By Joan O'Connell Hedman
When Torchwood's second season debut opens with a cliché-ridden car chase, you can't help but wonder if the show runners are trying too hard. Between-seasons PR promised more team spirit and more fun; what I'm hoping for is a settled sense of, and respect for, the target audience and a lot more consistency with the characterization. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" easily transcends its ridiculous lead-off, and sets the tone for a new season of less bickering, more questions, some answers, and a good mix of otherworldly technology, aliens, sex, and action. It works.
About that opening set piece: it's about as good as a three-minute introduction to Torchwood could be, but I'm not convinced it was necessary, and it's loaded with inconsistencies. On a dark and otherwise deserted street, Granny waits to cross; just as the light changes, a convertible driven by a blowfish-headed humanoid pulls up. The fish-head gestures for Granny to cross, gunning the engine. Because this is Torchwood, there's a moment of suspense: Will the fish-head run down Granny? He doesn't; the light changes, and he speeds off. A moment later, Torchwood's SUV pulls up and Gwen (Eve Myles) asks Granny if she's seen a fish driving a sports car. As the SUV takes off after the fish, Granny comments, "Bloody Torchwood!"
That exasperation is a familiar feeling. Torchwood is supposed to be a secret organization, but everyone knows all about it. And I do mean all, as demonstrated when Fish-head, who has manufactured a hostage situation, gives the first really bad speech of the episode, reeling off each team member's role and noting how lost they are without their leader. He cruelly taunts Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) for not having the guts to shoot him. Thankfully, the stand-off is short lived. Fish-head takes a bullet through the head, coolly delivered by boss-gone-AWOL Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman). Say what you will about Jack, the timing of his return is impeccable.
Elsewhere, on a Cardiff rooftop, two thugs struggle while a man materializes out of nowhere. Like our Captain Jack, he's dressed anachronistically in a military uniform, but he's a bit more swishy about it, with a heavily looped jacket of the type worn by dragoons or hussars in the early 19th century. Hearing the commotion, he intervenes decisively by dropping the threatening hood off the roof before he tells the other to go. He strides off in search of a drink, his sense of accomplishment apparent.
Clean-up proceeds at the site of Fish-head's unfathomable stunt. There are a lot of mixed emotions stirred up by Jack's return, but before anyone can properly process them, he's off again. His wrist band beeps ("That never beeps," Ianto deadpans) and it turns out he's got a message. We see a holographic projection of the uniformed stranger, who obviously knows Jack very well, and Jack's off again, leaving only a curt order not to follow him.
He's not even out of the frame before Tosh (Naoko Mori) pipes up, "I can track him!" and Ianto calls for a cab. Welsh cabs are roomy, and all four of the team slag on Jack for swanning in without a word and then leaving again, as if everything were all right. Ianto, grasping for some slight redemption for Jack, says that things are much more fun with Jack around; the others agree with various degrees of enthusiasm.
All of the characters will soon converge at the Bar Reunion, where the stranger has cleared the place, first silencing the music with a wrist-band exactly like Jack's, and then ordering everyone out. Two bouncers approach but become non-issues when the man swings two huge guns up: "Did I mention I'm armed?"
Captain Jack appears as the stranger drinks his way down a tremendous row of shots; the two men face off as in a Western shoot-out, then walk slowly to each other and embrace. There's something disturbing about that kiss, and it's not that it's two guys kissing. When our Jack locked lips with the real Captain Jack Harkness in the episode of that name in Season 1, it was a very powerful moment, expressing the deeply conflicting emotions both men felt. Here, there's more hostility than anything in that kiss, and that sense is confirmed when the two men start beating the hell out of each other as soon as their lips part.
There's a lot of broken glass in their well-choreographed fight. As with the opening car chase, stock moves are seamlessly incorporated here as humorous notes. I couldn't help but laugh at Owen having Gwen take the wheel as he leaned out the window to shoot out the Fish-head's tires, and the same thing happens here when the stranger drags Jack, face down, the length of the bar, glassware flying. Since both of these men appear equally tough and strong, it seems as if this fight could consume the entire episode, but it comes quickly to an end when both guys pull their weapons.
At that point, the rest of the team is called out of hiding, and introductions are made all around. The stranger is Captain John Hart (James Marsters), Time Agent and former partner of Jack, in every sense of the word. The script falters when the two men start bickering about who was the wife in their relationship; exchanging quips is one thing, but listening to two aging queens' petty arguments isn't funny. (Just to be clear, listening to anyone's petty arguments isn't funny.)
