Tony kisses and tells.
Torchwood Series 1 had delivered a high-concept, modern, adult ‘Defending the Earth’ drama series from within the universe of the revivified Doctor Who, with John Barrowman stalking about the place as former con-man and now immortal Captain Jack Harkness, building a team of specialists, each of whom brought their own particular skills and personalities to the business of saving the world.
Then Jack popped back into Doctor Who for the three-episode ‘New Master’ sequence, finally fulfilling his dreams of catching up with an almost contemporary version of the Doctor, and dropping his team like a hot brick for the chance to swan about in time and space alongside the Time Lord he loved.
At the end of ‘the year that never was’ under the Master’s rule though, he chose to return to Cardiff and his team, rather than continue his travels with the Tenth Doctor.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is an explosive but mostly meaningless opener for Series 2 – it begins with a high-octane car chase after a humanoid blow-fish high on cocaine and adrenaline, but rather labours its point as the blowfish accuses them of being children without Daddy Jackto guide them. Holding a gun to a suburban woman’s head, it threatens to kill her unless they let it go, and despite all of them pointing weapons at it, its bluff seems to work – none of them have the immediate strength of purpose they need to kill it.
Then Bang! It’s shot stone dead – and Captain Jack Harkness is back among the Torchwood team.
The Series 2 opener deals with a lot of the issues that would naturally come up – where the hell Jack’s been, how he could simply abandon them without explanation, how they’ve moved on in his absence (Gwen and Rhys are engaged, so there’ll be no more snogging the newbie; Ianto on the other hand appears to have healed sufficiently from his tragic loss of Lisa the Cyberwoman to accept a date from Captain Cheekbones) – but to do all that, it needs a hell of a lot of motive power, a quest, a villain, a problem to solve.
Step forward an idea at least as old as Professor Moriarty – and hello, James Marsters as Captain John Hart, the Anti-Jack. Just as cheesy, just as sexy, just as unbearable to be around, but a liiiiiittle more sociopathic and homicidal (murder rehab – it’s always a bit hit and miss). Hart arrives, throws someone off a building simply because he finds them bullying someone else, and then goes to a bar for sex, drink, rock and roll and potentially violence, while sending Jack a wriststrap-hologram with instructions to meet him there.
The two former time agents get reacquainted and John gives Jack a spiel about the quest he’s on – three radiation cluster-bombs, scattered around the city, set to go bang in a small number of hours. While not for a moment believing him, Jack can’t take the risk of ignoring John’s quest, and the Torchwood team splits up to keep their city safe.
Yes, of course it’s a trap, and Captain John collects the ‘bombs,’ immobilising Gwen, shooting Owen and pushing Jack off another building in the process. They’re not bombs, they’re parts of a puzzle that leads to payday, and John…well, he gets what’s coming to him, letting Gwen play action heroine and self-sacrificer, and forcing Own and Jack to improvise wildly to save Gwen’s life at almost literally the last second.
The point of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is mostly about starting the second series with lots of both those elements – kissing and banging (so to speak). As such the storyline is very forced: X turns up, sets challenges, double-crosses the team, allowing them to confront the issues that exist between them but come together for the common good, to show how much the team has gelled, and that, for instance, Ianto’s open to a new storyline and Gwen is no longer the doe-eyed newbie on the team but has quite enough grit and punch to be its co-leader. Beyond that, the fun lies in the character of Captain John Hart and having him played by James Marsters. It’s a surreal choice, because Marsters had spent several years playing Spike as what was really the ‘Moriarty’ in the Buffy franchise – the antithesis of Angel’s guilt-ridden, brooding-in-corners vampire lifestyle, he was the punk rocker of the vampire world, a Slayer-slaying badass with spiked bleached hair and a ‘Let’s do it!’ attitude, whatever (or whoever) the ‘it’ in question was, but forced into a life of do-gooding by the affliction of love. It’s also convincingly arguable that the essentials of Captain Jack Harkness were right there in Marsters’ portrayal of Spike – immortal badass with cheese-slicer cheekbones and that ‘do anything’ attitude. Oh, also, swaggering about looking absolutely drop-dead hot in a seriously good coat. Never underestimate the power of a seriously good coat.
In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, to become the anti-Jack, all he really has to do is be Original, Pre-Torchwood-Edition Jack: amoral, brilliant lying con-man with the universe of time and space at his feet through his wriststrap. He’s the Jack who never met the Doctor, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang uses its run-time to also show the contrast between them, show how much Jack’s changed, underlining the idea of him returning to his team when he’s already had the opportunity to run off into time and space. The difference being that Jack’s found a reason not to run away, not to seize every opportunity just because it exists. He’s learned to care for people, and, with the shifted perspective of not being able to die, he finds his greatest need right now is to stick around.
Is Kiss Kiss Bang Bang the best storytelling Torchwood has to offer? Not by several light years, no. But when watching it, it’s important to remember it was the first episode of a second series – it had a number of jobs to do, and it inarguably did them well, bringing back the Torchwood team with enough punch and pizazz to get the audience hooked again, bringing Jack back into the fold, showing how he’s changed, introducing a new, witty, anti-Jack archvillain, showing how the team has evolved in Jack’s absence, and, as a twist at the very end, giving us a single piece of tantalising information as a series hook. John, it seems, has ‘found Gray.’ The revelation rattles Jack to his core, for reasons that will become clear as the second series goes on. So is it the best or deepest Torchwood around? No. Fun, though – that it most certainly is. Marsters struts into the world of Torchwood like he owns it, and makes off with by far the best lines (to be fair, if James Marsters walked into the series you were making, you’d be sure to give him most of the best lines, wouldn’t you?). While Captain John Hart is if anything too simple a creation – John and Jack being variants of the same name, Hart and Harkness seeming both equally made up or stolen, the whole seeming like a neon sign to say ‘This is the Anti-Jack’ – Marsters and writer Chris Chibnall make him endless fun, just as Spike was as Angel’s counterweight in Buffy. It’s almost impossible not to think ‘Spike just walked into Torchwood and they gave him a stupid name,’ but again, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang launched Torchwood Series 2 with plenty of kissing and plenty of bangs, and got the show on the road to a new, if entirely bizarre, finale. Spin it again today, and while you won’t need a Doctorate of Philosophy to understand it, you will, absolutely, have fun. Get a little Marsters in your life, why don’t you? After all, where’s the bad?
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk