…or why the Speculator household will not be watching season three.
Last July, Mrs. Speculator and I stumbled into a panel for Torchwood at Comic-con, actually more interested in the panel that was to follow. Inside we found a milling throng of fans, most of whom had seen the show from downloads or borrowed DVD copies of episodes. They were enthusiastic and loud, and since the wife and I enjoy the new Doctor Who, we sat back and learned what we could about the new show. The results were good and we determined to watch it when it came on BBC America.
Now, nearly a year later, we've seen seasons 1 and 2 and are a little puzzled about why the show has such a huge following. Our dismay at the show grew with every episode, but we decided we would give it a full run on its season before deciding what we would do. This past weekend, the season two finale aired, and we found it to be a major disappointment, introducing new problems that force us to question what the show is about and continuing the issues that made us doubt in the first place.
Before the season finale, our issues were fairly straightforward. The first, which may be viewed as a peccadillo on our part, was that Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) of Torchwood is not written the same way he is when he is on Doctor Who. Who's Harkness is a rogue, a picaresque hero. He is funny and charming and someone you can depend on when you need to. While he is secretive about his own past, he is open about his plans and priorities. On Torchwood, he is almost the reverse of this personality: he is dour, only funny when it gets him out of a jam, more open about his past, and less open about his plans and priorities. While it is clear he sees the members of Torchwood as a family, his love for them is oppressive, as Gwen (Eve Myles) often points out to him. He expects devotion and trust, but he does not generally offer it in return, instead almost always making demands of those he "cares" for. I'm minded of the Peter Principle, that incompetence rises to its own level. Clearly Harkness is great as a number two, as a right-hand man, but he is a woeful leader and manager. If his team members were not so inexplicably devoted to him, they would revolt. And again, we have seen glimpses of Gwen calling him out on this very topic. The last two episodes of season two have made it clear as he works with other members of Torchwood in the past, he works much better as an agent than as the leader. So, the upshot of this is that Harkness is not the man we got to know in Doctor Who, and while his portrayal is consistent in Torchwood, I don't like the character in Torchwood. I honestly do not believe this to be a flaw with the actor, but how he is written and directed.
And while Jack is larger than life, his status merely exacerbates the weakness of the other characters. Owen (Burn Gorman), Tosh (Naoko Mori), and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) are pale caricatures and rather flat as well. They each seem to have a single emotion that they are asked to portray over and over again: Owen is the irascible rebel, who just mainly appears angry and put out. Tosh is the devoted sycophant, building unhealthy attachments to whomever she is enamoured with this week. And Ianto…well, honestly, I don't know what role Ianto plays other than to be Jack's main squeeze. He serves coffee a lot and looks terrified or surprised sometimes. The attempts to give these supporting characters more life have generally failed or, worse, produced bizarre continuity issues. For example, we've seen Owen in love (or lust, a whole lot of lust…there's a lot of sex and fondling, and clearly we are supposed to think it is love, but there is nothing onscreen that really looks like love) with a woman lost in time. We see him being gentle and loving with her, and melancholy when she is lost, but as soon as the next episode, he's just mean and surly again. Tosh apparently falls in love with anything that moves, including an alien, a man lost in time (hmm, there's a pattern), and inexplicably, Owen. When she is not simpering or pining for her current love, Tosh is a brilliant…well, apparently she can do anything with machines and computers that she wants. Her skills are poorly defined, so she ends up being like Wesley from Star Trek: The Next Generation, doing whatever is needed that falls outside the skill sets of everyone else. You need someone to rest your servers after an alien attack, go to Tosh. How about shutting down a nuclear reactor? She's the one.
The issue is, again, not that these characters aren't played well. The actors are quite fine at their work; the problem is that I find the characters almost completely unlikable. Owen is mean, but Tosh loves him anyway, and that just makes him more mean. And what's worse, when we finally see some flashbacks about the characters in the next-to-last episode of season two, we find that Owen wasn't mean to his fiancée. He was devoted and charismatic, and then he fell into the TV cliché of having his heart turn to stone upon her death. Except when he is not stony, which only makes him seem to suffer from multiple personalities. And Ianto…well, he truly is just a cipher.
The bright spot of the entire series is Gwen. Although she started out as the everyday character that offers us mundane folks a view and a voice in the world of Torchwood, she has become far more than that. She is the conscience of Torchwood, regularly reminding the team to be more human or take into account that there is a bigger picture. She is efficient, she is a real leader, and she is a complete character. She insists on having a life outside of Torchwood, giving us insight into the niches of her personality, which the spotlight episodes for Tosh and Owen failed to achieve for them. And Eve Myles plays her incredibly well, chewing the scenery when it is required but generally remaining understated in her portrayal and thus far more effective. She has her lapses, which again I blame more on the writing than the actor (Why have a dalliance with mean old Owen? Why is she so attracted to Jack?), but generally her character is dependable, both in its actions and in its portrayal.
[there will be spoilers from here on…read at your own peril]
So I'm describing a series with five main characters, three of whom I don't like, one of whom is a complete mystery, and one of which is just brilliant. This seems a deficit that would be difficult to overcome, but if the storytelling is good beyond the personal bits, with interesting plots and engrossing stories, then the show might be watchable, though only teeth-gratingly so. Alas, the stories are not enough to save my interest.