John's story is that he's followed three radiation cluster bombs to Earth, and needs the team's help to find them before they break down their containers and start killing people. Jack doesn't trust him, but they all head back to Torchwood to put together a plan.
Up to this point, we've seen a number of changes from Season One. First of all, the dynamic among the team is a lot more supportive and a lot less snippy, which we can most likely credit to the second big change: Gwen's in charge. We don't have a sense of how long Jack was gone, but it had to have been on the order of months, given the developments in the meantime. The third noticeable change is the introduction of some very high level technology. Season One featured some impressive alien stuff, but the day-to-day stuff involved mostly trackers and very extensive databases, nothing as useful as the field agents have here. During the stand-off with Fish-head, Tosh (Naoko Mori) uses a scanner device which detects that the Fish-head was on cocaine. Once Captain John describes what he's searching for, Tosh tech-babbles that it'll be easy to cross-reference reports from the rift activity monitor and radiation sensors, two tools never before mentioned but essential for Torchwood's work; why didn't they think of these sooner? If they can keep an eye on rift activity, that will help keep them one step ahead of whatever weirdness might result.
Another welcome change from Season One is hearing the characters ask the questions that any sane person would ask were they in similar situations. I won't claim they're perfect with this, but they're much better with both the questions and the answers. The entire team wants to know where the hell Jack was, and he tells them, he found his Doctor. Jack denies "his perfection" needed fixing; clearly, it's his attitude that has been reformed; we'll get confirmation of that later. Ianto guardedly asks if Jack's going back to the Doctor, but Jack replies that he came back for all of them. For Torchwood, this is a breakthrough scene: they ask Jack a question, and he answers them. Of course there were a lot of gaps in that answer, but still, it's a start.
Later, Gwen and Jack have a great scene where she rakes him over the coals for leaving them. She presses him for more details, and we learn, along with Captain Jack, that Gwen's engaged. Her description of Rhys's proposal is sweetly funny, but Jack's smile is as haunted as Gwen's look is pointed. "You said yes?" Jack asks; "No one else will have me," Gwen retorts. The tension between the two remains unresolved; the only thing they can do is get back to work.
Tosh has indeed located the three canisters, and they split up into pairs to recover them. Jack lectures Gwen about trusting John; Gwen's hoping to flirt some information out of him, and find out what he's really doing there. John's amused by the entire proceedings, waiting out in the hallway for Gwen: "Has he got to the 'no kissing' rule yet?"
Jack's fears are well-founded, for as soon as Gwen finds the canister, the proverbial needle in the haystack of hundreds and hundreds of empty cargo containers, John grabs her and kisses her, "To celebrate!" But Gwen knows immediately that something is very wrong, and John doesn't waste any time in telling her about his poisoned lip gloss, a trick he learned from Jack. The neurotoxins that are paralyzing Gwen will kill her if she's not given the antidote within two hours. John leaves her at the far end of the container, and pitches her cellphone a few rows over as he heads out.
Meanwhile, Tosh and Owen (Burn Gorman) are searching some kind of random storage facility; there's junk piled everywhere. Tosh hasn't changed much from last season, still harboring her crush on Owen, who remains uncharacteristically obtuse. But their dialog shows they may eventually come together, as Owen says he's given up the fast life, and they both complain about finding anyone they have something in common with. Tosh bides her time, waiting for Owen to realize she's waiting for him.
"Oh, you beauty!" Owen exclaims, but not to Tosh; he finds the beer-can sized canister improbably quickly. Moments later, John swaggers in, decks Tosh, and takes the canister from Owen. John menaces Tosh once again, but Owen is charmingly protective of her. John finds a huge wooden bat and obnoxiously questions whether he should go for the brutality of wood or just shoot; Owen tells him to get on with it, and we see the gun raised and the muzzle flash.
Cut to Jack and Ianto in a cubicle farm; Jack's strangely excited, and tells Ianto that offices are like exotic landscapes for him. This scene showcases one of the biggest pleasures of the season, the new and improved Ianto. Jack is his usual flirtatious self, but Ianto is all business, and remains slightly stand-offish even when Jack asks about the possibility of dinner and a movie sometime. Having successfully negotiated the date, Ianto sends Jack to look up on the roof, "You're good on roofs," and telling Jack he wouldn't want him to get over-excited searching the office: "Some fetishes you should keep to yourself."
