There is such a thing as a story whose time has come. Back in the early seventies, as department stores were becoming a new, convenient reality around the world, Robert Holmes invented the Nestenes and the Autons, probably, given this is Robert Holmes we’re talking about, as a way to scare children absolutely rigid, but also, while he was there, to give a satirical warning that disposable consumption would come back and bite us.
Now is the time for a story like Torchwood: Sargasso.
The final story in the run of Torchwood one-shots reviving Doctor Who monsters deals with the problem of oceanic plastic, and ideas don’t come any more timely than that.
Plastic is everywhere. You know it, I know it – microplastic, and especially all the plastic that ends up dumped in the sea, is the next generation’s ozone layer: the ecological crisis we built for ourselves, and which might yet kill us all.
It’s absolutely irresistible then to write a new Nestene story that tackles the subject – the Nestenes and Autons were always a satire on disposable consumption, and the idea of an alien that can enliven anything plastic becomes especially horrifying when you think of statistics about our food chain, and how, for instance, every time you eat fish these days, you’re taking in microplastics, because their level of the ecosystem is already swamped with them.
What’s more, something about oceanic plastic lends itself particularly to the octopoidal Nestene creature. Tentacles look, sound and feel extra right when emerging from an ocean, as opposed to twanging across a room on dry land.
And so, with a combination of an irresistible, timely theme, a great idea for a sea-based Nestene soundscape, and the potential of bringing the Nestenes out of the safe teatime scares of Doctor Who and into the more grown-up terrors of Torchwood, Christopher Cooper brings us Torchwood: Sargasso.
On top of all that potential, we’ve landed lucky here in pitting Rhys Williams against the Nestene – Rhys has never been entirely au fait with the alien-hunting element of Torchwood, so there’s a solid sense of a fish distinctly (ahem) out of water in putting him on a ship in the middle of an ocean, and leaving him to get on with it. He has no idea what the Nestene are, and so unlike some of the more alien-weary Torchwood members, he brings the freshness of fear and a good deal of ‘What the bloody hell’s that?’ to the party here.
That’s important, because what Christopher Cooper delivers in Sargasso is a modern Nestene horror movie, with some classic antecedents. It’s Das Boot meets Stephen King’s It on a hostile ocean, where nothing and nobody can ultimately be trusted.
Rhys teams up with Kaitlin Russell (Sydney Feder), daughter of a big petrochemical giant, and Captain Anika Banaczik (Chloe Ewart), on a ship that malfunctions in the middle of the sea.
And then things start getting Nestene-creepy.
An isolated boat, an enemy that can change itself to best achieve its goals, can hide in plain sight, observe everything you do and say, and can bring even the most mundane objects to a kind of life that kills you. That’s a pretty potent horror premise, and Christopher Cooper’s able to wring the beats out of it – importantly, he doesn’t overdo the jump-scares, still allowing Rhys – stranded, confused, Rhys – along with Kaitlin and Captain Anika, to behave rationally even as the terror of their situation begins to dawn on them. But there’s plenty of creepiness here, and it ratchets up as the story continues and our heroes realise that not only can they not trust anything around them, but they can’t necessarily trust anyone around them either. Possibly, just possibly, not even themselves. The game of suspicion builds effectively until a hand is played and shown, but even then, in the event of one person not being who they claim to be, it doesn’t automatically mean that everyone else is. That extends the threat and the tickle of suspicion at the back of your neck right to the very end of Sargasso, and delivers much of what you want from a modern Nestene story on board ship with a sea full of plastic.
Christopher Cooper knows how to pace his thrills, his creeps, his Auton reveals, and he makes a few innovations to the Nestene legend along the way – in fact, he delivers a Nestene that’s Torchwood-appropriate, but which still has its roots in the Doctor Who world, a deadly threat that’s at least partly satirical, but made real and dangerous and relevant by our world having caught up with the premise of Robert Holmes’ original Nestene stories – disposable consumption having hidden costs that kill – just in time to face an actual existential threat from the results of that disposal.
Check out Torchwood: Sargasso for a cracking lead performance by Kai Owen, some solid supporting castwork (especially from Sydney Feder as Kaitlin, who brings a believably young and realistic sense of ‘What the hell is this now?’ to the role, and who’ll be one to listen out for in future, and also including Robert Jezek, who’s always a script-helper), and a story that brings the Nestenes screaming up to date. The horror movie elements are delivered hard, so you don’t laugh at them (at least until the danger has passed and everything’s…probably…alright), but you do get an adrenalin-rush and a rapid heartbeat. When everything around you is a threat and you’re surrounded by an ocean of plastic, Sargasso makes you wonder whether you can even trust yourself. Tony Fyler