Outside the Government: Adrift

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All this week my coauthor Alex Reed and I are guest-editing 33 1/3's blog in celebration of our book on They Might Be Giants' Flood coming out on Thursday. The latest post is my short essay "How to be Fifteen," a reflection on teenage music fandom in the late 90s. If you miss the Nintendo Project, this post is in a similar vein.

It’s March 19th, 2008. Duffy’s at number one with “Mercy,” with Leona Lewis, Alphabeat, Utah Saints, and Nickelback also charting. Nickelback has been charting for a really long time, actually. It’s kind of unnerving. In news, Queen Elizabeth opens Terminal 5 at Heathrow, Geraldine Ferraro resigns from the Clinton campaign for saying stupid things, and Wales win the Six Nations tournament, taking the rugby Grand Slam in the process. There’s sizable unrest in Tibet, Bear Stearns goes under as the Great Recession gathers steam, and Obama gives his big race speech in Philadelphia.

On television, meanwhile, it’s Adrift. Where Something Borrowed marked a satisfying return to Torchwood’s strengths, Adrift marks an unabashed celebration of those strengths. Double banked with Fragments, it pushes the bulk of the regular cast to the margins to tell a story that is focused intimately on Gwen Cooper and on her personal supporting cast of Rhys and Andy. From the start of the series it has been clear that Gwen is its real star. Captain Jack may have the Doctor Who connection and the leading man charisma, but Gwen has the astonishingly gifted Eve Myles, who routinely offers an impressively brave performance that imbues the character with a warmth and humanity that never makes her feel like she was designed to be part of a generic action-adventure ensemble.

What really underlines just how impressive Gwen is as a character is the fact that even here, at the end of the first season, elements of her character that were designed to let her function as the “viewpoint” character are still in place. Initially, after all, Gwen was the character through which we found out about Torchwood Three. The first few episodes used the order in which she learned things as the order in which they were revealed to the audience, and her character was defined by her inexperience and lack of knowledge. By this point in the show, of course, that’s long gone; Gwen is thoroughly experienced with Torchwood and hyper-capable.

And yet elements of her initial characterization persist. Gwen wasn’t just a fish-out-of-water character, but a character who was defined by the fact that she did not originate in the world of Torchwood, which was first presented as a strange and eccentric space that superimposed itself over her world. What’s key in Everything Changes is in hindsight the way in which she slowly remembers her trip to the Hub, as a flickering dream that plays out over her world, not quite making contact. She is an ordinary person who comes to Torchwood. The next episode makes clear that this is a trait unique to her - every other member of Torchwood either originates from that world or has their ordinary life torn down around them before they join.

It would be easy to lose touch with this as the show discards the need to provide a lens into Torchwood and becomes comfortable with the fact that it can simply show Torchwood functioning. Gwen could easily just become a generic female lead in an American-structured procedural. And for large swaths of Series Two she threatens to do exactly that, disappearing into a show that is routinely doing nothing more than faithfully but uncritically executing its underlying formula. There are flashes of exception - her delightful scene with Jack revealing that she’s engaged, any scene with Rhys in it, and, of course, Something Borrowed.

But with Adrift we get a story that depends on Gwen’s life as an ordinary person. It is in many ways structured similarly to Random Shoes, in that it follows closely to Gwen investigating a mystery and uses her investment in the ordinary people she’s encountering as its dramatic fuel. And it’s an effective piece in this regard. The basic dramatic fuel is powerful. The final twist, as Gwen reunites Nikki with her lost son only to have the reunion be a source of unimaginable horror, is a cruel irony that stings exactly as much as it’s supposed to.

Tellingly, all of this emerges from the original underlying logic of Torchwood. The idea of the rift taking people is, in the end, just another variation on the myths of faerie that Small Worlds played with, and thus of one of the foundational elements of British mythological culture: the presence of eccentric spaces. The word “rift” is telling - it describes a gap. There is literally an invisible hole in Cardiff out of which things bubble, and into which people fall. The image of the rift’s detritus as “flotsam and jetsam” speaks volumes - things that wash up from a vast ocean of world hidden within ours. Much of what happens in Adrift is just the old faerie myths updated to a sci-fi milieu. Jonah is the stolen child, returned moments after his abduction only aged considerably.