Of course, John comes for Ianto and Jack next, easily luring Ianto out to the elevator bank, and sending him out to rescue his team mates. John is even more cruel to Ianto than Fish-head was, dubbing him "Eye Candy." Sure, Ianto's pretty, but he's also very competent as the behind-the-scenes guy, even if he's not a great field agent. It bothers Ianto to leave Jack with no backup, but John said that his friends were dying, and that's not something you argue with.
Up on the roof, Jack finds the last canister perched on the edge, and John finds Jack. Jack's not surprised to see him, and he mocks, "Radiation cluster bombs?" John admits it was an elaborate ruse, but it worked, because the team found all three canisters for him. But that's not all John wants: he wants Jack back in the game, with him. John puts a lot of effort into making his nihilistic lifestyle sound appealing, but Jack scoffs that he hasn't quite mastered the temptation spiel. John, angry now, demands the canister; Jack flings it over his shoulder and off the roof: "Whoops!" John, furious, pushes Jack right off after it, and we're treated to three different lovely, long shots of Jack falling, falling until he breaks his back on a concrete bench. John walks out of the building, picks up the canister, and pauses to look at his former partner with something like fear, but no regret. He takes Jack's wristband knowing it'll get him in the front door of Torchwood.
Ianto finds Tosh already helping the wounded Owen, who performs his own field surgery and dressing once Tosh finds the painkillers. They're all wondering why John left them alive as they take off to find Gwen. The impossibility of searching the container yard is manifest. Ianto keeps calling Gwen's phone, which they quickly locate, but Tosh just as quickly realizes it's one of John's ruses. She uses some of her amazing new (and frankly unbelievable) tech to pinpoint exactly where Gwen last used her phone, and it helps them locate Gwen about two seconds later. More awesome sensor-tech helps them diagnose Gwen, and apparently their field kit contains exactly the right anti-toxins to save her.
I realize they're not going to let Gwen die, and it's a fabulous plot device when Gwen's in peril. Here, particularly, with her doll-like face and big, glassy eyes, when her shallow breathing conveys her terror more effectively than any dialog could. But this level of technology, even for Torchwood, is approaching the line at which suspending disbelief becomes very difficult. We're all familiar with Arthur C. Clarke's law stating that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; Torchwood keeps putting its toe over the line that separates the two, and they have to take care not to make the tech so advanced that all their problems are solved this easily.
Then continuity takes a brief vacation, as John, back at Torchwood in the autopsy room with the dead Fish-head, extracts a small pyramid from its trouser pocket, muttering, "You had to steal that car," as if stealing a car was what attracted attention to a Fish-head walking around Cardiff. It's really not the kind of thing you see everyday, even in Cardiff. It seems that John knew Fish-head somehow, but that's a plot thread that never gets explained or resolved. Was John really pursuing Fish-head for that pyramid, or was it just a coincidence that it ended up in Fish-head's pocket? How did John know it had stolen the car?
Maybe both of them were racing to find all the pieces first, because it turns out that the pyramid is the final piece of a puzzle. The other three pieces are, of course, enclosed in those canisters. John's just about to drop the pyramid into place when he hears several guns cocking, and he turns to see Ianto, Gwen, Owen, and Tosh looking down on him. He's impressed in spite of himself, but still considers them weak and ineffective. Gwen then delivers the second really awful speech of the episode (drivel: "No matter what you do to us, we'll always come back stronger,"). John scoffs, and hopes to demoralize them by telling them he left Jack splayed out over a bench. He blanches when Jack walks in, fit as ever; he really can't believe his eyes. Gwen's speech is the last low point of the episode; from here on out, it's a sweet, fast ride.
Marsters is fabulous, finally realizing just how much Jack has changed since they split up. Barrowman's great here, too, as we see that Jack is finally at peace with his immortality. He savors it, shoving it in John's face like a rebuke he can never escape. John finally realizes he can't win, and tells them the real story. Of course it's all about money; he offers the team a 50/50 split—and an orgy. There are no takers, but Jack makes John open the pyramid anyway. It's supposed to reveal the location of a very rare, hence very valuable, Acadian diamond—except it doesn't. The woman who sent John on this chase, the woman he murdered to get to the diamond, set it all up as an elaborate trap, and John ends up with a DNA-targeted explosive device attached to his chest that will detonate in ten minutes.
Ianto, ever ready with his stopwatch, starts timing immediately as John begs Jack to help him. When Jack pointedly asks "Why?" he slugs Jack and in the ensuing commotion grabs Gwen and handcuffs himself to her, then makes an obnoxious show of swallowing the key. They've already determined that the explosion will damage the city, and Gwen suggests that Tosh use the rift predictor, yet another new piece of tech, to find a place where they can slip through and let the bomb detonate safely "out" of the city. John can't believe that Gwen would sacrifice herself like that; Gwen's "Try me," is beyond doubt. Tosh sees that the opening in the rift that John first arrived through is still active, so the team literally hauls him back to the roof of the carpark in the morning light, Ianto counting down the seconds.
Owen stays behind with Jack, fussing about with test tubes and a centrifuge, packing a hypodermic needle. "Trust me, I'm an improviser," he promises Jack. Up on the roof of the car park, they all see the rift there as the seconds tick away, and everyone wonders, where's Jack? Gwen's in mid-dying-message when Jack and Owen race up to the roof in Owen's awesome red convertible; Jack tackles John and Gwen and injects John with the hypo. As the device keeps ticking, he panics: will it work? It drops off John's chest with only seconds to spare, and Jack throws it into the rift. (I wonder, shouldn't it have deactivated once it fell off? I guess not.) It explodes in a nice f/x shot, with everyone thrown back a dozen feet or so. When they stand up, it's night again: the explosion in the rift has caused a temporal displacement, and they're back to the moment when John first came through. No harm, no foul? Hardly.
John uncuffs Gwen (he hadn't really swallowed the key, after all), and Jack wants him gone. John wheedles a bit, trying to get Jack to let him stay aboard Torchwood; Jack refuses. The kiss they share this time is brief, and when they break, Jack's expression has no trace of tenderness. John steps into the rift and activates his wristband, delivering his parting shot: "By the way, I meant to tell you... I found Grey." Jack looks stricken, and we see a micro-flashback of two hands slipping apart. "Who's Grey?" Gwen asks, but Jack tells her it's nothing, lying. "Let's get back to work," he says, leading them all away.
We're off to very good start here. Finally, someone is asking many of the questions we at home have been asking, and we're even getting some answers. The writers deftly balance humor and action with more deeply felt or reasoned material, and the actors are all well up to the task. The directors have finally learned to show Barrowman to his best advantage; it's a lot easier to listen to Jack's more sincere speeches when the camera isn't parked on his face—he's much better at glib, vindictive, or just plain happy, and he can't convincingly maintain a serious expression. Thankfully, he doesn't have to.
I haven't paid enough attention to Marsters' performance here, which is simply a joy. John Hart is a complete sociopath, and the fact that he's witty and dead sexy doesn't change that. It would've been easy to make him one-dimensional, and he is rather a one-note character right up until the scene where he sees the resurrected Jack. That scene makes the entire episode, and pays off all the stupid bickering between the two characters. For all that, John's only in it for the money, for all that life to him is just an accident of entropy and chemicals, he really is lonely, and really did feel something (I won't argue that it's love) for Jack. Marsters is brilliant. Happily, the show runners realize he's too good a character to be a one-off.
There are a couple of real laugh-out-loud moments, one of them being Marsters' dead-on "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope," complete with body language. That surprised and delighted me; it's OK to take the clichéd route if you can pull off the laughs. But the two horrible speeches are serious missteps. Fortunately they don't derail the entire proceedings.
I still can't figure out why everyone knows so much about Torchwood, particularly Fish-head's detailed knowledge of the team. That's most likely part of the same lost plot threads that seemed to indicate that John and Fish-head had something to do with each other; judicious editing could've spared us this entire distraction. I'm convinced that the rest of Cardiff knows Torchwood exists specifically to deal with the inexplicably weird things that happen all the time, but that's all they know, and that's OK. If it turns out to be more than that, the whole premise falls apart.
Can they keep it together? I've no doubt. "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" isn't perfect, but it is quintessential Torchwood. All in all, a solid effort to kick off the new season.
Joan O'Connell Hedman sometimes blogs about movies and television. This article's screencaps are from The Institute, a Torchwood fan site.