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Review: Torchwood S2 07 Dead Man Walking

Why do so many wonderful character moments have to be trapped inside such a wretched plot?

About halfway through my husband said, "I hope they're going somewhere with to this.  It's nice and creepy."  When it was all over I asked him what he thought about it.  "It was different."

"Yeah, but was it creepy-with-a-point or creepy-but-pointless?"

He thought a moment.  "It was different!"

And that is the $64,000 question about Dead Man Walking (old American game show reference which is probably about what the BBC spent to make it).  It's the most spookily atmospheric Torchwood ever, but did it have a point?

This is the second story Matt Jones has done for the Whoniverse.  The first was The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit for Doctor Who Series 2.  I detest them both.  They have some of the lamest plots around.  I don't mind when the Whoniverse steals plots, in fact I'm proud of it.  Stealing plots has been an honored tradition since at least the Bronze Age.  But with the whole world of literature to steal from, why settle for third-rate horror stories?

The really detestable thing is that Matt Jones writes these absolutely wonderful character moments while the characters are reacting to the lame plots.  The security officer's death, the Devil's taunting, and the Doctor's soliloquy are some of the finest moments in New Who.  But to see them, you have to endure a plot that boils down to Cthullu-in-Space.  It's Cthullu.  It's in space.  There's nothing more to say about it.

Dead Man Walking is no better.  A minor demon with little power and big dreams has staked out a rabbit hole, sitting patiently holding a carrot waiting for a foolish rabbit to poke it's nose outside.  He gets Jack Harkness for the rabbit after the Carrot of Resurrection for Owen Harper.  Jack steals his prize and whisks it away, without noticing the black thread that runs from the carrot to the demon's finger.  As soon as Owen has consumed the Carrot of Resurrection, the demon begins to slowly and patiently reel him in.

Gwen googles that the demon is some sort of creature that will roam the Earth if it can kill 13 people and mistakes it for Death.  It can't be Death, because Death roams the Earth all the time anyway.  This is, at best, an opportunistic minor demon who for lack of a better name I'll call Smokey.

Fortunately Smokey is not a very powerful demon, as it's forced to cross half a city full of victims just to take out a dozen patients in an ICU ward.  Nor is it a very smart demon, as the last time it tried this trick it was defeated by a little girl, and it's doing the exact same thing over again.  (I fear Smokey would lose an IQ contest with Adam.)  All Torchwood has to do is figure out the countermeasure.  Story over.

I know it's a popular joke to say one doesn't watch Torchwood for the plot, but just once it would be nice if it had a plot worth watching.

But let's dispense with the plot and move on to the character moments.  Since it's polite to see to guests first, we'll start with Martha.  I've heard some complaints from die-hard Who fans that Martha was wasted in this episode, but they missed the very important role that Martha played.  She was the audience identification figure for new watchers who didn't understand why everyone else had a conniption fit when Jack pulled out the glove.  Her actions and reactions kept those viewers who haven't seen Everything Changes or They Keep Killing Suzie yet from feeling lost.  It was essentially a Companion's role and she did it well.

Now on to Jack.  The first things that's obvious is the change in Jack between this series and the last.  Last series he was distant and disconnected from everyone.  This series he is literally more connected to and concerned about his team this year.  Last series he didn't want to use a glove at all.  This series he goes on a quest and fights off a nest of Weevils ot obtain one.  Last series he couldn't get a glove to work for him.  This series he manages to get it to work with only a moderate amount of trouble.  He quite literally cares more about them all this year, and this is the most obvious example of how widespread that caring is for him.

In the resurrection scene he clearly states he brought Owen back to see if he could save him and, if not, to let the others have the chance to say goodbye.  Then he tries to downplay his concern by saying he was only after a door code.  Baloney.  Is there anyone who seriously believes there's a code in that Jack's lair that Jack doesn't know?  Or that the alien book reading/lock picking device couldn't figure out in less than two minutes?  Neither do I and neither does Owen, who confronts Jack about his lie in the cell scene and gets the truth out of Jack -- he's not ready to say goodbye to Owen himself.