Except beyond being updated to a sci-fi milieu, it is updated to a naturalist milieu. And so abduction to faerie is horrifying and traumatic, leaving deep psychological and physical scars. Jonah is severely disabled and unable to care for himself. Applied to myths of faerie themselves this approach is crass and reductionist - nobody needs another story in which the protagonists of children’s fiction are reimagined as institutionalized victims of abuse. But that’s not what we have here, because the story is ported to a new milieu entirely. Equally importantly, the trauma is as mythologized as the disappearance. Jonah is not merely disabled and institutionalized - he’s driven mad to the point where he screams continually - a “primal howl” that seems to have its own haunting, awful character - for twenty hours straight every day. The underlying anxieties and concepts of the myth are taken apart and rebuilt into a milieu where they can carry new horrors, expressing our sense of terror at the wondrous and the awful vastness of the sublime. That Nikki rejects Jonah in the end is as perfect as it is cruel, because the reality is that for all that we “want to know” and feel a sense of duty to those we love, there are things too horrible for love to survive. That’s always been one of the truths of faerie, and of the sublime.

And all of it is phrased on a human level; as something that exists in work and home. The final scene is a masterpiece precisely because it’s such a real thing, grounded in the real experiences of people with the sort of high-pressure and emotionally intense jobs that Gwen has. I’ve basically not seen my wife in 72 hours at the time of writing. This is not even remotely unusual. And there are ways in which it is genuinely isolating, and in which you do have to just put your feelings on the shelf and not deal with them for a bit because the person you love has just come home from a night where she’s watched a thirty-four year old woman with kids die of cancer and there’s nothing in your world whatsoever that holds a candle to it. And so that final scene, where Gwen, haunted and horrified by what she’s seen, retreats into her normal life and tries to grab it with both hands and make up for the stupid shit she knows she’s said and done is terribly, vividly real. And Rhys’s reaction is perfect. Given a genuinely honest opportunity to talk about whatever he wants to talk about and whatever his problems are, the problem he chooses to talk about is the fact that the woman he loves is in pain.

But underneath this seemingly perfect execution of what Torchwood should have been there’s a shift. What we have is not merely an eccentric space that Torchwood serves to mediate. Here we see the shift between the first and second season clearly. Torchwood is no longer trying to prepare us for everything changing; it is ready. And its readiness means the concealment of horrible things for our own good. Because while Adrift is about the underlying mythological premises of the realm of faerie and their connections with everyday life, its structure is as a conspiracy story.

This isn’t a plot structure entirely foreign to Torchwood - Everything Changes is basically Gwen investigating the conspiracy of what Torchwood is. But this is the first time we’ve seen it unfold within Torchwood itself, with Jack’s status as a figure of anxiety and doubt foregrounded to the point that he fulfills the narrative role of villain in this story. Jack’s obstructs Gwen’s investigation and is clearly and demonstrably trying to hide things from her. And, of course, the end revelation is that he’s hiding the facility for rift abductees, hiding it from the entire Torchwood team for hazily defined reasons.

On one level, of course, this is one of the basic anxieties of eccentric spaces - that they may be occupied by previously unrealized sources of power. Notably, what is shady in Adrift is not the ethics of the facility itself, but the secrecy of it - the fact that Nikki is left to wonder what happened to Jonah. And the story ends up walking a curious line - Jack’s decision to keep the horrors of those missing from their families is ultimately vindicated in a move that it is difficult to draw a meaningful ethical bead on (since the reason for it is ultimately based precisely on the fact that it is outside the context of the real world - that Jonah’s fate is simply too horrific to conceptualize). But his decision to keep it secret within Torchwood is ultimately not.

This is a new set of anxieties for Torchwood, and, obviously, one that will feature heavily in its remaining two seasons, each of which focuses on a large conspiracy inexorably tied to mysterious and secretive actions taken by Jack. Indeed, for all that it pays off what we’ve seen over the previous two seasons and feels like the archetypal Torchwood story, in many ways Adrift is simply what you’d get if you tried to take the structure of Children of Earth or Miracle Day and condense it into one episode. It is, in that regard, the missing link between what Torchwood tried and never quite managed to be in its first two seasons and what it successfully reinvented itself into for Children of Earth. Having caught sight of where it’s going, then, all that remains is to emphatically blow up the structure of the past.

Comments

Seeing_I 3 years, 10 months ago

Almost unbearably sad episode, touching perfectly the intersection of fantasy and real life. That's pretty much all I can say at the moment.

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Jesse 3 years, 10 months ago

while Adrift is about the underlying mythological premises of the realm of faerie and their connections with everyday life, its structure is as a conspiracy story

You say potato...

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 10 months ago

I'm certainly easily persuaded that stories about faerie and conspiracies fill the same basic mythological role, but I have a hard time arguing that Thomas the Rhymer or the first branch of the Mabinogion are narratively structured like conspiracy stories.

