Endless Circus Of Pain, On Torchwood

Every season of Doctor Who's formerly-sexy spinoff Torchwood seems to need one episode by P.J. Hammond, best known for creating 1970s cult show Sapphire and Steel. Both of the annual Hammond episodes have featured weird supernatural themes (fairies, ghosts) and bizarre contrived storylines. And they both felt as though Hammond wrote them for something else and then slapped the names of the Torchwood characters onto them.

Sapphire & Steel is one of the many TV shows I was obsessed with as a child and watched religiously. I remember scoring a blurry tenth-generation VHS dub of a PAL transfer of the creepy final story and watching it with awe. Now, I own the DVDs and haven't been able to bring myself to watch most of them.


Sapphire & Steel was about a pair of investigators (David McCallum, Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Joanna Lumley, Absolutely Fabulous) who go around poking into rifts in time. The twist was that time itself was evil and greedy, and McCallum and Lumley had to prevent time from running rampant and destroying everything. Unfortunately, the average S&S story had enough suspense and twists for an hour, somehow padded out to two or three hours.

Still, getting Hammond to write for Torchwood must have seemed like a brilliant idea — it's a show about a group of agents who investigate a time rift, right? Sounds right up his street. And if he'd turned in a 45 minute version of a Sapphire episode, it might have worked pretty well. But somehow, Hammond seems to have decided Torchwood is a fantasy show. And not just any fantasy show, but an extremely campy one.


I'll try to summarize Wednesday night's storyline, which was pretty incomprehensible. There's a group of ghosty traveling circus performers, who used to perform late at night 100 years ago. They would visit a town and steal people's breaths, leaving the victims in a kind of breathless coma. Then with the advent of cinema, the ghosty circus folk couldn't attract audiences. Plus they somehow got caught inside a film, because they're made out of photons. And camphor. (??) But now that someone is showing an entirely unrelated piece of old film, the circus freaks are able to escape and begin stealing people's breaths again. But they also want revenge on movie theaters, for making traveling freak shows obsolete.

The best part is the end, where Jack manages to trap the circus performers back inside an old film camera. But the last one, the ringmaster, opens his flask and lets out the stored "breaths" of all his victims, which are whizzing around like little see-thru air-fish. And poor Ianto has to make a big show of dashing around trying to catch the breaths back in the bottle.

Actually, something just occurred to me. As Torchwood continually reminds us, Cardiff is a city covered with closed circuit TV cameras, all over the place. If anything that captures photons traps these circus ghosts, then how can they even walk around Cardiff without getting sucked into one of the millions of spy cameras? Or does it really only work with old-timey film cameras?

I don't really have anything more to say about this episode, except that I feel really bad for the regulars, especially John Barrowman and Gareth David-Lloyd, who have to deliver some really ludicrous dialog. The only other thing I'd say is that, for once, an especially horrendous episode isn't a reason to hate Torchwood in general. It's such an atypical episode, it's best just ignored. Or mocked at three A.M. after a lot of whiskey.


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Charlie Jane Anders

@eirenicon: I would say we have a love-hate relationship with Torchwood, actually. There's a lot about it that I really enjoy. I just wish it was all of it.