Outside the Government: Out of Time


Have I done the "wrong image" joke recently? I can never

It’s December 17th, 2006. Take That remain at number one. Cliff Richard stalls at number two with his attempted Christmas number one “21st Century Christmas,” while Gwen Stefani, Chris Cornell, P. Diddy, and Lazy Town also chart, as do the Pogues and Kristy MacColl with their now annual chart run of “Fairytale of New York.” In news, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller announces that she will step down from her position at the head of MI-5. Time Magazine proclaims you to be the person of the year. And Ban Ki-moon is officially sworn in as the United Nations Secretary-General.

Torchwood is a series I first watched with my ex-wife, while we were in the earlier stages of our relationship. She lived in upstate New York and I lived in Florida, but she moved down to be with me after a few months of distance relationship and, for her, a frustrating grad school experience she was not happy with. We would pirate the episodes as soon as they aired and watch them on our laptops, syncing them and then talking in AOL Instant Messenger about the episode as we watched. They were our long distance dates on weeks we couldn’t make the travel back and forth from New York to Florida work. (We were very good at a cheap set of flights from Albany to Gainesville) 

On television, Out of Time. Returning to the approach of “see what kind of range Torchwood has as a concept” (which is, on the whole, the most endearing aspect of Torchwood’s staggeringly inconsistent first season - the fact that at least some of that inconsistency is the product of a genuine desire not to be a predictable television show), Out of Time presents Torchwood doing a triptych of people out of time, structured primarily as a love story with two parallel storylines to add depth and nuance.

In each case the central theme is, ultimately, death, or, at least, the past, which is essentially the same thing. On the one hand the past is inaccessible and dead - a place defined primarily by the fact that it cannot be returned to. And on the other the past is, we know, a place populated by people with, as the song goes, loves and hates and passions just like mine. This is the fundamental puzzle of death and the past - the fact that people and life goes on without us even as the world as we understand it cannot possibly do so.

I remember the big Christmas glut of episodes - a one week period with three Torchwoods, a Doctor Who, and a Sarah Jane Adventures. I remember divvying them up. I remember the different places I watched different episodes - some in my bedroom in Florida, others, once Christmas break started up, at my parents’ house in Connecticut. She moved to Florida midway through the season to pursue a different graduate program, but there was still a lot of distance to deal with as she’d have to go back to handle stuff in New York, or to visit family, and the whole season ended up being eaten by distance.

So on the one hand we have John, who’s life has died without him. Without even a usable trace of who he was or the life he built, he’s left to face the dead-end point of his family, his genes, and his demonstrable impact around the world. He gets to see everything he ever built or worked for at its end - a senile old man in a long-term care facility, dying in a world built of the eroding rubble of memories. Who will in all sincerity take the nothing that is death over the nothing that is life.

We were married in the fall of 2007, and Torchwood came back a few months later. Season Two was the one we watched together, during what I’ve come to think of as the good year. We actually didn’t pirate this set - the idea of airing the show just ten days after its UK broadcast was sufficiently novel, and we got BBC America, and it just seemed like a show to be nicer about. This meant that I was spoiled horrifically on every episode, but in many ways Torchwood Season Two is the perfect season to be spoiled on, because so many of the plot twists are just so bonkers. Knowing that Owen quasi-dies and then actually dies is almost useless, because the idea is so strange that it still has to be seen. 

A pro-euthanasia position is an interesting one for Torchwood to take given its position that death is an absolute end. It’s almost easier to justify an argument for voluntary euthanasia if you posit some sort of afterlife. The secular view - that life is all there is and it’s still possible to reasonably want to reject it - is altogether more unnerving, particularly when applied to cases with no straightforward medical components. And yet the deck is carefully stacked in John’s favor. His desire is wholly understandable. The episode sympathizes with him.

Obviously this plot goes to Jack, whose own relationship with death makes him the only one who can, with any sort of moral authority, make a determined judgment on whether death is ever desirable. And in the end, inevitably, he says that it is - that there is such a thing as having lived too long.

