It's bad. It's an insult to the genre. It's also unintentionally hilarious, and it could conceivably work if it is overhauled extensively. The first season was galactically dire, but coming from a background of such imagination and intelligence, it could surely absorb some of that quality. Knowing that shows have often improved in their second season gave me hope, as did the news that not only would James "Spike" Marsters be featured but also we would see the triumphant return of the magnificent, the wondrous, the astonishing MARTHA JONES! She's got class, she's got sass, she's got a lovely playfulness about her. So can this second season pull out of the nosedive that started very soon into the original?
In a word, don't bet on it. Scripted not by series creator Russell T. Davies but by showrunner Chris Chibnall, within five minutes of beginning it was evident that rumours of an improvement were way way off (I'm looking at you, resident Guardian Guide nerd Phelim O'Neill). Captain Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman with lovable gusto on Doctor Who, and with tedious earnestness and random explosions of camp on Torchwood, is missing at the beginning of the series, which starts with a fish alien driving a sports car around Cardiff suburbs. In lukewarm pursuit are our witless sex-crazed adolescent heroes, Gwen, Tosh, Owen, and the risible Ianto, all bickering in an expositional stylee about the lack of Jack. Some of this is played for laughs, and it almost comes off for the first time, though there are some peculiar moments from Gwen, introduced in the first season as an audience surrogate taken from her boring life and thrust into a world of intergalactic absurdity. In this first scene Owen is all grumpy, tightly-wound machismo, and she tells a couple of jokes to keep the tone "light". Instead, because of a weird lighting choice, Gwen looks demonic.
One of the things that makes it hard to watch BBC sci-fi without cringing is the bizarre insistence on macho posing that runs through it all like gristle through a nice steak. This embarrassing fixation on the gun-fetishism that plagued James Cameron's Aliens is one of the many reasons I hated Red Dwarf (the main one being that it wasn't even slightly funny). Now, Aliens is one of my favourite movies, but the monster it created, this fanboy obsession with "cool" aggressive sci-fi, almost makes me hate it. Other genres manage to pull off the cool thing really well, usually by playing it much calmer, but British (and some US) sci-fi cannot get past the idea of the heroes being gun-toting badasses with legs akimbo, doing the two-handed gun grip and jumping out from behind walls, shouting "Freeze, motherfucker!" like kids playing cops and robbers. Sadly, it never looks right.
In the first season of Torchwood, they were particularly bad, but this time it seemed like the cast had been sent to gun training or something. Owen (played with his usual brand of oily sneering menace by Burn Gorman) leans out of the window of the Torchwoodmobile (complete with redundant flashing lights that the cameras can't pick up properly) and blasts the tyres out from under the fish alien's sports car. Except for a silly manoeuvre where he aims like a parody of a tough guy, he looks convincing as a dead-shot.
And then he ruins it by arrogantly blowing the "smoke" from his gun. Dick.
Still, despite his obnoxious display he does indeed get Mr. Fish to stop his car, in a suburban cul-de-sac, where he rushes out, breaks into a house, shoots some poor innocent bloke and takes a girl hostage. This is the modus operandi of Torchwood; make a bad situation infinitely worse and then when things have calmed down chalk it up as a victory. They rush into the room with all the grace and skill of the characters from the old Viz comic strip S.W.A.N.T. (Special Weapons and No Tactics), with Owen bellowing absurdly complicated instructions to the team. Tosh then scans Mr. Fish using a gizmo dotted with the same blue lights that looked so wrong on the Torchwoodmobile, sees he's on coke, and very seriously says, "This fish is wired!" An early contender for stupidest anti-comedy line of the year.
It's immediately superceded by the following expositional monologue from Mr. Fish, included in the show as Chris Chibnall obviously feels that getting the information out quickly and early is better than getting it out slowly and elegantly.
So, this is Team Torchwood, the teacher's pets. But teacher's gone, hasn't he, leaving the kiddie kids all alone. And look at you, trying so hard to be all grown up. The doctor, with his hands full of blood [cut to shot of Owen with his hands full of blood]. The carer, with her oh so beating heart. The technician, with her cold devices [cut to shot of Tosh holding a cold device]. Which leaves me with the office boy, promoted beyond his measure. All of you, lost without your master. All of you, pretending to be brave. All of you, so scared. [evil laugh] So, what about it, minion? Can you do it? How good are you? How sharp is your aim? What if you kill her? What if I kill her first? Can you shoot before I do? Can you? Dare you? Would you? Won't you?
