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Torchwood S2 02 Sleeper Review

James Moran's freshman TV script is an outstanding piece of work.


Sleeper starts with an opening out of a better X-Files episode that sent shivers down my spine.   A couple wake to find their apartment being robbed, the robbers turn on them, there's nothing they can do, no time for help to arrive, and -- something happens.  I had the exact same reaction to the opening scene of Sleeper that I had to seeing Lisa in the opening scene of Cyberwoman.  "Oh shit.  If this was Doctor Who this story would have a happy ending.  But it's not Doctor Who.  It's not going to have a happy ending.  Oh shit." 

The woman of the house is named Beth, and this is her story.  It doesn't belong to any of the Torchwood people, although Gwen is closest to her by the nature of Gwen's job.   It's rather like a much better done version of Random Shoes.

It's also a story about fate.

Something tosses the robbers out the window, ironically landing them on top of the police car called to deal with them.  The police look at the scene and call Torchwood.  Whether this was experienced beat cops picking up subliminal cues that something was wrong, or simply a lazy excuse to pass the paperwork to someone else, it turns out to be the right call.  A growing string of circumstantial evidence and a deathbed confession point to Beth as both the killer and something nonhuman.

But Beth vigorously and honestly denies this claim.  Nikki Amuka-Bird is outstanding as the frightened and confused woman whose life has been turned upside down.  Far more so than James Marsters did last week, she carries the weight of the entire episode on her shoulders and carries it off perfectly.

In a bid to outweigh the mounting evidence against her, Beth rashly states that she'll do "anything" to prove her innocence.  Taking her word at face value, Jack tries a painful and potentially lethal  experiment that forces the alien consciousness inside her out into the open.  While the scene does feel a bit like torture and more than a bit like the medieval witch-hunter's "trial by water", it's important to remember that Jack doesn't bring it out until all other options are exhausted and until Beth volunteers for it.

The alien consciousness is grim and smart.  While clearly showing enough awareness to nearly fall for Jack's attempt to trick it into talking, it refuses to do more than repeat the same phrase.  When the experiment is concluded it scampers back into it's shell and Beth is left with no knowledge of what happened.

Beth is shown the footage.  While she doesn't fully understand what she sees, Beth is strong enough to stop denying that there is something nonhuman living inside her.  Jack tells her this creature is an alien Sleeper agent, planted on earth with false memories to gather information and prepare for an invasion.  Someday, without warner, the Sleeper will activate, destroy the consciousness of the woman known as "Beth", and then set out to destroy the human race.

Beth's dreams of a normal life come crashing into the reality of her condition.  She is an alien.  Worse, she has a monster within her that will someday totally subsume her personality and use her body to destroy her people, her planet, and everything she holds dear.  NAB is stunning in this performance as Beth processes this information.

At this moment Beth knows her fate.  She is going to die, either at the hands of Torchwood or though becoming a monster and losing all trace of her human memories.  She knows how she will die, but she does not accept it.  Ironically at this moment Beth obeys the most human impulse of all.  She tries to fight her fate.  

In a bid to save her life, Torchwood tries to cryogenically freeze Beth to delay her activation.  They knock out her defensive force shield and communication system.  Predictably, this action sends an S.O.S. signal which activates the other Sleepers.  When they activate they completely lose all trace of their humanity.  One casually kills his wife, another leaves a man he is giving CPR to, a third abandons her (I assume adopted) infant on a busy street corner where it rolls into the intersection and causes a crash.  These scenes are brutal, but they are necessary to highlight both the inhumanity of the Sleepers and the complete and utter loss of humanity that is Beth's fate.  (Speaking as a mother of three children, one of them dead, I thought the baby scene was the perfect way to get the message across.)

But now that Beth is aware that she is a super-powered alien and Torchwood has temporarily taken her "off the grid", she can use her body for her own, very human purpose.  She wakes up and sneaks out of the base to see her husband for one last time.  Predictably, he doesn't want her to go and swears to keep her with him.  She panics, loses control of her alien body, and accidentally kills him.