This clingines is something we've seen abundantly since Jack's return from the Valiant, but previously it's been directed at Ianto or Gwen, one of whom he's sleeping with and the other of whom he's apparently thought about sleeping with under different circumstances.  But he has never shown the least romantic interest in Owen.  In the cell scene his feelings for Owen come across as paternal or fraternal.  While extreme, there's something reassuring about knowing Jack would go this far for Owen.  It gives some perspective to his strong feelings for Gwen and provides more evidence that his strong reactions to her now are not motivated by lust or romantic feeling so much as a deep desire to both protect his makeshift family and exercise some control over his own life.

There's also the possiblity that Jack identifies with Owen to a certain extent.  Owen in the first series was very much like Jack before he met the Doctor.  Now it appears that Owen may have been reared by a distant single mother, and Jack might have as well.  There's every possibility that Jack's mother rallied from the shock of the death of her husband and the disappearance of Grey and did a wonderful job of rearing Jack.  But she might not have.  We don't know enough to say for sure right now, but the possibility is out there.

And then there's our main character for this episode, Owen.  Let me state my bias up front.  I really don't like "return from the dead" stories.  I'm a Classicist at heart, I take my view of the dead from old myths.  You can, if you are very brave and very foolhardy, go to the Underworld to question the dead (the Resurrection Glove is a good substitute for that) but you can't bring anyone back from the dead.  Attempts to do so will always end in tears even if they appear successful at the start.  Occasionally the Gods will value a mortal so much that they take away his or her ability to die, but this is extremely rare.  This view is pretty much in line with the Whoniverse.  Our 900 Time Lord would not be so utterly convinced in the permanence of Death if the gates of the Underworld had a revolving door. 

Owen gets zombified and used as a conduit for Smokey the Demon.  He takes what's happened to him rather calmly, although he's probably still in shock.  But death has certainly brought out the vinegar in Owen.  We haven't heard this much snark from him since the first series.  Dying gives him a new appreciation for life, and more determination to help people.  Lovely, but y'know most stories manage that trick without actually bumping the intended off the mortal coil.  Unfortunately it doesn't give him any more self-esteem, as his brush-off of Tosh proves.  He still sees himself as the boy not good enough for Mommy (or anyone else) to love.  I would have said the moment where he swears to Jack that they are going to make up for the deaths they caused was over the top, but this is Owen.  TMI is his middle name.

Although it does present some interesting possibilities.  Given that Owen is both a Doctor and a self-destructive jackass, I foresee some destruct tests coming up in the near future.  We also don't know if his calmness is caused by a zombified lack of emotions or if the shock is going to wear off eventually.  That will be interesting to see.

The continuity glitches got to me after a bit.  First of all, Torchwood's pet Weevil is a female named Janet.  Definitely not a "he".  Of course, maybe they showed Owen another Weevil, but what would be the point in that?  Janet's the Weevil who Owen's been working with the longest and who knows Owen the best.  Maybe Janet's having a period and is in a bad mood.

The bigger continuity glitch was the 13th Century town that built a wall around itself to keep out the Black Death.  Hel-lo!  13th Century European towns all had walls around them.  It was a standard feature for thousands of years.

However, it must be said that the atmosphere was wonderfully spooky.  Maybe next week we could have a decent plot to go with them, yes?

ETA:  My husband thinks that Tarot girls is the now centuries-old "Faith".  There's a symmetry and narrative economy to that thought.

ETA:  I got the hockey stick joke.  It was the only time in the episode I laughed at something that was supposed to be funny.


( 28 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 15th, 2008 08:42 pm (UTC)
Imagine the sheer quantity of survivor guilt Jack must be carrying around by now. *rubs hands*
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:55 pm (UTC)
It will be interesting to see how he deals with it.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:54 pm (UTC)
I'd give it a "C".
Feb. 15th, 2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
Have you read the spoilers for episode 7?
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:52 pm (UTC)
A few, and I accidently left my rough draft in a public folder. Sorry.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but why not great lines with a better story?
Feb. 26th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
I agree. Great character moments, sucky plot. And Smokey! You win. :)

