...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Day 2194: TORCHWOOD: Captain Jack Harkness / End of Days


(Okay, yesterday squared REALLY)

I would refer you to Mr James Graham’s thoughts on Torchwood and leave it at that.

But there’s just no shutting Daddy up so, for the last time this season, here we go again…

James makes several points: “It’s Buffy Season Six”; “the characters are stupid” “there’s no proper story arc” and “Chris Chibnall, why?”, and it’s hard to disagree with any of them.

The use of alienation as a theme of the series – as in Buffy Season Six – has the obvious problem of alienating the viewer, and the Torchwood crew never managed to come over as a cohesive team. In fact they are either invisible – Tosh, Ianto, Jack – or unlikeable – Owen and to a surprising extent Gwen. And then there is the lack of development: the characters go through changes in their lives that barely seem to affect them; the season’s big climax appears pretty much out of nowhere; and there remains very little sense of what Torchwood is about.

Plus there’s that shared feeling that many of the flaws can be traced back to the unfortunate Chris Chibnall.

The two episode double bill to conclude the season were something of a mixed pair: first “Captain Jack Harkness” was an intimate and affecting character piece; second was “End of Days” which was spectacular and yet hollow.

There is some irony to the fact that at the end of “Captain Jack Harkness” we actually know less about “our” Captain Jack than we did at the start. We no longer even know his name.

In fact, the real Captain Jack Harkness is a genuine American volunteer pilot, flying for the British in 1941. And he’s gay.

I feel foolish for not spotting it at once the first time of viewing, but on rewatching it is apparent from the first instant. If you miss the sparkle in his eyes when he first claps them on “our” Jack, then the clues come thick and fast: wanting to spend the last night with his boys; reluctant to be close to the girl he’s been seeing; distressed when she says she loves him; constantly following “our” Jack around like a puppy…

So never mind the time-travelling conundrum, this story is really about accepting ourselves and living a full life every single day.

The issue of prejudice is lightly touched on – obviously, the real Jack is living life undercover, and there is also some early reaction to the Japanese Toshiko. The xenophobia is quickly defused – and in a nice touch “our” Jack reminds us of the contribution that was made to the British war effort by non-whites and, by passing Tosh off as a cryptographer, also makes a nod to Alan Turing whose homosexuality was very much overlooked during the war, very like the real Captain Jack, one suspects.

Since watching, I’ve read a whole load of discussion of this. Rather more distressing than 1940s prejudice though is 2000s prejudice, with too many people saying the likes of “the kiss ruined this for me!”

One thing positive that I will say abut Torchwood is that it wears its “gay agenda” – or rather its “omnisexual agenda” – right out in the open. Sexuality may be handled at a kind of teenage level, but this series is not going to hide any of the possibilities that are out there. No, it’s going to go out of its way to embrace them. Because television science fiction and fantasy so often avoid addressing sexuality: it’s usually reduced to chaste little – entirely heterosexual – will they/won’t they romances or Captain Kirk alien-boffing. With a side-order of lipstick lesbians if the demographic needs perking up.

People who have actually studied the history, and the gay history, of World War II have said that people were much less hung up about sex and sexuality in time of war, and that although the two Jacks’ dance and kiss might be considered a bit brazen, it was certainly within the realms of possibility.

So, anyone having an “ew” response needs to check their own prejudices at the door.

Dramatically, of course they have to kiss at the end. The whole thrust of what “our” Captain Jack has been saying is “kiss the girl stupid, you’re going to be dead tomorrow”. That message applies to both of them, and – hooray! – they both get it and act on it at the conclusion.

Anyway, with Jack and Tosh leaving in a blaze of white light, anyone watching is going to be left thinking not “the Captain was dancing with a man!” but “the Captain was dancing with an angel!”

“Our” Jack, of course, spends the episode looking for some kind of forgiveness from the real Jack Harkness for stealing his name and, effectively, his life. It’s obvious that he feels indebted to this man who he never knew before and at the same time is devastated that he knows the real Jack will die tomorrow. Worse, Jack will die heroically but “our” Jack is going to erase those records in order to make use of the man’s name: of course he feels he owes this guy big time.

Incidentally, one thing we do learn – and Jack seems compelled to be honest when he tells the real Jack Harkness this story – is that he went away to war as a boy and saw his best friend tortured by the worst creatures imaginable. In context, that has got to mean that Jack fought the Daleks, and before meeting the Doctor. Like the Doctor, it seems unimaginable that the Daleks can actually appear in Torchwood, they’d be so out of context. But it is nice to have these “in-universe” allusions to them and it helps with the continuity.

While Jack and Tosh are having romantic adventures in 1941, the remains of Torchwood are playing about in a haunted dance hall.

There is a strong element of the “Sapphire and Steel” to the feel of these parts of the episode, and also they owe a certain something to the time-warping Bermuda Triangle episode of “The X Files”: “Triangle” – particularly the moments where a sound of music or laughter or the calling of a name drift back from the 1940s to the present day. The empty dance hall is a great environment, spooky and atmospheric, especially intercut with the same location in its heyday.

There is also a strong dynamic for Owen and Ianto in this part – sadly thrown away in the conclusion – with Owen flagrantly disobeying Jack in order to rescue him and Ianto seemingly willing to abandon Jack out of loyalty.

