Outside the Government: Adam

(25 comments)

It’s February 13th, 2008. Still Basshunter at number one, with the same bunch of folks on the lower charts, along with Lupe Fiasco, David Jordan, and Wet Wet Wet. In news, Mitt Romney drops out of the GOP primaries, the Writers Guild of America strike resolves, and Obama keeps winning stuff, leading to a desperate shakeup in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which continues to be blatantly unable to win a majority of delegates. The military government of Myanmar agrees to a referendum on a new constitution that will begin devolving power from it, Anonymous bursts onto the scene of political protest with a series of actions against Scientology, and the US decides that maybe waterboarding isn’t nice and should be banned.

While on television, Torchwood’s second season plods miserably on. So much so that at this point I have to admit defeat. There are not 2000 words to be said about every episode of Torchwood this season. Where the first season was at least interesting, really regardless of its quality, this season is simply banal. And Adam serves as my breaking point. It is an episode that is spectacular in its complete lack of anything interesting. More than any other Torchwood episode to date, this one seems designed to mimic a specific episode of American television. Adam is a direct remake of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Superstar,” to the point of using the trick of redoing the opening credits to include the fake character who forms the premise of the episode. 

There are, of course, huge differences. “Superstar” was about Jonathan, who was steadily built up over multiple seasons from a recurring background character to a significant character in his own right, until finally getting an episode in which he, for mysterious and unknown reasons, becomes not just a mainstay of the Scooby Gang, but one who has supposedly been there for ages. Jonathan is a problem in the episode and his rise to power is undone, but he remains a more or less sympathetic character and, though he remains problematic and is never quite a good guy, he’s also always carefully kept from being an outright villain.

Adam, on the other hand, is about a malevolent character. He rapes Tosh and revels in his cruelty to Ianto. He’s firmly a monster of the week; he’s killed off at the end of the episode, and he’s never to be spoken of again. Indeed, given that the entire episode is wiped from the minds of all of the main characters, future use of the character is pretty much salted earth. He’s not even going to be referenced again, little yet actually brought back. There’s, right off the bat, a very different sort of approach in play here.

But the broad strokes are all here. Adam, like Superstar, is an episode designed to let all of the main cast play slightly different versions of their characters. So we have Owen and Tosh’s roles in their relationship flipped, with Owen becoming the shy one and Tosh becoming the confident and sexually active one. (There are, as ever, frustrations here. There’s at least a fleeting line that makes clear that Adam’s memory-wiping Tosh so that he’s her lover is rape, but an inexplicable failure of anyone to treat this as though it’s one of the worst things Adam does in the episode. Of course, nobody is that bothered by what he does to Ianto either, but as ever, there’s an infuriating willingness to treat rape as less real when it uses sci-fi conceits.) Ianto gets to play severe emotional distress and a bit of insane serial killer. Gwen gets to act significantly differently with Rhys. And Jack gets a bunch of childhood flashbacks.

This is standard practice - any show that can get away with giving its actors something a little bit different to do tends to eventually. In this case there are mixed results. Burn Gorman disappears completely into the new version of Owen, to an almost shocking extent. If anything it feels too far removed from the character we know, and too much like a completely new character. Either way, it demonstrates just how good Burn Gorman is. John Barrowman, on the other hand, isn’t actually up to the task of his material. The limits of using him as a leading man become clear - he can do charismatic well, and he can do urgent or angry well, but the sort of distraught nostalgia required as his memories of Grey are dredged up are wholly outside of his wheelhouse, and it shows.

This is particularly baffling inasmuch as it reveals a deeply inscrutable lack of thought about what the show is doing. We have an episode that is about Captain Jack grappling with suppressed memories; suppressed memories that were alluded to in the season premiere, where he met a former time agent. We may recall, if we are obsessive Doctor Who fans, that Jack has two years of his memory wiped by the Time Agency. One might reasonably hypothesize that these two might connect. But instead we create an entire second set of repressed memories. It’s as though you have a gun on the mantlepiece in act one, and then fire a completely different gun that nobody has ever seen before in act three.

