Reviews

Torchwood: The Complete Second Season

Darker, deeper, and far more gut-wrenching than its predecessor, Season Two forces us to examine what it means to be human in a town filled with alien forces.


Torchwood

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Burn Gorman, Naoko Mori, Gareth David-Lloyd, James Marsters, Freema Agyeman, Alan Dale, Ruth Jones, Kai Owen
Network: BBC
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2008-09-16
Amazon
"Excuse me ... have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?" -- Torchwood

When faced with that question, the old lady on the sidewalk can only stare blankly at the jet-black SUV that pulled up to her. Too stunned to even think, she points, indeed, in the direction where a sports car just drove off, driven by a mean-looking anthropomorphic blowfish. And with that, the violent, sexually-charged, and emotionally-stirring second season of Torchwood is up and running.

Torchwood has always been a unique entity, the much more "adult" spinoff of Russell T. Davies' 2005 Doctor Who reboot. Whereas Doctor Who dealt with robots, aliens, and time-traveling in a provocative yet family-friendly way, Torchwood was changing things up from the get-go: fearless leader Captain Jack Harkness (the ever-charismatic John Barrowman) was an omnisexual immortal who could not die under any circumstances, often snogging anything that moves but, ultimately, never making a big deal about it.

Jack's team consists of the hot-headed doctor Owen (Burn Gorman), techno-genius Toshiko (Naoko Mori), office boy/side-lover Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), and new recruit Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who just got engaged to Rhys (Kai Owen) -- her long-suffering boyfriend -- and whose outside perspective and genuine human empathy rounds out the Torchwood team mighty well.

In its first season, Torchwood featured a good share of same-sex kisses, violent action sequences, and -- best of all -- powerful musings on the meaning of death and responsibility. That season spent a lot of its time tackling the notion of how Torchwood, situated atop a "time riff" in Cardiff that occasionally spews out otherworldly terrors, has the gall to appoint themselves the "keepers of the gate," with Captain Jack making decisions that often effect hundreds of lives, and sometimes not for the better.

With Season Two, however, the stakes are very different. The Torchwood writing staff -- having firmly established the group dynamic in the first season -- have truly come into their own, adding plots with deeper philosophical substance, developing relations between team members, and even writing wittier one-liners (most of which are given to Ianto). This is evident in the gloriously trashy season opener, "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", in which the crew is greeted by the mysterious Captain John (James Marsters, clearly enjoying a major post-Buffy character that he can sink his teeth into), a fellow Time Agent who turns out to be one of Jack's former lovers.

It's not long before he sends the team on a chase for hidden warheads, but his true motives (both romantically and otherwise) are brought under question within minutes of his arrival. The episode ends off by establishing the character of Grey -- Jack's long-lost brother -- in an arc that leads to a spectacular climax (but more on that later).

The second season of Torchwood is effective in the way that the third season of Doctor Who was: wisely moving beyond the "monster of the week" format to take on bolder story arcs. On the second episode alone ("Sleeper"), a woman named Beth winds up viciously stabbing multiple robbers in her house despite there being no knife anywhere to be found (further puzzling things is the fact that she cannot remember the attack at all).

When it is revealed that she is, in fact, an alien that has been artificially flooded with human memories, she rebels, unable to accept the fact that her life has been nothing more than a fabricated lie. At one point, Gwen asks Beth if she feels human, to which she tearfully pulls out a "yes", Gwen then reassuring her by saying "then you are human", posing a question to the audience as to what the human nature is, and if it can truly be defined by the self-imposed notion of "feeling" human in the first place.

With an episode called "Adam", a new character (named Adam, appropriately enough), suddenly appears out of nowhere, working with the team in full field capacity despite no explanation of his existence. Adam, it turns out, is an otherworldly entity that feeds on memories. When Gwen walks in to the Torchwood hub and sees everyone being buddy-buddy around this new person, she first asks "Who the hell is this?" Adam walks up to Gwen, places his hand on her neck, and fills her with memories of their many (fake) encounters, herself then instantly hugging him and then later attacking Rhys when she gets home, as the memories of her husband-to-be have suddenly been pushed out of her mind, herself thinking he's a stranger that just broke into her flat.

The episode explores the notion of how our memories ultimately define our personalities, as the bookish Toshiko is now Adam's girlfriend (and a purring sex-kitten to boot), all while the womanizing Owen has been transformed into a submissive, nerdy drone. When Ianto begins to discover that Adam may not be who he says he is, Adam -- in a particularly violent and stunning sequence -- forcibly fills Ianto's head with false memories of brutally killing multiple women (and, worse, enjoying it), soon setting off a chain reaction that has every crew member questioning their core beliefs.

