with the monster. Of the villains of Torchwood, not a single one ever came as close to this one. And the actor, Owen Teale, who played the main villain has never been anything else to me. (He’s been in Game of Thrones, and he was still Even Sherman to me!) Jack pulls off a truly heroic save in the end and as much as I didn’t like what he did, he is showing signs that he is remembering what it is to be human again: he comes to the rescue shooting the bad guys in the legs. He does not go for a single kill. In an episode full of horrific, violent death, Jack does not add to the body count. He remains a hero. And it’s what we needed, even if we wanted the monsters destroyed.
Countrycide leaves us in shock and horror and it’s an incredible experience. I don’t see anything coming close to it, but then I’m a bit warped. Although, not as bad as these guys. I guess when I think about it, I can say I liked this episode “cause it made me happy.” (Once you hear those words in context, you will never forget them!) ML
I think this one is a very impressive episode and it did stick in the mind, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I liked it as such. It’s just too nasty. A whole series like this would undeniably be hitting a very high standard, but would I watch it? Absolutely not.
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Every now and then something nasty in one of our favorite shows or films can impress us for the right reasons. Countrycide impressed me for affirming what Torchwood needed to do in order to sufficiently diverge from Dr. Who. I haven’t watched it again but I remember it fondly for Owen Taele (making his second appearance in the Whoniverse since Maldak in Vengeance On Varos) as the head villain.
I suppose Countrycide speaks to us all regarding our fears and repulsions of all the evils and horrors that may exist in our world. Television has come a long way these last three decades in bravely transcending the censorship that the classic Dr. Who often struggled with. Knowing that Countrycide is part of the Whoniverse therefore says a lot and made Jack’s flamboyant and charming returns in the Doctor’s life all the more wondrous.
Thanks, ML. Happy Easter to the Junkyard.
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I meant to say that Countrycide was Owen Taele’s second TV role in the Whoniverse. He also returned to the Whoniverse via Big Finish as the voice of Hayton in The Mind’s Eye.
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