There are, I suppose, thing that look vaguely like reasons. The two year memory gap was Moffat’s addition to Jack, and it’s possible Davies simply couldn’t come up with anything to fill it. Which is fine, but if that’s the case you probably shouldn’t do a story about memory repression and alteration that features Captain Jack’s discarded memories of his past. You can get away with never following up on a huge plot tease like that. You can’t get away with effectively reteasing it and then going in a different direction. And to try reflects a bizarre lack of thought. A perusal of The Writer’s Tale suggests that the second season of Torchwood really was a bit of a rush, with a pair of huge plot points getting decided near to the last minute. But even by that standard, there’s a sloppiness here.

This, at least, partially insulates Catherine Tregenna, who was so very good in her other three stories, from criticism for what is a deeply flawed story. Like the giant meat slug, parts of it are simply things that are outside her remit. She wasn’t the one who decided that the bit of Jack’s past worth exploring was his early childhood. She wasn’t responsible for the bizarre decision to explore gaps in Jack’s memory other than the big “two years erased” gap Moffat set up in The Empty Child. Some of the material she’s given is desperately unpromising, and yet she makes surprising quality out of it. The idea of Adam invading Jack’s last good memory of his father and of perverting the memory and cutting it short is an impressive bit of sadism. 

Others are harder to justify. The extent to which plot logic abruptly breaks down at the end is impressive. Without any warning or indication, the situation changes from “Adam is altering Jack’s last memory of his father” to “Adam is going to erase all memory of Jack’s father.” This reflects a broader inconsistency in the story - Adam suggests that Jack has completely suppressed memories of Gray and his father, and yet Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang has him understanding Captain John’s “I found Gray” message. Similarly, it’s tough to figure out why Jack would be surprised to have memories of Gray surfacing when, you know, he was reminded about him not four episodes ago. 

The sloppiness continues from here. While many things like the Torchwood team being somewhat less concerned than might be appropriate at the prospect of Gwen’s memory loss can be explained with a general handwave towards the idea that whatever Adam is doing it’s also affecting people’s willingess to question their memory. But once you get to the end, where the entire team takes in stride the prospect that they’ve simply lost two days of their memories. Which, actually, seems like the sort of thing a team of rack alien investigators might be a bit concerned about. But instead a two day memory gap in which all surveilance footage of their secret base has been wiped is just taken in stride as a non-crisis, because the episode is about to end. Then Jack dumps random alien artifact contents on his desk for fun, and the episode politely puts itself out of its misery.

But what’s Tregenna expected to do? Her strength as a writer has been the ways in which she advances characters. Here she’s given a story whose entire premise screams “no changes to the status quo shall be permitted.” Of course she has trouble with it; any writer would have. Nor is there a lot to say about the implications this has on the larger series. As before, Torchwood is just doing banal monster of the week episodes with little thought beyond trying to execute them competently. The series is running in place. And it’s not even a very interesting place.

Comments

elvwood 3 years, 3 months ago

This is a bit depressing. Maybe I won't bother rewatching the episodes I managed to record (missed Adrift, though I later watched it on a rented copy). I remember thinking Adam was another nasty-but-entertaining episode - in fact, all my favourite episodes of the first two seasons were written either by the women or by P.J. Hammond, with RTD's opener just behind.

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Anton B 3 years, 3 months ago

Ironically I'd completely forgotten this episode. Perhaps I'd been mindwiped. So yes you're reminding me of why, on a number of occasions, the obsessive completist in me has wanted to buy the Torchwood box-set but my hand has been stayed by a small still voice whispering '...but it was crap! Don't you remember?' Damn! now you've got me intrigued to watch it again anyway to re-live the stomach dropping realisation that I was investing time in a show that was not only squandering its initial promise (let alone premise) but didn't seem to care. Even the worst failures of classic Doctor Who at least look like they were trying. Torchwood by this point is just looking like a show that's pretending to know what it's doing but really doesn't have a clue; which makes the sheer joy of the third season followed by the vertigineous drop in quality of the fourth so very frustrating.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 3 months ago

I'm not sure if you have access to it where you live, Anton, but the complete Torchwood is on Netflix, so you wouldn't have to spend the money on the dvds. (Why they have none of the new and barely any of the old Doctor Who itself, I have no idea.)

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Prole Hole 3 years, 3 months ago

I didn't mind this episode on my rewatch - its flaws are both glaring and obvious, but Adam is memorably unpleasant and pretty well portrayed, Gorman is great and I like the confident, assertive Tosh a lot. But while the episode manages to maintain a base level of competency it's equally not really worth defending either so here's a different question....