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Jesse 3 years, 10 months ago

I was having fun; I don't think they're identical. But I do think conspiracy stories -- or, more exactly, stories about vast conspiracies -- strongly resemble realm-of-faerie stories, even if many realm-of-faerie stories do not resemble vast-conspiracy stories.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 10 months ago

Rather simply: this, for me, is Perfect Torchwood. Well, the perfect singular episode of the whole four series, in my view. I adore Series 3, but this one episode just gets everything right.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 10 months ago

Adrift is definitely a brilliant episode, and provided the template for Torchwood going further. I think, however, its model ultimately creates a lesser show, at least in terms of its potential for storytelling. And I say this as someone who absolutely loves Children of Earth, though its sustained brutality and bleakness means I don't really rewatch it very often.

The original premise of Torchwood was, as Phil described, about exploring the weird spaces that nuzzle into everyday life, and the tensions those collisions created, both in the context of the everyday and of the weird. One continued problem of its original format was that Jack himself was adrift in the narrative. Season One demonstrated that Torchwood's ostensible star was continually sidelined because his mysterious past put the narrative at a distance from him. So the show became about Owen's subversive not-quite-leading man and about Gwen's constant collision of the ordinary with the strange. The cool part about this model of Torchwood is that you could keep dragging new stories out of it. The setting could serve for any story of strange figures invading the everyday world, or of some development in the ordinary human world causing unpredictable effects thanks to its intersection with the strange. The cast who weren't Jack, Gwen, or Rhys could leave and be replaced, allowing for different chemistries and character interactions with the tense meeting places of the Cardiff rift. With a setup like that, a show with a solid writing stable could last for quite a long time. Maybe not as long as Doctor Who, but it could definitely have a beyond-healthy lifespan.

But taking Adrift as your model basically means that Torchwood becomes capable of one type of story: slowly unveiling a new mystery about Jack's epic past. Now, there's plenty of room for stories like this. Indeed, if there were ever a Torchwood Season Five, I think it would be great for Gwen and Rhys to explore Jack's past in the 51st century, delving into the world of his origin, where the original holes in his life were developed. But there's only so much chicanery and anti-heroism in Jack's past to explore before he loses his heroic, or even his anti-heroic, qualities. Children of Earth came pretty close to outright villainizing Jack at the end, though the only resistance came form his own self-consciousness of moral collapse.

But having to rely on the tension between the current Torchwood team and the moral greyness of Jack's past for every major plot severely limits the diversity and number of stories Torchwood can tell. It sets the show up for its artistic triumph, but ultimately this amounts to setting a blazing fire under it. The pyrotechnics become amazing, but they burn out fast.

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Alan 3 years, 10 months ago

But having to rely on the tension between the current Torchwood team and the moral greyness of Jack's past for every major plot severely limits the diversity and number of stories Torchwood can tell.

It's worse than that -- they have to rely exclusively on tension between Gwen's morality and/or naivete versus Jack's moral greyness. Did any of the other Torchwood people care about the "mystery" in this episode?

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elvwood 3 years, 10 months ago

This was the episode I missed when it was originally transmitted. I was disappointed when I finally watched it because a lot of people said it was the best or second-best of the season, and I found it full of actions and attitudes that happened just because they were needed for the plot. Why didn't anyone tell Gwen what would happen before Jonah's mum met him? Why didn't anyone pay attention to the carer when she said they needed to get out? Why didn't Jonah's mum even consider the possibility that she might be able to make some of her son's few coherent hours better, without having to live through the screaming again? And why was Jack being so secretive and untrusting in the first place? Basically Gwen and Jonah's mum were set up to be punished.

There was a lot of good in it - keeping it human, as has been pointed out - but the obviously contrived situation took the sting out of it for me.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 10 months ago

Jesse, you should maybe write a book about this conspiracy stuff.

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Jesse 3 years, 10 months ago

Nah, it's been done.

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coldwater1010 3 years, 8 months ago

This episodes seems worst to me every time I watch it like a lot of Torchwood episodes in retrospect. Ianto helping Gwen behind Jack's back makes little sense if we're supposed to ultimately believe that Jack is right, despite how ridiculous his actions are, and there is nothing to be done after all. It's hard for me to buy he wouldn't grasp that if that's the case, especially after the disaster with Lisa, and they fail to give him any motive to explain why despite that he'd feel compelled to act the way he does. He's just a lamely used plot device, as is his relationship with Jack, to move Jack and Gwen from a to b. But the handling of Nikki is really where this episode irritates me the most. She's thrown into her son's room without any counselling for either her or Jonah about what to expect or even a warning that he screams for most of the day and yet they conveniently schedule her visit for the period just when he begins said screaming which ends up suggesting that maybe the reason these people can't be helped isn't because there is no hope, but because everyone involved is so incompetent from Jack down. All this so Gwen can apparently learn the rather pointless lesson at this point in the season and her character development that sometimes nothing can be done even though isn't that pretty much where she starts the episode anyway?

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