3 years, 10 months ago
It’s still New Year’s Day, essentially seconds after the close of Captain Jack Harkness, as Torchwood goes out with a two-hour finale event, running End of Days immediately after the preceding episode.
It’s very easy to take shots at End of Days, and some of them are even fair. It attempts to do an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink finale of the sort that Russell T Davies had already made standards elements of Doctor Who, only on a fraction of the budget, and it shows. “Weird things are falling through time all over the world” is a bigger concept than Torchwood can actually pull off, and all we actually get is an ornery Roman and some hazmat suits. It’s tempting to say that this is too big a concept for a one-hour slot, but that’s not really the problem - the problem is that Torchwood doesn’t have anything like the resources to show something this big. It’s trying to conjure a global threat in a show that has the budget, on a really good day, to have three guys in rubber masks lurching through the streets of Cardiff.
On top of that, the pacing wobbles considerably. Much of this is because it wants its third act twist of Abaddon rising up, which would probably have worked better if it had more than three minutes of screen time devoted to it, was remotely set up, and wasn’t a transparent knock-off of The Satan Pit. Instead most of this episode feels overcompressed, making things like the fact that Bilis doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense more obvious than they should be. It turns out that the gambit of “keep the plot moving fast enough that there’s no time to notice the holes” is a more delicate game than it seemed. (My favorite is the fact that they’ve apparently upgraded security to require the butler’s retina print since the last episode.)
And, of course, there’s the character motivation, which requires that Owen’s several-episode idiot plot spontaneously become virulently contagious such that everybody - not just a grief-stricken Gwen, but every single person in Torchwood besides Captain Jack - simultaneously abandoning all semblance of common sense and thinking “if only we were to do the exact same thing that’s already nearly destroyed the world, that would probably fix everything.” This makes the intra-Torchwood conflict scenes something rather short of compelling, and as that’s the central drama of the episode, well, again, there are problems.
All of which said.
Let’s start with Abaddon and his role as a knock-off of the Beast in The Satan Pit. The phrase “knock-off” may undersell this slightly - Abaddon, another name for the devil, is said to be “chained in rock” and “cast out before time,” which isn’t so much copying The Satan Pit as explicitly referencing it. So, OK, apparently Krop Tor was just imprisoning one of several gigantic horned death beasts from before time. But if the episode is going to demand to be read in light of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit then we may as well do so. That two-parter wasn’t just about the Doctor fighting Satan, though it was that - it was about the idea of a fundamental wrongness at the heart of things.
This idea has been bubbling in Torchwood for a while with its “something is coming through the darkness” business, and that’s clearly what End of Days is paying off with Abaddon. One of the wondrous spaces within Torchwood, in other words, is a space of wrongness - a Lovecraftian Other of cosmic horror. As with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, this Other is framed in terms of Doctor Who - unleashed by a William Hartnell analogue, imprisoned under a rift in space and time, Abaddon embodies the horror underlying Torchwood - the way in which it is haunted by the show it spins off from.
Framed this way, most things make sense. We have a Doctor Who plot unfolding on a show full of characters who are simply not equipped to handle it. The key line is Jack’s calm assurance that this isn’t the end of the world - something he knows for a fact, and the other characters’ complete failure to be reassured by it. Jack is the sort of character who can handle this, and so remains basically calm through the entire story. Everybody else freaks the hell out, hence conflict. Eventually the plot resolves into an outright Doctor Who story, and Jack has it under control, although his solution is rather painful for him and, perhaps, not quite as good as whatever the Doctor might have figured out. The plot is out of control because, well, the plot actually is out of control. This is not a story that is supposed to be happening. The sense that this is too big an episode for Torchwood is, in fact, the point of the exercise.
The problem, however, is that the entire episode is weighted so that we see it from Jack’s perspective. This is perhaps inevitable - it’s the same problem that plagued Cyberwoman, certainly. The audience is more familiar with Doctor Who than Torchwood. Which means that when you do an episode where the whole point is that this is Doctor Who stuff then the audience reverts to Doctor Who logic, and thus bristles when Torchwood logic wins the day. And it’s exacerbated when the entire point of the episode is that Jack rises from his three days in hell and ascends into heaven, or, at least, his original show.
Which is to say that what really goes wrong here is that Torchwood doesn’t have the confidence in itself to do this sort of story as Torchwood. Captain Jack is, at the end of the day, known to be right. The world isn’t going to end. There aren’t going to be any major consequences, because Torchwood hasn’t decided to be the sort of show where they are. To be clear, I’m manifestly not complaining about the changed decisions to kill off Ianto and Rhys late in the season either. Both of those decisions would have been the epitome of safe television deaths, killing off the characters who are obviously set up to be sacrificial lambs requiring nothing more than a montage of the cast, grim-faced, set to a bad cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” before moving on.