By Children of Earth things were on the rocks. Much of it was the two-body problem - I was nearing the end of my PhD, she had much more to go on hers, and we were trying to figure out how best to handle time apart. I didn’t want to go back to distance with my wife. That was the ostensible fight - the real issues were deeper, and lay with both of us. Nothing worth rehashing in front of five thousand people. The marriage wasn’t as good an idea as it had seemed when we did it. We were in the wrong places in our lives for it. We watched Children of Earth in the living room of our house - the same place we’d watched the second season. We did it as one big stretch, a good few weeks after it had aired. It was the week my sister was visiting, and we did Planet of the Dead the same week. She didn’t know Ianto, her favorite character, was going to die. 

On the other extreme is Emma, who ultimately discards the past and starts a new life. If on the one hand the past is unreachable, the future is unavoidable. We cannot help but enter it. And so Emma, like everybody, appears out of the past and vanishes into the future - the single most natural and inevitable thing in the world. As John disappears along with his past, Emma disappears into the future, continuing to live her life.

While taking my sister to the airport so she could fly back, we got a call that my father had suffered a very small stroke and was in the hospital. It didn’t even interrupt his running, and he scheduled an outpatient surgery to get his artery cleaned out. He put it after his trip to Portland, where my wife had gone to college, for a math meeting. It was his first time in Oregon and Washington, and he checked both off his list of states he hadn’t yet run in. Around the same time my wife and I did a family trip to Montana. It was strained, but the marriage limped along. 

She, of course, is paired with Gwen, our anchor in the present day world. Gwen, the character most concerned with living her life and with staying connected to the ordinary world, is the one who has to provide the guidance on how to transition between past and future. Just as Jack is the only one who can provide judgment on death, Gwen is the only one who can provide any judgment or guidance on living in the world. And so Emma goes to London, possibly to succeed, possibly to wash out catastrophically. There’s no way to tell, and it doesn’t matter. She lives her life.

A few days after we got back she left me. Less than forty-eight hours after that my father went in for his surgery. He had a massive stroke on the table. Washington was the last state he added to his running tally.

Balanced between these two is the Diane/Owen plot. Hinging your main plot and love story on Owen is an interesting decision - much of the season has been about moving his character from being “the asshole” to being the actual male lead of the show, with Jack serving as the titular male lead - a situation much like what Doctor Who attempted in its first season with Ian and the Doctor. (Like that experiment, of course, gravity eventually asserts itself and the series becomes about its titular lead) This is rocky - it’s difficult at best to sympathize with Owen in the conventional sense of that word, doubly so given his relationship with Gwen, which has been barely present over the last few weeks.

My wife and I had been going to go to Dragon*Con, and instead I went with my sister. I bought her a photo package with James Marsters and Gareth David-Lloyd, and she still has the photo in her bedroom. She looks fantastic in it - my sister is much, much cooler than me, or, at least, her hair is much more brightly colored. 

But for the most part this plot isn’t actually about Owen; it’s about Diane. Unfortunately, Diane is a bit of a manic pixie dream girl dressed up in period clothing, but she has enough compelling moments to just about work, and she’s played marvelously by Louise Delamere (previously of No Angels). With her we get the midpoint between John and Emma. Where John is swallowed by the unreachable past and Emma disappears into the future, Diane remains suspended in the present, on the knife edge between them, refusing to move off of it.

By Miracle Day my academic career had run completely aground. I’d been living in Connecticut for a year in a rental house across the street from my parents that I now refer to as Casa Black Mold, which tells you most of what you need to know about it. It was a few months into TARDIS Eruditorum, right after I’d abandoned the Nintendo Project. I watched the last episode at Dragon*Con, which I went to solo. It was the year Connecticut got whacked with two nasty autumn storms - a late summer hurricane and an October snowstorm, each of which knocked power out in most of the state for a week, and I remember leaving for Dragon*Con literally minutes after the power finally came back on. I watched The Time Warrior that Con as well, because I had to write about it right after I got back. It was one of the lowest and most depressing points in my life, though I recognize it, with hindsight, as actually having been a moment when my life was on the upswing - where the tumult of 2009 and 2010 was getting undone and I was moving back towards some semblance of normality. 

