So, with the slam bang opener out of the way, it’s time for Torchwood’s latest story to progress. Which it doesn’t much, in this second part. With Doris Egan on writing duties this week, this episode’s as much about character development as action, and consequently Jack, Gwen and Rex spend the entire hour on a plane to the US engaging in comic relief banter with a cute young air steward who’s definitely not gay (“It was only that one time!”). It’s left to Esther, on the ground at the surprisingly claustrophobic Langley HQ of the CIA, to progress the plot this week, though the plane trip is enlivened by a tensely done poisoning crisis.
That said, there are some interesting plot seeds planted here. Dr Juarez is looking like more of a central character than she did last week, as she recognises the necessity of changing medical protocol in a situation where emergency rooms are filling up with horribly injured people who just won’t die. “We’ll have to restructure the entire healthcare system in this country!”, she declaims. Good luck with that one, the President’s not had much joy with it.
Meanwhile, there’s a conspiracy at the CIA. Given that this is Torchwood, this is hardly a surprise. Someone wants the last of the team expunged, and happily for them, it seems that Jack is now the only person on Earth who can die. Esther finds herself caught up in it when she’s summoned to see her shifty boss Friedkin, who turns out to be Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. Actually, between that role and Officer Don in Third Rock From the Sun, it’s a little difficult to take Wayne Knight seriously in anything, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops as a credible villain.
Esther, it turns out, is being set up, her clearances revoked and a mysterious $50,000 payment from China deposited in her bank. Cue much 24-style evasive action around CIA corridors as she tries to get out with a stolen ID card and nicks a workmate’s Mini Cooper. I‘m not sure if the Mini is an example of product placement, but it’s nice to see a European car getting a starring role. It also gives Gwen some nice comic lines as Esther meets our heroes at the airport for a getaway – “This escape’s rubbish. I thought all you Americans drove great big SUVs?”
Meanwhile, Bill Pullman continues to give an oddly mannered performance as Oswald Danes, with a nicely written scene in which he nicks all the food from a TV news hospitality table and discusses the quality of food in prison (“You can always taste the piss.”). Danes is obviously going to be a important, as his tearful apology on live TV brings him Twitter followers, the new indicator of cultural significance. Later, he gets an offer he can refuse from a dodgy looking PR lady played by Lauren Ambrose out of Six Feet Under. She then also turns up to blag a cigarette from Dr Juarez at ‘Washington City Hall’, which looks suspiciously like LA City Hall.
Indeed, the locations in the show are oddly anonymous for a setting as iconic as Washington DC. I haven’t seen a single shot of the Capitol, the White House or the Washington Memorial yet – even The X Files used to show them in second unit establishing shots. My guess is that we’re mainly looking at generic LA locations that can stand in for anything. In fact, Cardiff has had a better showing than DC, with that sequence in the Bay area last week, though ‘Heathrow Airport’ looked rather smaller and less impressive than usual – almost, actually, like Cardiff Airport. Funny, that.
Given that last week Rex got from DC to London quickly enough for Esther to apparently wait on the phone from when he took off until he landed, much emphasis was given this week to the length of the flight he, Jack and Gwen were on. This gave them time to get to know each other a bit, and Jack and Gwen got some nice catchup dialogue – “What do I have to do, nearly blow up before you turn up?” And the desperate scrabble to mix an antidote to the arsenic Jack had been poisoned with was actually rather nicely done, a model of how to achieve a scene of action and tension with only a few people in one small set.
We get a few more gruesome scenes of the consequences when people can’t die, too. There’s nothing quite as nasty as last week’s live autopsy, but the finger-twitching severed arm was amusing, and it was perhaps unintentionally funny to see rogue CIA poisoner Lin (the Terminatrix-like Dichen Lachmann) lurching towards our heroes with her head on backwards.
Continuity-wise, we’ve established for the newbies that Jack is bisexual with mention of an ex boyfriend who used arsenic to make his skin look good, and attention has finally been drawn to how odd it is that Jack still insists on wearing a 1940s RAF uniform. Mind you, he did look strange without it when he donned a raincoat to pretend to be FBI agent ‘Owen Harper’ last week. We’ve also discovered that Jack’s vortex manipulator that he wears on his wrist is capable of monitoring bodily functions like sodium levels – and who knows what else? With the emphasis given to the gizmo this week, it’s obviously going to play an important part somewhere down the line, though no mention has yet been of its ability to transport the user anywhere in time and space. Sensibly, Jack chooses not to impart this information to the CIA.
With Jack spending half the episode poisoned and near death, there wasn’t too much of John Barrowman this week – which some may consider something of a relief – so we spent more time getting to know the new characters. Alexa Havins is excellent as Esther Drummond, who now seems even more like Lois, the government insider from Children of Earth. Arlene Tur is obviously going to play a major role as Dr Vera Juarez, who oddly seems to be the only medical professional able to grasp the ramifications of what’s going on, and Lauren Ambrose is already incredibly shifty as PR shark Jilly Kitzinger. Meanwhile, for those of us who like a bit of eye candy, there were a couple of pretty young men – Finn Wittrock was fun as air steward Danny, and Dr Juarez was aided by a sweet young scientist in a check shirt, played by gay comic actor Jeffery Self. Nice to see that Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who policy of casting at least one cute young guy per episode lives on here.
Two episodes in, and this is progressing quite nicely. With its lengthier, ten episode run time, it doesn’t quite have the dramatic urgency of Children of Earth, but the flipside of that is that we get more time to explore the characters and the what-if scenario. This week seemed to be mostly further establishing plotlines to come, as last week’s was to establish the main scenario and who Torchwood actually were. There was a bit of action, but nothing to rival last week’s barmy Land Rover/helicopter chase – it actually felt like the show was taking a bit of a breather to sort itself out before getting on with the story proper, and also allowing itself to show the important sense of humour so absent from its first series.
Next week – the first of several episodes this series by Jane Espenson, who I worship as some kind of deity for her work on Buffy, Angel and Battlestar Galactica. I’ll try to be objective…