3 years, 4 months ago
You did notice the giveaway of two free copies of my new book on Flood that I started on Saturday, yes? You should go take guesses and win my books.
It’s April 4th, 2008. My long nightmare of being too lazy to check whether Duffy is a single person or a band is over, as now Estelle is at number one with “American Boy.” Madonna, Sam Sparro, and domestic abuser Chris Brown also chart. In news, the Justice Department approves the merger of the US’s two satellite radio companies, reflecting the steady decline of that spectacularly wrong technological bet. Harriet Harman becomes the first female Labour Party MP to answer at Prime Minister’s Questions. And researchers at Newcastle University create a human-cow embryo that survives for three days.
While on television, back to debuting first on BBC Two we have Exit Wounds, the second season finale of Torchwood, in which a large swath of the original cast is killed off. The story itself is, of course, a hot mess. To suggest that Gray does not quite hold up as a villain is the height of understatement. The structure, as ever, is lovingly ripped off from Joss Whedon, with the “little bad” being supplanted in the end of the narrative by the “big bad.” But there’s a fundamental error here, which is that you cannot supplant James Marsters with Lachlan Nieboer playing a man who has vowed revenge on a seven year old for letting go of his hand. The idea of a figure from Jack’s past coming back to haunt him works, as does the idea of having one who’s a bigger deal than Captain John, but Gray is so transparently created for the purpose of being the shock villain for the season finale that there’s no substance to it. He’s not a part of Jack’s past - he’s a series finale “big bad” who’s been casually grafted into Jack’s past, at a point so early on that it’s not even particularly interesting.
But by now the show seems to be staring into the mirror and realizing that it’s not working. Gray doesn’t work, but the episode seems to know this, recognizing that he’s not the point of the narrative. Jack chloroforms him out of the plot at the 2/3 mark, and he doesn’t even enter it until the 1/3 mark, making him a strictly Act II concern. He’s in the story for all of fifteen minutes. The story is really about… Ah, but here’s the rub. It’s not about anything. The first act is another “oh no, total devastation to the city.” The second act is ostensibly about Gray, but turns out to have been about meticulously moving Tosh and Owen into position for their death conversation. And by the third act we’re on to a story that was really about killing off Tosh and Owen. The structure holds together as a piece of steadily moving action television - the Doctor Who team has long been solid at doing stories that change shape and focus midway through. Indeed, it’s the basic structure of any Russell T Davies finale.
The thing is, the Davies finale is usually a narrative collapse - a story structure in which the basic underlying premises of the narrative are endangered and subsequently rescued. The usual mode of rescue is some sort of cheat. Indeed, this is fundamental to the structure. The point of the narrative collapse is not merely to put the characters in danger, but to put the entire show in danger - to threaten to completely unravel the entire narrative system by which stories can be told in the first place. So it’s not merely that the Doctor and Rose are separated and in danger, it’s that the Doctor is steadily driven to the point where he attempts suicide by Dalek in the course of getting out of their way and letting them conquer the entire universe. It’s not merely that there are Cybermen and Daleks stomping around, but that they’re taking over the entire planet. It’s not just that the Master’s beaten the Doctor, but that he’s extended a year-long reign of terror over the entire planet and slaughtered hundreds of millions.
And similarly, it’s not just that there are bombs going off all over Cardiff, but that Jack’s brother has shown up and buried Jack alive under Cardiff and taken over Torchwood Hub. It’s the threat, issued both last episode and this one, to tear down Jack’s world entirely. It is, in other words, a threat to dismantle Torchwood as an organization and a television show. The response cannot, as in other episodes, simply be that the team is competent enough to deal with the threat, because it’s not a threat about the characters. Instead the response has to come from a narrative principle - from a cheat. It’s not that the characters are good enough to get out of it, it’s that the story is immune to attempts to dismantle it - that something, one way or another, will work.
So Jack cheats. He’s buried alive beneath Cardiff and casually gets out in the 19th century and hangs around in Torchwood’s storage without anyone noticing for a century so that he can wake up and solve the problem. But equally, the cheat in a narrative collapse always has to come at a heavy price. The narrative can cheat its own obsolescence - it has to - but it can’t do so willy-nilly. Ultimately, to be the sort of story where some outrageous cheat drops out of the sky and defeats the bad guy with no consequences is just as detrimental as having all of your characters killed off by an irksome sociopath. Hence Eccleston regenerating, Rose getting trapped in an alternate universe, and the Doctor being stuck as Last of the Time Lords wandering as a Lonely God looking for some rain to stand in.
