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Archive for January 17th, 2007

The remainder of Torchwood is now in my hands. Without further ado, here’s what I thought of how the season ended.

Episode 10, “Out of Time,” centers on three people who accidentally traveled fifty years into the future (arriving in the present day) in an airplane. We pick up right where we left off, with no lapse in quality, but no improvements on problems. The characters are still stuck in ruts from being so thinly defined, and they keep living through the same plotlines: Owen keeps having sex with everyone and having to deal with the consequences, Gwen keeps having issues about communicating with her boyfriend who can’t know the truth, Tosh keeps getting written out because she has no character whatsoever, and Captain Jack keeps being the sad mysterious one who we desperately want to know better but who never actually tells his story. (The characters are in such states of perpetual recursion that Gwen’s boyfriend, who seemed to have been written out five episodes ago over the affair with Owen, reappears in this episode with no explanation and with no indication that he actually ever left…. Why?) The plotlines also continue to be ones that could just as easily be an X-Files or Twilight Zone episode. But, they also continue to be extraordinarily well written and well executed. This particular episode was a phenomenal bit of television. The characters 50 years out of time allows both for the struggle in dealing with outliving your own progeny and being ‘in your prime’ yet hopelessly out of tune with the times, while also giving the Torchwood crew the equivalent of interactions with fathers, brothers, sisters, and lovers who are every bit as mysterious and disconnected as they are. This episode works on many levels and, best of all, it is absolutely impossible to predict where it’s going; I was constantly surprised by the time travelers and their reactions (even though the members of the Torchwood team were caught in their stereotypical actions). This may be my favorite episode yet; better even than episode nine… It’s such a pity that they left the main characters so shallow, because this series has really had a lot going for it.

And, with a wave of my magic wand, I return the show to its primal suckiness. Someone desperately needs to inform the writers of this show that ripping off a famous film is never a wise idea; at best it results in a well made clone, at worst it results in laughable shit. No more “let’s make ‘The Hills Have Eyes’”; no more theft of concepts from Buffy… Episode 11, “Combat,” involves an encounter with a secret group, one that seems eerily similar to Torchwood – but mostly it’s a rip-off of a well known film. I’d tell you which well known film, but that would spoil the plot. The moral uncertainty of the group’s actions returns in this episode; unfortunately, so does the less compelling storytelling and the uncreative plotlines. What’s left is the show as it initially was supposed to be – a sci-fi special ops soap opera. But the soap opera aspect continues to be tired and predictable. We’re still caught up in Gwen’s troubles with her boyfriend; the only new twist here is that it gets morally hazy. Owen’s soap opera is a little better; at least him being love-scarred is a new development, and the ending may well be the first true twist in the series (although, it might just as easily be forgotten). Most of this episode is just bland. What the X-Files had that Torchwood does not is that you always felt like it was going somewhere. Torchwood rarely does. Only in the last 30 seconds does this plot really feel like it might have a lasting effect on a character and help us to learn about him. (But “Cyberwoman” felt like that as well, and never went anywhere.) Mostly, this is just character development for characters who barely exist – and that doesn’t work too well… This was the least creative and least compelling episode in a long time, though it may also be the one which kicks the series into a new level of interest in character and motivation.

Episode 12, “Captain Jack Harkness,” involves a building that sends Jack and Tosh back in time to 1941. Unfortunately, all of my deepest concerns about Owen’s plot twist from the previous episode are confirmed within the first five minutes as the potentially series changing event is swept under the carpet with no explanation and, just like Ianto before him, his personal tragedy results in little other than sad music, a montage, bitterness, and whining. In fact, Owen whines so much, that Ianto gives us his own little whining recap in some sort of whining contest. God damn it, writers… On the bright side, finally some discussion of Jack’s past comes up. And we even get his bisexuality as part of the plot, which had been MIA for about five episodes… And the plot itself is interesting and unpredictable. The episode is actually quite good, finishing with perhaps the best ending in the series (certainly the most meaningful – on many levels). After the stumble in the previous episode, this one’s a keeper. If only Owen wouldn’t be such a Ianto-esque bitch…

And finally, we go out with episode 13, “End of Days.” Yet another episode in which the thrust of the plotline is Torchwood attempting to rectify their own titanic fuck up, lest people (or in this case, the world) should be wiped out. This seems to happen to them a lot; perhaps there’s some validity to the criticism that these people all seem terrible at their jobs… Despite that, the episode is actually a quality end to the series. At last, ten episodes after the series lost its creativity and its concern with its own characters, the series finds a pair of balls, does interesting things, allows its characters to be real people, and goes out with something approximating a bang. If not for a few lines of devastatingly bad dialogue, some unacceptable fudging of the terms of Jack’s immortality at one point (he bounces back quickly after a gunshot; we know this), and a bit of poor directing (though only a bit), this would’ve been an extremely good ending to the series. I can’t really say much more about this one. It doesn’t have a great deal of depth to it; it’s just a solid finale for an earthbound sci-fi series.

