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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

‘Torchwood’ blogging: “Combat”

(before commenting, please read the intro to my Doctor Who blogging; the same caveats apply to Torchwood / previous: Episode 10: “Out of Time”)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Owen Harper, Master of Weevils.

Alternatively: Owen Harper, Jellied Eels Man.

This one is more evidence of how Torchwood was really coming into its own at the end of its first season: there’s no way in hell Doctor Who would ever have done a story like this… and this episode does not feel, as a few earlier in the season did, like it was repurposed from Who. I don’t mean that Who might not take on a plot about guys setting up a fight club with alien monsters they sweep off the streets — it might. But the why of it is something the Who would not touch (or at least has given no indication so far that it would).
The new Doctor Who is so much about the Doctor — which is awesome, and exactly the direction what I would have said the show should go in, had Russell Davies consulted me on it — that even when it touches on things that feel very contemporary, like using alien influence and invasion as metaphors for urban terrorism and modern political malice, it rarely gives us stories that revolve around the modern attitudes of its modern human characters. I mean, sure, Rose and Martha are clearly modern women, but the stories they landed in would have been much the same had they not been. The show came closest to creating stories actually about early-21st-century attitudes and culture with Donna: her overall story arc was vitally connected to the kind of person she was, and the kind of person she was could not have been found too far back in the past, and perhaps not too far ahead in the future.

But this weevil fight club… man oh man. The motivations of the men who created this are so particularly of the now that this episode could not exist if those motivations didn’t also mesh so well with one of the show’s major characters, Owen Harper. It’s “the ultimate extreme sport,” Mark the real-estate guy tells Owen. “Too much disposable income, not enough meaning: that’s us.” That is a desperate cry for help that, I think, a lot of people today would recognize, if not personally identify with ourselves. We see these people all around us, and it rings a scary bell to hear Mark say, “We’re a generation with no faith in society, in religion, in life.” These men are trying to make their own meaning, of a sort, trying to feel alive, even if it’s not a sustainable meaning, even if — as Mark proves — it’s ultimately a downright suicidal one. Maybe those of us who have managed to make our own sustainable meaning shouldn’t be too harsh on these men. It’s sad that Owen can say, “For a few seconds in that cage, I felt totally at peace,” but at least he had a few seconds of peace, right?

Well, there is that tedious detail of the innocent creatures being harmed. The weevils may not be sentient (or are they?), and they may be vicious, but they can weep — the moment when Jack suggests that’s what the keening weevil is doing is far more moving that I would have imagined something like that could be. “Someone is not only kidnapping weevils,” Jack says, “but causing them pain.” That Jack and later Tosh can be so distressed over the abuse that the weevils take — and even Owen, as full of rage as he is, doesn’t want to hurt somone/something that doesn’t deserve it — is a small sign of hope, I suppose. Though, on the whole, this episode, full of near-sociopathic men like Mark, makes me think of this as one of those “are humans worth saving?” stories.

Which brings me to Gwen. I cringe every time I watch this episode and see her treated Rhys like shit. “One night” off, he complains, and justifiably so, when Jack interrupts their dinner. “You promised.” I want to hug Rhys and tell him, “Look, sweetie, she doesn’t want a night off.” Why he sticks with her, I don’t know, but the bigger mystery is why she sticks with him. Maybe she gets off on abusing him. I want to smack her in that scene when she tells Rhys she’s been sleeping with Owen, and then retcons him so he won’t remember. She wants to have it both ways, wants to soothe her own conscience and know that he will forgive her (I’m glad she doesn’t get that absolution she is so clearly expecting), and wants to keep him ignorant at the same time. What a bitch. What a fascinating, infuriating, intriguing bitch.

I mean, intriguing as a character in a drama. I don’t think I’d want her as a friend.

Random thoughts on “Combat”:

• True fact: This episode was written by Noel Clarke, who plays Mickey Smith, aka Mickey the Idiot, aka The Tin Dog, aka Rose’s Lesser Half, on Doctor Who.

• Great quotes:

“You don’t think I’d choose that ringtone?”–Jack

“You call it Janet?”–Tosh, on Jack’s name for Torchwood’s captive weevil
“Barbara just never seemed right.”–Jack

(next: Episode 12: “Captain Jack Harkness”)

[Torchwood screencap from The Institute]


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
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  • Joanne

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gwen described as a bitch before. I think her season one behaviour is pretty shocking – but do you reckon she’s being deliberately cruel to Rhys, making a deliberate decision to be unfaithful, or is it more that she’s coping incredibly badly with the stresses of Torchwood?

  • MaryAnn

    I think she’s being deliberately and consciously selfish.

  • Joanne

    Hmmm. Maybe I’ve been too soft on her. I always tended towards the latter interpretation, but I do think you might have a point.

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