In the end they do open the rift and rescue Jack and Tosh, but in doing so they cause cracks in time that lead in to the season finale. People start dropping through time with the accompanying problems this causes, handily tuned to the gang’s talents: assault and murder by a Roman centurion sees PC Gwen called to her old police station; a nasty does of the black death has Dr Owen called to the hospital. (Can we assume that Tosh gets called in by PC World and Ianto has to attend a crisis at Starbucks?)

To make matters worse, the members of Torchwood each get haunted by their lost family or lovers. It’s “The End of Days” and the dead are walking.

The episode is, in some ways, less of a logical climax and more of a summing up, reiterating the key flaws and failings that the team members have shown over the course of the last eleven weeks. The flaws that lead to them disobeying Jack and opening the rift are the same flaws that should have gotten them sacked in the first place: Ianto is turned by the ghost of his dead – and cyber-converted – girlfriend; Owen by the woman from the 1950s that he seduced and then lost to the rift; Gwen is haunted by her betrayal of boyfriend Rhys. And this is WHY they should have been sacked!

The man behind the hauntings and linking the two episodes is the intriguing – and yet undeveloped – character of Bilis Manger.

Bilis is, perhaps obviously, an anagram of Iblis, the Islamic name for the Devil (and also the name of Patrick Macnee’s other character in “Battlestar Galactica”). He was decidedly creepy, playing with Time and the Torchwood crew with equal facility. For so long as his motives remained obscure he added a great deal of mystery. Obviously, it’s a trap, and he’s manipulating Torchwood into opening the rift, but that very obviousness is what draws you in.

On the down side, once his aim – release the big devil monster – is revealed, you are left feeling “well, what did he want to go and do that for?” It’s possible that this was the flip-side of the nihilism seen in “They Keep Killing Suzie”: instead of there’s nothing after death so cling to life, it becomes life is pointless so destroy it all. But he doesn’t have time to expound on his philosophy because he’s too busy spouting exposition to explain the sodding great monster: look, it’s the son of the Beast (ooh, Doctor Who tie in); all shall die under his shadow (I’m afraid I only spotted it the second time that it’s the monster’s shadow that is killing everyone).

There’s much speculation that Bilis might be a renegade Time Lord, somehow a survivor of the Time War, maybe even the Master. It doesn’t seem likely; given the importance of such a development you would expect to see the return of the Master or any Time Lord in the parent series, not a spin off. But if he isn’t a Time Lord then who or what is he, and how can he do what he does with Time?

The other problem with all the mystery is that the season ends with an almost unheralded “Big Bad”. It is Abaddon, also known as the Angel of the Abyss (or Rift, geddit).

This threat from the rift would have been more credible if there had been an episode earlier in the season where they had either tried to open it, or it had opened itself and they had struggled to close it. The odd cryptic “something is coming” didn’t really prepare us for the full on Godzilla.

And why was Abaddon just a big dumb monster? When Doctor Who did the Devil, in “The Impossible Planet”, he had the suave intelligence of Gabriel Wollfe to go with his diabolical body. He only became a crude monster when his mind vacated in order to escape.

Alex suggests this is Torchwood all over – all the spectacle of Doctor Who but with its brain extracted!

I think I’d have preferred it if we had seen Abaddon tearing his way out of the rift, or leaving the rift torn open in the sky behind him. But then I’d rather the climax had seen the demon forced back into the rift, to remain as a potential threat. The great big monster just dropping dead – with no apparent cost, since Jack came back from the dead again anyway – cheapened it.

And as for Jack returning from the dead – surely this was Christmas not Easter! – and then forgiving Owen for shooting him dead, opening the rift, destroying the world etc.

Seriously, how DO you get fired from Torchwood? Owen almost managed it before Jack came over all second coming.

Since the series was going to end with the sound of the TARDIS and Jack disappearing, wouldn’t it have been better to have Gwen finally giving up and leaving Jack dead in the morgue, only to hear the TARDIS and rush back to find Jack’s body gone. Cliché you might say – the Empty Tomb rather than risen on the third day – but surely less cheeses, and less Jesus, than what we actually got.

I’m being awfully harsh. The episode looked terrific, from the eerie lighting of Bilis’ assault on the Hub to the great CGI Abaddon as he marched over Cardiff, and the death and destruction was top rate. It was thrilling and the twists, while expected, paid off. And Jack got to snog Ianto, so that’s a plus too.

Torchwood’s first season has been experimental. That’s okay, It’s good to try out new stuff. But they now need to learn what worked and what didn’t, strengthen the characters – make them likeable! – and maybe work on some kind of longer term plot arcs. Make Bilis a recurring villain and think up a reason from him wanting to release Abaddon that is better than “ooooh, I’m so evil, I am”. Or failing that, have the real Torchwood turn up and demand to know what Jack and his chums think they are doing playing in their secret base!


tmd said...

The thing that should have gotten Owen fired in this episode (if nothing else) is his demand that Jack step up and show leadership. Actually, it should have earned Owen the chance to store his teeth in a baggie. For the past 12 episodes, Jack has consistently stepped up to the plate, made (sometimes stupid) decisions, dealt with the consequences of those decisions, and even cleaned up after his exceptionally inept crew. And all anyone around him has done is whine about his heartlessness and his inhumanity. My understanding was that the Torchwood mandate was to protect the planet from alien menace, not to provide them all with free therapy and a quick shag...

Mike Taylor said...

I thought Torchwood season 1 was every kind of awful, and season 2 no better.

All the more inexplicable, then that season 3: Children of Earth was such a great piece of work.