3 years, 11 months ago
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It’s December 3rd, 2006. Take That are at number one with “Patience,” just ahead of “Smack That” by Akon and Eminem. Nelly Furtado, Justin Timberlake, Emma Bunton, and Muse are also charting. In news, Michael Grade, by now BBC Chairman, is poached by ITV. The British government declines to extend copyright protection from 50 years to 95, though the EU eventually took care of it for them in 2011. Clive Goodman pleads guilty of conspiring to hack the phones of Princes William and Harry, and Augusto Pinochet has the heart attack that kills him.
Speaking of death, with They Keep Killing Suzie Torchwood finally comes to what, in hindsight, was always its theme. All of the wondrous spaces we’ve been exploring over the preceding seven hours turn out to be metaphors for the big one: the realm of the dead. This is not, strictly speaking, surprising or complicated. The argument that the wondrous cultural spaces that Torchwood has been playing with - ones we’ve already seen are deeply entwined with the larger British culture - are metaphors for death. The spirit world is in many ways the archetypal wondrous space - the one that all other wondrous spaces are just echoes and reflections of.
Jacques Derrida, who I don’t think I’ve annoyed you all by discussing yet, suggests that one of the key aspects of writing is its battle against death. Writing preserves the idea of the speaker after the moment of death, albeit in an altered form that is not so much the speaker as a haunting ghost of them. Similar ideas abound in media studies - Friedrich Kittler has, in his landmark Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, the lovely declaration that “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.” The idea permeates so many different sorts of books and movies as to be inescapable; it’s also the underlying fantasy of detective fiction, which Torchwood owes a huge debt to. Solving the mystery is a way of communicating with the deceased - receiving one final message from them.
And Torchwood, in particular, was always going to be about death. It had to be. The basic conceit of its lead character necessitated it. You can’t do a show whose central mystery is “why can’t Jack die” without having death become something of a major theme. You certainly can’t after combining the premise with a first episode about a glove that brings people back from the dead. The show committed itself to being about death from its first episode, a fact that continues to have profound implications right up until the last episode.
Given all of this, Torchwood’s actual take on death has to be one of the most striking things about it. In a show where everything has a wondrous dimension, where the world is vast and full of mysteries, and where some notion of the soul is clearly bought into on a fundamental level, we have a depiction of death that is frighteningly simple: when you die, you’re dead. There’s nothing. It is empty, dark, cold, and alone. There is simply oblivion. This was alluded to, in passing, back in Everything Changes, when Jack asks the first dead person what he saw, and gets the simple and chilling response: “Oh my God, there’s nothing.” But here it gets expanded, becoming Suzie’s entire worldview and motive. She’s willing to do terrible, awful things to survive, because, as she puts it, “Because life is all, Jack. You should know. I'd do anything to stay. Anything.” Which is, as motivations go, so blisteringly straightforward as to be wonderful.
But the larger philosophical issue is striking too. The decision to isolate the wondrous space that all the other ones are metaphors for and treat it as the one non-wondrous space available in a world of them is striking. It immediately serves, as Suzie’s succinct motivation demonstrates, to make all of the other wondrous spaces immediately justified, including, crucially, the mundane day-to-day world. Suzie’s motivation, in fact, encompasses this - it’s too simple to say she only wants to live. She also has a complex set of emotions around Gwen, who she views as “better” than her in some intrinsic and not entirely stated way that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Gwen has only repeated her “shagging Owen” mistake and not her “becoming a serial killer” one. What matters is not, in other words, merely being alive in the biological sense but in the sense of having a life.
Thus what drives Suzie is not merely her desire to not be in the oblivion of death, but also her desire to not have squandered life - to have a chance to be as good as Gwen. To have lived. This, of course, gets to another dimension of death as an underlying metaphor. Death is inextricably linked to the basic phenomenon of time’s passage. The fact that it marks a completely insurmountable void - that one cannot communicate with the dead - is the most cruel and absolute version of the basic inaccessibility of the past. Broadly speaking, death defines the spaces we cannot access. What is scary is not merely that death is the point after which there might only be an empty void of nothingness, but that death is also the point after which we cannot possibly still redeem our inaccessible past. Once we’re dead, we cannot possibly compete against our replacements.
This also takes it back into the territory of Doctor Who, which is, of course, endlessly concerned with the question of how the past can and cannot be accessed and interacted with. But where Doctor Who has the TARDIS, a machine that allows people to access the past and future directly instead of through memory and imagination, Torchwood has nothing. In Torchwood the past really is gone and the future really is unknowable. The twenty-first century may be when everything changes, but we cannot possibly know what it changes into. And we cannot revisit the past. Suzie cannot reclaim her old life, both because to do so would be to kill Gwen and because, fundamentally, the show doesn’t entertain the possibility that you ever could. The only thing anyone is able to do with the past is kill it, re-kill it, and, finally, bury it forever.
