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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

‘Torchwood’ blogging: “Sleeper”

Torchwood blogging is back! Haul out your Season 2 DVDs and get watchin’. (Before commenting, please read the intro to my Doctor Who blogging; the same caveats apply to Torchwood.)

(previous: Episode 1: “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang”)

Now, I, like this episode’s tragic villain Beth, have “always had this nagging feeling like I didn’t fit in,” that I’ve been “so desperate to have a more exciting life.” Does that mean I’m an alien sleeper agent too?

That’s what half the people watching this episode were thinking, of course, with a self-aware snort and a self-deprecating laugh but also a little tiny voice in the back of your mind going, “Yeah, but what if…?” Because that was just one of the little zingers aimed at the misfits geeks who make up half the audience for shows like this one.
Another of the huge zingers? The sudden realization that Jack is scary and completely rogue and accountable to no one and, damn, he’s not even from Earth, or the 21st century, and we’re trusting him why? There’s only one thing this image

can be meant to evoke, even if it did flash by quickly, and that’s the extralegal treatment by Americans of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. And in case there was any doubt, Jack goes on to tell this terrified woman:

We’re not charging you with anything, we don’t have to, and there’ll be no lawyer, no phone calls, just us and this room for as long as it takes.

Ianto jokes that he’s terrified by Jack’s posturing, which suggests that maybe Jack doesn’t actually have this authority. But whatever Jack’s legal standing is (or isn’t), Beth does believe him, which is scary enough: ordinary people have been terrorized into accepting that they can be treated this way.

And I know what you’re saying: She’s not an ordinary person. She’s an alien sleeper agent. But she doesn’t know that. Jack doesn’t know that. Just because some people are in fact dangerous doesn’t mean we treat everyone as if they are. “How can I prove to you that I’m not an alien?” Beth asks. Of course, she can’t. No one can prove a negative. Just because some people who are guilty will be caught if we act like everyone’s guilty doesn’t make this the way to go about things. What happens to the next person Jack is convinced is a threat? Do you want to be the innocent person locked away in the Torchwood vault forever on his say-so alone?

I hope that most viewers would take away from an episode like this this unsettling feeling that maybe we cannot and should not blindly trust even our “heroes,” even if they do often turn out to be right.

On the other hand… The Torchwood gang made things worse, didn’t they, by waking up Beth’s hidden alien identity? Perhaps if they’d approached the problem from another angle — like, say, letting Beth go and keeping her under surveillance — they could have stopped the alien sleeper cell in some way that did not give the aliens more information so that their next attempt would have a better chance of success.

All this said, I do love this episode for its genuine science fictional elements, not the least of which is its touching on the metaphysical wondering about what makes us us. Is it our bodies? Our minds? Our memories? Something else? If we are the sum of our memories, then what happens when those memories get stripped away, or they turn out to be fake? Not that this is at all a new concept for SF to explore, but it never gets old when it’s done well (because we never get an answer, perhaps). “Sleeper” reminds me of the Doctor Who episode “Human Nature,” in which the Doctor is his own sleeper agent, his Time Lord self hiding under false memories of a life as a human, and also the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which O’Brien has been replaced with an alien infiltrator who doesn’t know he’s not the real O’Brien. It’s the think bomb lobs at us: If Beth and the Doctor’s “John Smith” and “O’Brien” could wake up one day and learn that they’re not who they think they are, why couldn’t that happen to us?

Random thoughts on “Sleeper”:

• Jack’s voiceover in the opening credits has changed just a bit for Season 2. He used to say:

The 21st century is when everything changes, and you’ve gotta be ready.

Now he says.

The 21st century is when everything changes, and Torchwood is ready.

I guess we’re meant to feel a bit more confident that the world actually will be saved from snazzily dressed alien blowfish and spacetime flotsam coming through the Rift and all. That’s good — I feel safer already. Well, the caveats above about not giving Jack too leeway aside.

But wait a minute… why did these sleeper agents choose Cardiff as the staging area for their invasion of Earth. I mean, can we assume that they came through the Rift? I don’t think we can. Perhaps they didn’t come through the Rift but chose the city because of it. You know: the aliens could have started in London or New York or Tokyo, but with Cardiff under their belts, the Rift could power their takeover of the rest of the planet. Right?

Anyway, the implication seems to be that these guys will be back, and that they’ve probably learned some lessons from their first attempt.

• Ah, Ianto. He’s really starting to come into his own this season, and he’s got some great bits in this episode. “They know more about this place than I do,” he complains about the invading aliens. “Nobody knows more about this place than I do.” (I’m reminded of Donna Noble calling herself “supertemp” — I bet Ianto would be quite some competition for her in that regard.) And about Jack: “He is dashing, you have to give him that”? Funny.

