Yay, REAL Doctor Who is back…
Oh, all right, I admit there were lots of snuffles and shockingly actual goodbyes forever for the last episode of Torchwood, even if the episode wasn't the BEST.
Fortunately series three of Torchwood has a new TOP TEAM to deal with the alien menace among us…
Oh dear. Whatever transfusion of TD DNA that produced the anarchic fun of "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" or the moving tragedy of "Adrift" seems to be wearing off. From opening with a "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" this season is closing on a whimper.
The problem at the heart of "Exit Wounds" is Gray. The twist of bringing back Captain John – playing on the ambiguity and amorality established in the season opener – only for him to turn out not to be the villain we suspect is a good one, but you need to have someone bigger and badder, or at least with a bit of presence, standing behind him to make it credible. The story, the season arc, even the genre all call for Gray to be an intense, mesmerising and frankly a little bit bonkers figure. And when you've got scenes with John Barrowman and James Marsters you really need someone who can give it a bit large. Lachlan Nieboer as Gray isn't that person. Bless John Barrowman for saying each line is "spat with venom", but in truth his performance is muted and dull. Alex points out that the alternative to a John Simm-esque extrovert is hauntedly introspective… only Gray isn't played like that either – just middle-of-the-road.
Not that he's given a lot of help from the script. Where Russell T Davies (in "The Sound of Drums") tiptoes up to the hoary cliché of the long lost brother gone a bit mad and evil, but then tweaks its nose and runs away laughing, here Chris Chibnall just does it.
But there's not really enough of him in the story to make a proper impact: he doesn't turn up until a third of the way in, and then – one Poe-esque living burial aside – seems not to do a lot. He loiters around the Hub, shooting people and brooding, but why? What is his plan? There's no sense that he actually has any intentions beyond his banal vengeance and with that done, what's he here for? It smacks of having him hang around until it's comeuppance time.
"Actions have consequences," says Jack's brother at one point, which is clearly a philosophy that neither he nor Chibnall really believe. It is our ability to imagine consequences that gives us our consciences and here Gray clearly acts without one.
But equally, the writer doesn't think that way either. Jack is taken back to 27 AD and buried alive (and dead and alive again, repeat ad nauseam) to be dug up almost two millennia later. And he's fine.
(In fact, given Torchwood is the usual one-year-in-the-future of the current incarnation of Doctor Who, then 2009 is 1982 years later… oh dear, that might be a really obscure "Ashes to Ashes" reference.)
It's not just that Jack seems to have no psychological hang ups at all from his ordeal, nor even that his clothes seem to be as immortal as he is (that shirt looks good after two-thousand years despite getting machine-gunned to shreds before the titles) but that we the viewers never see anything to give us the impression of his horror or suffering. "Spaced" style, we "skip to the end" and he's out and about again.
And his first words to crazed little bro: "I forgive you". Yes, Chris, we get that you've watched "Last of the Time Lords". In fairness, Jack had that exact same line (to Owen, for shooting him) in last year's big dumb demon finale, too. So perhaps the heavy-handed son-of-god metaphor flows the other way. But the Doctor's still the nearest to have gotten away with it. At least this year we passed on the resurrections and the empty tomb.
Where the episode works – and I think it's largely through the work of the actors – it's in the two death scenes. Yes, two – 100% more death than anticipated. Predictably, Burn Gorman finally comes to the end of what has got to be the longest death scene ever, lasting a good seven weeks: you couldn't really expect Owen the living corpse to keep going getting more and more damaged and broken without it becoming a sick joke, so better to go out on a high. But shockingly unexpected is the death of Naoko Mori's sweet Toshiko.
Both deaths are well done: Owen's being heroic and showing that doing the high risk things sometimes doesn't leave you time for the "last minute escape"; Tosh dies in a horrible act of random violence, but still – even dying – giving her all for Owen, and never telling him. The moment of death, in Jack's arms and quite right too, is desperately tragic.
In contrast, we never see Owen's actual dissolution (his "death" was weeks ago, remember) and Burn uses the Torchwood Declassified to suggest that a radioactive Owen escapes into the sewers to be "King of the Weevils". Actually, that's more than slightly credible given the solid hints that the Weevils are genetically descended from Owen and that the Weevils strange behaviour towards him has never been explained.
It would be appropriate in this series to think of the Weevils as Owen's legacy.
Torchwood's theme of "life after death" hasn't always been as obvious this year. Stories like "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", "Meat", "Reset" and "Something Borrowed" hardly seem to touch on it at all. Equally, "To the Last Man" deals with Tommy's life prolonged after the date of his death; "Adam" sees Adam escaped from "Hell"; and "From Out of the Rain" features celluloid ghosts returning from the death of their lifestyle. And most obviously, "Dead Man Walking" and "A Day in the Death" focus heavily on Owen's life after death.
Here, we get Tosh's message from beyond the grave, a beautiful – and entirely in character – moment. The immortality of being remembered for doing good.
These are good scenes and powerful performances, the only snag being that they barely connect to the main story. Any number of crises could result in the threat of nuclear meltdown; any passing villain could commit a casual, brutal shooting. In an ironic twist, these are consequences of the unfolding events, the violence of Gray's retribution against Jack having unforeseen victims and causing chaos all around it. But the story never draws the connections, never makes these events a coherent part of the bigger story. With Gray already subdued by Jack, it seems like that story has finished and we're into a "let's kill off the non-returning cast" coda. Which is a shame because these scenes and these actors deserve better than that.
Torchwood series two has, overall, been a darn sight better than series one. Regrettably, the weak link is still Chris Chibnall, and putting all his scripts at the end of the season has just highlighted the distinct tail-off. On the plus side, the surviving cast have all really built in performance over the year, so that Gwen, Ianto and Jack seem like a team we can expect to be saving the world (between snogs) and look forward to finding out just how they move on from here.
Next time… it's Doctor Who, for goodness sake!