Fighting one's fate is the most human impulse, but it is not always the wisest. 

While Jack and Gwen are bringing her back the other Sleepers begin their plan, complete with the murder of key officials and explosions that take out a key motorway and the telephone office.  Beth uses her improving control over her alien body to help Jack and Gwen stop the last Sleeper from blowing up the Earth.

Fighting one's fate may not be the wisest impulse, but sometimes it can be the most magnificent.

Back at the Hub, Beth finally accepts her fate.  She owns her death.  But even now she can't bear to take her own life.  Or perhaps she wonders if some on-board system will stop her from killing herself.   Instead she takes Gwen hostage and tries to (unconvincingly) act like a psycho alien to force Torchwood to kill her.  Convinced or not, Torchwood has no choice but to use lethal force.  

Ironically, Beth shows more concern and compassion for humanity-at-large in this scene than Gwen does.  Beth gets the big picture.

"Suicide by Cop" is not the most honorable way to die, but it does the job.  And I think Jack at least understood.  

An excellent episode.  I don't think we could have had an episode that focused so heavily on the guest star until we had all the ones that fleshed out the main characters first, though.  There was no character development for our Team, but we did get to see more of how they operate now that they have gotten over Jack sudden disappearance and reappearance.  Jack was firm and in control, Tosh was quite competent, both Gwen and Owen were as compassionate as the confines of their assignments allowed without going into overkill, and Ianto was starting to emerge from his shell to reveal a very funny young man.

Some people felt his jokes inappropriate, but I consider Torchwood to be Emergency Services Personnel.  I think ESPs and EMPs (Emergency Medical Personnel) should be allowed their stress-relieving jokes as long as they don't say them in front of their clients.  Besides, my 43 year-old, 185 IQ husband was laughing his head off because he would have done and said exactly the same thing.

The one exception was the "manners in bed" scene, which Gwen brought up and is exactly the sort of foot-in-mouth thing Gwen would say.  Jack is astonished that she knows, and Ianto explains.  Jack hurriedly cuts him off.  I didn't get the impression that Ianto was talking about anything recent, rather that he and Gwen had talked while Jack was gone and that was the source of Gwen and Ianto's new-found ease with each other.  Interestingly, there is no direct evidence in this story that Jack and Ianto have gotten back in bed with each other, although plenty of evidence they have been there before and are headed back in that direction.  (I'm not saying they haven't, just pointing out the ambiguity.)

If the caliber of writing and acting stays this high, this series of Torchwood is going to rock!


( 68 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jan. 24th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)
I thought the actress who played Beth did a fantastic job, I felt very sorry for her at the end.

there is no direct evidence in this story that Jack and Ianto have gotten back in bed with each other, although plenty of evidence they have been there before and are headed back in that direction. (I'm not saying they haven't, just pointing out the ambiguity.) That's is the same impression I got.

Some people have said that all the jokes were out-of- character for Ianto, but we really don't know what he was like before Canary Wharf; for all we know S1 Stoic!Ianto could have been his way of not wanting to be noticed (first because he had to save Lisa and later because he still didn't know how to relate to the team). And now he seems much more confident.

'It's rather like a much better done version of Random Shoes.' Good point. I really connected with Beth in a way I didn't with Eugene.

Jan. 24th, 2008 07:04 pm (UTC)
Some people have said that all the jokes were out-of- character for Ianto, but we really don't know what he was like before Canary Wharf

Sorry for butting in, but this has been bothering me because I've been seeing this assessment as well. Personally, I see this as expanded characterization of the promise of sarcastic, funny Ianto we saw glimpses of in S1. Apparently people have forgotten "I'll do it the old-fashioned way - with my eyes." He's deliciously sarcastic and it's lovely to see them expand that. Especially since this seems to be, to me at least, the real Ianto. He's relaxed and secure in his position both in his job and in his relationships with the rest of the team.
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Jan. 24th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
I liked your commentary. I'm still processing the episode, because for some reason I had a REALLY hard time with the violence (I'm kind of squimish)so I can't really say I liked it. Yet.

