4 years, 1 month ago
It’s March 12th, 2008. Duffy are at number one with “Mercy,” with Taio Cruz, Alphabeat, Westlife, and Flo Rida also charting. In news, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer gets wrapped up in a prostitution bust and resigns, Barack Obama wins some more primaries, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling unveils his first budget.
On television, meanwhile, it’s Peter J. Hammond’s other Torchwood story, From Out of the Rain. Hammond’s two Torchwood scripts are, by any reasonable account, oddities. Hammond, as mentioned, is a longstanding television writer. He’s the closest thing to a writer shared between the classic series and the new series, in that he has, in effect, near-misses for both; he had a script rejected for Trial of a Time Lord (Pip and Jane Baker were, alarmingly, preferred), and wrote two for Torchwood. And unsurprisingly, there’s something a bit dated and old-fashioned in his Torchwood scripts. Characterization is lax at best. Hammond is clearly interested in the fact that Jack is over a hundred years old, but this is about the only aspect of Jack that comes up in either of his stories. The other characters are interchangeable - there’s nothing about Ianto that makes him the sensible choice to be fascinated by old film, and nothing about Gwen and Owen that would make them likely to randomly tag along with Ianto to the cinema, even with the vague mutterings of some historical rift activity. Tellingly, every scene of this is about revealing plot information; nothing hinges on anybody’s character traits. The only thing that happens to advance the plot is people finding out new details about the Night Travellers.
All of which is to say that most of the advances in televisual storytelling since Sapphire and Steel was on the air are ignored here, at least on the level of writing. This is old-fashioned storytelling, and the closest thing to a good argument that those who wish Doctor Who were more like the classic series have. Because it does more or less work. It doesn’t have the spark and snap that Small Worlds did, but that’s mostly a factor of its more esoteric subject matter. Small Worlds was an efficient and compelling take on a longstanding and classic bit of mythology that took Torchwood’s basic premise and its specific connection to the Welsh landscape in a direction that was essentially inevitable. From Out of the Rain is far more idiosyncratic - evil early 20th century circus performers and the preservation of old filmstock is an interesting premise, but it lacks the straightforward hook of Small Worlds.
Still, it largely works and ends up as one of the stronger entries in an admittedly weak season of television. This is largely for the reasons discussed last time. Whatever its idiosyncratic simplicity, it is very much its own story with its own focus and interests. There’s a sense of vision here. What happens is clearly happening according to a logic unique to this story, as opposed to according to the logic of Torchwood’s format. Torchwood is, here, a series that can do a story about creepy magic film circus people. But the story could just as easily be a Sapphire and Steel story, or a Shadows story, or a story in any number of other horror shows with an anthology feel. It has its own idiosyncratic goals.
This largely frees us from the irritating onus of talking about its quality, a detour I took only because the preceding nine episodes of Torchwood Series Two tipped the balance so far in that direction. Instead we can deal with its idiosyncrasies and their implications, which is, on the whole, far more interesting. The story, of course, watches very differently in the immediate aftermath of the Enemy of the World and Web of Fear finds, at a time when the materiality of film is newly present in the minds of Doctor Who fans.
In this regard From Out of the Rain feels more apropos than it did in 2008. The idea of old ghosts preserved on lost reels of film has odd relevance. It’s worth thinking in part about what was actually missing in The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear prior to their recovery. It was not, after all, the stories. We had tremendous amounts of information about both stories. It’s not even the visuals, which we had at least broad information about. No, what we regain is something more esoteric - the performances. We regained records of moments, constructed as they are, enacted in Lime Grove Studio D. We regained performances - ephemeral, lost moments that happened to be caught in amber and transferred to acetyl and cellulose, then rescued before they rotted to vinegar.
But even this is not quite true. Film does not capture a thing itself, but its image. Light reflects off a subject, down a lens, and strikes a sheet of film where molecules condense and concatenate, forming splotches of dark and light corresponding (in negative) to the scene looked at. In the case of The Enemy of the World it is a further step removed - the surviving film is simply a camera watching a television screen as the original video. What survives is a distant ghost of a long lost event. As Kittler says, “the realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.”
In this regard, then, From Out of the Rain is a ghost story on many levels. But it’s worth digging deeper here. The function of the Night Travelers demands comparison with the later revisions to the Weeping Angels. Like the Angels, the technological representation of the Travelers and their physical existences are equivalent. There are, of course, some rather severe oddities here. The travelers are established to smell like film chemicals, and yet upon emerging from the film attain full color existences with the visual quality of high definition video, as opposed to grainy film. But the resolution of the story makes it explicit that filmed representations of the Travelers and the Travelers are coextensive. Filming the Travelers and then destroying the film in turn destroys the Travelers. And so not only does the image of a Traveler become a Traveler (though apparently only in the specific locale of the Electro, i.e. a specifically old theater), a Traveler becomes its own image.
But what’s interesting about From Out of the Rain is, of course, that film itself is a dated technology within it. Jack makes much of how film killed off the traveling shows while preserving them. But From Out of the Rain is not film. It’s high definition video first transmitted on a digital-only channel. Essentially all copies of From Out of the Rain are digital recordings, whether on optical discs or simply as strings of bits on hard drives. And even within From Out of the Rain, film is shown to be itself a dying technology - the purview of odd hobbyists and collectors at rummage sales. Jack makes explicit that the Night Travellers will eventually die a technological death - that their end will come when all the stray film stock on which they are preserved crumbles to dust.
All of this is poignant in a story where the overall storytelling mechanics are themselves old-fashioned. It’s not just film and traveling circuses that are preserved within From Out of the Rain, it’s an entire tradition of storytelling that doesn’t quite exist anymore. This sort of ideas-first genre storytelling just isn’t a part of the contemporary landscape anymore. In the post-Buffy age, you don’t do storytelling that disconnected from characterization or long term story arcs. It is not sufficient to merely be creepy and unnerving.
The result is that From Out of the Rain is a story that ends up luxuriating in its form. It is in many ways a demonstration - a look back at past television of the same sort as the look back on past film that exists within it. This is how horror television used to be done. The spirit of some long dead ancestor of Torchwood is brought back, allowed to flutter on the screen once more, dressed in the clothes of a modern television landscape it does not quite belong to. It’s easy to accuse this of being a conservative turn - the new series’ one unabashed turn towards nostalgia. But this is not about fetishizing the past so much as exhuming it in all its posthumousness.
It is fitting in this regard that From Out of the Rain marks the last time Torchwood has what could be called a guest writer. The remainder of Season Two consists of Chibnall scripts, and then, of course, the single episode story is retired entirely. And so Torchwood ends with a look far back, at the entire televisual tradition that leads up to it. Its last gaze at eccentric spaces finally looks deep into itself, staring at some flickering and unobtainable light that it never quite captured in two years of trying. And failing to see it, this version of Torchwood finally gives up and disappears into the ghostly past from whence it came.
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