I actually liked The Impossible Planet/Satan Pit, particularly since it had strong resonances with Pyramids of Mars from the Tom Baker days. The problem with Dead Man Walking, in my opinion, is that Jones used the same motifs in this as he used to represent Satan in the who episodes, and as you so rightly point out, the Death-figure really only came across as a minor demon. I also think that it was too soon after Abaddon for the show to have another demon-- these things should be carefully spaced out, and I really think they should have waited until mid-season 3.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:31 pm (UTC)
Sutehk was a much stronger character than anything Matt Jones has written so far.
Feb. 26th, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)
"I would have said the moment where he swears to Jack that they are going to make up for the deaths they caused was over the top, but this is Owen."

i thought that little bit at the end was the only thing in the episode that didn't fit. it seemed so.... tacked on.

*toddles off to grow some Carrots of Resurrection* ;o)

now where did i leave that shovel...
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:32 pm (UTC)
They grow well with the Tomatillos of Hope. ;)
Feb. 26th, 2008 07:18 pm (UTC)
Great review again, you really have a way of working out all plot and character angels.

I enjoyed how Jack kept holding on to Owen, especially after Adam. It really shows how this season has changed (Jack as much as the tone of the show) compared to last season.

Although what keeps bugging me:
At the end of the episode in which Owen fights the weevil (can't for the love of god remember its name) he is down at the cells and growls at the weevil who reacts almost the same way he did in this episode. Was that intentional? Is it supposed to tell us something, like "Smokey" (loving that name) choose Owen back then already?
Feb. 26th, 2008 07:46 pm (UTC)
According to the producers and the actors, that scene was originally supposed to be what I call a "Jane Goodall moment", i.e. showing how well Owen could understand and use Weevil body language. But when they saw it on film, they decided there might be more to it than that and wrote a sequel for S2. I think that's supposed to be this episode.
Feb. 27th, 2008 01:06 am (UTC)
The biggest thing I got out of this episode was a major, major continuation in the construction of Owen as Jack-lite. Jack was the immortal Big Damn Hero, and now Owen is the immortal (or something like that) Big Damn Hero. The scene fighting off Hunger (which is what Owen called it) reminded me distinctly of Jack and Abbadon.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:35 pm (UTC)
I don't mind Owen as Jack-lite, but they need more variety in the stories.
Feb. 27th, 2008 04:28 am (UTC)
I gather that shows with a supernatural motif aren't common in British TV & that it's felt that the TW writers are having fun with tropes that are new & different to them. My feeling is that if so, the TW writers have gone berserk with their new toys, & as for the kid with the cards: Stephen King strikes again.

Re: Jack's clingyness--well, he did say he came back for all the people on the team, didn't he? Whatever the norms of his original culture & time, we've seen enough to suggest that he's had plenty of emotional stress in his life, & been operating outside anything normal even by the standards of his native milieu, so I can easily see that he'd fix on his team as an emotional anchor & be desperate to hold on to them.

Allow me to second the Classicist vote. Though I rather liked having the surly, sharp-tongued Owen back; that boy's just too damaged for me to believe the kinder, gentler version can last forever; it strained credibility for it to have lasted this long.

Walls around towns of any significant size, yes--which also had names. Could the unnamed "town" have been a scraggly little village barely hanging on? The agricultural disasters & plague didn't hit till the 14th century, but iffy land was already playing out in the 13th.

I think a lot of people suspect that the tarot girl is the same girl who foiled Ol' Smokey last time. Boy, there really *are* some stupid aliens/demons who pass through Cardiff. I begin to wonder if they're being sent there for the humans to finish off.

Feb. 27th, 2008 12:37 pm (UTC)
Boy, there really *are* some stupid aliens/demons who pass through Cardiff. I begin to wonder if they're being sent there for the humans to finish off.