Amidst all the world-saving, however, Season Two excels in broadening the emotional pull of each character: Gwen is in love with Jack and Rhys (but in different ways), Toshiko is exploring her unrequited feelings towards Owen, and Ianto is slowly becoming more than just Jack's "man on the side". Gwen finally prepares to marry Rhys, but her day job working at Torchwood suddenly turns her happy day into a violent bloodbath ("Something Borrowed").

Owen -- in a remarkable three-episode arc -- suffers a life-changing event that winds up drastically altering the Torchwood team dynamic (and whose spiritual/Satanic overtones harkens back to one of the best Doctro Who two-parters: "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit" from Who Season Two). Even the requisite "character background" episode ("Fragments", which explores how each member of Torchwood got recruited in the first place) manages to give genuine insight into our heroes, never once coming off as a pandering or desperate move (or, worse, coming off as a "filler" episode).

Yet even if Season Two outclasses its predecessor in virtually every respect, there are still flaws that wind up preventing it from being an out-and-out homerun. Leading into Season Two, there was much talk of the appearance of Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman), easily the strongest and most likable female companion of the David Tennant Who years. Though she is brought in for three episodes (piggybacking on the aforementioned "Owen arc"), her presence is entirely underwhelming, particularly after her first episode. Gone is the iron-willed risk-taker that captured the hearts of Who fans the world over -- Miss Jones is now relegated to mere subplot fodder, coming off as a blatant ratings grab if there ever was one.

Meanwhile, the "From Out of the Rain" episode (in which evil 1920s circus performers emerge from archival footage to wreck havoc on modern-day Cardiff) reeks of monster-of-the-weekism: it all hinges on a premise that is outlandish enough to work for Doctor Who but feels remarkably ill-suited for the more "realistic" Torchwood.

To compound these grievances further, one of Torchwood's most frustrating aspects (especially for first-time viewers) is how much it adheres to the Doctor Who universe. Certainly, there is a thrill in realizing that Jack's departure at the end of Season One (with the sounds of the TARDIS being the only clue as to Jack's whereabouts) leads to him entering the climatic finale of the third season Who (in which Jack, Martha, and the Doctor battle longtime Doctor nemesis "the Master"), but these are things that will be lost on casual Torchwood viewers.

Even fans of Davies' reboot will still be scratching their head over the exact purpose/origin of UNIT (which was introduced around the incarnation of the Third Doctor from the original run in the 1960s/70s), and why Martha Jones now works for them. Its little details like that can be fun for hardcore fans to put together (like when Jack references his bad experiences with the last Prime Minister [aka the Master] in "Reset"), but in the long run they come off more as in-jokes than crucial plot points.

Even with that said, however, few things can prepare any viewer for the Season Two finale, "Exit Wounds." Though Captain John reappears in an episode filled with massive set pieces and emotional climaxes, the ending is as powerful as the come, forever altering the fabric of the Torchwood universe and pulling tears out of even the most hardened of hearts.

The final 10 minutes in particular will leave the viewer reeling, as the writers conclude Season Two by making two extremely bold character choices that are best left unspoiled. Though said choices have already inspired much debate on internet fan forums, they are still pulled off gracefully, leaving a large emotional void that can only be filled by a well-done third season ...

Of course, those looking for answers in the special features best look elsewhere. Though Torchwood Declassified goes behind the scenes of each Season Two episode, there is much emphasis on the (fantastic) effect sequences and not as much on the individual character developments.

Though there are the ever-amusing outtakes and the mostly-pointless batch of deleted scenes (the only exception being a more emotionally fragile extended sequence from "A Day in the Death" between Owen and a dying billionaire with an alien artifact), the 22-minute featurette "The Life and Deaths of Captain Jack Harkness" at least fills in casual fans on the various plot crossovers between Torchwood and Who, serving as more of a cram-session than a detailed course in Captain Jack's origins. All in all, it's a fairly middling smattering of extras for a season that warrants much closer analysis and investigation.

At the end of the day, however, Torchwood proves to be more than just "the adult Doctor Who", tacking subjects as diverse as child abductions (highlight "Adrift") and animal rights ("Meat") without ever coming off as self-righteous or condescending. Indeed, there are still plenty of action sequences mixed with some delightfully comic moments, but Season Two of Torchwood winds up tapping into something much deeper: it questions the very nature of the human experience, asking if something as simple as love or honor can truly make for a life fulfilled. It's heady stuff for a science fiction program, but the fact that Torchwood actually pulls it off makes it all the more remarkable.

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