...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Day 2644: TOYCHWUD: Fragments


There is less than a week to go until PROPER Doctor Who and I have the latest trailer here to watch courtesy of the BBC WhoTube…

…so you might think that we've forgotten all about Torchwood. And you'd be right!

[R: er, or not]

Oh no, apparently, you'd be wrong… Daddy has another review for you:

Having not done a "how the team was recruited" story for the first series, Gwen's story in "Everything Changes" excepted, the second season seems rather early to be going back to do the "what came before" story. Perhaps it's "Babylon 5"'s "In the Beginning", perhaps it's "Star Wars", but to me prequels seem to be the thing you leave till later.

Having said that, it is in keeping with the Series Two reboot of the Torchwood set-up to go back and tell us these stories, using them as a device to say that the themes developed this year, particularly the emotional arcs of Ianto and Owen, were in some way "always there".

On the other hand, that very retconning raises new uncomfortable difficulties, not least the way that their Series Two personalities don't reconcile to their Series One versions.

The creators choose to suggest – in fact producer Richard Stokes said it out loud in Torchwood Declassified – that Jack recognises that the Torchwood Institute is missing something and that that something is Gwen. In which case, you have to ask, why did he try so hard and keep wiping her memory to keep her off the team in "Everything Changes"? And if Jack has had pretty much a free rein to recruit whoever he wanted since 2000 A.D. then he's much more responsible for the team being a bunch of dysfunctional halfwits than previously might have been supposed (when we could have more comfortably assumed that they were all imposed on him by Torchwood 1).

Anyway, it's a portmanteau story, four short tales within a wafer-thin framing device of the team being caught in a booby-trapped building and blown up by Captain John. The only surprise with Captain John being that he is not in the end credits. Quite why this induces flashbacks to how they joined Torchwood seems… unclear. Still any excuse for a flashback, when James Masters is guesting, I suppose.

Jack's story comes first, taking us back to the end of the Nineteenth Century, charmingly described as 1392 deaths ago, one of which he recovers from at the start and another of which takes place shortly thereafter in Torchwood's cellar. Given that he's going to be averaging fewer than 14 deaths a year over the next century-and-a-bit, 14 deaths in the last eight months suggests he's been roughhousing it a bit up till now.

Remembering that in "Utopia" he told the Doctor that he first discovered he couldn't die in 1892 on Ellis Island (he was shot), it would appear that he's been to America and come back. But recently. "Still not used to…" he says. Well we don't think he actually means hangovers, so he can't have been doing the resurrection trips too often yet. Not that he ever gets used to it, but it's still soon enough that he believes that he will.

And then he gets picked up by a couple of lesbians.

All right, so Queen Victoria didn't ever really say that lesbians didn't exist, but it's still slightly funny to have a couple of "non existent" persons in charge of the Institute. But on the other hand, was it completely necessary to say that Torchwood staff were always "like that"; is it not the remotest bit more plausible that Torchwood 2000's swinging atmosphere could be the result of the omnisexual being put in charge? Would that not be a sign that he was throwing out Torchwood's old prejudices and repressions, actually making a change for the better? Wouldn't that just be more dramatic than a gratuitous pair of ladygays? Consider the difference with the Torchwood of the World War One years as portrayed by Helen Raynor at the start of the season – Alice and Emily seem like such cartoon characters.

Anyway, they want to know what Jack knows about Torchwood's Enemy Number One. Guess Who.

This story gives us, I think, our first explicit mention of The Doctor in Torchwood, as opposed to Jack's evasive "the right kind of Doctor" replies and his and Martha's shared allusions to "him". In many ways this is the episode to reconcile the Doctor Who Torchwood Institute of "Tooth and Claw" to the Torchwood Torchwood of Cap'n Jack and chums. The Torchwood of the Nineteenth Century is clearly depicted as bad, bonkers and borderline psychotic in its defence of the Empire against anything and everything the slightest bit different.

