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Review: Torchwood Season 2 Premiere

2x01: "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

By

James Marsters guest stars as Captain John Hart.

James Marsters guest stars as Captain John Hart.

Adrian Rogers/BBC Worldwide
Cast:
  • John Barrowman ... Captain Jack Harkness
  • Eve Myles ... Gwen Cooper
  • Burn Gorman ... Owen Harper
  • Naoko Mori ... Toshiko Sato
  • Gareth David-Lloyd ... Ianto Jones
  • Kai Owen ... Rhys Williams
  • James Marsters ... Captain John Hart

Directed by Ashley Way. Written by Chris Chibnall. (Both performed the samefunctions on the season 1 Torchwood finale, "End of Days." Chibnall also wrote the Doctor Who episode "42".)

Love and Monsters

When last we saw the randy alien-fighting team at Torchwood, they had mutinied against their leader, Jack Harkness, in order to break open the time rift under their Cardiff HQ, certain that doing so would undo a string of disasters. Unfortunately breaking open the rift also unleashed a life-devouring, skyscraper-sized monster, defeated only at the cost of massive amounts of life energy from the immortal Captain Jack. After taking days to return to life, Jack forgave his comrades and shared a tender moment with Ianto, only to vanish once again without a trace.

We know that Jack disappeared in order to chase after the Doctor, hoping that the time lord would find a way to relieve him of the burden of being unable to sleep or die (events recounted in the last three episodes of Doctor Who's season 3). The Torchwood team know only that he's gone, and when he returns with little explanation their conflicted feelings are intensified. Things come to a head when a man from Jack's past comes out of the rift and Jack does his best to keep his team in the dark about who he is and what he wants.

It turns out the man, Captain John Hart (guest star James Marsters), is Jack's old partner -- in every way -- and a fellow former "time agent" (again something about Jack's past the Torchwood team is hearing for the first time, but revealed to us in the first season Who story "The Empty Child"). John needs Jack's help in locating three radiation bombs he's followed through the rift. Jack knows the unsavory John has his own agenda -- but he must figure it out before his team is in danger.

Quo Vadis, Jack Harkness?

Team Torchwood.

Left to right: Captain Jack (John Barrowman), Gwen (Eve Myles), Ianto (Gareth David Lloyd), Owen (Burn Gorman), and Toshiko (Naoko Mori).

Todd Anthony/BBC Worldwide

The season 1 finale, "End of Days," and this season premiere, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang," are both stories in which the action is really the beard for what's really of interest to the writers: What's keeping the opportunistic con-man Jack Harkness (which name, we found out last season, he actually borrowed from a World War II-era lover) on Earth, when surely such a charming, immortal player could have the universe as his oyster? And how can he integrate with a team, when every revelation makes them realize just how much they don't know about him?

The life-devouring demon in "End of Days" was revealed, confronted, and dispatched at such breakneck speed that it hardly emerged from its role as a device to threaten Jack in a way a bullet couldn't (in fact, he'd just been shot -- by Owen! -- and lived, the first revelation to most of the team of his immortality). Its real purpose was to put an ashen-faced, ice-cold Jack on a slab, forcing the team to writhe in agony as they realized what he meant to them -- especially Gwen and Ianto: Gwen conflicted in her love for both the steady boyfriend, Rhys, and the dashing hero, Jack; Ianto discovering only in Jack's absence just how painfully he needed him.

The connection with Ianto isn't the usually hormone-driven salaciousness always otherwise on exhibit in Torchwood operations, showcased in "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang" when Jack and John meet and make out for a bit before switching to full-on brawl. On the contrary, Ianto is clearly falling for Jack in a way that's sweet and, against the backdrop of Torchwood randiness, quite touching.

Home Fires

Jack's response in this episode, which is to almost shyly ask Ianto out on a date, is one of two moments in this episode that open Jack up to his team a little more than he wants to be; the other comes later, when he explains that he's working with John even though he can't be trusted only to speed a reminder of his past from his life. These moments continue the elevation of Jack from the slick customer we were introduced to in those early Doctor Who episodes.

Back then, even when the Ninth Doctor turned Jack straight, so to speak, Jack was still nostalgic for his freewheeling shuck-and-jive days. During his year at Torchwood he started to see a duty (most strikingly displayed when he forced himself to leave a relationship of mutual love in 1942 in order to return to where he was needed in the present). And his subsequent adventures which the Doctor, as he admits in this episode, only taught him he wanted to be back on Earth with his team.

The production values, notably cheap early in the first season, have improved, though the alien extras (here a blowfish-headed humanoid) still look like bit players wearing upgraded Scooby-Doo masks. But Torchwood is about these characters, and more and more it's about their relationships with Jack and each other and their inability to relate to normal people who don't meet Weevils and Cyberwomen and Buffy alumni every day. As before, only Gwen, now engaged to the hapless Rhys, seems to have a chance -- but maybe she can't keep her feet in both worlds forever.

Developing Performances

As such the performances are important. John Barrowman, though not the most gravitas-laden leading actor on television, continues to anchor the show perfectly; by now he inhabits this character like the old officer's greatcoat he wears, and gives the impression with each small revelation, not that he's discovering them as he gets the scripts, but that he's been holding them in all the time.

In the last few episodes Burn Gorman has had a great acting challenge, with Owen facing up to the consequences of actions he undertook to save Jack, and has really pulled it off. Eve Myles continues to be the strongest actor on the show, with lots of interesting little moments added to her performance (she makes a great face when Jack unexpectedly notices her engagement ring).

The real discovery here, though, is Gareth David Lloyd, who plays Ianto. In early episodes I was deeply concerned about this actor: in "Cyberwoman," in particular, he overplayed what was admittedly an unbelievable string of scripted actions and motivations almost to the point of unwatchability. What a difference a season makes: Here, he surefootedly navigates Ianto's excitement/apprehension both as an upgraded member of the team and as someone toward whom Jack has made uncharacteristic gestures of affection. A year ago I was ready to list Ianto asa reason to hesitate to watch the show; now he's part of a longer list of reasons to tune into this new (to us Americans) season of Torchwood, Saturday nights on BBC America.

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