It’s an interesting time to be a Torchwood fan. First of all, you have to be able to watch the show past that Cyberwoman episode. Which means you have to spend some time defending the show from the people who couldn’t watch past that episode. You also have to find some way to talk about how you’re glad that the show found a way to put a gay relationship in the foreground of a sci-fi action drama without sounding like an obsessive shipper who only watches the show as fodder for slash-fic stories.
Which all made the meltdown over the third series, broadcast over five nights as a mini-series, so interesting. Given it’s biggest audience and biggest venue yet, the show performed very well and attracted critical acclaim.
And fans raged.
As for the praise, it was well deserved. “Children of Earth” was a fantastically plotted, amazingly acted television event. A frequent point of criticism for the series is that, while it aspires to mature story-telling and was presented as a more “adult” take on Doctor Who, producers and writers seemed to think that all you needed to make a sci-fi series mature was add in lots of swearing, violence and sex. It’s a partly valid complaint, and the unevenness of the first season is testament to that. But by the second series most of the tonal problems had worked themselves out and the show was able to balance a sophistication in story and character with a self-deprecating sense of humor. That frequently focused on sex. This third series continued that evolution even more, and it’s probably telling that shortening the series to one story told over multiple episodes allowed for a more carefully crafted and thoughtful approach to the series than the need to get out thirteen weeks worth of episodes out the door.
The regular cast do a remarkable job, with Gareth David-Lloyd in particular turning in a excellent performance, and Eve Myles stepping up and showing us a Gwen that wasn’t quite always there in previous seasons but comes to the fore remarkably as well. The supporting cast, particularly Peter Capaldi as ill-fated civil servant John Frobisher, do excellent jobs as well. It’s a terribly well-acted show, and writers Russell T. Davies, James Moran and John Fay should be congratulated for giving such meaty roles for strong actors. If there is a fault to be found with the show, it’s in the rather laggy pacing, particularly in “Day Five”, which frequently felt like a thirty-minute story padded out to sixty.
There are some nice nods to the wider universe the show appears in as well, with Gwen making a fairly convincing case as to why, in certain times of deep crisis, the Doctor doesn’t appear on Earth. It’s a telling indictment, since for those who have been watching the new series of Doctor Who, a significant part of the problem faced here can be traced back to the Doctor upsetting history by removing Harriet Jones from power. And, of course, even if it is slightly selfish praise, it is nice to see a big, mainstream, action sci-fi show headlined by an openly gay man that places one of its heroic leads in a same-sex relationship.
And now, for those of you wishing to avoid spoilers, don’t read past the uncomfortable looking gentleman…
Harvey Comics Classics Vol. 5: The Harvey Girls: I know the truism when it comes to comics is that someone, somewhere, is masturbating to it, but oh, God, please no…let it not be true this time…
Magicman is quite possibly the gayest super-hero ever. And I’m finding it really hard to believe there’s enough perceived demand for a $60 hard-cover collection of his adventures. Unless I’m really misjudging the demand for flamingly effeminate super-heroes in tacky drag.
It’s cute how publishers like to pretend that celebrities have more involvement in the creation of the comics bearing their name than having their assistants sign off on the likeness rights…
So, now that IDW has the licenses for G.I. Joe, Transformers, Angel, Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who, is “mega-crossover” too much to expect? ‘Cause, you know, I would pay top dollar for a comic in which Davros, Cobra Commander and Megatron team-up to take over the world.
Sterling Publishing has been putting out these nice omnibus editions of Asterix, and I love them to bits, as they’re much nicer and better value than the individual volumes, but the way they’re going about publishing them drives me batty. They released volumes one and eleven first, and this month they solicit volumes two and ten. Seriously, guys, putting them out in numerical order is just as good, if not better.
Last month Tokyopop solicited forty-four titles, and it was a light month for them. This month they solicit sixteen. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall at this point. And yes, I’ve already got a draft version of my “I come to bury Tokyopop, not to praise it” post saved. I’m thinking of titling it “Lessons the Comics Industry Should Learn from the Manga Bubble Bursting, But Won’t.”
I’m curious to know how much space, if any, will be devoted to the fact that Leyendecker was gay and that his work is, well, teeming with homoeroticism. I like Leyendecker’s work, but in most of the things I’ve read about him, his sexuality is either ignored or used as an excuse to claim his work is inferior. Because gay men can’t draw women, apparently.
So there are five different L. Ron Hubbard books for sale in Previews, at $10 each. I wonder how many credits for cleared Thetans you get if you buy them all?
I know of a spoiler for the Tropic Thunder film that makes this piece of merchandise hilariously ironic. And it’s the kind of irony that that film’s target audience, I suspect, will not appreciate.
Huh. I, uh, I may want a twelve inch tall “Indy disguised as ‘German’” action figure…
GOD-FUCKING-DAMMIT, JAPAN! It’s that she’s covered in pink slime more than anything else, this time.
Speaking of Japan, I’m not the only one really skeeved out by the popularity of “bandaged Rei Ayanami” figures, right?
Out of the four Torchwood cups for sale, two of them feature Gwen and Jack. None of them feature Jack and Ianto. Do the marketing people not watch the show?
I know some of you are busy arguing over how badly a comic you haven’t read yet sucks, or complaining that the resurrection of a character messes up your fan-fiction, but I figured a few of you might like to know that the latest issue of the Torchwood magazine features the first part of a comic by Simon Furman and Paul Grist…
It seems almost inevitable that, after the high level of expectations set by the first few episodes, Torchwood would produce a few episodes that seem somewhat disappointing in comparison. It’s not that either of these episodes are bad, but the best that can be said of them is that they’re only of average quality. They each have the feel of being something of a place-holder episode, a story whose premise doesn’t quite warrant elevating it into a major piece. The stories in question are neither particularly character focused nor very complicated plot-wise. To a certain degree, the actual stories of the episodes seem to have been a secondary concern to filling some of the middle period of the season with events that advance the overall story-line of the second series.
Of the two, Meat, by Catherine Tregenna, is probably the strongest, in part because of the simpler plot. The thrust of the episode is Gwen’s fiance Rhys discovering the truth about Gwen and Torchwood. Gwen’s secrecy and treatment of Rhys in the first season was, to be blunt, horrific, and made her downright unlikeable and extremely unsympathetic in certain episodes. Getting that needless complication out of the way once and for all eliminates the potential of the over-used “character has a secret that will jeopardize a relationship” trope. Rhys knows, it’s dealt with, we all move on. After that, the actual story of a group of thugs who exploit an alien as a source of cheap meat just fills up the rest of the fifty minute run time. The villains are nothing special, one-note thugs with no imagination and no personality, and the alien, well…let’s be generous and assume that the production team meant it to look like a shapeless gray blob for dramatic reasons. The only cringe-worthy false note in the episode is the forcing of some kind of pseudo-sexual/romantic tension between Gwen and Jack. It just doesn’t work with these two characters, and the continual introduction of that dynamic into the series is just maddening. It’s an annoying television cliche that the show can do without replicating.
Adam, also by Catherine Tregenna, is the kind of story I find I want to like more than I do, but in the end there isn’t very much to it. The set-up is that a new member of the team is in the Hub, but his presence provides hints that something is going wrong. People are forgetting important things, things vital to their sense of self. People are acting wildly out of character. Blatantly, obviously, of course the new arrival is tied directly into all of it. But the villain of the piece is never really credibly explained or motivated. He’s just…there. And then he’s not, via a method that is even more frustratingly vague than the villain and suggests a cop-out. It’s a story with zero consequences, as the “reset” button is hit at the end.
