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die hard is a xmas movie | 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

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