I can't offer my usual review this week, as I've been laid low by a severe case of man flu. However, I can give you a list of the subjects I would have touched upon:
Anyway, I'm having a nice big injection of wasps shortly so hopefully I'll be fit for whatever the next episode will bring.
Take a retcon pill,
Scrub the painful memories
Well, that amnesia pill certainly did its job; five minutes after the episode finished and I couldn't remember for the life of me whether I actually liked it or not. I think I kind of did - more than Out Of Time, but less than Meat or Captain Jack Harkness - but even after a second viewing I'm not sure what to believe.
The ironies of this episode being about unreality and false visions of the past will not be lost on anybody who suffered through season one. The Torchwood gang make a much better impression upon you when they're not being themselves, and the resolution depends upon their willingness to erase the consequences of this week's activities, which we've absolutely derided the show for when it tossed the baby out with the bathwater willy-nilly, time after time. But mainly it's because a cheap piece of 1988 space-sitcom nonsense managed to do almost the exact same thing in greater depth and less time than the slick, glossy 21st century one. Adam was never going to compete with Red Dwarf: Thanks For The Memories on its own level anyway as the older programme was a pastiche (that is, a deliberate one). It starts with the mystery of two missing days and Lister and Cat's broken legs, but completely ridicules the sci-fi side of it - the early series were brilliant at this before it became exactly what it was supposed to satirise in the first place - by revealing the cause to be something relatively mundane, straightforward and stupid, where Lister just for once wanted to do something nice for Rimmer but ends up hurting him more than if he'd actually tried.
Magnus Greel's invisible moving spiders...
So Adam lacks that element of conceptual genius. It scores elsewhere though by being even more bittersweet and cruel - turning Ianto into a serial killer is easily the single most horrible thing suffered by any of the main cast thus far, as he's that close to going looby-loo mental even at the best of times - and so visually batshit-confusing that you can't help but want to know what the hell any of it is really going to mean by the end of it; though yet again (notice a pattern emerging?) some of the bizarre direction doesn't exactly help.
Adam himself possesses little in the way of physical presence or power in his voice. It's nearly a catastrophic flaw, but not for the obvious reasons you probably think. Like those annoying in-and-out jump-zooms that view like Dawg from the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons being continually stopped short by the rope around his kennel, it's the fault of the direction that this is brought to our attention in such a negative way (the lighting and camera both make a concerted effort to paint Adam as somebody dangerous before his first major blunder a couple of minutes in pisses it all down the toilet), when in fact his ability to fade into the background - at least, until his evil side comes out - is the most important attribute of the character as written; so much so, that it highlights the real problem - that without that critical first error and the chain of dominoes it sets off, you've basically got no story.
Tosh goes up seven cup sizes
If we take a look at those glaring 'mistakes' for a minute: cocking up Gwen's engagement and getting tripped up by basic CCTV security are, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb. Adam's third error isn't in failing to recognise Ianto as such a nerd for detail that he'd note down every little occurrence in triplicate, but rather in not destroying the diary evidence when he had the chance once this became apparent - dumb, once again. Succumbing to pleasure and pushing Ianto so far into madness that nobody in the world will buy it (and since it's a person's belief in what they hold to be the truth that determines the success or failure of a lie-detector test, I don't know what Jack was hoping to accomplish with that), is less a lack of self-control than plain cocksure arrogance, especially after handing the hook for Jack's suspicions over to him on a plate to begin with. But if Adam ends up looking so much like he deserves to fail, it's because like the Moonbase Cybermen, there's simply no way he can lose unless he puts his own foot in it. What difference would success have made anyway? There is not a single character flaw present in Adam that one of the others hasn't already displayed in a more gratuitous fashion, even in the superior season two. He's not some megalomaniacal Bond villain, his only concern is survival, and he's right; Torchwood are more comfortable with themselves from his intervention initially. Tosh goes up seven cup sizes. Yes, yes, alright, do I have the right blah de blah; but if not having permission were the only thing you could hold up to Adam's plan as far as doing anything morally 'wrong' was concerned, then Catherine Treganna would have backed herself into a conflict-free narrative corner. Even with this alternative, there is no real moral point made apart from 'don't get caught'.
