Torchwood debuted back in 2006 as a rather daft, knockabout bit of fun, which had cunningly decided to remove all the fun bits in favour of swearwords and a sci-fi-by-numbers script. Captain Jack had no decent characters to banter with. Alien threats were about as menacing as Restless Leg Syndrome. But above all else, it was just. No. Fun.
Fortunately for the programme, series two brings some guest parts by actors who should manage to shake things up a bit, and James Marsters played a great opening gambit. Spike strode into the programme dressed in 17th century garb and exhibiting superhuman strength, before exacting a bit of vigilante justice on a mugger (he’s a good guy who doesn’t play by the rules!), and then making notional noises about humping everything in sight, although obviously not getting on with it as there’s some nonsense about gas canisters to spin out for 50 minutes instead. It’s all very Carl Barat meets Superman II, with General Zod leering at Sarah Douglas the whole film.
When Spike strides in to the programme, it should all have been a bit familiar to him – very Buffy season 6, in fact, as the B Team are busy trying to muddle through the day-to-day life of demon containment without the boss. Or maybe it’s like Buffy season 4, where there’s a rogue agent to be dealt with. Or Buffy season 2, where James Marsters vastly improves a cult favourite.
Still, giving Jack a new playmate means the B Team get downgraded even further than their already quite lowly position (it’s somewhat tempting to call them 2B and start making pencil jokes), running off on distraction missions and even cracking jokes about how much more fun Captain Jack is than them. They still have a capacity to mess up on a scale that requires Jack to sort the mess out, but without that then this frankly wouldn’t be Torchwood. Still, this is the second series, and they really should have grown a second dimension by now.
How much of an improvement Marsters makes to the programme is evident by the startling difference in dialogue before and after he appears. Before, the B Team are trading in clichés faster than the average flirtation on Eastenders (“I found my doctor.” “Did he fix you?”). Afterwards, the dialogue is crackling between our two time agents on heat, and credit to the programme, amidst a truly dull cast the electricity is palpable. A ballsy fight-cum-flirt in the bar is the one engrossing moment in the whole episode.
But the same old problems haven’t quite gone away. This episode wasn’t quite the jarring ‘kids TV with naughty bits bolted on’ approach of series one, but one suspects that’s thanks to Marsters more than anything else. They are still doing daftly distracting things: walking in arrowhead formations, having a sense of humour bypass in everyone including Jack, making daft statements (ending a car chase and entering a hostage situation by announcing “I’m detecting high levels of adrenaline” – well, no shit, Sherlock), and having Tosh solve any technological crisis by pressing a button three times. That only works if you have a sonic screwdriver.
Plus, while I know probably no-one else cares about this, the music for the whole programme is distractingly all over the shop. It impatiently chopped and changed roughly 30 different vignettes of music with no discerning respect for what was on the screen. The occasionally heavy-handed approach of Who to imposing a few theme tunes and using them sensibly would work wonders at adding a more deft tone. On the upside of my own keen interests in the Who-iverse, they didn’t mess with Cardiff’s geography much this week, although Ianto lied through his teeth: there is no building in the city 200 feet tall. Most peeter out at about eight.
Marsters and Barrowman together, though, made this episode better than anything in series one, although the trailer for the rest of the series doesn’t bode well. Yes, there’s more Marsters, but the vast majority is crushingly daft dialogue and boring-looking biped aliens, skulking about Cardiff like pantomime vampires. We do have Martha Jones (or as the glorious lowculture puts it, Dame Martha Jones) to come, but somehow I suspect the inconsistency of the programme is going to come front and centre as soon as we start focusing on minor characters in turn.