Sleeper.



TV Lately I’ve been watching the first season of The X-Files and been reminded about just how good that series was at the beginning before the mythology overwhelmed the narrative to the point that it became apparent that no one had any idea where it was going and behind the scenes shenanigans led to the breaking up of the central couple. There’s something pleasingly generic about the treatment of the spooky dos as Mulder and Scully are called to a place were something weird may be happening, the find out what it is, deal with it and then leave with a hint that some issues have been left hanging. Although it’s clearly plot driven the best moments are perhaps the most mundane, when the FBI agents are sitting around in offices and cars debating the supernatural and rational, with Scully not completely disregarding the former and Mulder realising that what he’s saying isn’t within a country kilometre of the latter.

On the basis of Sleeper, one of the lessons learned in this new series of Torchwood it’s that you can dare to be mundane if the story demands (so no random snogging then, which disappointed Guardianista Anna Pickard, who live-blogged the episode). In the previous series there was a certain desperation each week that at no point should nothing actually be happening. Whenever there was a lazy lull in the story it would be filled with some shipping, dry rutting against a tree or that bloody stupid gun training montage. In this episode, amid the pyrotechnics and Terminator and Total Recall influences some of the best scenes happened when people just sat around talking about the situation and what it means to be human and in love.

Prime examples were the two-ways between Gwen and Beth in which some attempt was made to deal with the unrealistic using a modicum of realism. Comparisons can be made with John Smith’s dilemma in Doctor Who's The Family of Blood but on that occasion he was making a supreme sacrifice to save everyone and here the sleeper operative didn’t have a choice of utility and Nikki Amuka-Bird’s portrayal of this inevitability was bracing. Not that there weren't a few scares -- the brain scan scene was nothing less than a technological exorcism, the sudden emergence of the sleeper operative and Beth’s complete change of character utterly chilling. It's carefully striking a balance between the two and although it's easy to criticize the scenes around the hospital bed involving Beth and her husband for their soapy dialogue, they're required for us to understand what the character is trying to live for, even if we didn't learn all that much more about her.

Some of the few good incidents last year occurred when fantasy elements more usually seen in a futuristic or US setting turned up on the streets of the Welsh capital; what Torchwood is an expansion of that moment in The Unquiet Dead were the timelord says ‘Cardiff’ so indignantly as to wonder how anything supernatural or exciting could possibly happen there. Not unlike the film Hot Fuzz, James Moran’s script was essentially experimenting to see what this kind of action would look like on the streets and outskirts of this ciry. It’s simply not usual to see a young mother in that mode standing on that block paving turn into suicide bomber with quite that much intensity, her pram heading off towards traffic Ghostbusters II-style. The Yeti has very much emigrated from the bog in Tooting Beck to a nice set of public lavs on Queen Street.

The script was also careful to give everyone a moment of charm; Owen’s drifted from being utter twat to lovable rogue quite successfully and as someone at TV Cream’s noted in their previews Ianto seems to have swallowed a joke book between seasons (and an inappropriate one at that), although actually it’s more like a complete change of character – witness the exploding chair moment which is a far cry from the winging we endured during Countrycide. It’s still a pleasure to see Tosh being given something to do other than look vulnerable and Gwen? Well, Gwen’s Gwen, growing in confidence and fretting less about what Torchwood is doing to her – she’s embraced the darkness and is all the better for it. Jack’s about the only character who lacks consistency; back to his Who ways last week, in Sleeper he seemed to dip towards his old mood swings but perhaps with a touch more humanity.

Most of the problems you might find if you were looking for them were production based. The opening, meaningless voiceover is back with the royal ‘we’ve’ replaced with ‘Torchwood’ although it’s not clear which is the most comforting in terms of world saving. Now and then the editing seemed to cross the work of the actors, cutting to a reaction shot just as the important line was being spoken – most significantly during the scene were Gwen was reassuring Beth in the prison cells.

Colin Teague also betrayed his uncomfortable approach to action scenes and the same interesting use of camera angles we saw in SOD & LOTT, and though the explosion in the building, all done in one shot was suitably shocking, the assault on the ‘secret’ nuclear base was just waiting for Mat Irvine to shout at in much the same way has he does on the recent dvd commentary for Warriors of the Deep. Clearly it's tricky to do these things on a budget but this needed to be rather more visceral and I’m sure when HAVOC were choreographing the action you had more of a sense of the futility of war. Or something.

Overall then, Sleeper was another entertaining chapter in the lives of the men and women of Torchwood. I yelped and giggled like a baby. As with early X-Files, the story wasn’t completely resolved and there is the threat of more to come from these alien terrorists and well done to the production team for at least trying to be allegorical. This is the second week running when you get the sense of a much larger story being built, or a momentum developing, of story elements being planned out in advance. For all the similarities with other stories about aliens infiltrating society, it was still shocking to see these random people become killing machines and wouldn't it be rather fun to see pitched battles between them and the Weevils?

It just has to be oh so very careful with the tone and to make sure that it’s not trying to be too flashy for its own sake and taking self parody to the point of rendering the whole exercise pointless. At some point it's going to have to stop apologising for some of the excesses of the first year (to paraphrase Owen – ‘It’s the end of the world, let’s all have sex’) and forge forward with its own confidence and then I might be able to write a review which doesn't spend its time looking for places in which its improved. Next week’s episode already looks like another stab at the ‘person out of time’ story which was done at least twice last year but this time it should be rather sweeter and with tighter plotting. At least Tosh isn’t likely to say anything too naughty to her annual shot at a boyf …

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