I'm squeamish, but I thouhgt the violence really drove home the point of the fate awaiting Beth and the world.

I kept hoping we'd get more of an insight as to why Jack was so mean to Beth. Like maybe that race is the reason he lost 'Grey'.

I didn't think Jack was mean to Beth. He was blunt and intimidating, but no more so than he thought he had to be under the circumstances. I mean, he didn't threaten her husband or anything.

Ianto was AWESOME in this episode

He sure was! XD
I just started reading in this fandom... - (Anonymous) - Jan. 24th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - haunter_uk - Jan. 24th, 2008 10:22 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 24th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
The young man we saw last night would have been right at home in Torchwood London, and probably was.
Jan. 24th, 2008 07:06 pm (UTC)
I think what struck me most about this episode (after I got over my glee at Ianto) is how much better the writing seems this season. It was a fairly Gwen-centric episode and something that, last season, would have grated on my nerves. This time, however, it didn't feel like I was getting hit over the head with her characterization, but rather that it actually was part of her character. It's a lovely change.
Jan. 24th, 2008 07:36 pm (UTC)
They're much more accomplished this time. Of course, they laid all the groundwork for establishing the characters last series.
Jan. 24th, 2008 08:09 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed this too proper sci-fi interesting story excellent guest star the team being a team and some jokes and hints on the relationships within the team (did any one notice Jack denied flirting with the policeman at the beginnning to Tosh?)
Jan. 24th, 2008 08:40 pm (UTC)
I don't think he denied flirting with the cop as much as he denied meaning anything more serious than just flirting. Proof once again that flirting doesn't have to be a sexual activity for Jack; it can *gasp* be an entirely social activity.
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Jan. 24th, 2008 09:16 pm (UTC)
I totally agree about the apparently inappropriate jokes. I'm only a student nurse and I already have made fun of certain health aspects for example, me and some of my friends were having lunch in one of the campus cafe's and we were tlaking about the subjec we were currently studying (stoma patients) and well, we basically ripped the arse out of them.

If you can't laugh at the situation, you'll just cry and then what use will you be. Although i totally agree - never do it infront of the patient/client/prisoner... that would be inappropriate.
Jan. 24th, 2008 09:21 pm (UTC)
To quote the late, great Molly Ivins, "Sometimes you only have three choices: laugh, cry, or throw up. Only one of them is healthy."
(no subject) - haunter_uk - Jan. 24th, 2008 10:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 24th, 2008 09:59 pm (UTC)
Great review! You said a lot of the same things as me.

The baby carriage thing was horrible, but it was supposed to be. This idea we have in film that all children and pets survive whenever there is a violent situation is ridiculous (I'm not saying I enjoy seeing it, it's just reality).

And you are totally right. It's a very dark and intense situation and someone had to take the edge off. Ianto was brilliant.
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:36 am (UTC)
I hate to think about the snarky remarks I would have thought up in that situation. I might not have said them, but I would have thought them.

Now my husband? He would totally have said them if there were no "civilians" around.
Jan. 24th, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
Personally, I felt the theme of the piece was the primal fear of losing control and hurting those you care about ranked up to 12, combined with the primal fear of losing oneself, at about 9. (I presume the scale is meant to be either quadratic or exponential rather than linear). Add to that very light dashings of body horror in order to underscore the primal fear of losing oneself.

And then they went and threw that beautiful thematic mixture onto the bonfire of dark, sexy, funny, adult, live action comic book that is Torchwood along with a light Terminator homage.

The alien consciousness is grim and smart. While clearly showing enough awareness to nearly fall for Jack's attempt to trick it into talking, it refuses to do more than repeat the same phrase. When the experiment is concluded it scampers back into it's shell and Beth is left with no knowledge of what happened.

It felt more like a "Check/Demonstrate that it can hear and understand me" to me.

