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.