Saturday, July 28, 2012

Torchwood: Day One

Jack: "We all make mistakes.  Get over it."

If the first episode of a show is about introducing what the show is and who the characters are, the second episode is about showing off what this shiny new show can really do.  We know the characters, we get the premise, we slogged through the exposition.  Now we can really get down to business.  So what sort of program do we have?

The Torchwood team investigates a meteorite strike that releases a gaseous creature who feeds on orgasmic energy.  So, naturally, the gas inhabits a young woman and starts sexing men to death.

Which is the sort of thing you'd expect from a Cinemax sci-fi show, but Chris Chibnall approaches it from the right directions: he focuses on the emotions of the possessed girl, Carys.  Her confusion and loneliness after her boyfriend leaves her drives her under the power of the alien being to embrace its power and later to use it against her ex.  It's an intelligent way to make it an actual story.

Except Carys, for all Sara Lloyd-Gregory's impassioned acting, never becomes a character defined beyond "girl who just got dumped."  She gets in a nice line about that - "I wish I was dead.  No, I wish you were dead.  Call me back."  But there's nothing else to her, keeping us from actually feeling the emotional roller-coaster she goes through.

The episode would still basically work, though, as long as the stuff with the Torchwood team itself was solid.  Again, Chibnall's underlying idea is an old but solid-enough concept: Gwen saves Carys by understanding who she is as a person instead of treating her as just another case, like the others do.  But his writing is completely ham-fisted, as though he doesn't trust us to understand what's going on.  He shows how Gwen is still connected to humanity by basically just giving Gwen and Jack a couple of speeches saying exactly that, and then having her tape up a bunch of baby pictures of Carys to remind everyone that she's a person

Which might be somewhat forgivable if Chibnall got it all basically right, but other than fitting Gwen into the team because she's the only one still connected to humanity, he pretty much fails to make the team compelling even on a basic level.  Gwen comes off as a pretty ordinary heroine.  Owen continues to be an incompetent ass.  Toshiko and Ianto can't have a dozen lines between them, none of which are remotely interesting.

But it's Jack who suffers most from Chibnoll's pen.  One of the things that made Jack interesting in the first place was his completely uninhibited pansexual promiscuity - he was even a little shocking to Rose, who comes off as pretty sexually liberated herself.  But if every character is a promiscuous pansexual, it kinda takes away the entire point.  And Owen showed himself to be far more so than Jack in the previous episode; while Gwen's makeout session with Carys is apparently motivated by pheromones, she seems pretty comfortable with what almost happened.  When the show finally gets around to remembering that Tosh and Ianto exist, the same goes for them.   Torchwood is so bent on being a sexually liberated show that it fails to show any actual range or depth in its sexuality, making it in a way just as close-minded as the cultural norms it tries so hard to upend.

Even with that in mind, Jack should still be a cool antihero for us to follow.  But his actions here don't speak well for him as the Torchwood leader.  He sends brand-new team member Gwen to interrogate a murderous prisoner completely unsupervised or even observed.  Even after the events of Everything Changes, he can't keep Owen's paws off the alien tech, nor does he do anything about his behavior toward Gwen, which is clearly harassment.  Harassment can be difficult to define sometimes, but Owen's clearly way, way over even a somewhat nebulous line.  And Owen's harassing Gwen directly causes the events of this story.  Jack either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

And then there's the whole business with the hand in the jar, which is not only Anthony Perkins-level creepy if you know where the hand came from, but leads to Jack letting the murderous alien get away because it threatens to harm a dismembered hand.  And his strategy for getting her to back down?  "That's valuable to no one except me!"  That's gotta be the single worst negotiation ever.

All in all, Jack is a portrait of an incompetent leader whose team actually makes things worse, then sloppily cleans up their own messes only after several deaths.  It's a waste of a good character and a charismatic actor.  I love Jack on Doctor Who, but here, the only things he's good at are standing in dramatic poses and dying.

Chibnall's plotting is pretty sloppy, too.  After getting captured, possessed Carys secrets insane pheromones that lure Owen in and then doesn't have sex with him or kill him because... he's one of the main characters, I guess?  I know she's desperate to escape, but she's also starving and insane, and it's literally the only way she'll survive.  (also, where did the handcuffs come from?) It just seems like a cheap contrivance to make jokes about a naked dude.  Which might be forgivable if they were really, really clever jokes, but they're incredibly lazy.  ("Are you all right now, or are you still feeling a bit of a cock?" is really the best they could come up with?)

The details, in general, aren't well thought out.  Carys secrets pheromones that attract woman, but her mating doesn't work with them?  Even though she gets her charge from "orgasmic energy"?

Finally, the tone never really clicks.  Parts of it are trying to be a fun romp (and failing, mostly because of the weak characterizations).  Other parts are going for an X-Files-ish serious sci-fi yarn both creepy and sad (and failing for largely the same reason).  In all, it's a mess.  Without particularly competent characters or interesting dialogue, the lazy, cliched plotting thuds along pretty uninterestingly.  It takes a Skinemax premise, approaches it from fundamentally the right angle to make it a compelling story, and still ends up as a dull, self-serious softcore porn without the actual porn.

It does have very strong acting in its favor, both from the regulars and guest star Gregory, but there are good shows with that.  It's obviously a very low-budget show, but it uses what little money it has wisely, focusing on good actors and making the important effects - in this case, the gaseous form of the alien - really good.  But without good storytelling, those are utterly wasted.  If this is the best the showrunner can do to showcase what will make Torchwood cool and interesting and unique, we're in trouble.


* *


  • Owen complains “The amateurs got here before us.”  Having seen Owen’s contributions to the rest of the season, that’s absolutely hilarious.
  • Owen's harassment causes Gwen to release the alien.  After the plot of Everything Changes also came directly out of the actions of the Torchwood team, we might as well start a counter:
    • Number of plots directly caused by Torchwood’s incompetence: 2 out of 2.
    • Number of Torchwood Incompetence Plots in which Owen’s douchbaggery is at fault: 1 out of 2.
  • How does Gwen get cell reception in the Hub's Silence of the Lambs prison?
  • Good Jack line: "You know, strictly speaking, throttling the staff is my job."


  1. I honestly couldn't stand this episode.

    1. Rereading my review, I can't believe I gave it a full two stars. I can be quite generous with those things sometime.