The episode also skirts perilously close to coming unglued by the overwrought self-help retcon therapy that goes on for a good ten minutes after what appears to be the episode's natural ending as Adam is carted off, when in fact the one-to-one confrontation that follows is the most important bit. Adam is finally undone by his own trump card, the only live-or-die mistake in the entire episode; his belief that Jack's intense suffering from keeping his past subdued would be so great that Jack would never stand up to him. If this had come off as planned, every other screw-up and more besides would simply not have mattered. But it's terribly easy to look this crucial point straight in the face and not see it. Since there is only one way to provide proper closure to the episode, the final 'Last Temptation' sequence - again with the Christ complex - winds up looking all the more extraneous; Jack's memories were buried before Adam came along, they're buried again once he's exorcised, and no matter what Adam does to him in between, the retcon will take it away again for a net overall difference of zero. But if you're sitting there marking time while Jack slouches around the unreal dream-beach from The X-Files: The Sixth Extinction while his damn-dirty-apes face shrieks "oh shit, it's Vengeance On Varos", you've missed the point in a big way.
Even then I still feel ambivalent towards Jack's past. We have plenty of 'new' history to plug gaps with, some of which may even be true. Magnus Greel's invisible moving spiders are a life-changing event. But it doesn't feel like the right information yet, and the writers are all pulling their own Chris Carters to avoid bringing up the two years of erased memories that are the missing key to the Captain Jack that we think we've known for the last three years. Or had you forgotten? They also gave us so much peekaboo into Jack's background that they completely forgot about the one real bloke whose mind didn't get pissed about with. What is he, some malignant parasitic entity inhabiting the void, like the Eternals? And we came in with Adam firmly entrenched in place, but what exactly happened when Torchwood found him, or the other way round? Am I missing something here? Could I be looking for answers that don't matter? Or is it that they failed to answer the most nagging question of all; namely that if Captain Jack's dad was Bruce Willis, how did he turn out so camp?
If Captain Jack's dad was Bruce Willis, how did he turn out so camp?
And I don't think I really wanted to know the team's innermost defining memories, and certainly not as a Freudian cop-out excuse or apology for who they are and what they do, as Owen's emotional abuse as a child was. But not even Adam can cure Owen of being an arsehole, and whether real or imagined, expressing your desire (ineptly) for a colleague on their anniversary is just an arsehole thing to do. The real Owen doesn't do flowers or apologies. He doesn't do feelings very well either. Arnold Rimmer, Dwayne Dibbley, or Bert from Sesame Street with specs on? You decide. And Ianto; yes, I know you were traumatised by Cyberwoman, it was the stupidest episode ever and you were terrible in it, but for God's sake once and for all GET OVER IT. And as for Gwen; well, all she has to do is ask Rhys what happened over the last two days and they're fucked again.
Hmm, what was it you were saying about selective memory loss last week, Neil?
It’s often a sign of a show that’s finally cooking by gas when it decides to have a little fun with its characters. And Adam certainly does that, not to mention be clever, funny, scary, emotional and downright weird at times. Tochwood series 2 has seen the show in many ways come on leaps and bounds from its fits and starts debut year, but not till now have I been moved to write about just how good this show can be when it gets the right script with the right direction and all the regulars pulling in the same way for once. And it comes as no surprise to find one of the first series’ undoubted finds, Catherine Tregenna, with her name on the credits.
Meat was good, but with Tregenna’s name attached it felt ultimately a little disappointing. If last year’s Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness taught us nothing else, it still highlighted how Torchwood’s major lacking in its inaugural year was believable, likeable regulars. Both of these episodes had these in spades, and Adam takes it one step further by giving us a new spin on these characters, making them familiar yet different at the same time. And before you think it, yes we have seen this sort of thing before (I mean, this is still Torchwood after all). Both The Next Generation (as Stuart hinted last week) and Red Dwarf have done these altered reality-type stories where the coda sees everyone scratching their heads at the couple of days of missing memories they have to ponder over. But that’s okay, because as we know originality died a long time ago and the most you can hope for with any television show or film is to see something familiar done in a new and likeable way.
there’s a very human undercurrent to the script which gives the whole thing a poignancy it otherwise wouldn’t have had
Right from the opening titles - altered slightly to include Adam as a regular, just as Buffy’s ‘Superstar’ included Jonathan - to the poignant ending in which Jack tries to find truth from a handful of sand, Adam is the sort of episode you just don’t want to finish. Which in itself is a pretty remarkable testament to how quickly this show has come in just half a dozen episodes. Yes, a lot of the fun to be had comes from seeing the regulars acting, um, irregularly - Tosh as confident, sexed-up boy-magnet, Owen as a repressed, nerdy techno-geek - but there’s a very human undercurrent to the script which gives the whole thing a poignancy it otherwise wouldn’t have had. And as with Tregenna’s break-out script Out of Time, that poignancy comes from something as simple yet crucial as the memories each of us carries inside. For once Torchwood aren’t threatened by an alien that wants to steal our brains or take over our bodies; this time it wants to rob us of the very things which stay behind when the things we love are gone.
