Alcohol, like fire, is a good servant, and merciless evil bastard of a master. It can help you shut out the voice of insecurity in your head, it can lower your inhibitions, it can make the unthinkable feel like the easiest thing in the world. And it can steal away your borderlines, can turn you inside out, can make that voice come roaring back, and out, and take everybody down with you.
Alcohol is powerful, for good and for ill.
In Torchwood: Smashed, many of the characters, and most especially Gwen Cooper, played by Eve Myles, spend the majority of the run-time getting increasingly drunk. Hammered. Plastered. Shitfaced. Smashed.
As a dramatic exercise, that sounds rather like fun. But it’s the reasons…ohhh the reasons…behind the increasing intoxication that give Smashed both its social and political currency and the vein of darkness running right through the centre of the funny drunk people.
Glynteg was a town once. A community. But its heart, its soul, its reason for being and its ability to function as a town has been stripped. Sliced. Peeled away, layer of funding cut by layer of business closure, until Glynteg is little more than a smudge on the map where a town used to be, and where those who can’t afford to go anywhere else live.
Then the frackers came. Drillpak came.
There were refused permission to actively frack in Glynteg, but using the defunct old refinery as a way to sluice off fracking water…surely no-one could object to that?
Except things are not right in Glynteg. People are oddly ill. People who’ve drunk the water out of their own taps.
People hear a voice in their head, a thirsty, dark, insistence voice. And then they give in.
Or, if they want to survive, they drink. Alcohol – when the water of Glynteg gets into your system, you drink, or you’re done. And once you’ve begun, you have to keep going. Once you’re drunk, you have to stay drunk, to keep the voice, and the pain, and the change at bay.
The thing about a James Goss script is he’s never afraid to pick elements of genuine science and smash them together to make something new and terrifying. The reason behind the Glynteg terror is part-fracking, part-something-else-in-the-news that locates this story in a very modernistic era of Torchwood. What’s more, Gwen’s being there at all, and the reason she’s investigating Drillpak is not classic Torchwood, but rebuilding, desperate, clawing-back-from-the-brink Torchwood – it’s a job done for the money, rather than because of the fear of alien intervention. It’s Drillpak who are paying her to investigate the complaints of the locals, to see what, if anything, needs to be done.
Gwen does encounter some fairly classic enviro-disaster tropes though: a protestor who refuses to move on and give up, Martyn (played by Omar Austin), who becomes her companion on this adventure despite having no head for alcohol himself; obstreperous locals who absolutely don’t have pitchforks or dire warnings about going up to the castle, but who nevertheless add a chorus of dark foreboding to the piece; and a smooth site manager whose reassurances are a little too slick for comfort.
What’s happening to the sluice-water at Glynteg? Mmmm, that would not only be telling, it would be to rob you of the increasing heartbeat-throb of genuine fear that invests the piece. Ultimately though, the story becomes a battle between the ever-increasingly intoxicated Gwen, who gets louder and less coherent as she goes on, and both the forces of the underground Other and those on the surface who’ve succumbed to them, as well as one particular person who knows more about what’s going on than they initially admit.
Gwen Cooper’s a Welsh Valleys girl – she can hold her drink. But how much, and how long, before her preventative drunkenness overwhelms her ability to save the world?
Smashed is absolutely an odd idea for a story, but some solid performances from the principle actors, (it’s worth listening out for Omar Austin here, he gives good companion and never falls into the inherent plot-serving traps of such a role), as well as some truly unnerving sound design, help turn what must have been either a hellishly complex or a hellishly freewheeling script into something that pulses with human realism and a creepy sense of increasing fear as control over events slips away beneath a fog of alcohol.
Give Smashed a listen – as Gwen says, ‘It’s like a Saturday night in Neath out there.’ Which, for the non-Welsh among us, means it’s wild, dangerous, absolutely off its face and not without the imminent threat of danger – but fantastic fun into the bargain. Tony Fyler