Outside the Government: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

(22 comments)


It’s January 16th, 2008. Basshunter are at number one with “Now You’re Gone,” with Rihanna, Nickelback, Britney Spears, Timbaland, and Take That also charting. In news, two days after Voyage of the Damned aired Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Pakistan, bringing her political comeback to a rather decisive halt. A less successful assassination attempt against the president of the Maldives is stopped by a Boy Scout. Barack Obama pulls off a decisive win in the Iowa caucus, meaning that Hillary Clinton, widely expected to be the nominee, suddenly had a formidable challenger. He went on to narrowly lose the New Hampshire primary, meaning that the story would go on for absolutely bloody ages. And Spain decides not to add lyrics to its national anthem.

While on television, Torchwood returns with its second season premiere, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Even before we get to the episode itself, there’s things to talk about, like the fact that this is airing on BBC Two. Regardless of what one might say about the quality of Torchwood’s first season, and there are certainly things to say, it was enough of a success to get promoted from BBC Three. Broadly speaking, this meant that Torchwood became, in its second season, a bigger, more popular show, although this gets complicated about halfway through the run when it started running previews of episodes a week early on BBC Three, a situation almost identical to how the first season worked, where it ran repeats of episodes later on BBC Two. But this was still presented as a BBC Two show, reflecting a higher profile. This also had something of a tangible benefit for Torchwood, in that it was now no longer a slightly seedy post-watershed show on BBC Three. It could still push boundaries, but it couldn’t revel in doing so in quite the same way. It had to just be an adult sci-fi show instead of frolicking about giggling about what it could get away with. By and large, this helped it.

Which brings us to the actual episode. The most interesting aspect of it, obviously, is the kiss. It is possibly the most flagrant moment of fanservice in the history of television. More to the point, it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is. It is James Marsters snogging John Barrowman.

I suppose it’s worth rehearsing the cultural context here, obvious as it may seem. James Marster’s signature role is as Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There he played the rougish villain turned good guy, with a British accent that, while rubbish, was at least better than usual for trans-Atlantic accent imitations. Spike, as a character, evolved steadily over the season due largely to Marsters piloting him to being a fan favorite. He went from being a recurring villain in the second season to coming back as a half-hero regular in the fourth. After which the gravity of passionate Buffy/Spike shippers (I believe “Spuffy” was the preferred portmanteau) led to a proper romance plot, followed by Spike questing to regain his soul so he could become a proper good guy.

Through all of this, Marsters attracted a devoted fanbase. Much of this focused on his considerable physical attractiveness, but a lot also hinged on the fact that he played a damn good loveable rogue. He’s practically the archetypal example of what TV Tropes deems the “magnificent bastard,” a character archetype that does what it says on the tin. And for the generation of television prior to the new series, he was the standout example of a character who was carefully tailored towards being fetishized by female fans. He’s there to be adored and, yes, outright lusted after. And not just in a teenager Edward Cullen sort of way, but in a way that is hugely informed by a legacy of slash fiction.

So here we get him paired off with John Barrowman, whose Captain Jack was self-consciously designed as a post-Buffy pander to the same community. And the scene just goes for it. The long sequence of the two of them walking towards each other, music swelling absurdly, followed by an extended kiss/fight scene. Were Torchwood the Internet, it would be captioned “your argument is invalid.”

This is, in practice, its exact effect. To say that the first season of Torchwood got something of a rough ride is an understatement. This was not entirely undeserved, but it remains the fact that the sane reaction to the first season is “that has potential.” The show’s biggest problem is that it could trend heavily towards crassness. Its first season rarely embraced subtlety, to say the least. And here the series basically cops to that. Sure, yes, it’s not subtle. It’s over the top and revels in what it can get away with. And it has John Barrowman and James Marsters making out. It is, if nothing else, confident of its strengths.

The effect is a line drawn in the sand. “Here is what Torchwood offers. If you want it, excellent. If not, well, other shows exist. Certainly some people landed on the other side of that line. But, crucially, plenty didn’t. Since we’re all pretty passionately about redemptive readings and taking shows on their own terms at TARDIS Eruditorum, we’re obviously going to take the show on its own terms and go with the side of the line with hot men kissing. Especially because, well, hot men kissing.