Do we think Torchwood suffers badly because of the decision to ditch the "normal season" approach, jump to a five-episode special (widely regarded to be the high watermark of the show) then jump ship to an at-best-questionable co-production in the U.S.? Or in other words, if Torchwood has gone done the TNG/Buffy/Doctor Who model of seasons, do we think it would have noticeably improved or be better thought of? After all Season 2 of TNG was dreadful yet the show went on to be both critically well regarded and extremely popular, and threads which crop up in its second season inform the rest of the show. I've always felt it was a shame Torchwood didn't follow this model because, great though Children Of Earth is, the most frustrating thing for me about Torchwood is how much potential it shows but never realizes. A couple more "proper" seasons could really have set it on the right path.

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Anton B 3 years, 3 months ago

Yeah Netflix is available and I did have it for a while but abandoned it in favour of LoveFilm which has, in my opinion, a better selection of TV and Film. (Including classic Star Trek which I am currently much enjoying revisiting in conjunction with our fellow commenter Josh Masfield's excellent Vaka Rangi blog). I do like to actually own physical objects though, so I retain a stubbornly old fashioned love of the box-set. I also prefer watching on a real TV screen rather than my lap top or Kindle. Yes I know I could connect my TV to my laptop but...I haven't got round to that.

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prandeamus 3 years, 3 months ago

I don't think I watched this one at all, having given up on Torchwood until Children of Earth. But reading the synopsis, it has parallels with the spin-off "Border Princes", inasmuch as a memory-warping alien infiltrates the gang, although as I recall with rather less malevolence. Anyone read that and seen the episode, for a comparison?

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David Anderson 3 years, 3 months ago

Nasty but entertaining is about right based on my memories of it. (Having watched only one episode of the first series, I then watched about half of series two.) It's a competent and effective use of an sf premise, but not brilliant. The main problem is that the Jack with a mysterious past here isn't half as interesting as Jack from Empty Child/ Doctor Dances. Moffat's Jack has charm. Torchwood Jack merely has charisma.
Also, Moffat's Jack has a definite mystery to solve: what has happened to his memories of those two years? Whereas the Jack here has a much more ill-defined 'even I don't know who I am' mystery. Phil's strictures about the amnesia arc in the Eighth Doctor novels comes into play here: the only interesting thing to do with an amnesia arc is to solve it. But Jack's past, whatever it is, is working across space and time for the Time Agency, whereas his present is in Cardiff. So there's not much he can do to solve the mystery except angst about it. Which is dull. (But I suppose lots of the present generation of genre writers grew up thinking Wolverine was the most brilliant character ever written.)

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 3 months ago

Point of Order: The best episode in the entire run of TNG is in the second season: Measure of a Man. There are also a number of decent episodes that can stand on their own. Yes, it does have "Shades of Grey", an abysmal clip show. But it's not the train wreck everyone calls it.

Other than that I agree completely with David Anderson.

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David Ainsworth 3 years, 3 months ago

I recall thinking that "Meat" might be a good sign that this season was going to turn itself around, only to run straight into this mess. Even the good acting on display is just a reminder that these characters could support much better episodes than we were given.

And I hate nothing worse than the slow-burn "audience knows something characters don't" stories. An earned tragedy can be amazing, but an out-of-nowhere tragedy is a contrived mess at best.

Really, the biggest condemnation I can throw at this episode is that the episodes following it come across as stronger merely by not being as bad.

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Anton B 3 years, 3 months ago

*apologies to Josh Marsfelder for getting his name wrong in the above comment. I'm blaming the tricky touchscreen keyboard on my Kindle. :)

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Stephen 3 years, 3 months ago

It's quite a while since I read Border Princes or watched Adam, but Border Princes was very clearly the better story. The alien was benevolent, rather than malevolent, and the book did a good job of exploring the impact he had on the team.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

Another Buffy parallel is of course Buffy's from-nowhere-but-suddenly-has-always-been-here sister Dawn.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 3 months ago

I just thought it was nasty. Also there was a sort of scale of nastiness - Ianto's treatment arguably the most horrible (although arguably Tosh's experience is worse). Gwen's situation isn't very nice but not on the same scale as Ianto and Tosh. Jack has to relive some traumatic childhood memories. Meanwhile Owen gets to be socially awkward.

