Escape to LA
Hmm. Is it a good idea to derive your episode title from one of John Carpenter’s more rubbish movies? At least, I guess, Escape to LA was rather better than Carpenter’s Escape from it, though that’s not especially difficult.
Thankfully, the plot seemed to move up a gear this week, and things have actually started happening. Going to LA has given our heroes the chance to actually walk around in iconic LA locations – well, Venice Beach, at least. Of course, they were in LA all along, last week’s establishing shot of the Washington Memorial notwithstanding. But now LA is actually LA, and not pretending to be Washington any more, the director doesn’t have to be quite so circumspect about choosing locations. Mind you, the earlier scenes set in Washington this episode seemed even less convincing as a result. Also, speaking as someone who owns a military greatcoat, I hate to imagine how much John Barrowman was sweating under his in the California heat. Mine is too hot to wear even in a British summer!
The gang had flown to sunny California to infiltrate shady drug company Phicorp, and pull off a server-switching heist that required Gwen to dress as Audrey Hepburn and present herself at their reception desk for ‘training’. It has to be said, the ‘hair up’ look does not suit Eve Myles – it makes her face look a very odd shape. The heist formed one part of what are now clearly delineating into distinct plot threads. It’s clear now that Dr Juarez is in the ‘consequences of the Miracle’ plotline, as she explores what not dying means for society, while the Torchwood gang have the ‘find out how this happened’ plotline, and Oswald Danes and Jilly Kitzinger fit into the ‘how might people benefit?’ plotline. These do intersect from time to time, and will, presumably, all link up by the end of it. Right now though, it’s getting like watching several stories that make phone call to each other occasionally.
Phone calls, in fact, are an integral part of the ‘soap opera’ plotline that’s thankfully getting more germane to the rest of the plot, even though it seems mighty frustrating to professional intelligence man Rex that this gang of amateurs spend half their time chatting to their relatives. Rex himself is not immune to soap opera though, and this week delved into it by paying a visit to his shiftless father, who conveniently lives in LA. This scene didn’t actually achieve much except for establishing that Rex and his dad don’t get on, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see anything in the way of payoff to this – it seemed almost irrelevant, and I found myself almost nodding off as the scene progressed.
Meanwhile, Esther’s heavily-telegraphed unwise visit to her sister resulted in her sister being locked up and her children taken into care. That went well. As if to make matters worse, it also put her, and our heroes on the radar of a genuinely scary assassin, who’s a bit pissed off that his USP of killing people has been rendered rather redundant by the Miracle. So he resorts to being very, very nasty instead – pity poor Nicholas Frumkin, who loses an eye and a hand so the bad guy can get into the Phicorp computer room and then threaten Gwen with similar nastiness. Ironically, given Rex’s ease at getting in, it seems that wasn’t even necessary. This seemed a little unclear – did the fire alarm open all the doors to the secure server room? If so, why bother with all the elaborate deception in the first place? They could have just set off the alarm to get in.
The assassin – referred to in the Radio Times as simply ‘the gentleman’ – was a genuinely charismatic performance from an actor who looked vaguely familiar, but who I couldn’t quite place. After a glance at the Radio Times cast list for the forthcoming British showing, I was rather astounded to discover that it was C Thomas Howell, who used to be a bit of a pinup of mine in the 80s. He hasn’t aged well, looks wise, but that grizzled look and rasping voice fit the sinister character very well. It’s a character that seemed to belong in the X Files conspiracy organisation, what with his black ops euphemisms and cryptic monicker. Hardly surprising then to discover that this episode was co-written by John Shiban, who was responsible for many of the more impenetrable conspiracy episodes in The X Files’ later years.
C Thomas Howell: early 80s (left) and now (right)
As with that show, we’re finally getting some answers about a nebulous conspiracy that only pose more questions. Thanks to Howell, we now know that Jack has been targeted specifically for death – but why? Everything that’s happening is because of something Jack said or did a long, long time ago – but what? Those responsible have been around for a very, very long time – but who are they? “They used to have names. And they were-” And then Rex shoots him in the throat in a groan-makingly cliched effort to extend the best before date of the plot’s mysteries. This frustrates Gwen, who seems not to have considered that the undying assassin can presumably still write.
