4 years, 4 months ago
|Fight off the lethargy|
Don't go quietly
It’s Christmas Eve, 2006. Leona Lewis is at number one with “A Moment Like This,” with Girls Aloud, Booty Luv, and Chris Cornell also charting, alongside the Pogues and Kirsty Maccoll and Cliff Richard with attempts at Christmas success. In news, the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons resume. The Home Office floats the exciting idea of having foreign nationals carry ID cards linked to their fingerprints, and a feud between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan worsens as Uzbekistan doubles the price at which it will sell natural gas to Kyrgyzstan.
While on television we begin one of the most remarkable runs of Doctor Who related content ever. Combat airs on Christmas Eve, the day before The Runaway Bride. A week after that, oddly on a Monday instead of a Sunday, comes both Invasion of the Bane and the final two episodes of Torchwood’s first season, meaning that over the course of nine days fully five hours of Doctor Who-related material aired.
Of these, Combat has to be the oddest fit, being a spectacularly ill match for Christmas. This seems like an artifact of the decision to start with a two hour premiere - had Day One aired a week later then Out of Time, an episode that’s explicitly set around Christmastime, would have been the one to end up on Christmas Eve, which makes, on the whole, a lot more sense than Torchwood’s take on Fight Club, which is more or less what Combat is.
In her absolutely splendid novel Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson has a character ask whether a given book counts as eastern literature. In reply, Vikram the Vampire says, “There is a very simple test. Is it about bored, tired people having sex?” When the character confirms that the book does, Vikram proclaims it western literature. It’s terribly clever, but omits a key subgenre: bored, tired people being terribly violent. This is, after all, a veritable cliche of contemporary literature - angry and soul-dead men who can only find any sort of meaning or fulfillment in fighting one another. It’s the Chuck Palahniuk/Bret Easton Ellis school of thought.
In literature, where novels of that style work - and it’s worth noting that both Palahniuk and Easton Ellis have far more tricks up their sleeve than this theme - it’s usually based around a complex tonal structure - the literally fractured personality of the narrator and Tyler Durden, or the tense ambiguity of whether Patrick Bateman’s crimes are real or fantasies. What’s interesting isn’t actually moping around about how existentially bleak the lives of capitalism’s lesser nobility is, it’s the jagged edge between that banality and a world in which existential bleakness actually makes any sense.
At first glance, then, it appears that Combat misses the mark. The key problem is that Owen ultimately succumbs to the existential bleakness, having his moment of true masculinity as he faces down the Weevil, but being saved from death at the last second by Captain Jack. Ultimately, the episode endorses the idea that there is some existential bleakness in a bloody rich guy that can only truly be grappled with by getting into a fistfight with a carnivorous beetle. This, to say the least, misses what is actually interesting about the Palahniuk/Easton Ellis “transgressive” literary style, and ends up offering a kind of clangingly dull celebration of male privilege. “Oh boy, the sheer pain of being one of the 1% is such that I am, just by being in the 1%, a modern day masculine tragic hero.” Yeah. Go fuck yourself, actually.
Except that this is Torchwood, and Torchwood has by now set up a sufficiently interesting set of tools and tricks that lets it play this particular set of themes unexpectedly. The existential crisis of rich masculinity is, of course, a wondrous space - observe how Mark is aware of the “something in the darkness” previously linked only to the realm of the dead. There’s something unnervingly compelling about Mark, or, at least, the script thinks there is. Alex Hassell is not always convincing in a part that has previously required actors of the caliber of Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, or Christian Bale to make work, (though Burn Goreman plays his side of this duo with admirable aplomb) but the script is telling us that this is a wondrous space.
The thing is, the script is the only thing telling us that. The monsters are Torchwood’s equivalent of generic vampires on Buffy and Angel. Kidnapping them and getting in fights with them is as beneath Torchwood as a half-Cyberman is Doctor Who. And they don’t get the series’ actual male lead - they get the second in command male. This is an important distinction - the rules about what you can do to the alpha male in the ensemble action adventure show have always been different from what you can do to the second. (Consider the way in which Star Trek: The Next Generation pulls off its most epic cliffhanger just by putting Captain Picard in a spot of danger that wouldn’t even require a two-parter if it was Riker) Perhaps most tellingly, Mark is given a deliberately hilarious speech in which he treats as fanciful what everyone, Owen included, is the actual origin of the Weevils, marking him as that classic of the contemporary sci-fi/fantasy genre, the rube who doesn’t accept the magical when it’s in front of his face.
This is the big joke of Combat, and it’s not a surprising one giving that its author is Noel Clarke, who’s as good a writer as he is an actor. For all that this is doing Fight Club, it’s doing it with a clear edge of camp. This is not an episode about men and their existential bleakness, it’s an episode about someone who’s too thick to realize that the abyss he gazes into is a generic man-in-a-rubber-suit monster costume from the BBC Three cult hit Torchwood. What we’ve actually got here is a reversion to the Graham Williams/Tom Baker style of pointing out the vast silliness of the stupid people in charge. This is, basically, what you’d expect if Robert Holmes took a crack at Fight Club and set it during the UNIT era.