And again, secondary concerns of plot and character advancement seem to be the real point of the story. We get a few moments of insight into Gwen and Ianto’s relationships with Jack and Toshiko’s and Owen’s senses of self. Burn Gorman in particular does an exceptional job in this episode, saddled as he is with a bit of a Duane Dibbley persona for this story, and the hint of back-story we are given does more to justify and explain the frequent odiousness of Owen’s personality than anything else we’ve seen in the show so far. But the main draw is the fleshing out of Jack’s back-story, particularly the explanation of who Gray is, why he’s important to Jack, and what Jack’s child-hood in the Boeshane Peninsula was like. Especially how the traumas of Jack’s childhood shaped him into the man he was when we first met him in Doctor Who. It’s important character development, and it significantly advances the meta-plot for this season, but it just doesn’t happen in a very compelling episode.
The producers of Torchwood continue to change up the format to good effect. This time around we get a quiet, deeply personal romantic tragedy, with an apocalyptic rupture in the fabric of space-time standing in for the usual romantic complications. After the “comedy with action” episode and the “action with comedy” episode, it’s nice to have an episode that pulls back a bit from the attempts to tell a “big” story and instead focuses on a more character driven story. Naoko Mori as Toshiko turns in a lovely performance, practically heart-breaking, convincingly moving from the thrill of the sweet moments of early love to the inevitable loss that the nature of her love affair demands. Another excellent guest performance is also on display with Anthony Lewis as Tommy, the thawed out World War One soldier whose destiny is tied into Torchwood and the complicated nature of the Rift in Cardiff. His performance nicely blends the youth of his character with the world-weariness of a man who has seen the better part of a century whirl by him in a matter of months, with cosmetic changes but human nature, depressingly, not developing.
There are a number of nice nods to the continuity obsessive here as well. The introduction of Torchwood Three circa 1918 is a nice reminder of the history of the organization, while the very slight dig at Doctor Who was another sly reminder of the wider “universe” Torchwood inhabits. There are, of course, the usual head-aches caused by attempting to logically unravel a story involving time-travel, time-loops, and apparent predestination. In keeping with the “light entertainment” mandate of the show, this is not dealt with, other than in the most broad possible terms in an effort to heighten the drama. In other words, you can’t over-think the internal logic of the show too much or you’ll just turn your brains to mush.
But again, worrying too much about the obligatory sci-fi babble is to miss the point of the episode. The grist of the story is the emotional lives and developments of the characters. We don’t see much of Gwen or Owen in this episode; Gwen is essentially just Jack’s right-hand man in the story, without much to do than run into echoes of people from the past, although Owen is allowed a few more moments of his “Owen is nice inexplicably a nice guy” arc. Ianto and Jack don’t get terribly much to do in this episode either, even Ianto’s one-liner count is down a bit, but they do share a beautiful scene that advances their relationship and sheds more light on what is bringing them together. There is a shared loneliness to the characters, and pain in their past, that seems to be developing as the primary mover in their relationship. However, none of that comes close to upstaging Toshiko’s storyline, and the superlative performance Naoko Mori gives.
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.
Okay, two wondrous things, counting a new issue of All Star Superman.
The second volume of Reborn is released in English. Reborn, of course, being the fantastic manga title about a toddler assassin.
Here’s the opening and closing songs from the anime series, for no particular reason.
If I correctly interpret the Japanese home-page for the title, they’re currently up to volume 12. That means many, many more volumes of mayhem to look forward to.
It was also a pretty good week for those of us following Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, as Captain Jack finally got some.
Here’s another clip, whose context won’t mean much unless you saw the episode. Unless of course you like looking at handsome men kissing, in which case, there you go…
On the whole, despite a shaky start, I think Torchwood turned out pretty good…even if the “big bad” was stretching credibility for the concept of the show a little. And hey, for those who were put off by it, and didn’t consider it sufficiently Who-vian, there’s also The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was nice as well, but definitely a call-back to the kid-vid days of Doctor Who.
The only sour note struck with my entertainment choices this week was Huntress: Darknight Daughter. I enjoyed the book, but dear lord, someone needed to teach Helena to close her damn robe.