Addendum - Remember the Literary Criticism and Analysis threads that were ran during S2 of Doctor Who on OG? The ones that were really fun to take part in? I was thinking it would be cool to restart them, especially regarding Torchwood. Only, as I learnt from when I wound up starting them towards the end of S2 of Doctor Who, I'm utter crap at starting them, it seems I do better analysis feeding off of other people's analysis. Would you at all consider cross posting some of your thoughts on Torchwood to such a thread on OG?
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
Remember the Literary Criticism and Analysis threads that were ran during S2 of Doctor Who on OG?

That must have been right before my time.

Would you at all consider cross posting some of your thoughts on Torchwood to such a thread on OG?

No problem. :)
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Jan. 25th, 2008 05:01 am (UTC)
If you mean the "I'll do anything to get you back."/"Can't touch this." vibe, yes. But Jack is nicer than Cary Grant and there's no Ralph Bellamy (not that he served much purpose, anyway). But Ianto has had a "40's secretary" vibe about him from the first episode. Now he's the "wronged 40's secretary."
Jan. 24th, 2008 10:29 pm (UTC)
I think part of the reason I was disturbed about the scene with Ianto and the mind-probe chair was because it was an insensitive thing to do when they have a woman in custody who's frightened to death because she was being accused of being an alien and killing people. More to do with the situation than the character- I would have been equally disturbed if Owen did it, and the fact that it was Owen who gave Ianto the disapproving look indicated just how inappropriate it was. Ah well. But what you said about Torchwood being a sort of ESP does make sense, and since Beth didn't see it I guess we can put it down to stress relief. Maybe that's how Ianto dealt with nervousness before Canary Wharf drove him into his S1 shell?

Great review ♥ I totally agree that this episode was about Beth, and yeah it occurred to me as well that TW endings tend to go the other way from Who endings :P
Jan. 25th, 2008 12:03 am (UTC)
That was my thought, it was totally black humor - the kind of thing people are just as likely to hit you for as laugh - but while Owen in this case may not have been in the mood for the humor at that moment he could see where Ianto was coming from, why he would do it and so stopped at the glare.

It is nice when they do episodes centered on people other than the team once in a while, makes the point that they are not the only people in this world and that what they do affects people other than themselves - which can be a risk in some series, the other characters just end up becoming 'woman in flat' etc, not people with names and feelings.

Also, indeed a squicky ep, I felt kinda ill at the end - and while most of it was entirely necessary for all the reasons above mentioned, I did feel it became a touch gratuitous at the nuclear dump, maybe could have had a few less noisy deaths by military personnel, just my opinion.
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Jan. 25th, 2008 12:43 am (UTC)
This is one of the best reviews of the ep that i've read ♥ I agree with basically everything you said :D

Do you mind if I friend/watch your lj? Intelligent DW and Torchwood commentary is too good to turn down!
Jan. 25th, 2008 02:52 pm (UTC)
No problem! :)
Jan. 25th, 2008 03:17 am (UTC)
YEAH!!! Crabby_lioness review!!!

I completely agree that NAB did an amazing job as Beth and I really felt for her and even liked her. I really liked Jack in this episode, he was a leader, he knew what had to be done and he did it but he wasn't extreme and he wasn't cruel about it. Gwen was her usual self only less annoying. But I can't help wondering when she'll start seeing the bigger picture just a bit. You're right when you say that at the end Beth had humanity's interest more at heart than Gwen. I think the issue is that Gwen focuses so minutely that she can't see the big picture, she can't see that sometimes you have to do things that you don't like or even agree with for the greater good. You can still be the voice of humanity in the group and be able to see the big picture.

As for Ianto, my guess is that he seemed so out of character for people not because he was funny and sarcastic and more open than ever before but because he was more demonstrative than we've ever seen, specifically the "electric chair" moment. That moment really jumped out at me but the rest was absolutely in character for me. I think if they had saved a moment like that for next episode it wouldn't have been as glaring.

