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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Torchwood’ blogging: “Out of Time”

(before commenting, please read the intro to my Doctor Who blogging; the same caveats apply to Torchwood / previous: Episode 9: “Random Shoes”)

I love, love, love this episode. It’s by far the best of Season One, and I think it’s when I realized that they might actually have something with this Torchwood stuff. It makes me think of The Twilight Zone — which is a good thing; it seems that the directions that all modern science fiction would take, even the best of it, was already being hinted at by Rod Serling half a century ago. Wasn’t there an episode with a pilot who flies into the future, from World War I to the 1960ish “present”?
“Out of Time” goes so much further than The Twilight Zone ever did, though. Because it’s about not the temporal paradoxes and the technical aspects — this episode dispatches those concerns with a couple of brief lines of dialogue — but about the culture shock. These people are stuck 50 years out of time. How do they adjust to that? The most interesting thing here is that how the displaced characters fare does not conform to our initial expectations, though in retrospect, it all ends up making perfect sense. Emma, the 18-year-old girl, is at first so in shock that it seems she’ll never be able to cope – she is as hamstrung by her own prefeminist ideas about what women can and should do for themselves as John, the older man is — but as the youngest, she is probably the most resilient, too, the most able to adjust to new circumstances. John seems sturdy and unimaginable enough to be able to fit right in without too much to-do, particularly since he doesn’t have the gender thing weighing him down: he owned a business in the past, he can do that again without having to fight any social battles, or his own social conditioning. On the other hand, he had had a full life in the past, and to see that come to a certain nonfruition — with his only child now childless himself, and senile — must be crushing. Why bother again, if it’s likely all to come to naught again?

And Diane, the pilot… Wow. She is one of the great, if transitory, characters of science fiction, uniquely her own person whatever time she finds herself in. Her laughter — kind but pointed — at Owen when he’s surprised that she’s as sexually aware and experienced as she is… that’s smart, and unexpected. In a lot of ways, she’s more modern and mature than he is, with her progressive and open enthusiasm for her own sexuality combined with an unwillingness to disparage the importance of it. Certainly, his terror at finding himself in love — like maybe he never expected this, or maybe he never even realized how powerful that could be — seems, next to her, like a regression, as if the sexual revolution, at least as Owen understands it, has gone too far to another unhuman extreme. That’s a kind of attitude SF rarely evinces, that what we’ve taken for “forward thinking” may actually have been a sideways detour to a dead end. It’s not about a nostalgic reverence for times past — that, certainly, is not something that is lacking in pop culture — but an acknowledgement that what we thought was a straight path to the future and to a better human culture has instead been merely one of many possible options.

What makes this episode so particularly special is not merely the characters who are out of time but the affect those characters have on our Torchwood gang. Owen, of course — so terrified at new emotional experiences, and put into a strange place for a man, if not in reality than at least in our depiction of reality: as the one who is left behind while a woman goes off into adventure and danger and the wild unknown. But Jack, too, who is so struck by his simpatico with John as “a man out of his time, alone and scared,” and then — oh boy — getting a reminder that he doesn’t even have the out that John takes: Jack can’t even kill himself to escape what must seem like, after so many centuries, a kind of damnation. Jack, too, is one of the great characters of science fiction, who has taken one of the big what-ifs of speculative fiction — what if you could live forever? — and made it something not worth wanting.

Random thoughts on “Out of Time”:

• Jack is drinking water in the pub. He only drinks alcohol at the Hub. Maybe he’s worried about losing control, and the Hub is the only place where he feels safe and comfortable?

• Also, interestingly, the bartender who tells John he can’t smoke in the pub? It sounds to me like he’s got an American accent, which, coming right after John’s curiosity about Jack’s American accent,

• Ah, Ianto, with his natty three-piece suits and his ability to do quick supermarket math in his head. He’s like Jeeves, hovering in the back as the tea boy, the servant, and — maybe — secretly running things from this position of unobtrusiveness. He has depths and widths and sidewise wisdom that we have not yet seen, and I can’t wait to see what the writers come up with for him.

• Ah, Gwen, with her constant and easy lying to Rhys. How does she justify it to herself? How does he put up with it? The beauty of this show — of the writing and the performances — is that these things don’t seem contradictory, don’t seem like flaws of storytelling, but instead like we’re dealing with complicated people with thorny personalities navigating a world they aren’t quite equipped for.

• Great quotes:

“Yeah, sorry, we are a consumer society.”–Ianto

“You expect equality and chivalry?”–Owen
“I don’t see why they should be mutually exclusive.”–Diane

(next: Episode 11: “Combat”)

[Torchwood screencap from The Institute]

MPAA: not rated

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