Jack doesn't want anything to do with them and it's like a fall – or a relapse – when he does return to his mercenary ways. Actually, John Barrowman does this quite well, starting off with the laughing-in-the-face-of-death Jack who we know and love from Doctor Who and Series Two, and having him broken by Torchwood to end the story as the grim faced death-seeker who sulked his way through Series One. It's perhaps a little too fast a transition, but at least it's there.

There are also a couple of interesting continuity nods: one is the blowfish alien of the species we first saw in "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", with the twist that there it was Jack who blew the alien away; here he is horrified when it happens. The circumstances are totally different of course, but the reflection is still worth thinking about. The other is, of course, the return – or rather first appearance chronologically – of the girl fortune teller who we saw reading Jack's cards in "Dead Man Walking". We still don't get any explanations about who she is, though, but from her passing of the century without ageing, she is apparently another immortal. That makes her more complicated than "just" another psychic, gifted with the Sight – under the "allowed" Doctor Who rules – by proximity to the Rift. I suspect, though, that "Exit Wounds" will be rather busy, so she's probably a mystery for another time.

With Jack now shackled to his Sisyphean task of working for Torchwood through two turns of the century, we fast forward through a filing-cabinet montage to 1999 and the next crucial step, as Captain Jack gets the top job by the Klingon method of Dead Man's Shoes.

Jack discovers that "Alex", whom we presume to be in charge of Torchwood Three, has wiped out the existing crew and hands the place over to Jack before finishing himself off too.

"I looked inside and saw the future", he says, and we see that he's holding a silver locket – could this be another "fob watch", part of another Time Lord's chameleon arch? Could it, in fact, have some connection to that young-seeming but ageless fortune teller?

In spite of being clearly crazed, for some reason (as yet undisclosed… maybe it really is the monarchical principle: the king is dead; (very) long live the king!) Torchwood command see fit to accept Alex's gifting of Torchwood Three to Jack and he sets out to recruit a team to make a difference. Or possibly for adventures of a sexual shenanigans based nature. (Again, it would make lots more sense of all the free-and-easy sexualities in the team to have had Jack recruit them on the basis of "I fancy that one!")

Given the circumstances of their meeting, it seems quite unlikely that that was how he picked out Toshiko, which is a shame. Still, we avoided John Barrowman having to deliver a "why, Miss Sato… without those glasses your beautiful!" line.

Instead, mousy-but-determined Tosh works for the MoD and in her spare time is being blackmailed to build sonic weaponry. It's almost as though she's been asked to build a sonic screwdriver from UNIT's 1980s files.

Ah yes, UNIT, or Evil UNIT as they appear to be now. It's rather shocking to see the treatment that is meted out by the old crew that we knew and loved when the Brigadier was in charge. How can they have changed so much? And aren't Torchwood supposed to be the bastards of alien intelligence organisations?

Well, the first thought that springs to mind is, naturally, a Laurence Miles reference, once again the conversation from "The Adventuress of Henrietta Streets" where the Master tells the Doctor that they always do the opposite: should he (the Doctor) try to destroy the universe, then the Master would inevitably have to save it. The application here being that Jack's efforts to turn Torchwood good have, by some kind of karma, meant that UNIT has to go bad.

It's not totally original, of course. The dark side of UNIT (a prison facility known as ' the Glasshouse' and run by the Master, I seem to recall…) has already been toyed with in Dave Bishop's spin-off novel "Who Killed Kennedy" in the 1990s – which was both rather schlocky and very of its time, though even then "The X-Files" had already been doing conspiracy within the government agency for ages.

More practically, though, how could this have happened? Obviously, UNIT have come under American control (since 9/11 perhaps?) as evidenced by President Winters' declaration in "The Sound of Drums": "From now on this operation is under UNIT…" (and by inference American) "…control."

But Martha's working for UNIT now, and we fully expect to see them in full force in Series Four of Doctor Who. What, I wonder, does this darker side to the Intelligence Taskforce portend?

Of course, Jack's a bit of a bastard here too: he doesn't rescue Tosh from UNIT's indoor Guantanamo because it's right, but because he has a use for her. And how many prisoners does he leave to rot "outside the law" because they aren't of use to him?