Well, I say rob. But that’s not exactly true. Tregenna avoids the obvious pitfall of depicting her alien in terms of black and white, yes or no terms of goodness and badness by having Adam behave both manipulatively yet sympathetically in turn. And the fact that Bryan Dick rises to the occasion, giving a nuanced performance that is in turns likable, sinister and heartbreakingly sad is really just the icing on the cake. But he’s hardly alone in raising the acting stakes; Burn Gorman recreates Owen as a charming and awkward nerd, somewhere about a million miles away from his otherwise cocksure and sarcastic alter-ego. And once again Naoko Mori shows that, when she’s given the material, Tosh is arguably the most likeable and sympathetic of Team Torchwood’s members. Rather neat also is how Tregenna literally reverses the Owen and Tosh roles, making one the needy, socially inept loser and the other the sexually assertive putter-downer (the fact that Owen is now both wearing the specs and making the sandwiches is just some heavy-handed window-dressing for those who can’t keep up).
I just wish that Barrowman had the skill to tone down his big-band performances
It’s just a shame that, at times, John Barrowman isn’t singing from the same song sheet (which, considering his multifarious Saturday night engagements, is a somewhat damning irony). Yes, given reasons to look cold and steely in the face of alien infiltration, our Captain still talks the talk; but give Barrowman some heartfelt emotional stuff and you’re left chewing the cushion in pained embarrassment. Which is a shame, as Jack (as always) plays a vital role in events this week; granting us a heads-up of his old stomping ground the Boeshane Peninsula, a look at his Ma and Pa in the good old days of the 51st Century and (not surprisingly, given James Marsters’ rather loaded parting shot at the end of week one) the revelation that Gray was in fact Jack’s younger brother, left to the mercies of the invading aliens (who sound really nasty) that first drove Jack away from his childhood home. I just wish that Barrowman had the skill to tone down his big-band performances so that it suited the more intimate locale of the television screen. The presence and the charisma are there, undoubtedly, but as always the maxim for these things should be less is more.
Which is a neat way of moving onto Andy Goddard’s superlative direction, resplendent as it is with this show’s characteristically whiplash effect camera zooms, yet full of innovative moments like Adam entering the team’s false or repressed memories; and particularly his truly disturbing depiction of Ianto as a would-be serial rapist. Which in itself raises a curious moral dilemma - are we exonerated of a crime when everyone knows we didn’t do it, but our own memories tell us otherwise? Either way this is truly chilling stuff, with Gareth David Lloyd at last casting off all ambitions to play the Comedy Club and giving a superb performance. He may not have blubbed this much since the dark days of Cyberwoman, but at least the thought of being the Cardiff strangler warrants such an emotional display.
Rhys is arguably becoming the most insightful of Torchwood’s extended gang
But what makes Adam such a resounding success is hardly new to fans of Tregenna’s previous scripts: heart. Whether it is in the tender and very real rediscovery of Gwen’s memories of Rhys (anyone else wish they’d kept this element out of the amnesia pill reboot?) or Jack’s buried past which threatens to take precedence over his present, Adam is a plain and simple treatise about the power of memory and the need for us all to be remembered. Like with Out of Time’s doomed John Ellis, life starts to unravel when all those we remember or who remember us start to fade away; quite literally in the case of Adam who now only exists in other people’s memories, faked, revived or otherwise. As Rhys - arguably becoming the most insightful of Torchwood’s extended gang - says himself, ‘Memories are all we have’. Which, considering he escapes the amnesia-drug solution to everything, could mean some interesting moments to come.
All of which leaves me just to mention the little moments that - appropriately enough - still stick in the memory: the post-hypnotic regression that Jack invokes to get the team to remember their true selves (revealing Owen’s maternal angst, Tosh’s emotional coldness and Gwen’s true feelings towards Jack), the way that Adam plays on Jack’s sympathy to get back in his head (literally rewriting his memories as a result) and of course that final shot of a handful of sand running meaninglessly through Jack’s fingers.
Simply put, Torchwood at its very, very best. And for once I don’t feel the need to temper that statement with the caveat of assuming that it’s all downhill from here.
Next Time: Calling Dr. Jones, as Martha is welcomed to the Hub and Jim from Neighbours is doing something decidedly dodgy with DNA and giant wasps. Whatever would Scott and Charlene have to say..?
Adam is a great episode of Torchwood. Scratch that - it's the only great episode of Torchwood. For the very first time the show managed to convey confidence instead of cockiness, boldness instead of bravado and ingenuity instead of incessant innuendo. I felt as if I was watching a completely different programme, which, to a certain extent, I was. If only they'd kept it up! Just think: slutty Tosh on a weekly basis, lovable Owen performing hilarious Lee Evans impersonations, Gwen perpetually forgetting who she is, Jack back to his happy-go-lucky self, and a blood-splattered Ianto hiding bodies in the basement instead of the usual Doctor Who monsters. I'd watch it.