On the other hand, there’s some sense of lost here. Spectacle was what Torchwood did worst in its first season. Where Torchwood was at its best was its depictions of relationships and of ordinary worlds that become strange and haunted through the intercession of aliens. Things like the Blowfish that are obviously and over the top sci-fi are typically what Torchwood doesn’t do well. And so this story, in many ways, plays to Torchwood’s weaknesses while ignoring its strengths. Except, of course, they’re not really weaknesses this time around. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang works. It’s fun.

But there’s a sense in which this undermines the show as well. Yes, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is competently executed fluff. It’s funny, it’s got zip, it’s got good character beats. It’s fun to watch. But it’s also generic. It works because it’s taking a virtually foolproof structure and running it straightforwardly. The only bit of trickiness is that Captain John isn’t made to look like the femme fatale his character actually is, what with him being played by James Marsters and all. But if you reimagine Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang as the episode where the lead character’s old lover comes back and is played by some reasonably attractive actress who can do “sultry” well, frankly, you don’t need to change any of the lines. This is an extremely basic and oft-executed bit of television. Torchwood does it competently, but, well, that doesn’t say much of anything about it.

And so on the evidence, at least, there’s a sense that Torchwood is giving a lot of ground up. There’s nothing here that any other show couldn’t do. Its only innovation is to genderswap the femme fatale to give a massively fanservicey moment. We shouldn’t underplay the importance of that, but equally, it’s not exactly a twist that justifies an entire television series. There’s a real extent to which Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang feels like it’s selling out Torchwood’s status as a television show in favor of a high-profile event. Its big declaration of its own strengths amounts to little more than “highbrow titilation.”

The thing is,  Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang goes beyond its centerpiece bit of spectacle, though. Its real point is to do something the first season of Torchwood never really did, which is to put the focus on Jack as a character. This was in many ways the first season’s big mistake; it took “Captain Jack Harkness,” fan favorite character from Doctor Who, and built a mystery around him that was only ever going to get solved on Doctor Who. The result is that he became a withdrawn presence in his own show, shifting the burden to the supporting cast. Which is actually quite a good supporting cast, all things considered. Gwen, in particular, is a standout, and gets some fantastic bits here, most notably her scene teasing Jack with the revelation that she’s engaged.

But the show needed a leading man - a nice fetish object that the supporting cast could be woven around. And for the first season Jack didn’t quite provide that. But with this episode he does. That’s the entire point of the Davies-penned opening sequence, which explicitly says that the cast doesn’t quite cohere without Jack. And so we get an episode that really is, to a large extent, about reiterating Jack as a character. This is accomplished by going back to Jack’s starting point within Doctor Who: as a con man ex-time agent. Which is, of course, what Captain John Hart is. (Well, that and Spike in a silly jacket) He’s Jack’s pre-The Empty Child history come back to haunt the narrative.

What’s interesting is that this is a storytelling advantage that comes out of the decision to gender swap the femme fatale. It lets them get away with a clever case of having their cake and eating it too. They get to do the femme fatale plot, but have the femme fatale work as a mirror of their leading man at the same time. In many ways this pays off the careful restraint they mustered for Captain Jack Harkness in the first season, making an episode that had homosexuality as one of its major themes, but that didn’t dance around going “we’re a very special episode of Torchwood.” (A similar approach to the lack of overt moralizing in The Sarah Jane Adventures) Here we get a gay kiss that’s played for spectacle, but crucially, it’s not played for spectacle because it’s a gay kiss. It’s played for spectacle because it’s John Barrowman and James Marsters, both iconic sex symbols. Within Torchwood, the same sex kiss with Captain Jack wouldn’t even attract anyone’s notice if it weren’t for the fact that it was James Marsters involved. Which means that the real business - doing a femme fatale story in which the femme fatale is a mirror image of the lead - can be done invisibly and beneath the surface.

Initially, at least, he seems to have the drop on the bulk of the team; indeed, he thoroughly defeats Gwen, leaves Tosh and Owen in a pretty bad position, and ultimately only fails at whacking the entire supporting cast by virtue of catching a brief case of standard issue villain stupidity and deciding to let Ianto go rescue everyone. And then for good measure he manages to kill Jack, though really, what villain doesn’t these days? But then the episode fairly straightforwardly recovers from its narrative collapse. The Torchwood team escape the various fates Captain John stick them in, makes it back to the Hub, and fairly straightforwardly stop him. Captain Jack comes back from the dead. And Torchwood is shown to be more than capable of standing up to what amounts to a malevolent alternate version of Captain Jack.