• More joking: spending the end of the world having sex. Well, how would you spend it? (And at least this demonstrates that the show has a sense of humor about itself — this is almost poking fun at its tendency to play the sex card whenever it can, because it can.)

• Speaking of.. Jack’s manners in bed are “atrocious”? Somehow, I find that sort of hard to believe.

• British TV: so much more casual about interracial couples than American TV is:

(The only interracial couple I can think of on American TV is Rose and Bernard on Lost. Well, I guess there’s Sam and Maya on the American Life on Mars, too…)

• Owen makes a Murder, She Wrote reference (calling Gwen “Jessica Fletcher”)? So not what I would have expected from Owen.

(next: Episode 3: “To the Last Man”)


MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on a small screen

official site | IMDb
  • but have you noticed, it’s always white *men* and black *women*? so far, on american tv at least, i’ve never seen it reversed.

  • Gee

    In Doctor Who, it varies. Martha/Tom pairs a black woman and a white man, and Rose/Micky, Analise/Martha’s dad and Donna/Lance are white women/black men pairings.

    Where I think Doctor Who could do better is to include more Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi origin) characters.

  • Allochthon

    >If we are the sum of our memories,

    How can you not mention the classic example of this? =)
    “Bladerunner.”

    “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”
    Shivers up my spine every time…

  • MaryAnn

    Yes, I did think of *Blade Runner* when I was writing about this one.

  • MaSch

    Speaking of interracial couples … I liked the fact that “Love, actually” made a point of not making a point of Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) being black and Juliet (Keira Knightley) being white. Really cool.

  • Jackie

    Given how usual mixed race relationships are in British Cities today (straight and gay couples) it would be odd if British tv didn’t reflect this. Certainly if it were always remarked on or always used to explore “issues” then it simply would not reflect day to day reality. Rose and Mickey are not in any way unusual as a couple here today (it wasn’t the BBC making a politically correct point). Are mixed race couples rarer in the USA, or is it just US tv which hasn’t caught up yet? It does seem odd that there are very few such relationships in US tv imports to the point where if there’s a black actor in a mainly white cast he will either get no action in the bedroom department or will end up with the only black actress in the cast.

  • Joanne

    Where I think Doctor Who could do better is to include more Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi origin) characters.

    That’s true, I can only think of a couple (the PR girl in “Planet of the Ood” and the orb-scientist in “Army of Ghosts”) and I can’t even remember their names, which is awful. I’m hoping it’s mostly because they’re casting on talent and not ethnic origin, so in “Sleeper” Nikki Amuka-Bird was just the best person for the role.

    I’ve just thought of another Whoniverse mixed-race couple – Ianto and Lisa, though talk about doomed to failure!

  • “Are mixed race couples rarer in the USA, or is it just US tv which hasn’t caught up yet?”

    i’m not sure about actual couples… but certainly the depiction of mixed race couples on the television is pretty rare. the only one i can think of, off-hand, is the US version of Life on Mars — and i do believe in the proper LOM, sam and maya were a mixed couple, where she was of asian ancestory. though you only saw her once or twice.

  • Mark

    Here are some interracial (with a fairly loose definition of ‘interracial’) couples that come to mind on American shows I’m familiar with (and where the interraciality of the couple was never really an issue):

    – Wood and Faith in season 7 of Buffy.
    – Gunn and Fred in Angel
    – Wash and Zoe in Firefly
    – Ryan and Kelly, and Kelly and Darryl, in The Office
    – Athena and Helo, Boomer and Tyrol, and Apollo and Dualla in BSG
    – Tara and Sam in True Blood (although they aren’t really a ‘couple’)
    – Michael and Keith in Six Feet Under
    – Charlie and Zoey in The West Wing

  • MaryAnn

    Rose and Mickey are not in any way unusual as a couple here today (it wasn’t the BBC making a politically correct point).

    Oh, I know that. I didn’t think it was.

    Are mixed race couples rarer in the USA, or is it just US tv which hasn’t caught up yet?

    I think it’s a bit of both. Mark’s examples above aside, it’s rare to see a mixed race couple on American TV that isn’t mixed as a vital element of plot or theme.

  • Jerry Colvin

    Don’t forget Rose and Bernard on Lost.

  • Mark

    Don’t forget Rose and Bernard on Lost.

    MaryAnn didn’t:

    The only interracial couple I can think of on American TV is Rose and Bernard on Lost

    And I didn’t see a need to repeat her.

  • Joanne

    Mark, I find it intriguing that three of your examples are Joss Whedon creations. Particularly in this context, ‘cos I think it’s pretty well documented that RTD and co admire his work.

  • Mark

    Joanne,

    Yeah, although I would expect that if there’s any UKWhedon interracial-relationship influence, it’s going to, and not from, Joss.