That is apocalyptically bad writing, and even the best acting and directing couldn't salvage it. Just to make things worse, this show does not even feature competent acting or directing, and so it approaches toxic levels of wretchedness. I'm serious, it's this kind of inept and shitty sci-fi that dooms the entire genre. Thankfully Jack arrives (with no explanation of how he found them all) and shoots Mr. Fish (even though he is standing directly behind useless Ianto and therefore has no line of sight), before grinning his goddamn handsome face off. Wow, John Barrowman might not be the best actor on earth, but he has infinitely more charisma than the amateurish replicants around him. Look at him. You would, wouldn't you.
Back at Torchwood HQ (a waterlogged sewer complex with a couple of computers, a fancy door stolen from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and a pet pterodactyl) Gwen whines and moans at Jack for leaving them all, as if he's her property. Goddamn, get over yourself, woman. Which one is the boss here? Jack soppily admits he was in the wrong, and gets all gooey-eyed when he talks about finding the Doctor, as shown in the last three episodes of Doctor Who season three. Owen's line reading of, "Did he fix you?", is straight out of a Mills and Boon adaptation. To be honest, considering how obsessed Jack is with his dick, getting fixed might not have been that bad an idea. Here's Owen looking pompous and dreamy.
I really do not like Owen and his silly expressions, his seething "intensity" which comes across as dyspepsia, and his supposed animal magnetism. Definitely the Torchwood Gupta, despite stiff competition from Gwen. Anyway, while Jack's getting a hard time for leaving (::cough:: Angelseasontwo ::cough::), in a car park across town a burst of glowy light heralds the arrival of guest star James Marsters, fresh from a Buffy convention.
He arrives through the rift that sits under Cardiff (::cough:: Hellmouth ::cough::), and is an Adam-Ant-esque dandy. Actually, he looks like he's wearing a Harry Flashman fancy dress costume, but whatever the idea was, he looks dashing. As soon as he starts talking in his "English" accent, I was incredibly pleased. Spike had some bad moments, but overall I luffed him, especially towards the end of season 5 Angel, where his banter with the eponymous hero was at its best. Within two seconds of arriving he has thrown someone off the roof of the car park, and then gone to a nightclub to order various carousers around and then scare everyone off with his guns. His dialogue ("Go. Stay. Go. Go. Go. Go. Stay. Go. Go. Ooooh, stay stay stay! Go. Go. The rest of you, go.") leaves a lot to be desired, but who cares? It's James Marsters! The only actor on the show who knows how to hold a gun.
Meanwhile, our band of horseasses investigate the death of the car park guy, even though there doesn't seem to be any reason for them to be there, just as Jack's wriststrap goes off. A hologram of Marsters appears, asking Jack to come and find him, before signing off with, "Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope." You know what? I'm declaring a goddamn moratorium on the use of that phrase. It's. Not. Funny. Anymore. The only time I've seen it used well over the past year or so was when Carrie Fisher said, "Help me Liz Lemon, you're my only hope!" in 30 Rock, but that's because it was Carrie Fisher saying it. It's been used too goddamn often, and especially on Torchwood, it invites comparisons between the show and Star Wars that really aren't in their best interests.
Jack departs hurriedly, telling the team not to follow him, which they do immediately, all the time whining about what an asshole he is for leaving them behind (::cough cough cough:: Angelseasontwo ::cough cough cough::). While they piss and moan like a bunch of aggrieved kids, Jack arrives at the club and gets some full-on facetime with Marsters, kissing him with admirable gusto. And then they fight a lot. It's one of the few scenes in the show that has been choreographed and filmed with some effort, so kudos for that, I guess, but dear God, I declare another moratorium, this time on the use of Song Two by Blur, which woo-hoos in the background throughout. Has anyone involved in this show got any new ideas? At all? That shit was tired one summer after the song came out and it got used on Match of the Day 68 trillion times, so imagine how tired it must be now.
After kissing and fighting and pointing their guns at each other and making daft jokes about Jack working his way up the ranks and how grateful the ranks must have been (an allusion to sex, I'll wager, what with this being an adult show), they pretend to drink a lot of alcohol and bond over their past as time agents, a plot thread that I thought would have been explored in the previous season but was ignored in favour of gaseous sex aliens, ill-thought-out time travel plots, and Fight Club rip-offs, much to my disgust. After announcing his name is now Captain John Hart (adopting other identities appears to be de riguer for these chaps), Marsters/Hart reveals that the agency that runs the time agents (which, Canyon pointed out, is imaginatively called The Time Agency) has been shut down, meaning there are only seven time agents left altogether. I look forward to future appearances by Captain Judah Hogwonk, Captain Jeff Hepatitis, Captain Joe Hoho, Captain Jerry Heinousface, and Captain Jasper Humperdinck.