Mind you, the prison is also reminiscent of prison sequence the end of the second book of "V for Vendetta" where Evey believes that she is being held by the fascist state. That all turns out to be a charade played upon her by the mysterious super-hero V to teach her her own true strength. Sound familiar?

Ianto's story is different to the others. In the first place it breaks the chronological sequence, being only "21 months ago" and therefore not only after Tosh joined but also after Owen, whose story we haven't yet seen. But also this story, unlike the others, is not told from Ianto's point-of-view but from Jack's. Jack encounters Ianto three times in the course of his works over a few days, first catching a Weevil, second outside the Hub and third while driving the SUV and checking in with the rest of the team. (Cheekily, Ianto's appearance interrupts Jack's conversation with Suzie, sparing the production the cost of hiring Indira Varma for one line of dialogue. Makes her absence stick out like a sore thumb though.)

This, obviously, is because Ianto is "a man with a secret™". We all know that that secret is the Cyberwoman, the full horror of which no one needs reminding of. But that's clearly the unstated but underlying reason why Ianto is so desperate to convince Jack to give him a job.

He is certainly a man willing to do anything to get that job – and judging by the way he's dressed when he first "encounters" Jack, that definitely includes seduction. That does make it all the more poignant when that expectation is turned on its head, Ianto surprising, perhaps shocking himself by falling for Jack instead. Ianto leaves crying because he clearly fancies Jack but still loves Lisa and now thinks he's betrayed both.

This is, incidentally, also the "how I joined Torchwood" story for the Hub's resident Pterodactyl – the one we all thought had come off fatally worst in the fight with that Cyberwoman until it turned out to be unexpectedly not dead in "Meat".

Though this obviously means that the only thing that "Cyberwoman" has going for it – a fight between a Cyberwoman and a Pterodactyl – turns out to have been a no-score-draw damp squib. Strangely, I am unsurprised.

Owen's story of his dead bride-to-be makes for a tragic echo of the story of Maggie, who he met on a roof in "A Day in the Death" and who was widowed on her wedding day. This is presumably supposed to make us understand how a "good" person like Owen came to be such the callous sexual user that we saw in Series One. Unfortunately it's also the most melodramatic and frankly crass part of the tale. Oh, Owen's true-love got her brain eaten by an alien, no wonder he's such a cold one, I don't think.

An awful lot of this episode was really good. It looked lovely, over a whole load of sets and times, and was well acted throughout. It set out stories that were (mostly) interesting to know about; it showed us things that were new even when it was reusing familiar monsters like the Weevil and the Pterodactyl; and it opened up some new mysteries for us to think about. And James Marsters managed to deliver the Spike-esque shtick in a way that made us want to see the climax next week.

Where it has problems it is in part because of the mismatch between Season One Torchwood and Season Two, but also because the flashback sequences make no sense, there's no reason for them to happen, for these particular memories – or indeed any – to be replayed. It's not a "life flashing before your eyes" moment, because it's too specific, so you are left with a question of "why?" or worse a sense of "that was handy".

And (although I suppose sort of appropriately) it is a return to the first season's ongoing problem of starting from "ooh, that would be cool" ("Cannibal Holocaust" in Wales, lesbian aliens, "Fight Club" with Weevils or a gigantic CGI devil) and then slapping a story made of sci-fi clichés around it to try and make it work.

The ultimate problem is that everyone survives, leaving the episode without a meaning. Even the infamous "Dynasty" wedding massacre managed to blow up some of the cast. While the individual stories work well, and while they connect to the bigger themes of the season, there's nothing to make this story work as a whole. As Alex puts it: "Nice pictures; lousy frame". Series Two of Torchwood has done so much better than this, concentrating on the emotional journey that caries us through each episode and that is what is missing here. We only have a fanboy's reason for wanting to know how the team came together and, if there's one thing that the rest of this excellent season has told us, that's not enough from which to make a drama.

Next time… Captain John plans to leave some "Exit Wounds"

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