    But bear in mind that the list is just what I could come up with from my own very specific and limited viewing habits; Whedon may be less prominent in a broader survey of American TV characters.

  • Whedon’s shows are considered sort of “cult” favorites here, just like Torchwood and Doctor Who… the mainstream audience may have *heard* of BtVS, but probably didn’t watch it. most of the shows with any sort of daring cultural displays, like mixed marriages, or gay relationships, tend to be “syndicated” and character driven… not on the main networks.

  • If the inter-racial relationships in Doctor Who and Torchwood accurately reflect British society, then I would guess that inter-racial relationships, especially black/white, are more common there. In real life, I have only 6 friends/acquaintances in inter-racial marriages: 1 black/white, 4 white/asian, and 1 hispanic/white. Although, I feel like I’m forgetting someone…

  • The UK is 90% white, with minorities mainly concentrated in the large urban conurbations. Interracial relationships are fairly common in some of the major cities, and it would be wrong not to reflect that in city-based shows. However, the BBC’s white, middle-class executives do have a reputation for going out of their way to be PC. One of its own directors said as much in June.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jun/26/bbc.television

  • Hmm, I should have previewed that before I posted it, as the opening paragraph of my cut ‘n’ paste job seems to have gone missing.

    ***Broadcasters have overcompensated for their lack of executives from ethnic minorities by putting too many black and Asian faces on screen, a leading television industry figure said last night.

    Samir Shah, a member of the BBC’s board of directors, said this had led to a “world of deracinated coloured people flickering across our screens – to the irritation of many viewers and the embarrassment of the very people such actions are meant to appease”.

    Shah, a former BBC head of current affairs who now runs an independent production company, Juniper, as well as being a non-executive director of the corporation, used a speech to the Royal Television Society to call for current TV industry diversity policies to be ditched because they were not working.

    Speaking to an audience of television insiders, Shah said: “The difficult truth I want you to accept is this: the equal opportunity policies we have followed over the last 30 years simply have not worked.

    “Despite 30 years of trying, the upper reaches of our industry, the positions of real creative power in British broadcasting, are still controlled by a metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle-class, cultural elite – and, until recently, largely male and largely Oxbridge.

    “The fine intentions of equal opportunities – and they are fine intentions – have produced a forest of initiatives, schemes and action plans. But they have not resulted in real change.

    “The result has been a growing resentment and irritation at the straitjacket on freedom such policies impose and, paradoxically, the occasionally embarrassing over-compensation in an effort to do the right thing.”***

  • “world of deracinated coloured people”

    what, exactly, does that mean? that such coloured people as characters should be portrayed not as middle class or participating in the larger society? that they should only be shown as irritated and embarrassed? what would satisfy the irritated and embarrassed? i’d really like to know.

  • MaryAnn

    the BBC’s white, middle-class executives do have a reputation for going out of their way to be PC.

    What’s “PC” about the BBC’s depiction of nonwhites?

  • Well, as Samir Shah appeared to be arguing, there may be something tokenistic about the BBC’s casting of nonwhites. For one thing, television hasn’t embraced colourblind casting in quite the same way that theatre has – if the BBC were to stage a drama about the life of an English king, I doubt whether it would cast Adrian Lester or David Oyelowo in the title role (unlike the RSC, incidentally, which cast them as Henry V and Richard II respectively). So let’s proceed from the assumption that British TV sets out to be realistic; that this is one of the medium’s ‘rules’.

    Let’s also assume that the BBC is a progressive organisation that seeks to promote the idea of a liberal, diverse Britain (that’s really what I meant by PC, and for anyone who watches the BBC every day, it’s hard to disagree with this assessment); and that it aims to provide a public service that reflects the lives, and changing demographics, of the UK population.

    Now, I’ve had interracial relationships. Have many of my friends and acquaintances? Not as far as I know. But in New Who World, a large proportion of the relationships are between someone black and someone white (other ethnicities, like the UK’s large Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi community, doesn’t get much of a look-in). It doesn’t affect my enjoyment to any great extent – it just prompts a niggling thought along the lines of: “This isn’t very true to life, is it? It’s like they’re going out of their way to portray the world as they’d like it to be and not how it is.”

    You might say that they’re blazing a trail (for gays and lesbians too), and that their tolerance and idealism are commendable, particularly given the show’s young fanbase. And I’d have a lot of time for that argument. It’s just, as I say, he execution can be forced and not very realistic. It’s not realistic that Captain Jack could have kissed the 1941 Jack Harkness in public, in front of a load of soldiers, without being beaten up and probably thrown in jail. It’s not realistic that Balamory, the rural Scottish town in which a BBC kids’ show is set, has an ethnically diverse population. It’s doesn’t seem likely – though who can say? – that Guinevere was mixed race, as she is in the BBC’s new show about Merlin.