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Alan 3 years, 3 months ago

Yes, except that Dawn remained an integral part of the series until its conclusion. Also, I thought the writers overall did a masterful job in addressing but the textual implications of Buffy suddenly gaining a sister and the metatextual implications of everyone knowing Dawn's true nature but not caring. This came through even in subtle ways -- pre-Dawn, Buffy was always intensely devoted to her father, but by S5, she is visibly angry when she talks about Hank because of deeply traumatizing the divorce was for Dawn ... in the fictitious memories of pre-S5 Dawn that only Buffy has.

Needless to say, none of that complexity plays any role in this fairly tedious throwaway episode in which every cast member gets raped in some fashion (though only Tosh's memory alteration has a sexual aspect) but none of them ever treat it as such.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 3 months ago

Yeah, I remember watching this and thinking "It's Border Princes. Only not as good."

BP had the excellent twist that the alien didn't even know what he was doing; as far as he was concerned the universe just revolved around him, and he didn't have enough experience of anything else to question it.

(The SFX review of Border Princes also sticks in my memory; three novels reviewed by someone who clearly isn't much of a Torchwood fan, and for this one he kept going on about how the new team member slotted in too neatly, and seemed to have been with the team too long for the timeline to work, and other stuff that made it clear he hadn't actually read as far as the reveal of what was actually going on.)

And, yes, the final scene is basically the set-up for TNG's Clues or Red Dwarf's Thanks For The Memory ... and then they don't.

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Josh Marsfelder 3 years, 3 months ago

S'alright. I'm very grateful you actually took the time to get my name right. Most people don't even bother with that.

Netflix is weird because I think the selection is different in different regions. My Netflix has the complete Star Trek, which is actually what I'm using for the blog (though I'll switch to my Blu-rays for The Next Generation and last I checked they had the complete New Series of Doctor Who as well (but very little of the Classic Series).

Oh, and just because TNG was brought up earlier: I think the first two seasons were leagues better than everyone thinks they were. Not perfect and pretty rocky, but the show could do things those years it wasn't able to do again (and anyway I'm not convinced every later season of Trek until Voyager and Enterprise was a flawless masterpiece either).

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Jesse Butler 3 years, 3 months ago

Netflix has all of Star Trek now, and numerous ways to get it to a real TV, whether it be a PS3, Xbox, Roku, or most blue ray players these days. I just wish it had more classic Doctor Who. Particularly the DVDs that are sold out. (Rescue/Romans, I'm looking at you!)

Although taking a look at LoveFilm, I'm guessing you are in the UK, which might not have the selection of stuff Netflix has, and probably has better selections of UK shows.

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Anton B 3 years, 3 months ago

Yes I am in the UK. Anyway, however and with whatever technology one watches Torchwood my point still stands that series two is a show that just isn't bothered with itself. As Phill has pointed out, strangely it doesn't seem to be aware of its own backstory which causes it to pull stunts like the Checkov's Gun fail he describes. It's one thing for Doctor Who to be a different show every week and play fast and loose with its own canon but Torchwood by this point is losing it's grip on any loyalty it may have built up in its viewers. Rather like its leading man, the show is dining out on a rogueish charm that it cannot sustain.

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Josiah Rowe 3 years, 3 months ago

In addition to the Buffy "Superstar" parallels, this episode also bears some strong similarities to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Conundrum", in which an alien gives the entire crew amnesia and inserts himself as the ship's first officer. No idea whether the similarity is coincidental (borrowing from the same tropes) or not.

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Ann Song 3 years, 3 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Ann Song 3 years, 3 months ago

I actually managed to catch this episode a while ago as the absolute ideal viewer for it, having seen the first episode or two of Torchwood - so that I could appreciate the substantial change in the characters - but not having seen anything inbetween, so that I figured out that Adam didn't belong (and the alteration in the main characters was mind control, not character development) at the same time as the characters did.

And while I think that most people probably found the show's complete lack of payoff and raising of interesting possibilities only to ignore them frustrating, I actually found it revealing of a different show entirely, a kind of anti-Torchwood lurking underneath the surface. The experience of being forced to question exactly what kind of show I was watching yielded a really upsetting answer. The unintended consequence of the mundane intersecting the wonderful conceptualization of Torchwood is that when you add lazy plots and a series that doesn't know what it's doing you accidentally spawn a Dilbert-ization of Doctor Who.

