Torchwood: Almost Perfect
by James Goss
BBC Books, 2008.
Reviewed by Echo Fain
Somewhere between an attempted gender expression analysis and fanfiction is where you find that everything's 'Almost Perfect'. Set after the end of the second series, it features a team who are meant to be missing Owen Harper and Toshiko Sato and struggling to function short-handed.
Combine body swapping and the skeletons of people who haven't died yet with two gay aliens who own a nightclub they're using as a Duracell and give them a sexual connection to Jack Harkness. Then, add the desperate thirty year old office worker who is trying to change herself for the better and an alien device that talks to its users in the voice they are most likely to trust. In the background, put in a dodgy miracle cure for all your medical woes, a mysterious ferry crash, and the human social need for perfection, and you've got a wonderful plot.
Only in science fiction is a body swap or gender switch ever made plausible and, like a large slice of science fiction, the book is about more than just the thrill of the unlikely, the unknown, and the taboo. There are any number of social issues involved in a dissection of what it means to be male, female, gay or straight, and unfortunately very few of them are touched upon here. The book is entirely too short at two hundred and fifty pages to fully explore the topic and that's a shame because it holds great potential for such; in many places, the reader is left to guess at the characters' reactions because the prose lacks description that would give their interactions a fuller life.
If Ianto Jones ever assumed that women have some magic understanding of how female social interaction works, he's quickly disabused of that notion when he wakes up with no memory of where he's been or how he managed to switch from sweetly sardonic metrosexual male to flaming hot and apparently brainless female.
The downside of such a delicious change is that we're left, as readers, trying to imagine what the newly female Ianto feels and failing to find sympathy for a person who was, in many ways, the most likable character on the show. She's beautiful but seems to make a vapid woman, which is quite a letdown. Her interactions with Patrick Matthews, whom the team is attempting to protect without alerting him to the danger of a Saturday night date, are downright creepy because of Ianto's placidity in allowing a stranger to handle her body so freely. There has to be a reason why she allows the big lug to kiss and fondle her, but there's no way to know for certain. It suggests that Ianto lost both wits and intelligence once she lost her balls and that's insulting, even given the upheaval and confusion she would obviously be experiencing in this situation.
Emma, the female protagonist and victim, is easier to believe. She wants happiness and a man and believes attaining the latter will give her the former. She goes along with the brain-washing alien machine which seeks to give the user perfection in whatever they seek. Emma speed-dates men to death as the device alters whatever she sees as being undesirable traits. She is shallow, following the dictates of what she believes society expects of her, but manages to be far more sympathetic than the other characters as she changes and becomes, herself, a mask of perfection overlaying a frightened and lonely soul.
Jack is his usual sexual self in full Technicolor. The truly redeeming scene in this story involves his gentleness in caring for Ianto, who cannot make herself get out of bed as she falls further into what seems to be depression at the incomprehensible change of physical sex.
The plot is an interesting concept and one that should be the backbone of a story both deep and hilarious, but there are too many gaps. The characters' emotional reactions are flat and almost nonexistent with the exception of Gwen Cooper, whose uncharacteristic jealous cattiness swings from funny to annoying.
'Almost Perfect' is set soon after the events of 'Exit Wounds', the end of series two, but there is little mention of Tosh and Owen or their tragic deaths, which should be still painful for the remaining members of the team. There is no mention of lasting structural damage from Cardiff being bombed by John Hart and Jack's psychopathic brother Gray, which was a major plot point of that last episode.
The novel contains a convoluted loop in time that throws the reader into a tailspin, which is, perhaps, what was intended. Time travel is meant to be confusing and the soft warning at the bottom of page five, at the beginning of this tale, means exactly what it says. Things are not necessarily in the order in which you see them. However, the clever trick of switching the order of narrative flow has been left wanting in that the story is difficult to follow when combined with the plot holes and characterization issues.
If this story had clocked in at four hundred pages, it would have had space enough to explore the topics which are glaring up at the reader, begging for a conversation. Transgenderism, sexual expression, and skewed social perceptions of gender and desirability are all here, waiting to be found. But, at such a short length, there's little hope of a meaningful dialogue.
James Goss has been responsible for the production of a number of Doctor Who-related animations and classic Doctor Who DVD special features. He has also previously worked as the senior content producer for the BBC and written two stage plays and several audio books and radio dramas, including the Torchwood stories 'Department X' and 'Ghost Train'. His Torchwood-related audio dramas include 'Golden Age' and 'The House of the Dead'. He has been the co-producer for Big Finish Productions' range of 'Dark Shadows' stories. 'Almost Perfect' was his first published Torchwood story, followed by 'Risk Assessment' and 'First Born'. He has also written novels for BBC shows such as 'Doctor Who' and 'Being Human'. In 2013, BBC Books released the Doctor Who tie-in novella, 'Summer Falls', written under the name of Amelia Pond Williams. His 'Lady Serpent' mysteries are a wonderful series of crime dramas, well worth reading.