It's starting to look that way.
Feb. 27th, 2008 08:25 pm (UTC)
Hmph. Perhaps Jack should be demanding TW be paid a wage...
Feb. 27th, 2008 05:43 am (UTC)
There were certainly quite a few plot holes and all that from what we expect from Torchwood - not that I dont love the show, I cant get enough of it.
Anyone else notice the inside joke when Ianto ran and grabbed the hockey stick? I just thought this was hilarious, and then I remembered back to "Sleeper" with Jack

"..The only reason I can think of for keeping sports equipment in the bedroom"
"well you should come arount to mine for a game of hockey some time"

So, imagining what Jack and Ianto have been up to, Jack really must keep hockey sticks in his bedroom and Ianto knew right were to find them. Which is really backed up by Ianto's Avant Garde comment

Then again, maybe Im just wishing more into Janto.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:42 pm (UTC)
The hockey stick was the only intentionally funny part of the episode, aside from Owen's snark.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:47 pm (UTC)
Torchwood is stingy with explanations at times.
Feb. 27th, 2008 08:04 am (UTC)
"The problem with Dead Man Walking, in my opinion, is that Jones used the same motifs in this as he used to represent Satan in the who episodes..."

I agree. The black-eyed, Ancient Greek-esque talkin', resurrected man and the "horde of followers" (Weevils/Ood). You couldn't tell that it was written by the same man at all.

Overall, I wasn't a huge fan of the episode. Yes, it was creepy, and I even jumped a few times when my brother banged around in his room next door, but I had to fight off more fits of giggle-attack than anything else. I particularly liked Gwen's Googling of "Death" and managing to track down exactly the right article. The Whoniverse obviously has a far superior crap-filter than our modern-day Google has. A current search for "Death Cardiff" spits back over 540,000 hits.

And "Smokey" is such an accurate name. I just couldn't really take a puff of smoke and CGI skeleton as seriously as I'm meant to take the most feared concept on Earth.

"Anyone else notice the inside joke when Ianto ran and grabbed the hockey stick?"

YES! I laughed so hard when Ianto came out with the stick. It's one of those awesome bits in an episode that makes you so happy you follow a series.
Feb. 27th, 2008 12:50 pm (UTC)
Hey, Smokey could have been worse. He was much better than the space whale.

The hockey stick was FTW.
Mar. 7th, 2008 03:25 pm (UTC)
I don't think they could really do much worse than the space whale.

Oh shit, did I just jinx the show?
Mar. 7th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
"Ask and ye shall receive...."

*ducks and covers"
(no subject) - claramata - Mar. 8th, 2008 03:32 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 27th, 2008 02:09 pm (UTC)
'ETA: I got the hockey stick joke. It was the only time in the episode I laughed at something that was supposed to be funny.' I may not have cared for this episode, but I did like the hockey stick joke. I love how there is at least one reference to Jack/Inato's relationship in every episode. It really gives me something to look forward to.

'It gives some perspective to his strong feelings for Gwen and provides more evidence that his strong reactions to her now are not motivated by lust or romantic feeling so much as a deep desire to both protect his makeshift family and exercise some control over his own life.' Excellent point. To me, it has always seemed like Jack thinks of Gwen as the Rose to his Doctor.
Mar. 14th, 2008 11:13 am (UTC)
The thing about Jack, and you touch on it here, is this season he has an over-developed sense of "mine." Everything Torchwood is Jack's. Just ask him, he'll tell you, they are all HIS people. So he won't let Gwen go (even if it means adopting Rhys as part of the bargain) and he won't let Owen go...they are HIS team and no one else need apply. He's like a 2 year-old with...anything the 2 year-old can see. I get the feeling Ianto spends most of his time trying not to roll his eyes at Jack being hyper-possessive.

And my DH and I were talking last night about how Torchwood seems to continually have the issue of not knowing how their universe works. The seem to have not sat down and decided the rules for monsters, aliens and the like (or they don't enforce them to their writers...same thing) and the episodes often suffer for it. Which is too bad, because rules could be the difference between good and great, plot-wise.
Mar. 14th, 2008 11:24 am (UTC)
I agree about the first but not the second. In fact the second is a point I argued against continuously last series. The universe is a honking big place with loads of diversity. Torchwood deals with the unknown. It would be unrealistic of them to have figured out the rules, or for everything that comes through to hold to the same rules. That's the very mistake Torchwood London made, and they paid for it in blood.
( 28 comments — Leave a comment )