The one moment that completely baffles me is the scene at the end, when everyone is back at the Hub and Jack is getting dressed while talking to Tosh, Ianto is approaching (carrying something) and they make eye contact and there's this look...and Jack bolts. I feel that there's a missing scene in there somewhere and that this would have made more sense with that scene included because as it is I'm a bit confused. What did that scene mean? Does Ianto not like that Jack was turned into a shish-ca-bob? They want to jump each other and if they don't separate they'll give everyone a show? And Gwen comes into the frame which could just add a completely different dynamic to the entire thing. Honestly, I'm baffled. Any thoughts? Anyone?

Another great recap. Thanks. :-)
Jan. 25th, 2008 04:14 am (UTC)
Jack broke the aerial on the SUV to make an antenna for the radio. Ianto's going to be the one to have to a) get it fixed, and b) clean the duct tape off the wing mirror.

Or to put it another way -

Ianto: You broke my car.
Jack: Er, yeah, sorry about that...
Ianto: You. Broke. My. Car.
Jack: runs
(no subject) - katiebugs18 - Jan. 25th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jan. 25th, 2008 04:07 am (UTC)
First off, I should lay my cards on the table. I'm not a Torchwood fan. I watched the first couple of episodes and laughed at how bad they were. A while later, I happened to catch the last two episodes of series one and was disappointed at the wasted opportunities. Jack and Ianto were the only two decent regular characters in it; you could tell the poor actors were trying their best but they were given so little to work with (particularly Burn Gorman, I felt) that they didn't stand a chance. So, it was out of morbid curiosity that I watched Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.

Except it didn't quite work out like that. About twenty-five minutes in, I saw three of the best dramatic scenes I've seen in a long time - in brief: office/lift/roof. So I've been trying to figure out what made these scenes so much better than the entire first series put together (which I've now gone back and watched) and in doing so I found your journal.

Okay, exposition over.

There are three Ianto scenes in Sleeper that I find particularly intriguing from a staging point of view.

1) c. 7:58 - Ianto/Jack. Just us, this room, etc. Ianto spends most of the time not looking at Jack, while Jack looks right at him. It doesn't seem that Ianto's avoiding Jack's gaze, more that he's drawing attention to something else. So I went back and rewatched the office scene from KKBB to compare notes. If I didn't know better (and I probably don't) I'd say they're directly referring to that scene: Ianto/Jack from Ep. 2 could be a direct commentary on Jack/Ianto from Ep. 1.

2) c. 12.08 - Team. The mind probe. Fandom seems to be split on whether Ianto's indulging in macabre humour or being insensitive. I didn't see it either way. He's just needled Jack three times about the danger of using the mind probe on Beth, and it looks like he's trying to reinforce his point. (Owen's expression is ambiguous: either don't mess around or don't push it with Jack.) After giving Beth some water, he then stand directly opposite Jack with an almost identical posture. Not only that, but he backs up Gwen against Jack when she comments on his manners in bed. To me, his whole manner said "I don't agree with what you're doing but I won't outright say it in front of the others".

3) c. 44:12 - Team and Beth. Beth's death. Ianto's in his customary place, behind and to the right (their left) of Jack. Not getting into the whole Lisa issue (pertinent though it is), there's something a bit more obvious that I haven't noticed being discussed: has Ianto ever killed anyone before? I know he shot Owen in End of Days, though he claimed to shoot to maim, and even in KKBB he couldn't shoot the blowfish. Here we have Ianto in Jack's-loyal-footsoldier mode murdering alongside him. What's more, once Jack and Owen get upstairs and Gwen explains what's happened, we don't even see Ianto again: there's no clue as to what his reaction is.

It's also a story about fate.

Perky, happy Ianto's just willingly taken an innocent woman's life (Beth-as-human as opposed to Beth-as-alien, who certainly isn't innocent). Gwen's played good cop to Jack's bad. Even Toshiko was ready to give up when the phone network went down. And Owen? Owen sums the whole situation up perfectly.

Gwen: She used her last shred of humanity to do this.
Owen: We couldn't take that chance. She must have known that.