The magical realism of Dilbert makes it able to affirm your own experience by showing how office life is even more like you think it is than the bounds of possibility allow. Uninspired workers literally turn into damp rags, there is an actual window at which managers check their souls, and even the afterlife, as presented by Phil the Prince of Insufficient Light and his giant spoon, is just as meaningless and boring as your office seems. But Dilbert consoles us by saying that, no, you aren't missing anything, the world is just that poorly run - but, on the other hand: you're not missing anything. It's not just you. We're all in this together, and quite a few of us have got the joke.

For me, coming into this episode not getting that it was basically a stunt, it came across not as nonsense or confusing but as a straight-faced Dilberting of Doctor Who. Yes, it seemed to say to me, the world is full of weird and wild and wonderful things, but these does not matter because YOU are not. You, like everyone else, are small and boring and muddling through with no plan, and even adding in aliens to the picture wouldn't change it much. So open another bag of chips and settle deeper into the couch for yet more mindnumbing crap, because nothing you can imagine encountering in the universe will change how pointless humanity is. It's not just you. Even the people in the know about the greatest secrets of the world - aliens! advanced technology! what's going to happen in the future! - are unqualified buffoons selected for no good reason by a man who likes to seem enigmatic but really just has no damn plan.

The aliens and weirdness floating around Doctor Who are just macguffins to keep us distracted while we soak in the real message of the series, about the endless possibilities of a life lived mindfully, with empathy and hope. When Doctor Who fails to do this, it is sometimes pointless entertainment and sometimes just pointless. But the trap that I see for Torchwood is that when it fails to deliver its message, this other one lurks underneath it: that the great secret as far as humanity is concerned is not all that we don't know about what's happening on our own world, but that all that we don't know doesn't matter because humanity is so crap. So staying on the couch is actually just what you ought to be doing, it is the excellence appropriate to the human species, and if you tried anything else you'd just make it like everything else humanity does: pointless plastic crap. The fault, dear viewers, lies not the in stars, but in yourselves: that you are underlings. But don't worry, so are all the millions of other people watching.

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Prole Hole 3 years, 3 months ago

Eh, too late to matter and I don't want to get stuck into a TNG debate, but I'd strongly contest Measure Of A Man as the best TNG has to offer. It's a great episode, no doubt about it, and finally shows the show stretching its wings into something that TOS couldn't have done but just off the top of my head The Inner Light, Best Of Both Worlds, All Good Things and Sarek have it easily licked. As always, of course, YMMV.

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JohnB 3 years, 3 months ago

I really enjoyed this post!

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Rodolfo Piskorski 2 years, 5 months ago

And for me 'Adam' is one of the best Torchwood episodes ever. Maybe one of the best DW stuff ever.

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encyclops 2 years, 1 month ago

I'm surprised to read that you thought they treated Adam's violations lightly. I thought everyone seemed as upset as they possibly could considering that for them it's reality. For example, as far as Tosh is concerned she's been in love with Adam for a year, and even after she's told it's a false memory she can't just shake it off. She needs the amnesia pill, and of course after that she doesn't remember it happened at all, so there's no opportunity for her to exhibit more of a sense of violation than she already does. Only Jack (because, I guess, he's magic) seems to get to react, and he's clearly very upset by what happened to Ianto, at least. There's no doubt in his mind Adam deserves to die for his crimes. I'm not sure what else you were looking for there.

Also, I hadn't remembered that there was a 2-year gap to be accounted for until I read this post. That's partly down to my inattentiveness, partly down to my feelings about "The Empty Child" (I think I feel about it the way you do about "Inferno" and "Earthshock"), and partly down to the fact that it's the sort of continuity detail that I think we would in most circumstances be inclined not to pedant about.

Unfortunately I think most of the rest of your criticisms are sound, particularly regarding the confusing ending and the unlikeliness that the 48-hour amnesia would just be acceptable to everyone. And this is yet another episode where I feel as though the Captain Jack of Torchwood is just the wrong character for this show. As much as I want to like him, and John Barrowman, I just don't, except in the episodes specifically built around them ("Captain Jack Harkness" being the main one, and maybe "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang").

But what this episode lacks as a story, it generally makes up as an acting showcase. As you point out, it's the "everyone switches hats" episode; this is the right point in the series to do one, and everyone except Barrowman knocks it out of the park. Everything they go through is legitimately disturbing and they sell it 100%. For me, that alone made it worth watching.

...once.

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