Revisiting Torchwood: celebrating Chris Chibnall

Andrew sings the praises of one of Torchwood's writers...

Unsung. That’s one word to describe Chris Chibnall.

Sure, Steve ‘Moff Def’ Moffat has pointed out how good his writing in series 2 of Torchwood was, but no-one has ever composed a song specifically with Chibnall’s adulation in mind. If they have, I haven’t been made aware of it, and I want this corrected. While his stock within fandom isn’t high, Russell T. Davies and Steve ‘Albert the Fifth Moffkateer’ Moffat have pointed out his skills. Said skills do indeed pay the bills, but at the time of writing no-one has yet died as a result of a Chris Chibnall script.

Chibnall’s writing has two main distinguishing features:

1. A skill with maintaining multiple narratives that converge at a series or episode finale.

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2. Writing characters who act like post-Whedon Vikings.

Consider this: Vikings are renowned for sexual confrontation, pillage, oaths, and needless violence. Sound familiar? It’s series 1 of Torchwood, which had more than its fair share of dialogue that could be bellowed.

Hands up who remembers the character of Mordred from the Doctor Who story Battlefield? The one who spends approximately three minutes just strutting about a room laughing maniacally? Chibnall writes characters like that, it’s just that we are rarely gifted with an actor whose voice drips like hog-roast bellowing the lines as they deserve.

Take a bow James Purefoy. You made Camelot worth watching by practically barfing the dialogue in a perfectly pitched over-the-top performance. He fights Sean Pertwee! He has hilariously grunty sex with Eva Green! He swears a lot when he doesn’t need to! Violence, silly silly shagging sessions, and roaring vocabulary of Germanic origin: the most quintessentially Chibnallian image would surely be two cocks screaming at each other while having a light saber fight, preferably while wearing horned helms.

Televisual Anthropologists refer to this phenomenon as ‘Chibnallhalla’.

Sadly, most actors choose to underplay the most bawdy of the Chib’s work: imagine how effortlessly superior Day One would be to its broadcast version if every character was called upon to do a Tim Curry impression. Imagine the bass heavy snort he would give after delivering the ‘Came and went’ line.

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What is worth noting about the heady excesses of the first series is that there was a genuine confusion regarding tone, and the first series of anything is always going to have teething troubles. Plus, whatever the quality of the episodes, you certainly can’t accuse it of being boring. Cyberwoman, for example, is almost hypnotically insane; like a giant uranium puppy trying to mung a Barcode Battler in the middle of a fight to the death between two rainbows.

Once the tone levels out, we get Countrycide. Now, some of the dialogue in this episode is atrociously memorable, and begs the question: ‘Has Chris Chibnall ever come so hard and so fast that he’s forgotten where he was?’

Well, I asked him on Twitter, but unsurprisingly I’ve had no reply. I expect he gets this quite a lot, so I’m going to stick my neck out and say the answer is ‘No’. Because no-one has. Ever. And I don’t know about you, but I reckon I’d panic in such a situation, thus rendering it even less sexy than the inevitable question of ‘And you are?’

While he’s not writing lines that you can’t un-hear, Chibnall has written for Life on Mars, Camelot, Law and Order: UK, and Busby Babes plane crash drama United. Generally, as a punter, we feel that we could do better than these jammy folk who make telly, but let’s face the facts: these people not only have pulled their finger out and written a script, but consistently get asked to write further scripts.

There’s a reason for this.

Mark Gattiss isn’t regarded as being a consistent Doctor Who writer, but he’s never let the show down in the acting stakes and his writing on other series is generally very well received (I still think that The Great Game is the best episode of Sherlock so far). Matthew Graham has, I think most of us would agree, done great work with Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, but Fear Her is way down the list of popular Doctor Who episodes. This suggests that Steven Moffat is not being disingenuous when he says Doctor Who is tricky to write well. It’s also worth noting that the writing is not the sole cause of an episode’s quality.

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Chibnall’s Doctor Who work has been variable. Most recently he’s given us the gleeful romp of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the intriguing but rushed The Power of Three (oh, how I wish they’d paced the ending differently). His first script was 42, a solid episode but not one that many fans dig out their series 3 boxset with the intention of watching.

His 2010 Silurian two-parter wasn’t a huge hit. Perhaps it wasn’t the wisest idea to revisit the original story, as the original (be it Pertwee seven parter or Target Novelisation) still holds up as being the superior version. Again, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was in a first series finding its feet and production elements were compromised. Torchwood’s first series also has a deceptive amount of skill involved in the writing: the character arcs and plot arcs are the same thing. No mean feat.

Series 2 is often unfairly overlooked in light of its successor. It’s opening episode, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang manages to address problems with series one, embrace them, turn them into positives, and then turn them on their head while wrapping up a standalone story with a bow and setting up the rest of the series arcs. It’s very impressive writing, and some callbacks are set up so deftly you don’t even realise they’re going to be callbacks come the episode’s end. Chibnall has also, in my opinion, been responsible for the best episode of Torchwood thus far.

Adrift is the episode the writer is most proud of and with good reason. What Countrycide lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in fun loving cannibals, but there isn’t a moral dilemma at any point. In Adrift, once Ruth Jones has finished being brilliant in yet another bloody BBC 2 series, we’re still none the wiser who was acting morally. It’s a simple idea pared right down to the marrow, beyond the bone and beyond expectations. If you found the compromised production of Cold Blood to be final, clinching proof of Chibnall’s inability then I implore you to watch this.

And then, once finished, you should write a song about Chris Chibnall. Link it to us on the comments thread by the beginning of December.

Nothing too coarse please. And nothing that sounds like Scouting for Girls, or I will find you and hurt your eyes with fire.

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The best one will win a drawing of James Purefoy, based on a dream I once had.

Read Andrew’s first impressions of Torchwood series one here…

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