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.
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