Eventually the rest of the team arrive and pose with their guns (by this point almost every scene appears to feature some gun posing), and Jack explains at length who everyone is and what they do, and for five minutes we get a solid, unbreakable and tedious wall of exposition either about the team or Hart's reason for being in Cardiff, which seems to be something about radiation bombs hidden around Cardiff by a woman Hart knew who is now dead. There is also some horseplay about the size of their wriststraps, which I suspect might be a joke about the length and strength of their penises. Jack has spent the scene hinting that Hart is completely untrustworthy, but the thought of Earth getting destroyed by these bombs forces his hand, and offers to help Hart back at Torchwood HQ, located under the Millennium Centre. And yes, he pointlessly enters the complex using the superfluous paving stone lift. Though I'm no fan of the show, the effects work by The Mill is almost always exemplary, and something for everyone involved to be proud of. Here, though, is one of their rare missteps, a terribly shaky greenscreen shot. I know the budget of the show has been cut (this episode features a lot less flashy moments than last season), but still, it's a shame it looks so wrong.
Upon reaching the bottom, Jack asks Hart to hand over his guns, and after he hands over his large pistols and his sword, he asks him to hand over all of his other weapons, which Hart denies having (::cough:: everyTVshowandfilmevermade ::cough::). Gwen ruins his subterfuge with her blue-light scanner, revealing that, of course, he has a lot of guns, and a "laser knife", that looks like, well, a knife. Perhaps "Laser" is the brand name. Like Ginsu, only futuristical.
Gwen takes Jack to one side, because even if you thought she had already nagged at Jack a lot about him leaving, she hasn't even started yet, mister. She pointedly tells him that leaving them all behind was a dick move, and he swallows what must be a natural impulse to shout, "You're not the boss of me, you big-eyed control freak!" to explain that he really missed her and came back because hey, Cardiff? Place to be! Then he realises she is wearing a wedding ring, and when he points this out, Gwen looks astonished.
Turns out, in a weird passive/aggressive response to Jack's departure at the end of season one, she got engaged to drab boyfriend Rhys, and when imparting this information to her boss, Gwen looks startled.
Jack congratulates her with some kind of confusing sadness stone stuck in his throat, and asks if Rhys got down on one knee, and she says he tried, but his back gave out. Ha ha ha! Stupid Rhys! What a prosaic loser, unlike her sexy colleagues. While recounting this story, and commenting that no one else would have her, Gwen looks self-pitying.
Finally, they reconcile and hug, and Gwen looks pretty damn well orgasmic.
That's some range Eve Myles is showing there, not unlike the range exhibited by Sonya Walger. The worst thing about this scene is that some viewers will end up hoping these two get together. Why would Jack, who has had sex with the majority of the universe, be upset about not getting a chance with dreary old Gwen? It would boggle the mind, if I hadn't already come to the conclusion that it's just a load of contrivance to generate some emotional frisson in a show as shallow, juvenile, and exploitative as this one.
After the deeply touching moment, the team meets in a conference room to debate tactics, and Gwen suggests they split into teams to cover Cardiff more efficiently. She offers to go with Hart and begins flirting with him, setting Jack off on a new convulsion of snitty attitude, which Gwen subdues by explaining she is flirting with Hart to gain his trust and find out what he is really up to. Jack warns her not to kiss him, but this being Torchwood, that's how most of the characters communicate with each other, so it's silly advice.
Gwen and Hart travel to some loading area filled with shipping containers, and begin looking for the first radiation bomb. It's night-time, and as ever, the director has chosen to film things with as little light as possible. For the next three or four minutes of screentime either one or the other character is obscured by shadows. It's a baffling directorial decision. The screenshot below is not a fluke capture; that's what the scene looks like.
While randomly opening shipping containers, hiding in shadows, and talking about this mysterious dead woman with the bombs, Gwen's phone goes off. It's Rhys, with the great news that he has a new job as manager of something called Harwoods, which is probably to DIY what Torchwood is to gunplay and alien investigation. Canyon said she would rather hear more about the job interview than watch the rest of the show, and she has a good point, but sadly we have to stick with Gwen and her exciting glamorous life hanging out with nerd-fave actors and getting off with her scary looking colleagues.
This is obviously meant to play as a comment on how mundane Rhys' life is, but if the intention is to play up the contrast between them, it fails miserably, serving only to make poor cuckolded Rhys look like a pathetic, oblivious idiot. When she gets off the phone Hart has disappeared. What could he be doing? Where is he? Turns out he is still hanging around, but hey, another minute of screentime is filled up by Gwen flitting around with her gun drawn in a weak attempt to conjure up some suspense, so kudos for that.