In terms of the show’s health, this is exactly what it needs. It gives the show a much clearer link to Captain Jack’s past, giving a sense of what the Torchwood version of Jack has that the more straightforward rogue of Doctor Who lacks, grounding the character in his team. Suddenly we’ve moved past a show that’s about not giving away a Doctor Who plot point to one that exists on its own merits. Torchwood was hobbled in its first season by constantly feeling like it was waiting for its Doctor Who crossover. Now, at least, it doesn’t have to. It can, at this point, go on without crossing over into its parent show again. Which means that it can return to what it’s actually best at - small stories of lives into which the paranormal intrudes, often traumatically.

Comments

Prole Hole 3 years, 5 months ago

"Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang works. It’s fun." Does it, though? I mean, the plot basically functions to get us from A to B to C to D but I dunno, I recently rewatched all of Torchwood minus Miracle Day (because, well, it's just terrible) and the thing that struck me most about Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang is how incredibly dreary it all is. The plots it sets up for the rest of the season (do we need spoiler alerts here? Well here's one anyway) with Jack's brother could have been covered in about two minutes flat. "Hey, Ianto, I've got a lost brother I'm still feeling incredibly guilty about." "Really Jack? Tell me about it" "Oh I let go of his hand and he vanished from sight and it was all my fault." "Hmm, thanks for setting up the rest of the season Jack!" See, it's easy! Captain John just feels... I dunno, incredibly obvious somehow - I've never watched Buffy so nothing being carried over from there. And for all the big-disco-fightin-n-snoggin going on it came across as having your foot flat on the accelerator and the clutch being in at the same time - the engine is highly over-revved but you're not going anywhere. I know, I know, this isn't a review blog, but going through my rewatch I was just so glad when I got past this episode and something more interesting came along (anything, really). Season Two is a great improvement on Season One in almost every way and if we had to have an episode like this, well maybe it's better that it's the first one so it's done and we can all move on to something better.

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Bennett 3 years, 5 months ago

This might not be a popular opinion, but what most people describe as "fan service" seems to me more accurately described as "fan disservice".

I don't know...I just feel that it's a show's responsibility to be above catering to the idle fantasies of its fan-base. I prefer it when shows don't just give us what we want, but instead give us what we don't know we want yet. I think it's in a fan's best interest to not be handed a suitcase full of sweets.

Of course, this might be an example I'd have to concede....after all, being irresponsible is part of what Torchwood does. Were I a fan of it, I'm sure I'd feel appropriately serviced.

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jane 3 years, 5 months ago

Being handed a suitcase full of sweets is perfect for the season opener, because now you have something that can be taken away.

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jane 3 years, 5 months ago

"Never watched Buffy" would certainly put a stake in much of this episode's pleasures.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 5 months ago

It's like watching the "Five Doctors" without having seen any Doctor Who before.

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Chris Andersen 3 years, 5 months ago

When I hear the accusation of "fan service" I have to wonder if it isn't being unfair to the creators of the show. Yes, (some) fans may like the idea of Spike and Captain Jack making out, but maybe Davies made this episode because *he* liked the idea of Spike and Captain Jack making out.

In other words, if this was "fan service", maybe Davies was the fan that was being serviced.

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Alan 3 years, 5 months ago

Warning: TV Tropes ramblings.

To my recollection, Spike was NEVER a Magnificent Bastard. On the contrary, he was quite the opposite of that in that his schemes were always ill-considered and almost never worked according to plan. And in point of fact, he was at one point the trope namer for Spikeification (since renamed Badass Decay), a reference to the process by which a dangerous badass villain is watered down into a simpering puppy because the actor who plays him is popular and so the writers are forced to change his character so it's plausible for him to stay around.

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Alan 3 years, 5 months ago

Personally, I can't remember ANYTHING about this entire episode EXCEPT Jack and John snogging. Just from reading Phillip's post, I suddenly said to myself "Oh yeah there was a blowfish guy, wasn't there?"

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Ununnilium 3 years, 5 months ago

Sometimes, the thing you really want is something you never knew you wanted. And sometimes it's exactly the thing you knew you wanted. A good author will know how to balance these.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 5 months ago

Oddly, the blowfish is the main thing I remember ... well, not the blowfish itself so much as Bloody Torchwood Woman. The rest of the episode failed to live up to the comedy of that moment, IMO.

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Prole Hole 3 years, 5 months ago

Seems obvious, but pretty sure an episode of Torchwood should be able to stand on its own without having seen Buffy...

