Monday, September 29, 2008

Torchwood Season 2

Yes, okay, my loyalty to Torchwood is mostly because I'm a Doctor Who nerd. SUE ME!

But I also watch the show because its POTENTIAL is so huge. You've got a diverse, quirky cast -- most of whom are amazing actors -- under the guidance of one of the most wonderfully-conceived action heroes in history. Their mandate is open-ended and they have a dedicated pool of creative writers. Their fan base is such that they can hardly do wrong, allowing the show to experiment without fear of losing popularity.

So why did the first season mostly suck? And why did the second season suck even WORSE?

You don't have to be Tosh to figure out the reasons. There are three of them.

First, the budget is simply too low, so when they attempt to pull off Doctor Who-style scenes of mayhem they end up looking like a CGI version of...well, the '80s Doctor Who. I'm thinking mainly of the "space whale" and the "exploding Cardiff" scene, which left me wondering if I'd developed an astigmatism or if it really DID look like crap.

Second, John Barrowman can only play one role well, that of the sexy, flippant, mostly-likeable hero. When forced to branch out -- particularly in the presence of more capable actors like Eve Myles, Burn Gorman, and Naoko Mori -- he's a space whale out of water. When he was forced to cry in the first series he looked like he was taking a dump. I'm pleased to report that he's a better crier in the second series, where instead he looks like a small child about to blubber. I expect this is how Barrowman really cries.

All this would be fine, however, if it weren't for the third and most heinous problem with the series: the producers seem unaware of Barrowman's limitations -- and the obvious strengths of the Torchwood premise -- and therefore constantly shoehorn emotionally over-the-top moments into plots that don't NEED them.

This is (mostly) fine in the new Doctor Who, where the characters and mythology provide plenty of fodder for emotional blowouts. But in Torchwood, putting a requisite ten-minute weepy scene into every episode is like adding emotional depth to a Flash Gordon serial: unnecessary, distracting, and obvious.

So season two's Mostly Random Arc involving Jack's lost brother ("GRAY!!! GRAY!!!") is ridiculous, and just gives the characters yet another opportunity to say "I'm sorry...I'm so sorry."

Try contrasting "Something Borrowed," the only really good episode in the series, with one of the crappy ones like "Meat." In "Something Borrowed," the Torchwood team runs around battling a sexy alien in a ridiculous setting, cracking witty jokes and being self-referential and basically having a good time. Captain Jack gets to strut around and be tough, Gwen gets to be funny, and even Rhys is a welcome (and essential) part of the episode, instead of just saying "Darn it, Gwen, YER NEVER HOOOME!"

But in "Meat" you have an overly-ambitious, budget-free bunch of crap effects, and a pointless subplot about Rhys perhaps being evil (though we know he's not), and a heavy-handed message about...cruelty to animals, or something. You even have the conscious-stricken younger brother shouting "I DIDN'T AGREE TO THIS!" and Rhys complaining that Gwen is (yes) never home, and Jack's first opportunity this season to say (snicker) "I'm sorry..." and then (yes) "...I'm SO SORRY."

"Something Borrowed" knows that Torchwood can just be FUN. "Meat" wants to be relevant and complicated and heart-rending. One passes, one fails. WAKE UP, PRODUCTION TEAM!

Add to this yet another limping climax full of random obstacles (for which each member has a relevant skill) and the main character saying "I forgive you" to the evil mastermind (where have we heard that before, a year ago, in the climax to a show which is an anagram of "Torchwood"?) and you have, essentially, a load of whatever Barrowman was trying to crap out in the first series.

It's not ALL bad. I loved the "Owen's dead" subplot, and the cast reductions in the final episode were brilliantly performed (and tear-jerking, not least because those actors represented 66% of the team's acting talent). And whenever the show DECIDED to be funny, I laughed. And I thought "Maybe they've figured it out...maybe they understand that they should titillate me, and scare me, and make me laugh?"

Then, seconds later, Gwen would start mooning about how Torchwood had hardened her, and Owen was covering up his soft interior by being a brash jerk, and somehow Ianto still had security clearance after sneaking his cyberwoman girlfriend into the Hub. Oh, give me a break.


Eli McIlveen said...

Yes and yes.

I didn't mind "Meat" so much - hackneyed moral lessons aside, it was a nice if slightly icky way of showing Rhys finally discovering what Gwen's up to ("I catch aliens." "Piss off!") but oh jeez. After Jack's line "What have they done to you, my friend?" I had to pause the show for about a minute to laugh uncontrollably and scream in horror.

And yeah, the best moments by far were when they remembered to make it fun.

Adam Thornton said...

"What have they done to you, my friend?"

Yes indeed, the perfect moment for the "laugh-scream." It's the way that those Rift-victims must have laughed when they saw the interior of the dark star. I will never be the same after seeing Jack hug that whale.

By the way, the DVD set contains a wonderful unedited version of Owen sitting at the millionaire's bedside, without the screensaver special effects and the pensive music. It's the best moment in the whole series.

I'm not surprised they screwed it up in time for transmission.

Anonymous said...

Let's be fair...Jack had probably shagged the space whale at some point or's tough to see even an old flame suffer.

The thing I hated about this season the most was, while I liked the Dead Owen subplot, I couldn't figure out why he couldn't give mouth to mouth to the old man in the finale. Yeah he's dead, and therefore doesn't HAVE to breathe, but he obviously does, since he still talks all the time. If he can force wind past his vocal cords, he can do mouth to mouth.

In fact, he'd probably do it better, since his dead body wouldn't steal any of that nice oxygen from the air before expelling it again.

Adam Thornton said...

When the "breath" moment occurred, I wasn't sure if it was "a moment of brilliance" or "a cheap, O-Henry-esque, anti-climactic plot twist." The rest of the scene was so good that I wanted to go for the first option It's dumb and -- like so many of the "significant" moments in Torchwood -- 100% unnecessary.

Which means it was probably in RTD's "brief" of necessary elements of the episode.

So there you go, Scott, being all LOGICAL! You're right of course.

PS: For the third season of Doctor Who I wondered "who threw the rock" in the Weeping Angels episode. The writer explained during the commentary that the ANGELS threw the rock, because it's in their best interest to render people unconscious. So, okay.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...I'd just assumed that it was one of those wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey things. The Doctor reads the file after she gives it to him at the end, and then goes back just long enough to throw the rock to set things in motion. I mean, time travel inconsistencies I can deal with, but simple logic stuff bugs me.