I've put way too much thought into this; it's been years since I've done any dramatic deconstruction and this has been fun. Thanks for the fascinating comments and insight.
Jan. 25th, 2008 07:15 am (UTC)
'I'm not a Torchwood fan. I watched the first couple of episodes and laughed at how bad they were.' As much as I love this series, I'll be the first to admit, S1 did have some major problems; I think that was mostly do to the fact the the writers didn't really know what they wanted Torchwood to be or what to do with the characters and they tried too hard.

'If I didn't know better (and I probably don't) I'd say they're directly referring to that scene: Ianto/Jack from Ep. 2 could be a direct commentary on Jack/Ianto from Ep. 1.' Excellent point :D

'Has Ianto ever killed anyone before?' Oooh something else to think about. He does seem to go out of his way *not* to kill (might be because Lisa was killed in front of him), he did say he meant to shoot Owen in the shoulder and Owen was trying to open the rift.

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Jan. 25th, 2008 06:32 am (UTC)
I completely agree. This episode shows us what Torchwood was supposed to be. Gwen's supposed to be the beating heart to offset Jack's (at times ruthless) detachment, not just be the annoying bleeding heart a commitment problem. We got great glimpses of how Torchwood works together (Jack and Ianto flirting, Tosh being techie, Owen actually acting like a doctor, Ianto and Gwen in the vault, and Gwen and Jack's unforced connection). This wasn't their episode, but we learned more about them than from 2x01, I think.

Like DW's "Blink", this is an outside-perspective piece that I hope sets the tone for the season. Also, another episode where the guest stars carried the episode.

One thing that Gwen brings up and I don't think they go into enough on this show, is what it means to be human. She tells Beth that if she feels human, that's enough. Is it? Especially on a show that deals with Jack, people should be bringing this up more. If being human means being able to die, what does that make Jack?
Jan. 25th, 2008 03:41 pm (UTC)
If being human means being able to die, what does that make Jack?

I've wondered that too. Being mature means accepting your fate. For the rest of us that means eaccepting our deaths. For Jack that means accepting his immortality.
(no subject) - tessykins - Jan. 26th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Jan. 25th, 2008 10:07 am (UTC)
Beth was very like Lisa in reverse. Lisa had been human but at the end she was a cyberman. She was still enough Lisa to do the unthinkable (for a cyberman) and downgrade herself though with the intention of upgrading again with Ianto. Enough Lisa remained to sort of love him.
Beth is a deep enough "program" to love but like Cyberlisa, it's not enough. It's possible that the alien soldier she really is killed her husband in an attempt to get her human persona under control. Either way, there's no cure. I thought freezing her in the first place was silly. Was any body surprised how that turned out?
I don't understand why there would be any question about killing her, certainly by the end. It's like they're humoring Gwen. Even after hearing Lisa/pizza girl's plea Gwen still shot her. Hasn't she learned anything? I found Gwen to be annoying at that point. Her narrow focus empathy is typical of her. I just rewatched EOD. The whole world is at stake, people are dying and Gwen's all upset because Jack was mean to Owen just because Owen caused it. I guess Owen's victims don't count. I think Gwen is not a compassionate person really, look how she treats Rhys. She's what I call "cute puppy" compassionate. If a person strikes her as a "cute puppy" and is right in front of her, she cares. Otherwise, not so much.
Jack wasn't cruel to Beth unnecessarily. From what his says, he already had a good idea of what she was and the interogation with the helmet thingy just proved it. He said they don't leave survivors. Apparently Jack has seen the results before. Also, he just lived through a destructive invasion of Earth during the year that wasn't. Jack was surprisingly tolerant considering.
It looks to me like they're just going to skip over all those issues of what happened to Jack and the team while apart. I also think it's too early to do a "Random Shoes" type episode, especially for those who haven't seen the show for nearly a year.
I did like the episode and agree with much of what others said. I just wanted to add a point of view that hadn't been expressed.
Jan. 25th, 2008 03:46 pm (UTC)
We actually got more than I expected of the "year that wasn't" in the first episode. I think we're going to get a lot of Jack's issues over the series, but not doled out all at once. Remember, UNIT's showing up later on, and Valiant was a UNIT ship run by UNIT personnel.
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