Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Season in Review: Torchwood S2

After being moderately pleased with the first season of "Torchwood", I find I'm not quite as forgiving of its faults the second time around. It may be that this season missed so many opportunities, fumbled away so much of its potential, that I really can't overlook those mistakes again. Let's do an episode-by-episode breakdown:

1. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Once again, the inevitable Buffy comparison rears its head - like "Anne", the third-season BTVS premiere, Torchwood kicks off without Jack Harkness. And we see a different team, doing their best to keep their head above the water, with less-than-favorable results. This, of course, is done with an eye towards stressing how vital the protagonist is, and how the others just can't do without them. Which, in fairness, is a perfectly legitimate technique... but when Whedon did it, there was a personal dimension at work too, because Buffy's friends had been hurt - emotionally - by her abandonment of them. There were trust issues for months afterwards. Aside from Gwen, no one seems to care that much that Jack left, and what's worse, he has absolutely no trouble sliding into the driver's seat again. As I've said, this is a case where the tools for a proper dramatic arc are practically laid out at the writers' feet, and no one capitalizes on the opportunity.

(It's a recurring problem with Jack specifically, in that he's become a sort of Teflon Man: nothing sticks to him, even when it should.)

That said, the bright spot in this episode was the introduction of John Hart as the anti-Jack. I'm a sucker for the "dark mirror" archetype, it's such a fascinating character dynamic, and it mostly works here: John is a negative-image of Jack taken to extremes, nihilistic and lecherous and deceitful, and these are all qualities I can imagine (a little too easily, to be honest) in Jack. James Marsters was disappointing in the role, as he stuck annoyingly close to the Spike template, but I liked the character.


2. Sleeper:

Not much to say about this one: Beth is an effective one-off character, sympathetic to the extent that we understand her final decision but not enough that we really mourn her. My larger criticism here has to do with what seems to be set up here versus what actually happens - we're told the sleepers are advance scouts for an invasion force, and it's not clear that stopping them deters the invasion in any way. Well... where are the invaders, then? The episode seems to imply that Torchwood will have to face this threat again, on a much larger scale, in the future, but that never materializes. Hell, the writers could've tied this into the finale by associating the sleepers with the same aliens that destroyed Jack's home, but... well, that's another ball dropped.


3. To The Last Man:

I liked this one. Mostly because I'm fond of Toshiko, for reasons I'll admit are less than clear to me, but also because this is a rare instance in which the writers slap together a temporal paradox that actually holds up under scrutiny: Tommy was always going to get the Rift Manipulator into the past, that's how Jack knew what happened to him, and Toshiko is stuck going through the motions of a destiny that's been set in stone.


4. Meat:

And this is The One Where Rhys Finds Out. I'm somewhat amused to see that I like Rhys a lot more this season, while my affinity for Jack has decreased (I think the writers pushed him over the line from adorable to obnoxious once too often) - Rhys ultimately becomes the only character willing to call Jack's BS to his face, and that's refreshing.

I do wish, though, that the A-plot had been less preachy and awkward: Free Willy's cosmic cousin was just gross, and Jack lamenting the thing's fate? Too bizarre for my tastes.


5. Adam:

Psychic attack is an inversely-proportionate dramatic technique: the more overt it is, the less effective it becomes. You can look at any '00s Claremont comic as an example - his use of mind control is never particularly engaging. Subtler forms of mental manipulation, on the other hand, can be truly terrifying (see: the infamous "24 Hours" issue of "Sandman" or the "Torn" arc of "Astonishing X-Men"), and while I suppose this episode would've been much more effective had the characters been developed enough to really mutate under Adam's influence, it still does a good job of warping the characters (Owen in particular) just enough to be disconcerting.


6-8. Reset/Dead Man Walking/A Day In The Death:

I'm grouping these three together because they're pretty much a three-part episode.

Having never seen "Doctor Who", the significance of Martha Jones is somewhat lost on me; as always, though, "Torchwood" can be commended for its accessibility. Martha used to run with Jack and the Doctor; she doesn't anymore; she saved the world once. That's pretty much all you need to know, and it's delivered very concisely.

