With Jane Espenson back on scripting duties this week, we get a bit of an oddity. Clearly the information passed on in this episode is vital to the overall storyline. Equally clearly, this is a beautifully written little story, which puts Captain Jack front and centre for the first time this season, really. Yet given its place in the overall narrative arc, and the way it effectively ‘pauses’ the storyline, it still kinda looks like filler to me.
After my comments last week about missing Oswald and Jilly, I was rather surprised that this week’s episode actually narrowed down the cast even further. Rex and Esther get a bit of business at the end of the ep, cleverly working out that Gwen’s acting under duress (well, more by luck than judgement), and staking out the rotating triangle people’s hostage handover site. But other than that, this episode is really only about three people – in the present, Jack and Gwen, and in the past, Jack and his newly introduced ex, Angelo Colasanto.
It’s all about character development rather than progression of the Miracle storyline – though there are some vital clues here – but Espenson excels at this kind of thing, so it’s actually quite an affecting look at all three characters. The present day part of the story may have been very frustrating for viewers eager to move the plot along, consisting as it did of nothing more than a long drive to an unspecified location. But along the way, we got some great deconstruction of Jack and Gwen’s characters and relationship over the years.
Gwen’s guilty exultance in the mad and dangerous world of Torchwood was enlarged on, as was her increasing concern that this lifestyle is totally incompatible with having a family. She also overturned some of Jack’s – and the viewers’ – assumptions about her relationship with him. They may have chemistry, but it’s in the past where her family’s concerned. And she’s totally willing to hand Jack over if it means saving her family, despite, as a former police officer, presumably being aware that kidnappers are notoriously untrue to their words. Jack, for his part, gave back as good as he got with his affirmation of just how much he loves living – despite the fact that he’s been zipped through time often enough now to have experienced most of human history twice over.
And as they drove, we got a bit of cat and mouse as Jack tried to persuade Gwen to untie him, by promising to use his Vortex Manipulator (named for the first time this series, I think) to trace her family. Gwen wasn’t persuaded for more than a minute, though the question of whether he was telling the truth was left ambiguous for the viewer. The rotating triangle people chipped in with their judgement – “he always lies”. As Gwen comments, “whoever they are, they know you well”. And indeed, looking back on it, doesn’t that sound exactly like the sort of comment you’d expect from an embittered ex?
And it seems that it may be exactly that. We got our first real clues as to the identities of the rotating triangle people this week. As Deep Space Nine’s Major Kira (well, Nana Visitor – I’m sure she’s trying to avoid typecasting) turned up to collect Jack, she let slip that even Rex’s somewhat dubious marksmanship (really, how did he miss that bloke?) wouldn’t change things. Jack was going to want to meet the man at the top, because he was the man that Jack used to top! (Sorry, bad gay sex joke)
And so onto the part that took up most of the episode, with the Gwen/Jack car chat being little more than a framing story. Basically, we were looking at one long, extended flashback about a Torchwood mission Jack undertook in 1920s New York – and how he fell in love while he was there.
Given Jack’s propensity to flirt with, and shag, anything that moves, it seemed a little out of character for him to fall so heavily for one guy. Particularly when he was presumably out of time and should be returning to our present day. Actually, the script was rather vague on what he was doing there and how it fit into his established personal continuity. We know that the Vortex Manipulator can enable the wearer to travel in time, so did he just make a quick jaunt to the past to sort out the Trickster Brigade’s history meddling? Or was this one of the several times he was catapulted into the past and had to get back to the 21st century the long way?
It was actually continuity geek heaven this week, as Jack explicitly mentioned the Doctor, placing the show firmly in the Doctor Who universe just as Gwen did with her video message in Children of Earth. He also explained his immortality as being due to having become “a fixed point in space time”, which must have left a few fanboy geeks scratching their heads – if this is the first time he’s had to live through Earth history, after Rose resurrected him and deposited him in the past, he can’t have known that, as he only found out when Doctor Ten explained it to him later. Of course, if he used the Vortex Manipulator to travel there from some more recent point, that might explain it. Except, didn’t Doctor Ten deactivate the Vortex Manipulator’s time travel capacity just after explaining the “fixed point” thing to Jack? Neither really makes sense, and I suspect Russell doesn’t want us dwelling on that at too much length…
Continuity confusion aside, this was really the first episode this series that filled in Jack’s back story and explained important matters like his immortality. This seems an oddly long time to wait to foreground and explain, basically, the series’ main character – especially for new viewers. Although, it’s equally possible that new viewers might have found Jack’s mysterious nature more enthralling without early explanations.
