...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Day 2578: TOYCHWUD: Sleeper


No giant chickens were harmed in the making of this production!

The second episode of the second season is a darker and in a lot of ways more predictable tale than "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" last week: For the first time Torchwood lives up to its "above the law" braggadocio when an attempted burglary leads to the team stumbling across an alien infiltrator, programmed to reconnoitre the Earth and prepare the way for invasion. And she has no idea.

In spite of the overtones of Guantanamo, this show could have been written any time in the last hundred years – just swap in "al Qaeda" or "the Commies" or "the Nazis" or "the Kaiser" or "the Yellow Peril" and the "ooooh, foreigners" metaphor works just the same. On the other hand, it doesn't patronise us, either: there's an old fashioned abuse of power story going on here too – Babylon Five, for example did it in "In the Shadow of Za'ha'dum" – but here no one takes the "but this is wrong" position; all of Team Torchwood are on board with Jack's approach, leaving us to make up our own moral minds. Even Ianto's comic teasing seems more concerned about the mess he might have to clean up than any violation of Beth's rights.

Actually, those comic moments are more evidence of the Ianto re-think that seems to be really working so far this season. It was also a good week for Gwen, who managed to do caring and empathetic while still being on-side, which almost makes her good cop (to Jack's bad cop) seem more sinister.

The show hangs on the strong central performance of Beth, convincing as the human woman in denial and chilling as the name, rank and serial number infiltrator. The side-step into whether she is or isn't "human" is more left as an exercise for the viewer than explored in depth but it does form a backbone for what is going on in much the way that it didn't in last year's in some senses similar "Cyberwoman". But this succeeds in making you care about the protagonists in a way that Chibnall's kitten-heeled horror really didn't, the episode really taking off at the point where Beth manages to kill – or at very least seriously maim – her partner. It somehow manages to connect the alien possession horror to the real world, something that the Lisa/Ianto relationship in "Cyberwoman" – with both of them working for a fantasy organisation – never did

The flaws where they come are more in the area of the plot. An invasion plan that relies on just five agents, all of them in the Cardiff area, and just happening upon the means of ending the world… it stretches the credulity a little. If they are such a small group, then they're a bit wasteful of their resources, just to make a couple of crude "suicide bomber" moments. But if there are many of them, and that’s what the closing "twist/threat" of "they're already here" seems to say, then why didn't they activate too? It smacks of an "ooh, scary" ending that's just not going to be followed up.

The prosthetic initially looks quite good when, nicely mixed with CG, it "opens up" from the arm. But where is that blade weapon supposed to have come from? The T1000 might be liquid metal and able to adopt any shape, but these are biological beings with their technology concealed inside an ordinary human frame. (Or is it all concealed behind magic force-fields?) And, to be fair, it does look a bit silly.

In many ways, though, this is what we expect an all-in-a-days-work episode of Torchwood to be like. They detect the aliens, they abuse due process and civil liberties, they exchange witty and sexually charged badinage and then finish by blowing the threat away. "Sleeper" does all of these things plus a few grace notes for the thinking viewer to latch onto. But it does do them with style, and that's so much better than anything equivalent from last year.

Next time… and Tosh said it was so difficult meeting interesting people. Tragic love across time and the usual end of the world in "To the last Man".

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