    It’s possible, however, that the foundling Tattycoram in Dickens’ Little Dorrit could have been black, and in the BBC’s current adaptation Freema Agyeman plays her splendidly – an example of colourblind casting that doesn’t violate television’s rules of realism I alluded to initially.

    Being a white male, I can’t speak for minority communities. I just find it interesting that a nonwhite BBC executive appears to think his white colleagues are casting actors inappropriately in a clumsy attempt to reflect racial diversity (there’s at least one example of this quoted in the Guardian story I linked to). To be honest, it’s not something I’ve analysed in depth until now. I’m not condemning the powers that be – I think the Who team in particular have done a fantastic job. I’m simply pointing out what’s mildly jarring for me and suggesting that these are issues that deserve an airing.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not realistic that Captain Jack could have kissed the 1941 Jack Harkness in public

    That’s true. But if we can accept other aspects of the fantasy here, why not one like that? It’s a fairly harmless deviation from reality. It’s not like this is meant to be a serious historical drama…

  • I’ve thought of a third Asian person in Doctor Who: the female programmer in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways.

  • The only interracial couple I can think of on American TV is Rose and Bernard on Lost. Well, I guess there’s Sam and Maya on the American Life on Mars, too…

    It’s odd that you say that because I seem to remember seeing a lot of interracial couples on TV. Apart from the ones Mark mentions, there have been:

    1. Turk and Carla on Scrubs.
    2. Brandon and Wilhelmina on Ugly Betty.
    3. Nikki and D.L. on Heroes. (I’m kinda surprised you missed that one.)
    4. Joy and Crabman on My Name Is Earl.
    5. Cristina and Preston on Grey’s Anatomy.

    And no doubt many more whose names don’t come to mind. Hell, there was even an interracial couple on Ally MacBeal. (Not that I blame you for doing your damnest to forget that show, but still…)

    True, not every TV show had an interracial couple but they’re not as invisible on American TV as a lot of people here would like to think.

    And while I don’t doubt there are a lot of people in the US who still have issues with interracial couples, it’s hard to pretend that nothing on this issue has changed since 1967 when one current Supreme Court Justice is half of an interracial couple and the current President-elect is, of course, the product of an interracial marriage.

  • MaryAnn

    3. Nikki and D.L. on Heroes. (I’m kinda surprised you missed that one.)

    Yes, I can’t believe I forgot that one, either.

    I don’t watch any of those other shows you mentioned, though, so I think I can be forgiven for overlooking them.

    I also remembered that since everyone has slept with pretty much everyone else on *ER,* there were quite a few interracial couples on that show, too. However, it’s notable that when stories on *ER* actually focused on a couple and their relationship, it was always same-race couples. The mixed-race couples were always mostly window dressing.

  • However, it’s notable that when stories on *ER* actually focused on a couple and their relationship, it was always same-race couples. The mixed-race couples were always mostly window dressing.

    It’s been a long time since I paid attention to ER, but wasn’t there a serious relationship between Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle) and Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston)?

  • MaryAnn

    They did have a relationship, but it was never really the focus of any drama the way that Corday’s relationship with Greene was. (And he was white, of course.)

  • She had a relationship with Greene? I don’t remember that at all, but I believe it. *lol* My biggest associations with her character are her relationships Peter Benton (romantic) and the surgeon whose arm was amputated (non-romantic). It’s been forever, since I’ve watched it, though.

  • They did have a relationship, but it was never really the focus of any drama the way that Corday’s relationship with Greene was. (And he was white, of course.)

    Wasn’t the romance between Benton and Corday specifically ended at Eriq LaSalle’s request? I remember an African-American op-ed columnist making a big deal out of LaSalle’s request so I doubt it’s something I imagined.

    I’m not always happy with the way minorities are depicted on American TV either but it seems odd to blame the writers of E.R. for not spending more time developing a subplot which was ended at the request of one of the actors involved in said subplot.

    And it should be noted for what it’s worth that American shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons were depicting interracial couples at a time when most British shows had virtually all-white casts.

    Yes, I’m glad to see that the British came around eventually but we shouldn’t exaggerate their liberalism too much.

  • MaryAnn

    it seems odd to blame the writers of E.R. for not spending more time developing a subplot which was ended at the request of one of the actors involved in said subplot.

    Whoever instigated the ending of the relationship behind the scenes, the result is the same.

    This one fictional relationship, though, is hardly the only instance, of the general trend I was talking about.

    I’m glad to see that the British came around eventually but we shouldn’t exaggerate their liberalism too much.

    Agreed.

  • Ryan

    Just to be a geek for a moment, the O’Brien episode was actually Deep Space Nine; Season 2, episode 14 ‘Whispers’

    Ok, I’m done =)

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