Either way, this was Jack’s episode, and the story of his romance with Italian immigrant Angelo Colasanto was very sweetly written and played. It didn’t hurt that Daniele Favilli, the Italian actor playing Angelo, was rather easy on the eye – and due to yet another round of gratuitous sex, we got to see pretty much all of him. Actually, I’m being a little unfair – the sex scene wasn’t gratuitous, but integral to the building story of Jack and Angelo’s relationship. And it was actually quite a good sex scene. If only Daniele Favilli had been with someone rather sexier than John Barrowman, it might even have qualified as great soft porn!
As Jack has seemingly gone totally gay this year (perhaps the concept of omni-sexuality was deemed too controversial for US audiences to cope with), we got a pretty good depiction of how it must have been to be gay in 1927, both in Italy and New York. There was also a still relevant examination of how difficult it is for a religious gay man to reconcile his nature with his faith, as Angelo came to grips with the idea that his sexuality could include love along with sex.
In fact, the episode showed a great grasp of time and place in many aspects. If memory serves, Jack has been to Ellis Island before, but this time we actually saw a vivid depiction of how it may have been to be an immigrant waiting, sweaty-palmed, to find out if US authorities would let you enter and stay in the country of your dreams. And that country was shown not to be so dreamy as Angelo got used to it – with Prohibition in full swing, we saw a priest bootlegging and had a guest appearance from legendary (real) mobster Sal Maranzano.
Indeed, Angelo’s dreams were shattered in a particularly cruel way. As a naïve innocent, he’d finally found love with a man who wanted to show him a wider world of miracles, to take him on as a Doctor-style ‘companion’ as well as a lover. And then after his very first alien encounter, with an icky brain parasite thing, he finds his lover shot in the head, gets sent to Sing Sing for a year and emerges to find that his lover isn’t dead – and therefore must be the Devil. Boy, that guy has some really bad luck.
It was a genuinely shocking scene when we what we thought was going to be more rumpy pumpy turned into a stab fest as Angelo tried to ‘kill’ what he thought must be a devil from Hell. And that progressed into a truly nightmarish sequence of the Brooklyn locals ‘killing’ Jack over and over again, in some pretty brutal ways. It was basically the sort of thing the Master threatened to do in Last of the Time Lords, but was never actually shown. This time, we saw every wince-inducing moment of it – along with Angelo, whose horrified expression suggested he’d worked out that Jack wasn’t the Devil after all.
While all this was going on, we got our first real glimpse at the rotating triangle people – or at least their antecedents. And it looks like they really are people, not aliens – three anonymous looking business types wearing perfectly normal late 20s clothing. But when the three of them clasped hands to cement their partnership, it made an unmistakeable triangle shape.
Jack, semi-conscious, heard them talk of paying $10,000 to own ‘it’. Note, not ‘him’, ‘it’. Either this was yet another example of how low people can stoop, treating another human as an object, or they meant something more significant, some ‘property’ which they’d obtained from Jack. It was also highlighted that an old lady took a vial of Jack’s blood – although whether being a fixed point in spacetime is contagious is questionable.
Nevertheless, it looks like at least one person worked it out quickly enough. Angelo didn’t seem connected to the rotating triangle people in 1928, but if he’s still alive now that would put him at over 100 years old. Not impossible, but so much easier if you can’t die. Next week will presumably give us a clearer view…
So, a curious one. This was, by any standards, a pretty decent standalone episode, with some excellent writing and characterisation and a really evocative sense of period. And yet it barely moved the storyline along one iota. This, if anything, is the real problem I’ve had with Torchwood this year; it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serial or an anthology show. This is a good episode – but it doesn’t seem to belong at this point in the story. For a properly crafted multi-episode narrative, the plotlines here might have been better threaded throughout all the episodes up to this point, rather than pausing the story proper to fill us in in an admittedly well-crafted load of backstory. That would have sacrificed a fine standalone episode, but given a far better balanced serial.
Still, despite my problems with the story structure, I’m finding each episode entertaining enough to hold my interest (though to judge by some rather venomous internet threads I may be in a minority). It’s still no classic, but there’s some interesting stuff here – Jack’s repeated ‘killings’ show yet another aspect of how low humanity can stoop, and there’s some surprisingly mature musings about sexuality, love and family. Next week though, let’s get the actual story moving along again. Please?