Ah yes, Ianto. That was the knockout punch as far as I was concerned. Even if the rest of the episode had turned out to be a resounding mess, the harrowing mental assault on poor Ianto really struck a chord with me. This was a truly horrific and macabre concept and Gareth David-Lloyd sold it perfectly. Is this really the same bloke who couldn't cry his way out of a paper bag last year? I was shocked and genuinely concerned that he would be forced to live with those memories for the rest of his life, whereas last week I wanted to punch him squarely in the jaw. That's quite a turnaround.
For the very first time the show conveyed confidence instead of cockiness.
Adam the "person" was a fascinating chracter who managed to swing between nonchalance and malevolence with disturbing ease. I'm also perversely pleased that we didn't get the full story when it came to his motives or goals. Was he drawn to Jack because of his longevity or was it due to his travels through time and space? Is Jack's "unique mind" a side-effect of that missing year that still hasn't been accounted for? Were Jack's memories of his father real or fake (or both)? Did Jack forget his father because Adam messed with his mind when he arrived, or is that block tied into the missing year as well? Has Jack lost all memory of Gray and his father now, thanks to Adam? The opening of the sandbox certainly implies that this is indeed the case, which makes Jack's sacrifice even more meaningful and profound. And where did the sandbox come from anyway? Was Adam trapped in the box and that's how Torchwood found him/released him? Thankfully, all this ambiguity and open-endedness accentuates the episode's dreamlike qualities, and any nagging doubts I was left with felt strangely appropriate and entirely intentional.
Incredibly, I actually care about this bunch of cretins now
Having said all that, John Barrowman was all over the place. At times he was buttock-clenchingly bad, especially during the embarrassing (or brave, if you're feeling charitable) regressions into childhood. Unfortunately, I've had the 'pleasure' of seeing that infamous episode of Have I Been Here Before? where Barrowman "remembered" a past-life as a trapeze artist who's entire family were wiped out in a bizarre circus accident, and as a result it was practically impossible for me to take him seriously. But there were flashes of brilliance too. The final confrontation with Adam, where Jack sacrifices his precious memories for the sake of the team was undeniably powerful stuff, and very, very moving.
Sadly, Captain Jack's big, bad secret was a little bit 'meh' for me. The whole Gray thing felt cheesy and predictable, not to mention entirely accidental, and while Boeshane Peninsula's depopulated future certainly looked impressive, I just couldn't get involved in this rather ho-hum turn of events.
And somebody please shoot me for admitting this, but I actually liked the group therapy session at the end. It was rather sweet. OK, so the alien screensaver was laughable, Owen's psychological backstory flirted with parody, and we should never be reminded of Cyberwoman, but there was a poignancy and a tenderness to that scene which broke my cynical old heart.
Incredibly, I actually care about this bunch of cretins now.
Am I the only one who would have preferred the post-Adam versions of the Torchwood crew to have stuck around for the rest of the series, on balance far fruitier and interesting than the characters we’re generally following around? Both Naoki Mori and Burn Gorman seemed far more comfortable in those skins, the former proving that the halting delivery of ‘real’ Tosh is her approach to the character and not performing in general, the latter a potential poster boy for a vocal percentage of the viewing audience (I could tell you stories). What fun to have Ianto just on the edge of homicide all of the time, the viewer never quite sure if he’ll save a weevil's victim or bang their skull against the shutters of the nearest off license.
Jack too benefited from having his memories back, since we no longer have to imagine what kind of a child he was – more on his home world later, but no wonder Jack developed such a open-minded approach to relationships if the only thing to do all day is play rounders (or whatever that was) on a beach. Only Gwen didn’t change that much although there’s probably a great sitcom in the idea of the bloke whose girlfriend keeps forgetting who he is. Oh hold on, someone’s already done that.
If Torchwood was a passenger train it would have a plaque on the side with the words 'entertainingly bonkers' emblazoned on it in golden Helvetica each weekly station stop a highlight and who would have thought that could ever happen? Adam was yet another episode which aped a well-worn sci-fi premise but still managed to shine. Genre fans probably noticed elements of everything from Red Dwarf’s Thanks For The Memories, as I predicted last week Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Conundrum and it even imitated the trick from Buffy’s Superstar of working the interloper into already familiar footage from previous episodes. But it more than made up for its lack of originality through sheer bloody minded invention and experimentation.
