...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, December 08, 2006

Day 2153: TORCHWOOD: Greeks Bearing Gifts


The MOST FAMOUS gift from Greeks bearing gifts was a great big wooden horse but you are not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth and how does THAT work? If you HAD looked the Trojan Horse – which was ACTUALLY a Greek Horse – in the mouth you would have found ODYSSEUS with a BIG SWORD…

I’m confused!
After yesterday's Robin Hood, this was so much better too.

Essentially a two-hander between Naoko Mori as sweet yet driven Tosh and Daniela Denby-Ashe as duplicitous alien entity Mary, both actors are powerfully up to the task of bringing us an intense affair of love and betrayal.

The trick of letting Tosh see into other people's minds is a clever symmetry with the way this episode concentrates on letting us into her mind. And yet, we have much the better deal: where Tosh discovers only things that cause her disgust and despair, we get to see that she is so brave and so lonely and so ordinarily extraordinary; so capable of being hurt and so undeserving of being hurt. Unlike "Cyberwoman" this is the right time to have an episode that takes a background character that we haven't considered very much and show us why we should have been considering her.

There are obvious comparisons to make with the classic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode: "Earshot". The sudden gift of telepathy seeming a boon but leading to disaster; the "kill em kill em all" thoughts being overheard and even the featured ripping out of hearts. (Destroying the powerful blessed/cursed amulet at the end is reminiscent of the Gem of Omara from "Buffy" and "Angel" too.)

But actually this episode isn't a rip off of "Earshot". In some ways, the "kill em kill em all" scene is got out of the way early on almost to say, "yes, that was Earshot, but we're going to go on from there". Toshiko isn't the hero character: she isn't Buffy, she's Jonathan, and it isn't the noise that is destroying her, it is the content. As with so many other things that Torchwood comes across, the gift of mind-reading is addictive: Tosh can't easily give it up even though she wants to.

Adding to Tosh's heartbreak is the unfolding revelation of Gwen and Owen's affair. Obviously, poor Toshiko with her childlike crush on Owen is exactly the wrong person to learn their intimate, almost squalid, thoughts in this way. "I think my desk is on fire" she snaps at them at one point as they remain obliviously trapped in their own separate internal monologues, each fixated on their uncertainties about the other.

And reflecting the mirrored themes again, this is duplicated in Tosh's own abruptly discovered sexual relationship with Mary. A woman. And, it transpires, an alien. Tosh is evidently disgusted with herself, and you must think that it's not because of Mary's gender or species, but because it is so un-romantic. Owen, never a man to get the emotional right answer, missed entirely with his assessment that she would be "Catholic and grateful". Tosh so much needs to be loved not, to put it crudely, shagged.

Interestingly, the pairing up of Gwen and Owen restores a kind of Scully/Mulder dynamic to the team: this episode uses Tosh's point of view to show us Gwen's world (of which Owen happens to be a part) and Jack's world.

So the story also gets to do something interesting with Jack: it's a very subtle moment that isn't flagged until later. Tosh goes in ostensibly to chat to her boss as he works on the piece of alien technology that Mary is interested in. And they chat. But Tosh is wearing the mind-reading pendant and there are obvious, if subtle, gaps in their conversation where the "and Jack thinks" lines would go. Except they don't and you are startled to realise she can't read Jack's mind.

Mary too senses the differences in Jack, he's not like the others and it's not just his dentistry. And then he flat out kills her. Perhaps this is another thread to add to the series' weave: what has Jack become?

Daniela Denby-Ashe clearly has a ball playing Mary: a mix of wide-eyed enthusiasm and power-bitch. Forever lighting up cigarettes a la Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington, she might as well have "I am the femme fatale" tattooed on her forehead in glowing alien letters. You are never quite sure if her feelings towards Toshiko are genuine or just manipulation. Or somewhere in between. Is Tosh her lover or just her next potential snack? Many wonderful character moments include her stare of wonder on acquiring her new body, her determined stride as she and Tosh enter the hub and the powerful moment as she sits on the chair in Tosh's bedroom and just exudes evil while Tosh quails and despairs on the bed.

Alien Mary is a rather nicely realised translucent CGI, and there is some nice special effects work to give Mary an inhuman turn of speed. In fact there is quite a lot of hi-speed slo-speed ramping in this episode and it's got to be a directorial leitmotif prefiguring Mary's superfast movement.

There is also some rather nice background thinking about the alien culture that Mary has come from, and about our freedom to keep some things private or even to lie. Mary comes from the ultimate Big Brother society where there is no freedom of thought and worship is compulsory. A brief moment of Wellsian satire of the way our own society is teetering on the brink of going.

The conclusion also sees Torchwood actually operate as a team: Owen works out what is going on and informs Jack and the whole team all turn up to try to save Tosh from Mary. It's a great Torchwood moment when they all step out into the hub to surround her. Okay, they probably should have remembered to pick up some of the guns from the armoury, but it's still a huge improvement on last week's fiasco.

This was a stronger episode, getting back to Torchwood basics with them acquiring alien technology, and with a powerful and well acted emotional core. I still think there should have been stronger episodes up front, but this is the right episode for right now in the series. Maybe it is just Chris Chibnall that is the problem.

More like this please.

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