Her character is thus defined by moments of thrill - flight and sex. She doesn’t fly to get anywhere, but simply to be flying - to be suspended in the air, between rising and falling, in an infinite present moment. For her love is a problem - a trap that keeps one from the freedom of the present. That Owen falls in love with her is almost immaterial - she is, to him at least, primarily just a cipher, desirable for the ways in which he doesn’t understand her and, seemingly, for little else. He treats her largely like a possession, and she runs away.

There have not been any episodes of Torchwood since Miracle Day.

And so she gets her third outcome, balanced between John’s surrender to the dead past and Emma’s embrace of the unknown future - flying off into a completely unknown moment that is not past, nor future, but something else entirely - some unknown space defined merely by Owen’s absence. She embraces a state of falling out of the world permanently, tumbling, exiting every space she’s put in no matter how wondrous.


Seeing_I 7 years, 5 months ago

Gorgeous, melancholy episode - when they said Torchwood would be dark and adult, this is rather more what I had in mind than the CyberBikini japes. The image of Jack sitting in the car, breathing the same fumes, has stayed with me. Plus, "Look at all these bananas!"

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Jenda 7 years, 5 months ago

They were born and then they lived and then they died! It seems so unfair!

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Spacewarp 7 years, 5 months ago

"He gets to see everything he ever built or worked for at its end - a senile old man in a long-term care facility, dying in a world built of the eroding rubble of memories."

This is the bit that cuts me the deepest watching this, not the well-written but relatively familiar Diane/Owen cross-time romance. SciFi often deals with this concept of thrusting the protagonist into either the near future to meet their bemused now-older relatives (see "Flight of the Navigator" or "The Forever War"), or the far distant future to find their whole civilisation has been forgotten.

But speaking as someone who has three children and three grandchildren and therefore a comfortable feeling of "genetic security", to witness the complete shriveling of my familial line just a few decades down the road would be far worse on a personal level than any "Planet of the Apes" scenario.

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Jenda 7 years, 5 months ago

I had written this jokey bit of "I get the reference!" joshing before I had read the entry proper and now it seems entirely out of kilter with the mood of the piece - which was very well written, honest, and brave.

It's enough to get me to try Torchwood season one again rather than just wait for you to get to the second season like I had been planning, which is endorsement enough in itself.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 5 months ago

I want to cry.

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Eric Gimlin 7 years, 5 months ago

I'm afraid I don't have anything to really add to the discussion here, given the clearly personal nature of it. But I didn't want a lack of response to come across as a lack of appreciation. So, thank you for this.

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Iain Coleman 7 years, 5 months ago

I still don't know why the Doctor Who team weren't crawling over broken glass to get Catherine Treganna to write them an episode or two.

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Theonlyspiral 7 years, 5 months ago

This is the Torchwood post I have enjoyed the most. Torchwood lacks the alchemy of Doctor Who proper. There is no real sense of connection to the idea of material social progress. Of course it is painful for you, but by relating it to something personal it has elevated Torchwood over it's fairly base self.

Which is to say: excellent job.

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Daru 7 years, 5 months ago

Actually, so do I - thank you Phil.

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Daru 7 years, 5 months ago

I am very touched by your weaving of your own story with the essay, it really blew me away, especially when the revelation came that it was actually you. Bless ya for that and for opening your heart (as you do frequently here). I feel you really touched the beautiful and melancholy heart of this episode.

Thank you again.

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elvwood 7 years, 5 months ago

And the same here. Thank you.

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storiteller 7 years, 5 months ago

A beautiful, moving post. I'll definitely have to watch this episode so I can get the full impact of the essay.

I've always liked your more personal posts. Your essay on The Nintendo Project on Deja Vu, where you talk about your mother and adventure games, is also another lovely one.

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Bill Reed 7 years, 4 months ago

This is my favorite episode of Torchwood, and my favorite Torchwood write-up from you so far. I see there aren't many comments, but, thanks for writing!

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William Silvia 7 years, 3 months ago

This brings back memories that are all too strong - and, notably, Doctor Who is the thing that probably kept me together as some semblance of a person during the forming of those memories. While my opinion of the episode is something more along the line of "this is what Torchwood is FOR, of COURSE it's like that", this post helps me remember that there's so much more ahead and that none of it will be predictable. Perhaps it was intentional that in ending a relationship, you essentially must choose either the path of John or Emma, because you really must.

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