Monday, April 25, 2011


The 2006 first season of BBC America's Torchwood was the most singularly vexing tease of a televisual sci-fi experience a geek could imagine. For every strange delight--the show's instantly identifiable gritty/glossy digital noir look, queered Hawksian banter, sudden-death romance, and fevered willingness to insert sex into everything, typified by an episode about an alien who feeds off orgasms--there was an equal negative. The worst offenders: a reliance on 11th-hour high-tech deux ex machinas and an increasingly Lost-like sense that the show's creators were just making shit up as they went along.

But with the second season, Torchwood's bi-sci-fi geek promise of being a randy mix of Queer as Folk and Doctor Who--creator Russell T. Davies respectively created/reanimated both shows--was seriously fulfilled, thanks to the appropriation of one actor from Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and a generous infusion of tropes from Joss Whedon's classic. For example. he got really good at killing off characters...

With the good chance that you've neither seen nor heard of Torchwood, some exposition.

"Torchwood" is a secret group operating "outside the government, beyond the police" so as to staunch the flow of aliens, ghosts, Romans, the black plague, and sundry other inter-temporal flotsam slipping into our world through the Rift--a space-time anomaly in Cardiff, Wales.

Working from an underground lair done up in retro tubeway chic, complete with mortuary and in-house pet pterodactyl, Torchwood is composed of plucky local cop Gwen (Eve Myles), laddish cynic physician Owen (Burn Gorman), IT girl Toshiko (Naoko Mori), and fashion-conscious teaboy (!) Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd). All are under the command of the ever-grinning, mysterious, possibly immortal American Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman).

Unfortunately, the first season strained to define its themes and characters with sufficient velocity to prevent U.K. viewers from switching to Heroes' vanilla recombinant pulp, often devolving into an alien-of-the-week format dashed with tantalizing bits of identity politics. What kept fans tuning in was the promise of the Torchwood crew and Capt. Jack, who was kind of great from Day 1. A sexually omnivorous, fine-jawed scamp in a 1940s military long coat, Barrowman plays him like a camp Tom Cruise, alternately/simultaneously arrogant, pigheaded, flirty, world-weary, and idealistic. But in the first season's fantastic finale, Jack morphed from lovable rogue into an entirely new genre archetype.

Due to a time-machine gaffe by Owen, an inter-temporal, life-absorbing God--"The Great Destroyer," no less--threatens life on Earth. With the chips down, Jack's browbeating and flirtatiousness dissolve to reveal an absolute, almost fatherly love of his co-workers. He forgives Owen and sacrifices his own immortal self--seemingly for keeps this time--to slay the opposition. One acolyte--excuse us, Gwen--waits at his side for days until Jack rises briefly before disappearing, presumably to allow his followers to follow his example and continue his good works.

Needless to say, it's cheeky to blatantly reposition your horny gay-leaning hero as a Christ substitute, a deliriously fun conceit that prefaced the high learning curve seen in the second season's opener, an episode aptly titled "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang."

It opens with the chase for a coke-snorting alien blowfish--seriously--and the cheerfully unexplained return of Jack, before segueing to time traveler Capt. John (James Marsters, aka Spike from Buffy), who swaggers out of the Rift done up in Adam Ant pirate-punk gear, paralyzing lip gloss, and a horny leer to the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone-esque audio camp.

Captains John and Jack meet in a sleazy bar, make out, beat the crap out of each other, share a drink, and then bitch about each other's wrinkles. If you'd never seen the show, you could be forgiven for thinking your TV went completely insane. Turns out, John is Jack's dark doppelgänger/ex-lover gone gleefully bad and willing to fuck and/or kill every member of Torchwood in order to--well, no spoilage here.

Marsters' appearance is both a reminder of just how much Torchwood already owes Buffy--for obvious instance, the alien-spewing Rift is a sci-fi take on Buffy's demon-spewing Hellmouth-- and a preview of just how smartly it would appropriate from Whedon's world, which, in a weird/wonderful bit of intertextual alchemy, has allowed Davies' show to become more indelibly, well, Torchwood-like.

Like Buffy herself, Gwen struggles to keep her life as a normal person and world saver separate. Toshiko has expanded from a dangerously archetypical "Asian"--all cool competence and raised Spock brows--into Torchwood's Willow surrogate, the show's supercute, smart, intrinsically open-souled center.

But geeky citations aside, what Torchwood most effectively assimilates from Whedon is the use of supernatural events and creatures as metaphors for the characters' inner demons, along with a sort of soap opera humanism--the repurposing of deep weep melodrama as a means of addressing the group's existential pains.

In that way that renders the science fictional literary, Jack's horrifically traumatic youth is revealed; his response to it explains why he needs to help people. A parallel-universe episode offers the anxious, socially inept Owen hiding under his semi-douchebag skin. And Toshiko finally meets a man she can love--a WWI soldier suffering from PTSD--but her painful duty to the greater good trumps romances, and so much for that.

And so fused in a cauldron of its characters' essential loneliness, the Torchwood crew, as in most great TV, coheres into a alternative viable family. Davies would follow this with Torchwood: Children of Earth, a steep learning curve jump into near-Arthur C. Clarke-style grand SF and, as I write this, a Starz Network reboot about the end of death (!).

So looking back, what was Torchwood season two on about? Same as it ever was. That beneath its ambisexual snogs, quips, and action-plot tragedies, Torchwood was and will always be about difference, empathy, and striving to do the right thing in an indifferent-or-worse world while knowing you'll inevitably getting it wrong half the time and learning to forgive yourself for doing so. In the end, it's an atheist's idea of grace.

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