And the way it does that is by playing off the peculiar relationship of its two male leads. As I suggested on Wednesday, Torchwood has quietly, over its first season, built itself to a very particular formula. Its nominal main character is Captain Jack, but absolutely every character trait associated with the male lead belongs to Owen instead. Owen acts like the brooding and occasionally self-destructive male protagonist of Angel, The Sopranos, and practically every other “dramatic” male lead of the last decade of television. Owen is the one who gets emotional story arcs. Jack runs around as the dashing hero, but thus far in Torchwood that’s actually all he’s done. No episode thus far in the first season has actually been about Jack’s emotional journey. The purity of that structure is unsustainable, but it’s a crucial part of how Torchwood works almost every time it does work - the male lead doesn’t quite work right.
More precisely, the male lead is camp. The male lead is John Barrowman doing a Tom Cruise impersonation. How the show handles this fact is almost always one of the most interesting things about it. And in this case what it does is allow Torchwood to actually function as a modern day updating of Doctor Who every bit as much as the series that currently goes out under that title is. It’s just that where Doctor Who under Russell T Davies is basically Tom Baker in stories structured like Buffy instead of Hammer horror, Torchwood is the Pertwee era revisited.
Back in the Pertwee era I rather aggressively advanced the hypothesis that Pertwee is effectively a glam rock take on the action hero in the vein of David Bowie and Jerry Cornelius. In essence, what makes the Pertwee era at all enduring or interesting compared to what is usually much better-done action television on other channels is the fact that it’s camp as hell and knows it. Actually, this is always what makes Doctor Who work well - the hero is terribly unlikely to actually sort anything out in an even remotely alpha male way. He’s usually going to do something that can in some fashion be described as “silly.” As mentioned, under Robert Holmes this is usually to be a sort of jester/trickster figure who undermines the narrow-minded yet powerful.
The thing about the Pertwee era, however, is twofold. First, more than any other era of the classic series save arguably the Peter Davison era, it presented a Doctor that demanded to be read as a queer figure. The Doctor is the next door neighbor to Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops and Jerry Cornelius. He may be depressed when Jo goes and marries someone else, but he never expresses even a breath of heterosexuality while camply carousing with the Brigadier, who is rather arch himself. Second, it’s actually a program grounded in Earth with occasional adventures in time and space instead of the other way around. One consequence of this is that it has a larger supporting cast than at any time before the series assimilated soap operas.
All of this may be recognizable as “the premise of Torchwood.” A visibly queer take on a male action hero heads up a crack team of alien hunters on contemporary Earth. If one imagines the UNIT era never ending and Doctor Who remaining with the story format of the Pertwee era indefinitely, but retaining its concept of an immortal lead then one can fairly easily imagine that its 2006-era incarnation would look… exactly like Torchwood. Those who share my apprehension about the Pertwee era may at this juncture safely conclude that all of the actual problems with Torchwood as a show are basically explained.
In any case, what this allows is for a character who plausibly has the Fight Club style rich male’s existential angst, but who is not entirely self-aware. The episode is essentially “Sergeant Benton joins an alien Fight Club,” and when phrased that way is brilliant. Owen may carry plots like the brooding dramatic lead, but he’s not actually one. Sure, this means the episode can’t land its punchline because it ultimately has to have Owen succumbing to the “I have met my true spirit animal” moment against a Weevil. Even still it comes close to managing the subversion - the final scene of Owen grunting back at the Weevils to show his inner beast-man is actually funny enough to work. It’s actually only in the climax that Combat can’t sustain its own joke. And other than that tiny imperfection it’s an absolutely stinging pastiche.
Because the real story isn’t Owen. Nor is it Jack, who plays the “main hero” role and nothing else. No, this story is about Gwen and Rhys, and its climactic and horrifying moment is when Gwen drugs Rhys to confess her adultery without having to face its consequences. Unlike with its nearest equivalent in the series thus far - the sci-fi rape of Everything Changes - the episode recognizes how horrible this scene is, absolutely refusing to let Gwen have any sort of pleasure or victory in her actions. The point is to show Gwen redlining and drifting dangerously from the moral center of the show. Where Greeks Bearing Gifts did this in the background while finding a way for Gwen to still be the moral center, Combat just lets her fester, and her scene drugging Rhys is profoundly disturbing. As, pointedly, is Rhys’s treatment of Gwen - the angry masculine brutality of Rhys’s “sit the fuck down” is played to be genuinely upsetting. In a story about the links between male privilege and violence, it’s the one moment where that link is allowed to land, and Eve Myles’s acting as her face switches from fast-thinking and solving problems mode to a cold shock at the outburst of verbal violence.
And so against the backdrop of a subverted landscape of the angst of privileged rich men we get a story where the real horror is an ordinary couple doing terrible things to each other because they can bring themselves to justify it. Where in the end the supposed existential horror of gazing into the face of the Other with your life on the line is nothing compared to the petty horrors of our domestic lives.
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