Generally they start with what could be an interesting premise, but only rarely are those premises fulfilled. Often the resolutions are trite and cliché, predictable from the start of the episode. A few rare episodes show what could really be done, such as season two's "Meat" which was tremendously written and agonizingly played out. What happens when greedy, self-absorbed, normal people discover a way to make money from the alien artifacts that emerge from the rift? In this episode, little attention was paid to the personal lives of the team, perhaps so that the full emotional impact of the story would not be diluted. Butchers are selling alien meat that is making its consumers ill, so Torchwood puts together a sting to find the source. Their expectation is to find a herd of alien cattle, but instead they find a single giant whale-like alien with amazing recuperative powers kept sedated in a warehouse. The butchers carve their product from the side of the still-living creature which then heals from its injury. Torchwood is disgusted at such abuse, and probably would be if it were a terrestrial animal with similar capabilities. But then they discover that the creature is actually sentient, and the horror strikes hard and fast. It was a wrenching episode to watch and a risky thing to try, and a real throw-back to the edgier science fiction of the late 60s and early 70s. That they pulled it off with grace without condescension is a real tribute to the cast and crew of the show. Unfortunately, "Meat" was the exception that proves the rule—that the premises often fall short.
The real clincher was the last episode. In the episode before, "Fragments", someone attempts to kill all the members of Torchwood, giving the show an opportunity to do flashbacks to get some back story on the characters we have been following for two years. At the end of that episode, we discover the villain is Captain John Hart, another member of Jack's time agency (about which we know absolutely nothing still) and somehow he has Jack's long lost brother Gray from the 51st century as a hostage (bearing in mind we barely know about Gray, except that Jack has long suffered guilt for losing him). But as the final episode, "Exit Wounds", goes on, we discover the real villain is Gray himself, who Jack lost track of during an alien invasion when he was nine or ten years old. Apparently Gray was captured by the aliens and tortured for years, all for which he blames Jack. In other words, Jack must pay for something he couldn't control as a child. It stretches believability, but it is easier to decide Gray is insane and go from there (although he's really lucid). Ultimately, Gray causes bombs to go off all over the city of Cardiff and somehow lets lose denizens of the rift to terrorize the city, all in an effort to get Jack away from his team and thus fairly defenseless. We discover that while John Hart is a part of these plans, it is because he has somehow allowed Gray to "molecularly bond" a bomb to him and thus he is being blackmailed with his life.
Hart takes Jack to 27 AD, where Gray directs Jack to be buried alive beneath what will eventually become the city of Cardiff. And since Jack cannot remain dead, he will go through a cycle of awakening and dying, all because he failed to take care of his brother when he was ten years old. Gray's revenge extends to destroying Cardiff as well, and so his distraction becomes far more evil as he releases evil aliens across the city. Along the way, Tosh gets shot and Owen is trapped inside a nuclear power plant that must vent its gases before it melts down (Ianto just sort of stumbles around doing nothing important). And Gwen has her moment; in Jack's absence, she commands the powers of the city of Cardiff, dealing with each emergency as it comes up. Everyone recognizes her strength of character and her leadership.
Meanwhile, Jack is found by Torchwood in 1901 because of the signal emitted from a ring John Hart left with him. Somehow, after 1900 years being buried alive, Jack remains completely sane and still feels guilty about his brother's torture. But he also knows that he cannot meet himself, so Torchwood puts him into cryogenic stasis for another 107 years, until he awakens the very day his brother starts terrorizing the city.
Of course, the day is saved, except that Owen (who is actually an animated dead man because of an earlier misadventure in the second season) is roasted by radioactive waste gas and …well, I guess he doesn't die again, but he has no remains to animate and so is gone. Tosh dies of her gunshot wound. Jack is reunited with his brother and hugs him really hard before putting him into cryogenic stasis, knowing full well if he ever escapes, Gray will do everything to destroy him and the things he loves.
I purposely drew out that description of the episode to emphasize how tedious it was to watch. It was pretty predictable within the possibilities portrayed by the show, and the main villain came completely out of left field. And up to now, Jack has been pretty much able to do whatever needs to be done, except that he can't put away his brother (who tortured him for close to 2000 years!). Even Scott Evil knows you don't leave someone like this with an out to come back and hurt you some more. Owen had to die; he was pretty much ineffective after his first death--not only mean, but mopey too. And Tosh was just too pathetic to let live. Why Ianto gets to continue to make coffee, I have no idea.
The door is open for major changes with nearly half the team being replaced. But it wasn't the actors who made the characters unbearable, and so it doesn't really matter what comes along if they are as poorly written as these were. Here is the perfect opportunity for Gwen to assume leadership of Torchwood and use Jack for what he does best, as an agent, but I doubt the show will go in that direction. Ultimately, there was so much potential, from the actors to the pre-existing character, to the premise of the show. And other than Gwen and the rare strong episode, all of that potential was just wasted. And ultimately that's why I won't watch any more of this show until people I trust tell me I need to see a certain episode: I've got better things to do with my hour spent watching this show than be constantly disappointed at the creative decisions it makes.