So that’s it. All in all, the series was quite good. Three or four superb episodes, and a couple other very good ones. Only a couple of absolute stinkers.

There wound up being far more whining and crying in the series than I expected (and perhaps quite a bit more than it could bear with such thinly defined characters), and far less roof standing and humor than I would’ve expected after episodes one and two. There was also significantly less character development than one would hope for, although when it happened, it was generally well done. The characters were interesting despite being incomplete and thin. Perhaps the biggest failing of the show was that it wound up feeling like ‘homage hour’ on far too many occasions. (If there was something about the perpetual use of well known plotlines that was supposed to be meaningful, it didn’t come across…) But I feel now how I felt when I wrote at the end of episode nine.

I want more. I also want better…but I definitely want more.

————

Meanwhile, I’ve also seen the first episode of “Sarah Jane Smith Adventures,” the second spin-off from Dr. Who. The jury’s still very very out on that one.

About 70 percent of the pilot episode was abysmal. The villain was ridiculous and stupid (gotta love that Russell T. Davies…). I don’t get much out of alien octopi who plan to conquer the earth by making everyone drink infected soda… And, to top it off, all of their acting was bad. Also, the black neighbor girl was an annoying ‘black neighbor girl’ stereotype, and the girl who will be a central character has an annoying ‘broken home’ background – also a stereotype for ‘children’s TV.’ Therefore, virtually all of the first 30 minutes of the episode was an intolerable parade of stereotypes or simply intolerable due to stupidity.

The good things, then, were few, but they were very good. The idea of making a human boy out of the minds of 10,000 other humans is a bit ridiculous and clichéd, but it also has promise. The show really only picked up when they started having conversations with him. So it’ll be interesting to see if they do anything with the character or just turn him into a typical ‘I wish I were a real boy’ whiner…

Then there’s Sarah herself, who is pitch perfect as a role model for the viewers. Though I have no idea how one could possibly explain the presence of a supercomputer, alien technology in everyday disguises, and various other things, the overall ‘character’ of Sarah Jane is excellent. Her loneliness (with expository dialogue coming from the actually rather brilliant concept of having K-9 stuck in a box saving the universe from a stupid accident) gives the series a level of emotional complexity that eludes most children’s programs, and her continual pep talks on how one must be different from the villains that one is fighting have a profundity about them that most ‘morals of the story’ in children’s television lack. Davies even gives her an excellent closing speech discussing how adulthood isn’t really what kids think it will be – “you never really know what you want to be.” Nothing new, of course, but well handled. I don’t know if it was the writing or Liz Sladen’s acting, but something about this character works.

So I don’t really know what to expect from this new show. Clearly the only thing that it is likely to do well is the ‘elderly female role model’ aspect. But is that going to be enough to save it from an almost certain fate of crappy ‘monster of the week’ villains and children’s-action-television clichés? I don’t know.

It only barely saved the pilot episode, and even then it was only possible due to the excellent handling of introductory dialogue by Davies. We’ll see, but I do not have high hopes for this…

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The new Dr. Who Christmas special is a microcosm of the Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who. Conceptual brilliance, emotional complexity, and villains who are too silly and too devoid of character to have any relevance whatsoever. This is the great ambivalence of the new series of Dr. Who – so rarely does a villain stand up to the depth of artistry in the writing.

To be brutally honest, the villain in this episode sucks. It is a giant angry queen spider from the beginning of time, and it is trying to resurrect its extremely carnivorous race. There is no more depth to the character or its situation than that. It’s pointless and stupid and childish (in ways that are not endearing).

But so much is wrapped up around it. This episode could’ve been so good, if only the villain had been integrated into the theme. As it is, the villain is the only thing that I can’t quite fit into the conceptual framework of the episode.

