Greeks Bearing Gifts
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Captain Jack: Once, just once, I’d like to walk into one of these tents and find out it’s a party.
This week Toshiko meets someone who gives her a gift: a pendant that allows her to read people’s thoughts.
The general tone of the episode, which features a Cardiff of gritty urban streets and style-bars, with “alien tech” to the fore, is a return to the tone of the first three episodes. (In between we have had three episodes where the tone veered all over the place, with a hub-focused cybermelodrama, fairies in suburbia, and country village horror. I am all for variety, but this episode helps to reinforce the “normal” tone of the show, helping the series to be a cohesive whole.)
Although Torchwood is an ensemble show, each episode has tended to allow one or two characters centre-stage. With this episode it is the turn of Toshiko. Where this episode differs is the almost relentless focus on one character, as Toshiko is present in virtually every scene (after the pre-credits teaser). This allows the viewer an intense identification with Tosh, as she becomes more and more paranoid, and we experience the other characters in the Torchwood team through her eyes.
Although Naoko Mori is very good at portraying the disintegration of Tosh, the star turn of the show is Daniela Denby-Ashe as Mary. She is very much cast against type as a brassy Bad Girl, but very much succeeds. If Torchwood were ever to require a returning foe, along the lines of the Master or Rani, she could fill that role admirably.
Plaudits also must go the the Costume Department for her hair and clothes. She looks great sporting the “Louise Brooks bob” hairstyle, (made famous by that actress in films like the 1920s Pandora’s Box, Pandora being appropriate with all the references to Greek Myth in this episode. Louise Brooks was the original cinema Bad Girl.)
In the 1980s film Something Wild, Melanie Griffiths’s character has intentionally the same name (Lulu) and hairstyle as Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box. She blazes into Jeff Daniels’s life, a sexual firecracker, and stirs things up – in much the same way that Mary does for Tosh in this episode, with their Dancing.
Mary’s look, while (intentionally or not) recalling this film history had other curious echoes. At the week of transmission of Greeks Bearing Gifts, there were two news stories which had strong links to this episode. Firstly, the “rebirth” of Britney Spears, post-break-up with K-Fed. This new look was news for some newspapers, and the look (with prominent deep cleavage) was almost exactly the one favoured by Mary to storm the Torchwood Hub.
The other news story of note was the reporting of new theories about the Antikythera Mechanism. Parts of this were first found in 1902, but recent research on the cogs and gears of this two thousand year old Greek machine suggests it was an analogue computer used for astronomy calculations, and perhaps sailing ship navigation. (The complexity of the technology is not known to be matched anywhere until around 1500 years later.) The resonances with Mary’s machine and her tales of the Greek sailor Philoctetes are intriguing.
And where was the research carried out? Cardiff University!
The title of the episode refers to another Greek myth, the gift of the wooden horse to allow the Greeks to storm the city of Troy. The gift of the pendant eventually allows Mary to enter the Torchwood Hub.
Okay, after that diversion: back to the episode.
It shares certain similarities with the Nu-Who episode Boom Town, and not just the Cardiff setting. Dates with aliens out on the town, exiles from their home planet, the emphasis on character rather than plot. However, if we compare the endings of each, Jack is shown to be a little less merciful than the Doctor.
The enjoyable characterisation of Jack here recalled the Jack that journeyed with the Doctor: flamboyant and wisecracking, while combining this with the chilling ruthlessness we have seen so far in Torchwood.
At the start of each episode now, before the story starts, Jack, (in a regular short introduction for the casual viewer) proclaims in voiceover they are outside the government, beyond the police. (“Beyond the United Nations”; U.N.I.T. was mentioned in earlier episodes too.) Although previous episodes have shown Torchwood working with the police, this episode shows them interacting with all three: government, police, and U.N.I.T.! (Jack asks Tosh to prepare some information for U.N.I.T. and later discusses Torchwood on the phone with the Prime Minister.) In my review of the opening episode Everything Changes, I noted that it was not clear how independent Torchwood was. It is still fairly unclear!
One aspect of the episode that I did not like was the stylistic flourishes of the editing and camerawork. Juddering jump-cuts and white-outs were used first to signify the use of the pendant, then later at seemingly random moments in the story. However, this was a small annoyance in an otherwise highly entertaining episode.
The best episode of Season 1 so far.