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February 29, 2008

Walkin Blind, Walk Away

Torchwood: Dead Man Walking

Dwm_stu One of my favourite television moments ever is during the Quantum Leap episode The Boogieman.  It happens right at the end when time travelling hero Sam Beckett realises that his holographic guide Al, who for much of the affair has been omitting certain truths and thoroughly misleading him, is actually a much darker force and might well be the devil working to stop him from carrying out his angelic aim of making right what once went wrong. 

It literally makes my flesh creep and that mostly has to do with Dean Stockwell’s performance, a friendly face turned sour, a glint and his eye and some twisted facial muscles suggesting that our friend simply isn’t there.  But it’s also because it suddenly increases the narrative landscape of the series, that he isn’t just being buffeted by the time winds but also the whims of metaphysical beings.

It seems probable that Dead Man Walking was supposed to have much the same effect, since the team literally bring Death (or some version of it) to Earth and although there was some idle discussion of whether it was from another dimension unlike much of Doctor Who, no real scientific, however fantastical, explanation was offered (which is something of a change for a franchise which up until now has mostly existed within a rational albeit sometimes magical universe). 

The newly resurrected Owen was being used as a conduit for old boney to walk among us and they were following the instruction of an ancient manuscript in order to vanquish it.  So far so Buffyverse.  To some extent it worked, helped by a wonderful realisation of Death, eschewing the usual cloak and scythe for a gas which was far more reaper 2.0 than the opening titles of Dead Like Me.

The problem was that the bringer of block capitals didn’t push itself through the consciousness barrier.  He was dragged into our world by the apparent heroes after bringing their friend back for a quick goodbye and grabbing of a security combination, men and women who on the basis of their previous experiences really should know better.  After run of episodes in which have very clearly demonstrated which side of the moral debate our heroes stood, we’re back in the grey area that threaded through the first series and made it so difficult to watch.  Unlike Quantum Leap, the forces of darkness in this series might well be the very people we're supposed to care about.

Jack’s always had a certain ambiguity with a very specific idea of how the greater good (the greater good) should be served.  Giving up that child to the aliens in Small Worlds being a prime example.  Except on this occasion Jack brought Owen back from death because he could, without as far as we could tell knowing what the consequences would be.  Which might have been fine had his action not ultimately led to the death of twelve people.  This puts us in the position of having to sympathise with heroes who’ve dropped off the moral compass, become the boogeyman (or woman) and I’m not sure that we can or should have to.

Perhaps I’m just touchy and I know this has nothing to do with wanting my heroes to be whiter than white.  Even the Doctor has grey areas.  And Batman for that matter and that might be what they’re going for.  Except the Doctor and Batman materialize or swing into these grey areas for the greater good (the greater good).  You could argue that the Torchwood team did exactly what any human being would do, ignoring the wider picture and making the most of the tools available in order to save a colleague.  Except, y’know, twelve people.  What about their families and friends, eh? 

We should applaud the writers trying to be different, for attempting to put the audience on the back foot, since they’ve put us in the position of having to root for characters that have been doing the kinds of things which villains have a tendency to do, in other words, Torchwood reverted to type and became exactly the organisation the Doctor wrinkled his nose at in The Sound of Drums.  Notice that in the middle of everything Martha (in about the only scene which justified her presence in the episode) tore a strip from her pal, thereby keeping her on the right side of right, almost ring fencing her from responsibility.  But however well written the speech was like perfume within the moral vacuum.

The conclusion of the episode was almost being played out as though the team were battling an entity which they’d had no responsibility for, which had entered into our reality through some other means.  The intention seemed to be to portray the team’s detached professionalism, but at least to these eyes it had all the hallmarks of psychosis of the kind some murderers apparently go through when they’ve bumped off a loved one and enter grief. 

But I don’t know if that was the intention, that the writers were being that clever.  What probably niggles is that I can’t be certain that writer Matt Jones made those kinds of psychological connections (certainly this interview suggests not) and if he did he’s asking an awful from us viewers looking for a bit of excitement on a Wednesday night.  It’s ironic that ITV1 began showing the quasi-cop show Dexter later on in the evening which portrays a similar situation.  Except in that case, the writers are very careful to make is victims people we’d dislike anyway.

Perhaps I’m just pissed off that just as it looked as though the production team had done something truly exciting like killing off a main character, he’s still walking around and brooding about what it is to be alive, flying about rubbish night clubs in the visual style of Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets.  Perhaps it might have worked better if the team had shown a less flippant attitude to his immortality, instead of giving the impression it was just another day at the office, all breezy and business-like.

Perhaps after a run of excellent episodes, I'm disappointed to we're suddenly back in the territory of the first series, with its nervous tone, reliance on Weevils for scares and portrayal of what's supposed to be a professional team as idiots.  Not since the truck was nicked in Countrycide have we seen a more cloth headed decision than leaving the glove lying around like its some medical instrument in order to produce an action sequence. 

And what was going on with Jack's antics in the teaser?  At a time when we should have been mourning the death of a character, we were offered something which looked like a live action adaptation of a Warner Brothers cartoon with the Captain in the Daffy Duck role, wonky camera angles included.  I wouldn’t be too surprised if the episode lost my interest and investment right there.  All it needed was a mousetrap to be in the box instead of the glove.

With an average episode I probably would have been applauding the treatment of Owen’s predicament particularly the fact that the internal systems related to digestion and erections had shut down.  The scene in that police cell was a neat bit of writing and acting, up there with the similar male bonding scene in Utopia (even the projectile vomiting was a bit funny).  The episode was well directed too, with only the odd Teagueian camera angle to pull us out of the action or confuse things. 

Despite largely having nothing but exposition to say this time, Ianto once again had the funniest moment as he faced down the glove with a hockey stick and Martha, despite being horrendously underused still managed to demonstrate how missed she’ll be not travelling through time in the next series of Doctor Who.  Even the Tosh and Owen material was sweet right up to the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan moment at the end.

Which is probably where the epicentre of the problems I had with the episode lay.  From Propp to Campbell theorists on the heroic trajectory have noted that for a story to be totally satisfying, if the hero succeeds through morally ambiguous means, there has to be a penalty (cf. Father’s Day).  In order to create closure and for the actions to have consequences, for narrative reasons Owen had to die once and for all at the end during his struggle.  But this kind of series television rarely allows for those kinds of absolutes and we’re also back in the situation of not really understanding what the production team are trying to do.

Mr. Gorman’s still under contract, still listed in the main titles and since Martha’s only around for three episodes isn’t going to be replaced any time soon.  He’s technically still dead though (and good luck with dealing with that in continuity terms) and judging by next week’s episode has magical powers.  Perhaps he’ll finally be offed next week and prove me wrong but I don’t think so.  But now that the series has a family friendly version you have to wonder if this is sending mixed messages to kids about human mortality.  Why can't they just be content with Torchwood giving us the weekly bit of clear cut good vs evil?  Its served Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures quite well so far.

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