No, the problem here is that Torchwood is ultimately a safe show. It’s a show where our loveable team may have Serious Emotional Dramas, but will not actually have anything disrupt the basic mechanism of the show. Torchwood is about a Five Man Band done exactly to TV Tropes standards, working out of their nice expensive Hub set, and that is all the show will be until it finally ends. Because in the end, all Torchwood is doing is marking time until Jack can get back onto Doctor Who and have his plot explained. Torchwood Season One is, in the end, hobbled by the fact that its big mystery is “what did Rose do to Jack,” which is a Doctor Who mystery, and this show isn’t Doctor Who. It traps it into being Doctor Who methadone - a weak fix to get you by until the real show comes back. If Torchwood is going to admit in its final scenes that it’s just been marking time until Doctor Who comes back, why should we care at all? Certainly not for the sake of the actual Torchwood cast, who spend the entire episode as blithering idiots.
And yet despite the problems there’s more to like here than not. As a Captain Jack story, at least, the final two episodes worked well, and while this doesn’t exactly reflect well on Torchwood as a whole, given Jack’s detachment in the first eleven episodes, a final two focused on him and leading into the third season of Doctor Who is not unreasonable. The rest of the cast was fairly well served by the lead-up of Torchwood, and the show’s unevenness ultimately hit everybody about evenly.
So what do we have after one season of Torchwood? Not a stone-cold classic by any measure, but a show that is at least reasonably interesting. Certainly reading the comments post after post has been interesting, with few episodes that aren’t Cyberwoman getting universal reprobation. This season seems to have basically pleased everybody some of the time, but, bizarrely, without ever pleasing everybody at once. But this varied approach is, in many ways, the show’s strength. Its first thirteen episodes are as diverse in approach as a show with its premise could feasibly be. It would have been very easy for Torchwood to take fewer risks than it did. Yes, not all of them came off, but you’ll never get two people to agree on which are which, and the result is that despite the show lacking confidence in what it is, it’s acquired an impressive arsenal of tools and approaches.
This is in many ways what makes the “safeness” of End of Days so frustrating. The primary virtue of Torchwood is that it isn’t safe. Its high points have been when it does things like take its moral center and make her unsympathetic and at times horrible. And so the decision to avoid having anything particularly serious happen in the final episode was particularly egregious. But put another way, the weakness of the final episode exposes just how good Torchwood actually was in its first season. The fact that it’s disappointing that its final episode is just a lead-in to Doctor Who speaks volumes about how well the show has quietly built up its own sense of self.
Which brings us back around to the brave decision the episode did make, which was to keep Rhys and Ianto alive. Killing Rhys for a cheap stunt would have been an easy way to make End of Days appear edgier, but it also would have removed the engine for most of the first season’s best scenes, which concerned Gwen’s work-life balance. (We’ll excuse the rather dire “Gwen locks Rhys up and inexplicably declines to explain anything, presumably intending to retcon him later anyway” scene in this episode.) Ianto showed less obvious potential in this season, but equally, the team dynamic without him is fundamentally less interesting. (And he had one of the season’s best lines, offering the correct pronunciation of Splot.) Either could have been killed without derailing the series’ premise, but equally, keeping them shows an awareness of what does work.
Which is what, exactly? A series that can juxtapose worlds almost as efficiently as Doctor Who, but that gives itself the baseline Doctor Who explicitly and deliberately lacks - the mundane and everyday world. The ability to actually juxtapose the wondrous and the everyday is quite a weapon, and moments like most of Ghost Machine, Suzie’s killing her father, large swaths of Out of Time, and the Gwen/Rhys scenes in Combat did things that no other show, including Doctor Who itself, can really do. Jack’s immortality lets it do truly interesting things with the concept of death, again played out beautifully in Out of Time and They Keep Killing Suzie - a strength that the show quickly realizes and starts playing towards. Gwen, for her part, is a magnificent character - very possibly the best female character that Davies ever created. And the show has its own pterodactyl.
Other things work in patches - Owen certainly has his moments, although on the whole nobody knew what to do with his character. Jack’s new waffling between being a darker character and being the camp action hero he was in Doctor Who is an interesting touch, even if it was hobbled by the show’s dependence on Doctor Who for its resolution.
And that’s Torchwood in its first season. Not great, but decidedly non-awful, and certainly interesting enough to justify a repeat engagement. And it expanded the reach of Doctor Who, which, one suspects, was a reasonable part of why the show has managed to remain at essentially the same ratings for seven seasons now, in defiance of all known laws of how television works. As first seasons go, it’s no worse than Doctor Who managed in 1963-64.
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