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

It is worth noting that Buffy was, broadly speaking, more popular in the UK than the US, and that this wasn't a play for obscure material in the way that doing it on a US show would be.

It's also worth noting that Prole Hole is going to be disagreeing with a lot more posts than this one if he really likes Season Two of Torchwood.

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Prole Hole 3 years, 5 months ago

Bloody Torchwood Woman is kind of the encapsulation of the amateurishness of the Torchwood team. British government blows them up when even some old granny can read the name of the "secret" organizaion stamped on the side of their incredibly conspicuous (and easy to steal, it seems) SUV and knows who they are? Serves them right...

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Prole Hole 3 years, 5 months ago

"Really liked" might be overstating things a bit... Ido think it's a definite step up from season one in terms of its tone and consistency, and there's nothing nearly as bad as, say, Cyberwoman, in season two, but that's not to say it's without its flaws... More to follow!

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Prole Hole 3 years, 5 months ago

Additiona, as I posted slightly too quick - I didn't mean to imply that Buffy was in any way obscure, I know that I'n unusual in being a fan of telefantasy but not having ever gotten into Buffy. It's more that if you're going to do this kind of episode it might be wiser to not do a big old pile of fanwank as your first epside immediately after your show has been promoted to BBC2 and instead maybe do something that would help to drawn in and sustain an audience beyond "hot guys kissing" (which I never object to). As an excersice in crossover fanwank, I'm sure it succeeds - as an episode of Torchwood, not so much,

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Assad K 3 years, 5 months ago

I was slightly surprised that, given that Blowfish guy is police enough to stop for the old lady crossing the street, he gets gunned down by our heroes a couple of minutes later. Also odd that given all the mayhem he has caused, John is able to swan off into the sunset - presumably being played by James Marsters had nothing to do with it...

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Alan 3 years, 5 months ago

There are also different types of fan service. The Jack/John snogging satisfied one group of fans, but another segment of the audience was happy to finally have some insight into the 51st Century from whence Jack came. Apparently, Jack isn't that much of an anomaly among Time Agents and isn't even the worst of the bunch. And "murder rehab" is a thing. That, to me, makes Jack's future sound like something from Judge Dredd.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

'...with a British accent that, while rubbish, was at least better than usual for trans-Atlantic accent imitations.'

James Marsters' British accent was, to these ears, excruciatingly bad and hardly worse than Nicola Bryant's American accent which came in for a lot of derision on these very pages as I recall. The odd thing was Anthony Head demonstrating a perfect English accent every week as Giles. Did they not think to compare notes?

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Alan 3 years, 5 months ago

Punk rock, Man-U-Loving Spike wasn't supposed to be doing Received Pronunciation, not that the production staff or Marsters had any idea what Received Pronunciation was anyway. I let it slide because the character, while originally British, had traveled a great deal. Bryant's American accent was grating not for its inherent quality but because it was idiomatically British but said with a bad attempt at an American accent. In Twin Dilemma, she responds to Six complaining about Five's "feckless charm" with the phrase "oh what absolute rubbish," which is the sort of thing that Margaret Dumont might have said to Groucho but which no young American woman would have possibly said in the 1980's.

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Anton B 3 years, 5 months ago

So that was a fault in the writing not her acting.

'Punk Rock, Man U loving Spike wasn't supposed to be doing Recieved Pronunciation.'

I never said he was. But some attempt at researching a convincing London or regional British accent might have been good. I'm not even bothering with Drusilla, her 'luvverly cockney' routine was straight out of My Fair Lady via Dick Van Dyke but at least was vaguely period-accurate within the context of Pop culture. Marsters' accent was just weird, somewhere between Australia and Boston. And while we're talking writing, my friends and I also laughed out loud at the writers seeming conviction that the word 'bollocks' would be bandied around with such abandon by an English person - Punk Rock Man U lover or no. It is actually still quite a rude word.

If Idris Elba and Hugh Laurie can do such convincing US accents that people are taken aback to discover that they are British and the Spinal Tap guys can pull off pin point accurate London Rock musician dialects surely Marsters could have made a bit more of an effort.

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Ross 3 years, 5 months ago

I found Spike's accent very easy to buy once it became clear that he was originally an crappy emo victorian poet who's spent the last hundred years trying as hard as he could to look like a badass. His accent is diagetically fake. He's the british vampire equivalent of a middle class white boy from the suburbs trying to sound "urban".

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