5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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Quick, our smelling salts! Fan us! Fan us! A watchable Torchwood!
It's important to remember, of course, that all this is relative. On its own merits, Sleeper is a familiar-themed standard procedural/action piece with some annoying camerawork. But this is Torchwood, and with that in mind, Sleeper suddenly looks a whole lot better.
So how does it manage it, then? Easy-peasy. It does it by making it as unTorchwoody as possible. The further away from the usual Torchwood schwee it gets, the better it looks.
And the most important part of that is that it turns the spotlight away from the Torchwood team. We've had it up to here with the longing looks and the meaningful silences and the single entendres and the complicated sexual relationships - and if they can piss off a bunch of girls who normally live for shipping, you know how seriously they've screwed things up. All that stuff's not entirely absent - is it ever? - but they've throttled it back to a pleasing degree. Instead, they set a record and just do their, y'know, jobs.
Instead, the spotlight's on someone else entirely. The woman who doesn't know she's an alien and who nobly sacrifices herself for the greater good isn't the freshest story in the world, and nor does Torchwood do the most competent version. Nevertheless, the first half of the story, with Beth subjected to the team's tender mercies, is more interesting than usual, as it focuses on what it would actually be like to be subject to the Torchwood modus operandi.
We can't help but feel sorry for Beth, and we should. Jack's got good reason to think she's an alien, but it's equally obvious Beth doesn't know it. Nevertheless, he ain't bovvered in the slightest about torturing her to get at the truth. Not that that shocks us. What shocks us is the way the rest of them sit around and let him get on with it with only an occasional slightly furrowed brow as a protest. But hey, all the torture and deep freezing is actually perfectly OK, because Jack was Right All Along. Score one for the sodding Coalition Of The Willing.
OK, Beth's hospital scenes with her husband are stiff and awkward. Nevertheless, Nikki Ammuka-Bird effectively gets over the tragedy of her situation, and unlike with most Torchwood characters, we actually care about her fate. That's a big step up storytelling-wise.
The second half, alas, degenerates into the usual action runaround we like to replay when we have trouble sleeping, interspersed with mirthful plot points. All the aliens have long pointy arms that make us giggle, especially when Beth accidentally removes her husband's appendix with hers, and they switch their vulnerability on and off in ways far too alien for humans to grasp. One takes out all of Cardiff's communications systems with a single bomb, while another kebabs the council leader (the council leader!) in the happy belief that only one person could possibly have access to emergency procedures. Even worse, he manages to blow himself up without taking the Torchwood SUV with him. And we're not even going to mention the nuclear warheads in the abandoned mineshaft.
After all that, Nikki Ammuka-Bird manages to claw back some dignity with her last scenes, which are genuinely affecting. And would have been even more so had the team not felt the need to explain them to us afterwards.
And the other characters? We quite enjoy Jack in evil bastard mode - he's not the Doctor, after all - even if the good cop, bad cop routine is unforgivable. Gwen's normally sickly caring side here works pretty well. Tosh had more to say this time, which can only be a good thing, since one day we might be able to actually work out who she is. The production team are clearly going all out to recast Owen as a nice guy this season instead of a repulsive little creep, but our memories aren't that short. And what the hell's happened to Ianto? We can only guess that they gave him the standup routine in a desperate attempt to find him something to do. Overall, the focus on Beth's character means all of them benefit from a restraint that's been missing up till now: for example Gwen's response to Beth's question ""Have you ever hurt them?" of "More than once, yes" is a lot more powerful than the wailing and teeth-gnashing of yore.
Relatively speaking - relatively speaking - could have been worse.
SOMETHING'S NOT RIGHT HERE
Home invasion and a missing murder weapon. So? Why are Torchwood called in the first place?
They have a mirror on the ceiling in the interrogation room? How Torchwood is that?
The mind probe?
LICENSED TO CHILL
Beth's a spy, see? For her evil alien overlords? So they put her in freezer drawer 007? No, we didn't think it was particularly hilarious either.
Why does shooting the alien in the shoulder make blood come out of his mouth?
JUST A SCRATCH
You'd think they'd manage to keep Jack's condition straight (ha!), wouldn't you? But a week after him carefully explaining that when he dies he comes back to life, he merrily survives an obviously lethal skewering without so much as swooning.