Upon finding the correct container, Hart grabs Gwen and kisses her. The perpetually horny cad! Turns out he was actually poisoning her with paralysing lip gloss, which might account for his disappearance in the previous scene, but I'm not convinced. As Gwen slumps to the floor he gloats that she has two hours to live, and as he leaves the container he bleats on about Jack, saying, "He won't stay with you! He and I shared something." Considering he's just sentenced her to a horrible death, that's just unneccessary. He shuts the container door and throws her phone away, and as if the shitty lighting wasn't amateurish enough, the mic picks up the sound of it clanging against a container and then clattering across the floor as Hart ambles away. It's like something made by the Children's Film Foundation, only clumsier.
Across town, and Owen and Tosh are doing their stupid gun/flashlight thing in a warehouse somewhere. It's big and messy, prompting Owen to complain, "How are we gonna find anything in all of this tut?" What the hell is tut? Is it the Welsh version of tat? While wandering aimlessly around, Tosh whines about not being out on the town, and Owen admits he's given up his womanising ways, and says he looking for a good woman he has a lot in common with. Tosh's "subtle" reaction (i.e. eye-rolling and practically passing out) "hints" at her lust for his scrawny "body".
Despite the daunting task ahead of them, they find the bomb a couple of minutes later even though they only have tiny flashlights, and right on time the newly-revealed EvilHart appears and headbutts Tosh. Maybe a bonk on the head will cure her of her ill-advised crush on Owen, who probably has lots of space diseases what with his rampant and credibility-straining womanising. Owen gets his tough guy on and threatens to kill Hart if he hurts Tosh. This is so threatening that Hart shoots Owen, but before we can delight in the sight of him blown backwards as if hit by an exploding cannonball, we cut away. Tease!
While several million viewers chew their nails off over this turn of events, Jack and Ianto arrive at an office building to look for another bomb, where Jack gives an unconvincing soliloquy about the allure of office work (it's a place for disastrous office romances and photocopying your genitals, because, you know, adult), Ianto's grumpy responses clue Jack in on yet more sulking about his departure. Dude, you can never go home, especially if home is a wet sewer complex filled with ungrateful jerks. Jack dances around the fact that if he came back for a specific reason, it probably wasn't the pity-sex he was having with sad-sack Ianto, but when he pouts Jack tries to defuse the situation by asking Ianto for a date. He even manages to smile while doing it, knowing that it will probably end up being a disaster, with Ianto crying over his dead cyber-girlfriend Lisa from the first season. How do you like that office romance, you dashing fool?
They split up, with Jack heading to the roof, giving Hart the chance to lure Ianto over to the lifts, where he threatens him with a gun, repeatedly refers to him as "Eye candy", (which made both of us WTF for a few minutes), and brags about putting the rest of the team out of commission.
Ordering him to go and find them before they die, the lift doors shut, and a tannoy says, "Going down", to which Hart responds, apropos of nothing, "Going down, yes please." Again, I have a suspicion there is a double meaning here. Hart goes after Jack, who has just found the "bomb", which is by now, obviously not a bomb. Hart says Jack should be in space among the stars, which is a heinous diss against the glories of Cardiff. But no, Jack is not to be swayed, and slags off Hart for getting old and not growing up. Then he childishly throws the canister / bomb / MacGuffin off the roof, and mid-gloat gets pushed off himself.
Hopefully the drop gives Jack time to rue his decision to help Hart, who has been blatantly evil from the moment he appeared onscreen. Jokes about attending murder rehab might have been a clue. Perhaps this is Chibnall and co.'s way of making the Torchwoodiverse seem dangerous and morally grey and filled with threatening yet seductive characters, but actually it just makes our protagonists look like slack-jawed halfwits.
Speaking of which, Ianto finds Tosh patching Owen up with some bandages, and even though he's obviously lost a lot of blood and might be suffering a grievous internal injury, they rush out to find Gwen. In the meantime, Hart gets all maudlin over Jack's death, probably not helped by the very extensive groin thrust adopted by Jack's corpse.
Thankfully Chibnall resists the temptation to have Hart make some lewd comment about this, which means we actually get about four minutes of screentime without a double entendre or feeble come-on. Back in Containerville the Three Stooges are looking for Gwen, which involves lots of dull running around and improbable detective work involving the blue-light doohickey used throughout the show, before they locate her dying body. At this point, with probably milliseconds left to live, Gwen looks stiff. And badly lit.
As she still has a pulse but can't move, they figure she has been poisoned, but without any other information about what has happened to her, they promptly swab her lips and test it for toxins. How did they know she was poisoned like that? Hart never mentioned it. It could have been a needle, or a gas, or a deadly suppository, but no, they go straight to the lips. It could very well be the shoddiest plotting I've ever seen in a modern TV show that isn't Chuck or CSI: Miami. To make things even more improbable, they have the exact antidote. Pretty smart stuff, considering how dense they appear from Gwen's point of view.
Hart goes back to Torchwood HQ, and ransacks the corpse of Mr. Fish, who has another part of the MacGuffin in his pocket. So the pre-credits "action" scene was connected to the rest of the show after all! Before he can put all the pieces back together our heroes appear and cock their plastic guns threateningly. Again, where the hell is the sound department? Oddly worried that one of the water pistols will go off and get his nice tunic wet, Hart musters one last gloat over Jack's death, only to go limp-faced with shock as Jack walks in, unharmed, and cocks his leg up for a big fart. At least, that's what it looks like.
Turns out, under cross-examination, Hart killed the woman who owned the MacGuffin (which he thinks is a space diamond of some worth), because he is a low down dirty son of a bitch, which comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched any fiction within the last 150 years. Under the supervision of the team, he puts the pieces together and a hologram of the dead woman appears. I can't help but imagine someone had to forcibly stop Chibnall from making the hologram say, "Help me Obi Wan you're my only hope!".
Turns out she's a smart cookie, and the MacGuffin is actually a bomb that is attracted to the DNA of the person who killed her. Of course, how it has access to this DNA in the first place is not explained, but we were more annoyed by the stretching out of an episode that really should have been done and dusted by now. The bomb zips across the room and sticks to Hart's chest, not unlike the Scarab machine in Guillermo Del Toro's creepy vampire film Cronos.
Space crime never pays, you dandy! When the team appear uninterested in helping him and instead intend to throw him back into the rift, he grabs Gwen and handcuffs himself to her. I love the sci-fi touch that the cuffs are made of "hypersteel", but this is undercut by the annoyance caused by Tosh's declaration that the rift has a crack in it. A rift is a crack. How can a crack have a crack in it? Does Chibnall understand English?
Owen comes up with a great plan to save Gwen. While the others drive Gwen and Hart him to the (crack in the) rift in their SUV, Jack and Owen get blood samples of the entire team (lucky they had them just lying around) and make a blood cocktail using a centrifuge prop so cheap that they have to swish it around by hand. Editing tries to obscure this cheapness, but it's obvious it's just being pushed.
Even though the SUV leaves minutes before them, Jack and Owen still catch up as they use Mr. Fish's sports car. Is it jet-powered? With just seconds to go before the bomb explodes, Jack injects him in the heart with the blood cocktail, which confuses the bomb. How? Does it alter his DNA? If that's the case, then blood transfusions should lead to the recipient's hair and eyes changing colour. Or it's just terrible terrible science from someone who seems to have only had a primary school education followed by years of watching and absorbing bad TV. Despite making a nonsense of the rules just laid down a couple of minutes before, this ridiculous plan works, making the bomb fall off. Jack heroically flings it into the rift, creating a big explosion effect.
For no narrative reason, this sends them back in time to the moment when Hart arrived. As the science of the rift (and the crack in the rift) has never been clearly explained, this is potentially possible with a bit of exposition, but what's the point of it? And was the only narrative reason for the blood injection so Hart could make a comment about a part of them being in him? Hopefully this leads to something later on in the series, because otherwise it's unforgivably silly. No matter. For his terrible skullduggery, he gets a smack in the chops from Gwen. She looks pissed.
Finally he leaves, with much glowy effects, but not before kissing on Jack with some verve, making more comments about wriststrap size (Jack's reaction really strengthens my "penis metaphor" theory) and offhandedly mentioning that he has found someone called Grey, which triggers an explosion of facial acting and heavy breathing from Jack, which suggests that maybe this is big news for him. Luckily, the team are too stupid to notice this, and the fifteen hour long episode finally ends. But! First we get a preview of the rest of the season. Explosions, gun posing, Alan Dale as what seems to be an evil scientist, more James Marsters, yet more jokes about having sex with each other, and OH YEAH! MARTHA JONES! Coming to bring some class to the proceedings, unless she has her post-Who awesomeness polluted by the transfer to this risible show.
So, in conclusion, not the worst episode yet. Almost an improvement, in fact.