The whole thing takes off from the idea that the Doctor has just lost Rose (at the end of season two) – a woman who was played as a combination of best friend, girlfriend, and equal…basically a ‘soul mate.’ Thrusting the Doctor, fresh from his loss of an unaccepted but perfect love, into interactions with a bitchy bride with low self esteem was a masterstroke. Exactly the kind of thing that Davies does well – comparing two extremes to show that both of them have holes in their lives. The ‘bride’ is played, therefore, not just as ‘not Rose,’ but as the ‘anti-Rose.’ She lives a similar life (interracial relationship, dead end job) with similar traits (generally unhappy, yet strong and resourceful), but at the end of the day she is not at all Rose. She is a very different person.

This places the Doctor in the position of extreme awareness of what he has lost, allowing the episode to play a few nice, subdued little moments: one, a wonderfully self aware sequence in which the Doctor sees a wedding reception cameraman filming two dancers which reminds him of his own ‘dance’ in an action sequence with Rose (which we, as an audience, know was also filmed by a cameraman); two, a closing bit of dialogue in which the Doctor gets to leave saying “her name was Rose” in perhaps the best performance of dialogue in a Doctor Who episode since Peter Davidson’s dumbstruck near-sob of “there should have been another way” while standing in a sea-base full of corpses.

Of course, the Doctor is not the only one who is painfully aware of what is missing. The Bride is marrying a man whom she had to bully into marriage, because she wants a romantic connection so badly that she’s willing to read this man’s affection as more than it truly is. The spider-woman is also aware of the absence of her race, though she gets little time to be played as a ‘feeling’ character.

Outside of the wonderful thematic elements, the episode also features some of the best of Davies’ creativity in regard to Doctor Who, as he clearly doesn’t allow himself to be tied down to history and mythology (as so many other writers do); he allows himself to be creative first, and worries later over the possible consequences of plot points being potentially incoherent in the larger picture. In one brilliantly self-aware sequence (one of my favorites in the entire 30+ year history of the program), the Doctor uses the Tardis as a vehicle in a high-speed car chase down a freeway, all the while being watched and cheered on by two children in the backseat of a car (all adults are apparently oblivious). The whole concept is absurd, and yet the joy of the children matches the joy of the viewer; it is a rapturous action sequence and we love it despite ourselves – sometimes it’s better to ‘be a child’…  At this moment, the program is aware of its stature as a simplistic and fun series for children, and it positively revels in the awareness.  It is the equivalent of a television program having high self-esteem.  It is blissful.  And ‘history of the program’ be damned, I don’t care that the Tardis has never been shown to work like that…

Davies also brings back some of the tragedy of the Doctor’s character that was so apparent in the first season, and dissipated somewhat with the Rose-romance in season two. The Doctor ‘saves the day’ here in a very questionable display (caution: spoilers), standing in pouring water and fire, watching water flood down onto the enemy ‘base’ with anger in his eyes, as the spider-woman screams “my babies.” He is positively villainous at this moment, and the ‘bride’ (whose name I can’t recall just now, which is why I keep calling her ‘bride’) gets a Rose moment saying “you can stop now.” She echoes this later on with her parting words to the Doctor: “find someone; I think sometimes you need someone to stop you.” (Spoilers end.)

Of course, there are the standard Davies flaws. The villain sucks so much that I feel a slight distaste towards the episode as a whole, no matter how much I may like the other 98% of the proceedings. There are some gaping holes in the plotline: what exactly happens when you flood the Earth’s core with water, and what impact will it have on the environment that all water from the Thames (and surrounding area until you reach natural ‘underwater’ levees) is now gone from the surface of the earth? And how exactly does the Tardis eject a glowing ball of light that can make it snow?

I’m also a bit concerned about the inclusion of Torchwood references. Now that there actually is a show called “Torchwood,” which is a show which isn’t really for children (though it’s not as ‘adult’ as it could have been), references to Torchwood sort of act like advertisements for something that a good percentage of the audience isn’t ‘allowed’ to watch. I’m not sure that I like that…

All in all, though, this episode was quite strong. It certainly wasn’t up to last year’s Christmas episode, but it was equally certainly far stronger than quite a number of season two episodes, and it leaves the series in a place where there could be much better things to come. I’d been hoping that all this darkness at the heart of the Doctor would eventually become a seasonal story arc…perhaps it will be in the upcoming year.

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