Small Worlds

Story No. 5 Ah, a beautiful little faerie...
Production Code Series One Episode Five
Dates November 12 2006

With John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Burn Gorman, Naoko Mori and Gareth David-Lloyd.
Written by Peter J. Hammond Directed by Alice Troughton
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: There are faeries at the bottom of the garden. No, really!


Wraiths against time by John Nor 12/1/07

This week the Torchwood team encounter bad fairies at the bottom of a suburban garden. (This episode is actually a lot more scary than that sounds.)

The episode begins with three different scenes that describe the three different plot threads: an old lady taking pictures of "fairies" in a wood; Jack's nightmare about being on a train, with fellow soldiers dying, petals spilling from their mouths (he awakes to find a single red petal in the Hub and to reports of freak weather); and a young girl who seems to be protected from harm by supernatural forces.

These threads are brought together over the course of the episode, beginning with Jack taking Gwen to meet Estelle who is giving a talk on fairies. This is really Jack's episode as only he sees the connections. This is not an episode where the team "solve" a "case" together, taking the viewer with them. Jack generally knows more than the viewer at all times, knows more than the team.

The scene where Jack explains to Gwen and us exactly what he suspects the threat is provides him with a very Doctor-ish speech. He explains that these beings are not alien, but have always been on earth, since the dawn of time, are part of us, and exist backwards and forwards through time. And so the scope of the series is expanded again, veering away from sci-fi to something more mystical.

Jack also mentions that they are like "the Mara". When watching I immediately thought "Hmmm the Kinda/Snakedance Mara?". The writers are saying "Don't worry, we can have mystical beings and not just aliens, after all Doctor Who did".

Reading about this episode later, reading more about Conan Doyle's interest in the supernatural, I also found that "the Mara" could be a reference to Scandinavian folklore, and that the poem at the end is W.B. Yeats.

So, an episode then with a bit of depth to it. Without knowledge of these various literary references, it still has a feeling of weight and substance.

During last week's episode, Gwen asked Jack if he had ever loved someone. When they find Estelle dead she has her answer.

Gwen has now guessed that he was with her in the 1940s. Jack explains what the sepia-tinted flashback/nightmare was all about: he experienced something similar to what is going on now, but in Lahore in 1909. A viewer who had watched all of Torchwood so far but none of New Series Doctor Who would assume that, as Jack cannot die, he has been on Earth, unaging, from 1909 through the 1940s to 2006. Very similar to the film Highlander. (The Doctor Who viewer realises it is a bit more convoluted than that!)

It has been established in previous episodes that Jack feels his immortality is something of a curse, which gives exta depth to the decision he makes at the end of the episode.

After last week's hysterical froth (Cyberwoman: which was still really entertaining), this was a sombre and substantial tale.

A Review by Finn Clark 8/5/10

I liked it better on second viewing, but that's not saying much. Small Worlds strikes me as lazy, to be honest. In a bit of a turnaround for Torchwood recently, for once we have an episode that's been saved by the production.

Specifically, I like the actors. Eve Pearce is a delight as dear old doddering Estelle, while Roger Barclay steals the show as the paedophile Goodson. He captures exactly the right kind of wrongness, if you know what I mean. It's not a huge role, but he made my skin crawl despite basically being a victim. Brrrr. Creepy.

Meanwhile, Jasmine's family also hit the right notes, giving the kind of unflashy but accurate performances you need in drab roles like that. Jasmine herself is okay. She's a child actress, of course (one Lara Phillipart), but despite this she's mostly fine. We don't like her, but then again we're not meant to. Apparently she can also be seen in The Idiot's Lantern. The only embarrassing acting comes from those schoolyard bullies and thankfully Alice Troughton has the good sense to cut back their shots to the absolute minimum.

As for the regulars, oddly enough this is one of Barrowman's best performances. I liked him this week. The episode's playing to his strengths and giving him less of the stuff he's awkward with. As usual he's not so great with exposition, but he's charming in a completely new way with Eve Pearce. There's no sexual side to their relationship since she's in her late seventies, which frees him up to love her more simply and the two of them are adorable together. Similarly I like his reaction to seeing the rose petals, then later at the finale his delivery of "take her".

All this is good, but I'm not a fan of the script. The laziness begins with the paedophile character, who's there simply because it's convenient for the story. Does Peter Hammond buy into the modern hysteria that no child's safe outside because there are sexual predators on every street corner? I don't know, but he's certainly not questioning any such assumptions here. "You must never walk home on your own. It's not safe."

Then we have the story structure, which is a string of set-pieces in which the regulars are entirely impotent. There's not even any investigation for them to do, since Jack already knows all the answers. Our heroes just sit around waiting for the next bit of terror. The fairies kill a bunch of people and no one can stop them. That's it. That's the story of this episode. There's some interesting backstory with Estelle and a flashback to a bit of Jack's past in 1909, Lahore, but that's irrelevant to what's happening now. Meanwhile, Hammond appears to be plagiarising himself with the ending, but it was more effective when I saw it in Sapphire and Steel. I don't care about Jasmine. In fact I actively dislike her and as far as I'm concerned, the fairies can use her bones for soup. Her family are similarly unappealing and so the episode's big sucker punch involves something inevitable happening to people I don't care about. Maybe they should have gone even further and ended it with Jack putting a bullet through Jasmine's head?

The upside of this is that Torchwood are even more useless than they were last week. They've tended to scrape through against their enemies almost in spite of themselves, but here they actually lose!

I like the episode's monsters, even if I'm not sure how much sense they make. How can they hail from the Dawn of Time and yet all originally be human children? Nevertheless I think it was a nice idea to go for actual fairies, even if they're inevitably shown to be ugly and evil underneath. Was that necessary? Might this have been a stronger episode if they'd been allowed to remain beautiful Tinkerbells? That might make their appeal for little girls seem more intuitive, if nothing else. These ideas might have been stranger and more interesting as a Doctor Who episode and I'd rather like to see them do that one day, perhaps even as a sequel. Yes, I know the 8DAs gave us a couple of fairy books in Autumn Mist and The Shadows of Avalon, but I think New Who can do better than that. You could even follow up on Jack's intriguing line about the Mara, which I realise is supposed to be referring to Germanic or Scandinavian mythology, but could just as easily be fed into Kinda and Snakedance. One could also have fun with Hammond's fairies not being bound by linear time.

Essentially, it's a secular version of the Omen, but with an ending. A child goes around killing people, the difference being that here she's being helped by fairies rather than Satan. Frankly, I don't much like the Omen, either. If we're going to run with that comparison, then I suppose we should be asking about the gore factor of the killings. They have variety, I suppose. Estelle's death is perhaps a bit dull, but it's made much nastier by the fact that it's Estelle we're talking about. What had that old lady ever done to anyone? The flower petals are fine and the uglified fairy ramming its arm down someone's throat is fairly extreme. I liked that. Mind you, I was surprised that the story didn't do anything with the barbecue fire and thus complete the set of the four elements with wind (in the schoolyard), water (rain) and earth (um, flower petals?).

I've been kind about the production side this week. However, I also think this episode would have been more atmospheric had it been made in the 1960s, with black and white, a more theatrical style and no special effects. I realise I was saying something similar about Cyberwoman, but it's true. I'd love to see a fan edit of this episode that threw out all the CGI shots.

Thinking about it, the nearest Doctor Who equivalent of this episode might be Fear Her. Both broadcast in 2006, both a bit rubbish, both based around unfriendly little girls and their invisible friends. Both stories appear to be aiming for something a little off the beaten track, but in both cases I'd give them points more for effort than achievement.