Writer Catherine Tregenna’s cleverest decision was to dwell on the changes rather than use them as a backdrop for some less interesting b-plot related to weevils or mysterious murder or whatever the series equivalent of Star Trek’s spacial anomaly might be. She's confident enough in her abilities and the viewer’s interest in these characters to let us simply enjoy the flip sides of their personalities and watching alien Adam change their memories, and in the midst of all that reveal far more about the origins of Captain Jack than we’ve previously seen but not in such a way as it changes his relationship with the team who still don't have a sodding clue who he is despite their apparently messianic devotion.
You could speculate that in the previous series, something like Gwen forgetting who Rhys is would have been the single focus of an episode, with the scene in which she pulls a gun on him being the finale, but here that was just the start of an episode, which despite being a character study developed with some crazy momentum. Giving people false memories is fascinating but then, in the case of Ianto, creating personality changing, murderous encounters as a weapon is pretty shocking and as shot by Andy Goddard probably one of the darkest moments yet seen this series.
I wonder if Tregenna used these kinds of negative memories to signpost that fact that in giving the episode a set piece construction in which each gripping moment is heralded by Adam’s touch, she’s actually it’s not too far from giving this theatre of cruelty the kind of structure you find in slasher films with detective figures -- in the Scream films that’s Sydney Prescott, in this Torchwood, Jack trying to discover who the source of the brutality. The beats were surprisingly similar with one victim becoming suspicious (Ianto) and getting disastrously close to the guilty, their sacrifice giving the detective enough information to figure out the murderer’s identity.
Which in this case was Adam. Every episode of Torchwood this series has the featured the disruption of the status quo by a guest alien or Rhys and this spectre of the mind, deliciously played by the fittingly named (for Torchwood) Bryan Dick fitted the bill perfectly, aided by those atmospheric inserts in which we actually saw the memories manifest themselves within each dupes cranium (does bullet time ever get old?). He wasn’t allowed to steal the show from the other characters though and even in the scenes when he inflicted pain the focus was very much on his effects rather than his malevolence.
This was no more apparent when he became the trigger for Jack and us to discover some of the origin of the ‘Captain’. A healthy contrast from the urban sprawl of the dinas a sir Caerdydd, this sandy wilderness was redolent of nostalgic golden Sundays on Rhyl beach and Star Wars’s Tatooine, especially the fashions, all towels in Earthy colours. Sympathetically realised, this world, wherever it was (Boeshane Peninsula?), teased with what we didn’t find out about it – like that city, part-Logopolis, part-sandstone New New York. Who were ‘they’ and why was the invasion so inevitable? And as a bonus question did anyone else think ‘Daleks!’ for a brief moment before the shrieking began?
It seems that all lead characters with broken personalities are doomed to have endured the death of a parent at a young age (nice one Propp and Campbell) and to lose a sibling in mysterious circumstances is doubly bad luck and since this is the second mention of it this series will probably be of massive importance towards the end. All this sequence lacked was a closing shot of young whatever his name (might as well be Anakin or Luke) was standing on a dune looking up at twin moons as the music swelled. Of course we’re now in the interesting position of knowing more about Jack’s past than he does (unless the grains of sand which filtered through his fingers offered a successful momento mori).
I expect that the closing scenes of hypnotherapy will divide fans but for me they were another extraordinary risk in an episode chock full of them. Why shouldn’t we have glimpse into the relative ordinary memories of the team after the Jack flashbacks? Most of them were sweet too even if it seems an opportunity missed that Tosh didn’t say something along the lines of ‘I was in a hospital. There was a pig in a space suit and a tall goofy looking man in a leather jacket. That was nifty…’ They’re also retrospectively justifying Owen’s attitude – his mother didn’t love him explaining a lot. But I will miss the nerd version, his cartoonish pining for Tosh far more poignant than the reverse status quo.
Only in the very final moments, as the team realised they'd lost two days of their lives, was a rather obvious haulage firm managing anomaly overlooked. Imagine the conversation between Rhys and Gwen when she finally decided to put in an appearance at home. Him: “Hello love. Who you feelin’ now?” Her: “Hwot dyoo mean?” “Ave you got your memories bakk?” “I’ve lost two days, but other than thaatt….” “Yooo pulled a gun on me. Jakk and Adam were the only ones who remembered who I was and we went to the supermaakett and well y’knooow.” “Don’t be dafft. What’s for teee? Ooo’s Adam?”
Next week: On and on she goes, Little Miss Martha Jones, I said on and on and on and on …
Behind the Sofa is a collaborative blog dedicated to the long-running British SciFi show 'Doctor Who' and its spin-offs. Intended for mature readers only.