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The End Is Where We Start From

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV Reviews | July 29, 2009 | Comments ()


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"Have faith, with a dashing hero like me on the case, how can we fail?" -Captain Jack

The second series of "Torchwood" picks up with Jack having been missing for some time following his catching of the TARDIS at the end of the first series. The team has continued its duties in his absence. Beginning in the first episode, the series focuses more regularly on Jack's personal history, in particular his childhood and history with Torchwood over the last century.

James Marsters drops by in a particularly memorable guest appearance as Captain John, Captain Jack's old partner from the Time Agency. He's Jack exaggerated into a brilliant and dangerous cartoon of a man: a mish mash of period dress, unbridled sex, and joyous violence. He's been through every rehab imaginable, alcohol, drugs, sex, murder, but none of them stuck. Poodles sexually distract him. This is Jack before he loved the Doctor. Time travel stories aren't just about the past and future, they're about who we used to be, and glimpses of who we might be in the future.

That theme ties together much of the second series of "Torchwood," whether in the particular guise of time travel or not. We see Jack as a boy, losing his brother Gray in a raid by horrific enemies. When we see Gray again as a broken man, it's a reflection of what Jack might have been, had he been the one who'd been a step too slow. "Fragments" jumps back for the audience, showing us each of the team members before they joined the team. As a general concept it's a cliché, but in its implementation it is brilliant, showing us the rock bottom Ianto, Owen and Tosh had reached before being saved by Jack. "Fragments" also shows Jack's particular rock bottom, when the previous commander of Torchwood killed the entire team and then himself, warning Jack that he had seen the future and none of them were prepared. Blood on the floor of Torchwood's headquarters echoes in the finale.

Memory and identity also play important roles in the series. The titular antagonist of "Adam" twists everyone's memories around to accommodate his presence. They kill him by erasing the memories of him with their retcon drug, but the questions remain. What are we if not our memories? Owen comes back from the dead, ripped from the darkness into a sort of zombie existence. His body is dead, it cannot eat, drink, feel, heal, but he persists because he remembers who he once was. "A Day in the Death" hammers at this notion, exploring the nature of Owen's undeath until he can finally conclude that even though everything physical of himself is gone, he is still himself. Cogito ergo sum, indeed, though Descartes probably wasn't meditating on zombies.

The stand alone episodes are particularly good in this series, developing that wonderful Lovecraftian vastness first explored in the first series. The universe is both larger and weirder than we can possibly imagine, and as such is not so much malicious towards us, as it as indifferent to us as we are to the average ant. In "Doctor Who" the sense of vastness is guided towards a sense of wonder, because the central character is fundamentally omniscient. "Torchwood" moves farther from its "Doctor Who" roots in the second series by wholly inverting that impulse. When we don't know anything, the vastness is as terrifying as it is wonderful. All fear derives from the fear of the unknown. The absence of the Doctor shifts "Torchwood" firmly into the realm of horror science fiction for much of the second series. "From Out Of The Rain" is retro freaky, reminiscent of Freaks, while "Adrift" revisits the idea that sometimes things happen that are so terrible and inexplicable that the only kind thing we can do is comfort the devastated and tell comforting lies to their loved ones.

That's not to say that the series discounts human action as mattering. An idea that also played a role in the first series is the decision to make the cause of most of the problems people themselves. While the opening and closing of the rift provides its share of monstrosity, it's what people do with it that tends to cause horror. People are the problem. The finale avoids the problem of the end of the last series by making the cause and lynchpin of the story all small and personal.

The actors do a superb job throughout the series, both the main characters and the numerous side characters who come in for one or more episodes. In addition to James Marsters' turn as Captain John, Freema Agyeman jumps over from "Doctor Who" for three episodes. Martha has left behind the love sick puppy dog eyes on the TARDIS to be a capable and resourceful character who complements the existing team. One shot actors shine, in particular the circus folk of "From Out Of The Rain."

The characters are deeply drawn and evolve over the course of the series. Gwen loses the shrillness that marred her characterization during the first series, taking charge of the chaos that ensues during the final episode. The series concludes in the shocking and yet absolutely fitting deaths of Tosh and Owen, compounded with the devastating video left by Tosh in case of her death, where she rambles cutely about hoping it wasn't an incident with a toaster. The brutality of the innocent recording calls to mind the end of that first season "Angel" episode, "Hero." The shattered remnants of the team are left to carry on.

All in all, "Torchwood Series Two" expands upon the strengths of the first series and avoids repeating the same mistakes. It is not perfect by any stretch, but it manages a wonderful balance of science fiction, horror and humor.

"I have searched for the phrase 'I shall walk the Earth and my hunger shall know no bounds,' but I keep getting redirected to Weight Watchers." -Ianto


Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego's strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.




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