As ever, there are problems. The plot resolution in the back half is shambolic - all of the tension is a complete feint for the moment when Jack realizes that the glove is the solution. The problem is that he’s had the glove the whole time, so the resolution amounts to “we could have wrapped this up at any time.” The nonsense with the Emily Dickinson is also particularly egregious time-wasting. The basic plot structure is sound - the car chase is a nice set piece, Gwen dying so Suzie can live is a nice ticking clock, and the seaside final confrontation is a nice image. Several moments sing - in particular, everything that happens inside the hospital. "You're being shot in the head. Slowy," is particularly chilling.
Certainly, for all that the plot's on crack, the resolution is better than sitting around the Hub for the back half of the episode would have been. The problem is really the fact that the plot resolution is very obviously caused by nothing so much as hitting the fifty minute mark in the episode. It’s particularly annoying as it was a trivial problem to fix - you just lash together some technobabble that explains why the glove has to be brought to Suzie and Gwen instead of having the resolution take place back at Torchwood Hub while most of the cast stands pointlessly at the seaside. Indeed, it’s so easy to fix that the existence of the problem seems to speak volumes about how chaotic production must have gotten on the first season of Torchwood. (No surprise - the first season of Doctor Who was hectic, and they reacted to that by, effectively, adding another thirteen episodes for the next year.)
This is a severe problem elsewhere in the season, but right now it works out; this is some of the tightest and most disciplined Torchwood to date. Indira Varma, a truly phenomenal actress, certainly helps with that, as does the ruthlessly good characterization of Suzie - her casual killing of her father is a particularly artful moment of “oh dear, this character is completely and utterly unhinged, isn’t she?” There’s a focus to the episode that has at times been lacking. Part of this is surely that it’s a step away from the somewhat high concept antics of Countrycide or Cyberwoman and back towards the relatively complex structure of, say, Ghost Machine or Greeks Bearing Gifts, where the shape of the episode changes midway through. The initial murder investigation that expands outwards to Suzie is a nice twist - nice enough that the completely bonkers nature of Suzie’s plan doesn’t actually become jarring. But unlike Ghost Machine or Greeks Bearing Gifts, this is a story that retains the focus on the mythic that Chibnall’s high concept romps do. It’s a best of both worlds approach, and a successful blending of the two.
Finally, of course, there is the image of something existing in the darkness. One of the things that is often tricky about Davies’s Doctor Who is its relationship with Davies’s own atheism. On the one hand, the prospect of there being nothing after death is profoundly atheistic. On the other hand, Torchwood clearly has a notion of the soul. There is something to revive, even weeks or months after death, and that something is aware of having been dead. The nothing after death is where we go, but there’s still the very clear sense that there’s a “we” that gets to go somewhere. More to the point, the nothing is clearly a place in which it is possible for other things to exist.
What we have is something more complex than straightforward atheism. Davies is still offering a humanist message about the value of the life we have over some hypothetical afterlife, which is a nice message to see, and I say that as someone who is in no way an atheist. But that still exists in a world in which things beyond human comprehension exist. This is an important note for They Keep Killing Suzie to hit - the declaration that death is the only space to lack any wonder or mystery would be profoundly unsettling to Torchwood’s overall schematic. A purely atheistic solution is a poor fit for a show that acknowledges fairies as basically supernatural beings.
Instead death becomes the ultimate in unsympathetic wondrous spaces - a place that is wholly indifferent to humanity. The problem is not that the afterlife isn’t wondrous - it’s that in a real sense we don’t belong there. And the prospect of something moving in the darkness harkens back to the Lovecraftian imagery of The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit - things that are simply outside all frame of reference or human experience, existing only as an abyss in which humanity itself is drowned. This is, again, not an atheistic vision, but it’s also not a theistic vision in any sense. It’s a vision of a world that is so infinite in its wonder that the human capacity to experience it is simply insufficient to the task.
Except, of course, for the problem of Jack. Torchwood has continued to keep Jack oddly in the background; he’s its one established character, and yet he’s not had a focus episode. He is increasingly mysterious, a bridge between the program and what is, to it at least, an unknowable parent text. Jack understands what sort of world Torchwood is, but the narrative has been built to prevent him actually imparting that knowledge to any of the other characters, or, indeed, to the audience. And now we find out that an underlying force in the world of Torchwood is hostile to Jack. Whatever is keeping Jack alive is, we learn, wrong in a very fundamental sense - something that should not be.
It is tempting, between the structurally sound but politically problematic Greeks Bearing Gifts and the altogether sound They Keep Killing Suzie that Torchwood has turned a corner such that we can just let it be its own thing. Unfortunately, there’s one more episode to grapple with before that’s an option.
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