James Willetts shares his thoughts on last week’s episode of Torchwood. It seems he’s a glutton for punishment. Don’t forget to download our commentary for Episode 4: ‘Escape to LA’, available immediately after the UK broadcast tonight!
Torchwood, Torchwood, Torchwood. What the heck is going on here then?
Whilst the last few episodes have been all over the place in terms of realism, characterisation, plotting and holding an audience’s attention I’m still happy to watch this. No matter how bad it is, the innate draw of sci-fi, or just a neat ‘what if’ are enough to keep me going. Something has to be really bad to lose me entirely. I’m not one of these people who think life’s too short to waste on bad TV, or low budget B-Movies, or spending an evening of my life trying to find some Superhero themed music*.
Some people might see it as a character flaw. Personally, I think it’s more of a triumph. Anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written, knows that I frequently dislike the shows I watch. Just because I have a tolerance for nonsense, doesn’t mean I can’t recognise it when I see it.
So I’ll be ploughing on with Torchwood, not because it’s especially good or because I’m particularly enjoying it, but because it’s there and I’ve started, so I guess I’ll finish. I think it’s important to say that before I continue, because I’ve been wondering over the last few weeks why someone would be watching it.
See, the thing is, this isn’t Torchwood. I know we keep on discussing this, but taking Torchwood (both as a team, and as a concept) out of Cardiff is a big mistake. I’m not so bothered by the overreaching Americanisation of Torchwood (although, actually it does bother me). No, my problem is with the fact that all the things that made Torchwood great are now missing.
This was supposed to be the episode when we saw the two groups, the ex-CIA and Torchwood alumni, come together to make some new version, like when the guitarist from band A, and the drummer from band B team up to form a new super group. Despite the long, long scenes of character development there’s no feeling that this is the beginning of something great. For all the flaws in Season 1, Gwen’s addition to the team made sense. It wasn’t just a case of them needing a new team member to make up the numbers, or relying on a couple of people who just happened to want to find them.
How is this a team? Jack spends the majority of the episode ‘dancing’**, Esther apparently hasn’t learnt anything from all those Bourne films, or Enemy of the State, or 24, or any single spy film/programme/book since the end of the cold war, all of which might give you a hint that using your phone whilst on the run is a bit of a mistake. Rex is too busy romancing the Doctor, and Gwen misses her husband.
Now, yes, of course a mismatched team of misfits is great, and we only need to look as far as Angel to see that, but there don’t seem to be any real connections here. Rex and Esther want Gwen and Jack because they don’t have a clue what’s going on, and this seems easier than real spy work. Jack and Gwen don’t really care, and great pains are made to show that Jack in particular still relies on Gwen.
I think this is one of the few areas where Torchwood works; where it ties into its own past. Any iteration of Torchwood should reference the relationship that built up between Jack and Gwen over two seasons and a miniseries, and it’s especially lovely to see Jack letting down some of those barriers, especially about Ianto. Jane Espenson has made it clear that this wasn’t a come on – Jack was reaching out to a friend and, whilst it seems a strange time for him to do so contextually, it makes sense as a moment of characterisation.
Gwen has always been the most balanced of the team, able to juggle her work and her relationship with Rhys. It’s nice to see that it hasn’t been forgotten here, but at the same time I wonder whether the whole idea of Torchwood as a way of life that doesn’t allow relationships is being forgotten in an attempt to make Rex more interesting.
Frankly neither he, Esther nor Doctor Juarez has especially grabbed me yet. In fact, the only two characters I care about any more are Bill Pullman and Poison Ivy, who seem to have wandered in from a much better show altogether. It’s this weird sense of competing strands that really damages this episode. Had this series ignored the CIA in favour of Jack and Gwen investigating Miracle Day, we might have a much better show on our hands.
However, the stupidest bit of plotting has to be Jack’s pet theory on Morphic Fields. For a start, a theory of learned behavioural transference (where behaviour exhibited in one area is exhibited in another area with no possibility of communication) can’t really be pushed to cover the complete end of death. That’s not learned behaviour -it’s the difference between bluetits in Scotland and London simultaneously pecking through milk bottle tops to get to the cream, and bluetits in Scotland and Hawaii simultaneously growing a second head. It’s not just bad science, it’s outrageously false science.
I have the same problem with Flashforward*** which contains a section on Quantum Theory so brilliantly self-contradictory, that at one point a character proves against his own argument. I have no problem with Timey-Wimey science, because there is no attempt to make it realistic. We’re reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or realigning the warp core or whatever isn’t real science. It’s Sci-co babble. That’s fine. Sometimes you need a character to sound smart, and Jack could just have easily said it was Transdiametric Chronosophicism, and expanded a theory from that. What shouldn’t happen is the shoe horning in of an actual scientific theory with no regard for its legitimacy.
So that’s pretty much where I’m at now. The science sucks, the new heroes are boring, and yet I will happily sit through this for the next seven weeks because I have a high threshold for poor quality programming. Doesn’t mean it’s good, just means it’s still on.
*Adam Warrock’s ‘West Coast Avengers’ Mixtape, and especially the Iron Man themed song are pretty brilliant, but for a more mainstream alternative I can’t help but recommend Guided by Voices singing about the Legion of Super Heroes’ ridiculously high concept character, Matter Eater Lad.
**Quick question. When did Jack Harkness become John Barrowman? Or maybe, when did Captain Jack go from dancing with anyone to dancing exclusively with men? Was that the first bar they passed – or just the first gay bar?
***This and the fact they refer to black people as Melanin-Americans. Which is either the most or the least politically correct thing ever. Also, the fact that it opens in CERN in 2008 A.D, as though the reader might be confused as to whether CERN was around before Egypt. Come to think of it, of all the problems Flashforward faced, it’s rigorously wrong science was pretty low on the list.