So, some nicely set up stuff, very X Files, that nonetheless plays off Torchwood’s own mythology. Rex and Esther still don’t seem to accept that Jack has been around for many centuries and comes from another planet, but that’s obviously crucial to what’s happening. Still no answer to whether the bad guys – let’s call them ‘the rotating triangle people’ – are actually aliens, but it’s seeming much more likely.
With, finally, some satisfying movement in the conspiracy plot, the rotating triangle people also stuck their oar in on the ‘consequences for society’ plot too. This was enlivened this week by a rather unsubtle Sarah Palin analogue, Ellis Hartley Monroe, who was campaigning for the segregation of ‘the dead’. Clad in a pink twin set and eulogising her status as a sensible mother, Mare Winningham brought her to life as a pretty clear dig at conservative America and the Tea Party in particular. The character may have been a little broadbrush to make a convincing antagonist – though she’d certainly fit well into the narrative staples of the X Men comics – so it was perhaps a relief that the rotating triangle people decided she was surplus to requirements and could be despatched to a handy car crusher. This was presumably a bit of wish-fulfilment on the writers’ part as to what might happen to such Tea Party harridans, but the obvious fact that she’d live through the experience – visualised unforgettably as one frantically moving eyeball in the depths of the crushed block of car – was this week’s really gruesome bit.
The reason the rotating triangle people no longer needed her was thanks to Oswald Danes, who stepped up this week to deliver a scarily inspirational speech at the first of the medical internment camps for the ‘dead’. Bill Pullman seems to have modified his performance a bit this week, and there were fewer of those inexplicable Christopher Walken style pauses in his delivery. His speech was deliciously sinister to an audience that knows his true feelings, particularly when he started becoming somewhat messianic. It actually made me wonder whether the speech was written with Pullman in mind, as a deliberate pastiche of the astoundingly awful ‘rousing’ speech that was the low point of Independence Day.
As a result of all this, we also found out that Jilly Kitzinger may be a cold bitch under the smiling, glam exterior, but she doesn’t like Oswald one bit. It’s his hands; she can’t get past what they once did. This was a nicely played scene, with Lauren Ambrose again pretty much the best of the guest actors, and nicely turned on its head some of our expectations about Jilly. Not only does she have some scruples – not that they affect her work – but she’s not the conspiracy insider we suspected.
But for me, the nicest thing about the episode was seeing Rhys and Wales again, to remind me that this was Torchwood after all, not just some overhyped new American sci fi show. Mind you, while the meagre glimpses at the UK did give a kind of fond nostalgia for the Torchwood of old, they seemed oddly out of place in this new world. It feels like the show still has something of an identity crisis – something it’s always had, actually – and this new start in America has only made that more evident. Rex and Esther often seem to belong to a different show than Jack and Gwen, despite being in the same scene together, and it’s a show that Rex and Esther fit into more comfortably than Jack and Gwen. I don’t know how much of that feeling is a holdover from what we’ve been used to with Torchwood in the past, and maybe newbie viewers don’t get that impression.
Still, at least we now have some movement in a plot that seemed to be getting bogged down in the consequences of the Miracle rather more than investigating its cause. Nice to see Russell T Davies moving towards the same kind of dystopian society previously visualised in Doctor Who episode Turn Left (as he planned the overall plot, I presume the internment camp stuff is his). And a couple of great guest turns from Mare Winningham and C Thomas Howell; Howell in particular I would have liked to have seen more of as an ongoing bad guy. The guest spots have in general been rather good, even if I still can’t get past the impression that Wayne Knight will forever be Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. With John De Lancie due to feature soon, hopefully I can get past thinking of him as Star Trek’s Q…