But the thing is, this isn’t what Exit Wounds does. Sure, Jack comes bounding out of the morgue and saves the day, but the show still loses 40% of its cast. Any notion of what Torchwood is as a show is in tatters at the end. The narrative does, in fact, collapse. Sure, it gets back up and staggers on, but there’s a full-out collapse here. The show in Season Three can’t be the same thing it was in Season Two. Which, given the long dark night of the soul that we’ve just spent a month trudging through, is probably a good thing.
More interesting than the fact that the show destroys its own structure, though, is what parts it destroys. To some extent it’s the only two characters it could. Killing Rhys or Andy would both be stupid (as they’re two of the best things the show has) and pointless (as they’re “safe” deaths that don’t change anything). Killing Jack or Gwen, on the other hand, is unthinkable - they’re the core of the show. Kill them and what results isn’t even Torchwood anymore. Ianto has potential - and, of course, he dies next season. But killing one character isn’t sufficient damage to the show. Killing off a character in the season finale is perfectly normal. It’s the double kill that does it. Ultimately, Ianto survives because he’s the best of the three to keep around going forward.
And because Tosh and Owen were, in the end, generic. Ianto may lack any origin, but he has a warmth and humanity that benefits the series. Whereas Tosh and Owen are fit for purpose and little else. They’re the Asian computer genius and the angry secondary male lead. They exist to fulfill plot functions in a generic American-style action procedural. However well-acted they are (and they are well-acted) they can only hold the series back in this regard. And efforts to fill in characterization and back story are similarly pointless because, at the end of the day, they’re still just plot functions with filled in backgrounds.
And so by killing them off Torchwood kills off a vision of what it was as a show. It stops being half of American television thrown in a blender and dumped out over Cardiff. And it stops feeling like a show that was designed. For its first two seasons, Torchwood was a safe approach to making Doctor Who-ish stories: just do them in a contained and predictable format. It occasionally was interesting, but almost all of that came from the moments when it stopped trying to be a Welsh remake of American television using Doctor Who iconography and started trying to be itself.
It’s easy and largely accurate to argue that this is for the best. And yet equally, for all that the show was a twenty-six episode exercise in frustration, there’s something to mourn here. The consensus that Children of Earth is brilliant is, at this point, near-universal, and I’ll still go to bat for Miracle Day’s only real fault being that it should have lost about fifteen minutes out of every episode. In that regard, it’s easy to bury plain old Torchwood and not to praise it. And yet in taking refuge in big, epic event television there’s a real loss. Torchwood survives by embracing a model of doing a handful of miniseries, whereas it was created as a procedural that could in theory run for a decade.
And that’s something we lose here. Not just the quirky episodes like From Out of the Rain and Adrift, but the idea of a show that’s about generating ideas. In that regard, it’s also the end of the idea of Torchwood as an adult Doctor Who spin-off. This isn’t trying to cover the same ground as Doctor Who anymore. From this point on its connection to Doctor Who is one of coincidental origin. And that’s worth mourning, at least in part. Because it was worth trying. It was an interesting idea. And there are scraps over the first two seasons that show how good it could have been.
So what we have here is a series finale to a show that never quite existed. And so its unsurprising that the episode doesn’t quite exist either, lacking as it does in a story or a point. For a season that has been all too often episodes of television that exist for no other reason than to be aired, we have a finale that exists for no other reason but to end things. The thing itself that ends and is lost has already departed the scene. Even mourning it seems a challenge; there is nothing quite to mourn, and what there is needed to go.
But in that regard Exit Wounds, for all its flaws, shows a bravery that little television does. For a show to recognize that it’s not working and take not only decisive action to change things, but sensible decisive action that shows an understanding of the problems is a rare thing. This is, perhaps, the crowning irony of the first two seasons of Torchwood: a show good enough to make this drastic and necessary a change should have been good enough not to need it.
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