Sunday, June 24, 2012

Torchwood: Everything Changes

Pilot episodes are hard.  You have a very short amount of time to introduce the characters, build the world and mythology well enough to get the premise across without getting bogged down in details and exposition, and somehow find time to tell a compelling, self-contained story.  There are a handful of shows that actually did open with a brilliant first episode - The X-Files comes to mind, and, oh yeah, Doctor Who - but it's usually a struggle to actually pull all that together.  Even shows that ended up being really good - say, Dollhouse - start on the wrong foot.  Many shows opt to make it a as a 60-minute or 90-minute special, which helps a little, but still usually results in a deeply flawed program.

And honestly, rewatching Everything Changes, I'm going to have to take back what I said in 42 about Torchwood's first season only having one good episode.  While this has its problems, it's a perfectly respectable pilot with some good touches.

The best and most important element is the heroine, Gwen Cooper.  Gwen has everything you need for a Sci-Fi heroine - she's brave, resourceful, clever, human, and played by an actress with tremendous personality.  Eve Myles is just wonderful, and makes Gwen the perfect center for the show.

Jack Harkness doesn't do too much other than be charmingly mysterious, but John Barrowman plays the charm to the hilt.  And while he doesn't do much in this episode, he's an inspired hero for the show - a charismatic action hero with a dark side.  While it's not dwelt on, Everything Changes gives him a level of depth he never had on Doctor Who, dealing with his immortality and the pain it causes.  He doesn't brood too much, just enough to make it compelling.

Given the show's sexual politics, he's obviously exactly the guy you want, and his moral ambiguity allows the show to attack moral questions in ways most shows wouldn't dare.  As for how those elements actually play out, we'll explore that in Day One and Small Worlds, respectively, but it's a good choice.

The rest of the characterizations are uneven at best, but the actors can't be faulted in the slightest.  Often, it takes a show's cast an entire season or more to fully slip into their roles, however well chosen they were.  But Burn Gorman (Owen), Naoko Mori (Tosh), Gareth David-Lloyd (Ianto), Kai Owen (Rhys), and Tom Price (Andy) all play their characters like they've been doing it for years.  And in some cases, they're way, way ahead of the writers.  Heck, the writing for Ianto doesn't catch up to David-Lloyd until Children of Earth.

But actually looking at them as characters, most of them don't work properly.  Owen is a disaster.  His introductory scene involves him using an alien date-rape drug on a couple, so he's obviously a terrible human being.  It's also unclear exactly how he could contribute to the team, since he actually orders pizza to the top-secret organization under the name "Torchwood".  (in the episode itself, this sounds like it could be sort of a joke, but based on his characterization later, it seems to be serious)

Although Gwen delivering the pizza to sneak in is a nice scene.

He comes off as the sort of incompetent, self-involved jackass who is more likely to cause the end of the world than save it.  Still, he only has a couple short scenes here, and Gorman makes every line of dialogue shine.  As long as he either becomes very useful very fast or is a minor character as he is here, he can't cause much damage to the show.

Tosh... likes computers, I guess?  She barely appears at all, and we don't get any reading on her as a character whatsoever.  (This would be less annoying if the show didn't basically ghettoize her as a glorified extra until episode seven.)  Ianto apparently gets the coffee.  The idea seems to be that his true role is really mysterious or something.  The actual effect is to make us wonder why he's here at all.

Rhys, Gwen's good-natured boyfriend, and PC Andy, her colleague, are both extremely likeable characters, and, quite frankly, I kinda wish they had been on the Torchwood team instead of reduced to occasional guest stars.

The last character, Suzie Costello, played by Indira Varma, is successful in a plot sense but doesn't quite come off in an actual character way.  Like Tosh and Ianto, we don't get any real sense of who she is.  I like it when she fumbles around clumsily and politely in her purse for her gun, but her motivation makes no sense whatsoever.  I mean, really?  There aren’t any murders ever unless she commits them?  I mean, Cardiff is a city of around 350,000 people.  Also, they’re only about 130 miles from London.  There's gotta be a murder scene our top-secret organization the cops know all about can get to in time.

The point of her character is great, though - she's not only introduced as one of the team members, gets her name in the credits, and until the end is treated just like one of the regulars.  It's only at the climax that we learn this "regular" is actually the murderer the heroes are looking for.  And then she kills herself.  Suzie’s guilt and death is a clever twist in the Whedon/Nation tradition, and while it has neither the gut-wrenching emotional punch Whedon would have given it (because we don’t care about her in the slightest, though Indira Varma is stunningly beautiful and a superb actress) nor the ruthless creativity Nation would have used (dude had a serious knack for killing characters imaginatively), it’s still fairly effective at communicating that this show is not joking around.

The plot is extremely functional in a good sense - nothing terribly original or striking, but it's a solid enough foundation that works because Gwen works.  And when a really good scene comes along, everything clicks beautifully.  In particular, the Torchwood team makes the apparently strange move of letting Gwen walk right into their base and introduce themselves and everything they do.  Gwen notes that this probably means she's about to die.  Jack instead gives her his whammy and happily tells her that her memories are wiped.  "When you wake up tomorrow, you’ll have forgotten all about Torchwood.  Worse, still, you’ll have forgotten me.  Which is kinda tragic.” But she proves herself nicely - she's so dedicated and clever that she manages to embed her memories deeply enough that they're triggered again.

And that makes it work.  A lot of the little details don't quite come off - the Weevils are about the most generic aliens ever, Torchwood's actual level of top-secretishness is hilariously inconsistent, the characters constantly saying "Torchwood" like it's the awesomest word ever pretty much accomplishes the opposite, and the scenes where Jack and Gwen stand dramatically on random rooftops for no reason whatsoever are just trying way too hard to look cool.  But the core of the story is Gwen, and she makes it a pretty entertaining start to the show.


* * *

  • The title theme isn't exactly a make-or-break thing for a show, but a really memorable title sequence and music just adds so much to a show - think Andy Griffith, or The X-Files, or, you know, Doctor Who.  Torchwood starts with a cool underlying sound, but it never actually puts a theme on top of it.  The opening credits are okay but generic.  It's too bad - the actual music for the episode is pretty effective.
  • So, people seriously deluded themselves into believing the events of Christmas Invasion and Doomsday didn’t actually happen, or were some sort of terrorism?  Seriously?  I can understand dismissing Aliens of London, and while it’s a stretch, something like Spearhead From Space at least seems like a coverup, while suspicious, could at least throw people off the Aliens track by having too many confused conspiracy theories out there. 

    But a city-sized spacecraft appears over London and hypnotizes a fourth of the population to stand on the edge of a precipice, and then, a few months later,  there’s an invasion by evil robots (who, presumably, converted hundreds, if not thousands) who then battle a group of murderous alien trashcans, and most of the population convinces themselves these things didn’t happen? SERIOUSLY?  Even in The Invasion, which is a ludicrous stretch, at least everyone was technically asleep for the alien invasion. And here’s the thing: there wasn’t actually a coverup.  Harriet Jones came on air and admitted there were aliens.  Presumably other leaders did the same.

    To be honest, it’s ridiculous in Doctor Who as well, but since we only pop in here every once in a while, it’s not that big a deal since we’re off to Karn next week.  But when the entire show is based in a modern-day earth that dismisses Independence Day actually happening, it's difficult to believe in the world-building.
  • This is supposed to be the "adult" Doctor Who spinoff, but so far, they just use it to toss some swear words in.  That's kinda lowballing the definition of adult.

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