Unfortunately, that's more or less all we get out of Martha. The first two episodes put her in life-threatening situations and she's barely around for the third act. As guest-appearances go, particularly one that plays upon the shared-universe connection, you'd think something more... well, significant would happen. It did make me wonder whether "Torchwood" would be a good "dumping ground" for the Doctor's former companions, which must have reached Legion of Superheroes proportions by now, but I maintain that it'd only be interesting if the "Torchwood" writers had the freedom to do things with the characters (reports indicate Freema Agyeman will be returning to "Doctor Who" this season, which may explain why nothing actually happened to her throughout her stay with Torchwood).

The other major development in this trilogy is a (relatively) major transformation of one of the characters. Now, when you're dealing with small casts (and by today's standards, five characters is rather small), killing or permanently altering just one can have massive impact on the viewers. Done with an eye towards the overall series, it can divide your entire perception of the story into "before and after" - before Julius Caesar died ("Rome") and after, before the Chosen conquered the city ("The Tribe") and after.

Of course, this only works if you care enough about the target character to be affected by the change. And the writers chose Owen Harper, possibly the most unlikeable character on the show. A sarcastic prick barely tolerable in the margins, completely cut off from every other character except Toshiko, and that relationship is so one-sided it might as well be nonexistent. Setting aside the fact that when the dust settled, nothing much had changed aside from some inexplicable rapport with Weevils, spending three episodes on Poor Poor Owen was a total waste. If it had happened to Ianto or Gwen, that'd be something different, because they have some redeeming qualities. But Owen? Hell, I was glad to see him suffer. I was half-expecting it to be some huge cosmic comeuppance and that he'd emerge a better man. But he didn't. So it was a total waste.


9. Something Borrowed:

Another major episode for Rhys, so I enjoyed it. However, this episode brought to the forefront the biggest flaw in the intra-team dynamic - what the hell is going on with Jack, Gwen and Ianto? Not so much a story-line as an erratic squiggle, there are episodes where Gwen and Jack have no chemistry whatsoever, it's all given over to Jack and Ianto, but then there are times when it seems Gwen's the one Jack wants and Ianto is just convenient. This has been done a thousand times before, so the possibilities are clearly delineated: Ianto resents Gwen, or Gwen resents Ianto, or Jack is legitimately torn between two lovers, or Jack is settling for second-best because he can't have his first choice. But doing nothing at all? A first, I'm sure, but hardly the wisest choice.

Also, this is an episode where Jack Saving The Day is shoehorned in quite awkwardly, and probably contributed to my coming off the character. Rhys had a damn chainsaw in his hands - there was no reason not to give him a win in the Fighting Aliens column. But it's as if "Torchwood" writers have made Jack Must Save The Day a Commandment, and it's a shame. That way leads to overexposure.


10. From Out of the Rain:

My least-favorite episode of the season. Like the fairies last season, the premise is very bizarre and "unscientific", too vague to hold my interest. As soon as you introduce magic into a scientific world, you're pretty much saying that anything goes... but there's no way you can reliably fight "anything goes".


11. Adrift:

Another good episode, particularly noteworthy for Andy suddenly getting a more prominent role vis-a-vis his feelings for Gwen. It's a pity they only came up with that angle three episodes before the season finale, because it might've been an interesting storyline for Gwen (or at least a better choice for an affair than Owen). In fact, there's a glimmer of a great Gwen arc here, because Suzie's prophecy has come true: the job's gotten inside Gwen's head, it's changed her, and both Rhys and Andy - the men in her life who were there before Torchwood - can see what she's become. And they're not happy about it. Rhys' outburst was especially memorable, though I'm not sure the writers intended for me to take his side...


12-13. Fragments/Exit Wounds:

The season ends with two of the best episodes to date. "Fragments" is the long-awaited "secret origins" episode, where we get backstory on Owen, Ianto, Toshiko and Jack. There's some good use of continuity (ie: Ianto's desperation has to do with Lisa) and a brief glance at earlier incarnations of Torchwood... interesting stuff for the most part.

"Exit Wounds" is more problematic. To be fair, it's not as though Gray's return hadn't been foreshadowed, and using John as a decoy works because you see him and immediately assume the worst. But, having caused more damage than any enemy Torchwood has ever faced, Gray isn't really dealt with in a manner that suggests End-Season-Big-Bad. It kind of peters out, though the body count is surprisingly high and I actually ended up feeling a touch sad for one of the casualties (you can probably guess who I'm talking about).

All in all, a disappointing season dominated by could-have-been scenarios. Better luck next time, I suppose.