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Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Torchwood: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Sleeper
Torchwood is a curiously contentious show. To go by online reactions, a bit of a fool's game to be sure, people seem to either love it or loathe it, both beyond the point of rationality. There really is remarkably little room in the middle, it seems. It's odd, at least to me, that a show that's somewhat dopey but on the whole more good than bad should inspire such extreme reactions. The most obvious comparison I can draw is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off show Angel. Between the two of them, the shows had about twelve seasons, only about four of which are watchable. It's not bad company to be in, but it does illustrate my thoughts on the first season of Torchwood well: a flawed program that means well but has vast room for improvement.
And what Torchwood does well, it does very well (by the same token, when it does badly it's horrible), and its cultural impact and importance shouldn't be overlooked. Geek media, particularly sci-fi, tends towards the reactionary, the misogynistic and the heteronormative. Torchwood gives us a cast of characters of polymorphous sexual identities, and a dashing man of action and derring-do as the lead, played by an openly gay man, in a world in which racial diversity is a given. The grand-pappy of sci-fi TV franchises can't manage more than lesbian titillation, so the historic contributions of Torchwood count for something, despite the missteps in plot and character that frequently mark the first series.
Luckily, in the first two episodes of the second series, a lot of the problems appear to have been, if too soon to say definitively removed, at least acknowledged and ameliorated. In the series premiere, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang a very obvious effort has been made to develop the humorous aspect of the series. If one of the cited flaws of the first series was the skirting around the edges of camp and plausibility ("the world's most famous secret organization", etc.), this episode just runs with it. Starting with an expository blowfish and an infodump for new viewers, writer Chris Chibnall never fails to shy away from the jokes, focusing mainly on character. Both Tosh and Ianto in particular benefit from this, as they show more personality in this episode than in they did in large swaths of the previous season. But all the characters show improvement from the previous series. They are recognizably the same characters, but both the absence of Jack has made them stronger as a team, and developments from the last series are acknowledged and followed up on. Of particular note is the much needed de-angsting of John Barrowman's Jack Harkness character after his foray back into Doctor Who. He's still the somewhat authoritarian Jack of Torchwood but a lighter touch is evident.
A particularly strong element of the episode is James Marsters as 'Captain John Hart,' ex-partner (in every sense of the word) to Captain Jack. Torchwood is often criticized for an apparently adolescent attitude towards sex, and curiously, the lack of 'naughty schoolboy' characterization to Jack that some fans saw in his appearances in Doctor Who. The scene when the Captains meet is tremendous, a near-perfect visual representation of a love/hate relationship between two Future Man action heroes. They can't decide whether they should kiss or fight, so they do both, and clearly enjoy it. Captain John works very well within the context of the episode and the show as a whole: he's an unreconstructed Jack, the Jack that would have been had he never met Rose and the Doctor or come to Torchwood. He's amoral and selfish and essentially a walking Id. As a contrast to Jack he really makes an excellent short-hand for the development of Jack's character, as well as acting as a catalyst for needed interactions and developments with other characters, particularly in the development of Gwen and the Jack/Ianto relationship.
After a strong opening that is heavy on humor but mixed with action, the second episode, James Moran's Sleeper, and its inversion of that formula, might be rightfully viewed with trepidation, but again, a vast improvement in the show's dramatic storytelling is evident here as well. It's structured as a thriller, with the mysterious deaths of two burglars during a home invasion robbery, and escalates into a crisis of genocidal proportions in very plausible way. There is a lot of small but significant character moments here, notably for Ianto and Owen, and Moran brings Gwen forward as the 'heart' of Torchwood, a concept frequently given lip-service to but rarely followed up on, in truly deft ways. Another particularly good guest performance is featured in this episode, this time by Nikki Amuka-Bird as Beth, a woman who discovers a terrifying secret about herself. Her scenes with Eve Myles are heart-wrenching in the way they play off each other, with Beth as the lost woman trying to understand what is happening to her and Gwen's empathy driving her to forge a connection with the woman that is perhaps deeper than is wise.
There is a frustrating aspect to the episode, however, in that for all its drama and emotional gravitas, it never seems to want to follow through on the almost painfully obvious political metaphor at the heart of the story's action. When you have an alien sleeper cell, complete with suicide bombers, and black-bag over the head renditions and torture used to extract confessions, an explicit metaphor to terrorism and the response to terrorism is expected, but it never really materializes. The end result is scenes that feel like they should be adding up to more, but don't quite gel because the heroes are doing things that in a real world context are highly unethical, and the 'terrorist' becomes the most sympathetic character in the story. And while that latter point is central to the story's theme, the effort to keep the regular cast in a heroic mode seems to prevent a deeper exploration of the symbolism. In the end, it's a disappointment born out of me wanting the show to be more than it is. It's not a fair criticism, as the show, at its heart, is escapist entertainment, with a noticeable tendency to not take itself too seriously, even when it delves into serious drama and tragedy. That almost schizophrenic tendency is both the show's strength and weakness.