|It’s. Not. Funny.
It’s November 5th, 2006, memorably enough. Fedde Le Grand are at number one with “Put Your Hands Up For Detroit,” while Beyonce, McFly, and U2 & Green Day also chart. In news since the last episode, severe flooding breaks out in Ethiopia, and Ted Haggard resigns as head of the National Association of Evangelicals due to his fondness for crystal meth and rent boys. Because who doesn’t.
While on television it’s Cyberwoman. Seemingly content with having set up its basic premises, Torchwood here unleashes a story that can only really be described as a gigantic piece of candy. This is the thrilling runaround with monsters, and offers no pretense that it might be anything else. This is, in and of itself, telling. Torchwood, in its first season, hews closer to the standard model of Doctor Who than was apparent at the time. All four of Russell T Davies’s seasons, as well as Moffat’s first one, follow a simple structure in their first three episodes of doing a story set in the present, a story in the past, and a story in the future. In fact, the structure goes one step further – the past/present/future trilogy is, in each of the first five seasons, followed up by a two-part monster runaround. This was, it turns out, part of Doctor Who’s formula.
What’s not usually remarked upon is that Torchwood, despite its lack of time travel, does the same thing. It moves from an episode focused on Gwen and her world to a fairly straightforward alien threat to a ghost story concerned with the past, and then does its big clanking monster story. And when you decide to treat Cyberwoman as self-consciously being Torchwood attempting to do its version of Rise of the Cybermen or Daleks in Manhattan, to pick the ones on either side of it, most of its excesses become altogether easier to understand. This is meant to be the big action set piece – Torchwood fighting a classic Doctor Who monster.
Clearly they thought better of it, at least to some extent – Torchwood never took on a monster pre-established in Doctor Who again. And yet it’s difficult to say that the exercise was entirely pointless. The truth is that the Cybermen actually work quite well here. Torchwood basically goes back to the principles of Dalek here: a lone and damaged monster locked in the basement of a secret facility housing alien artifacts. This, of course, has a different effect for the Cybermen, who had already appeared in four episodes of Doctor Who in 2006, than it did on the Daleks, unseen in any proper sense in seventeen years when Dalek aired. Dalek set the bar high for the Daleks, establishing that just one of them is a terrifying threat. But Cyberwoman comes after the bar has already been set low for the Cybermen, and indeed after they’ve already been established as the second choice rejects of the monster pool.
The result is that no matter how hard Cyberwoman tries to repeat the Dalek trick of “just one monster is terrifying,” it ends up doing a better job of making Torchwood look foolish than it does of making the Cybermen look terrifying. Given that the Cybermen spend four episodes as clanking cannon fodder, Lisa is just too small a threat to take as seriously as Cyberwoman needs us to. To have her be treated as the single most dangerous thing the Torchwood team have ever faced mostly makes them look like incompetent lightweights. Within the logic of Doctor Who, a single half-converted Cyberman just isn’t a serious threat, and Torchwood can’t import the iconography of Doctor Who without acquiring that logic as well.
Added to this is the fact that it’s just too soon to pull this kind of switch with Ianto. The idea is clearly to leave him in the background so that he gets this episode as a big character piece, but it doesn’t quite come off. All Cyberwoman really gives Gareth David-Lloyd to work with is “Ianto is really upset,” and though he sells that admirably, it’s not enough to build a character piece off of. The idea is clearly to reveal hidden depths and wondrous spaces within Ianto’s character, having Torchwood itself be haunted by a wondrous space within its own architecture, but we just haven’t seen enough of the Hub and of Ianto to give this revelation any punch. This doesn’t work as the first time Ianto steps into the spotlight. Had the concept been threaded through previous episodes, with Ianto’s struggle to save Lisa being something we get to invest in for an episode or two before she goes irredeemably evil, it might have worked, but there’s too much narrative velocity to give the concept the weight it’s straining for.
This is a pity, as underneath the hood we have the Cybermen being done with an attention to body horror like we’ve never really seen before. The shot of Dr. Tanizaki’s botched conversion is horrifying, and renders the Cyber-conversion process physical and visceral in a way that The Age of Steel never manages to. This is the one time in the modern era we get the fleshiness of the Cybermen, and as grotesque body horror goes, it’s actually reasonably well done. Unfortunately, the story’s prime Cyberman, Lisa herself, is a bit of a flop. Her design is a bit too clean and orderly, presumably in order to make her vaguely palatable to look at given her screen time, when the concept calls for something far more upsetting. It also appears that designers decided they wanted her to be “sexy,” which jars completely with the actual concept, though does lead to the genuinely funny moment of Russell T Davies admitting that he has no real idea what they were talking about, but fretted a lot that the costume looked cold.
On the other hand, the relative lack of impact of the Cyberwoman may not be entirely accidental. Torchwood are supposed to be a cut below the Doctor in terms of their competence. Torchwood Three doubly so. The show has a complex iconography in this regard – on the one hand it’s clear that a lavish amount of money has been spent on Torchwood. On the other, there’s the distinct sense of Torchwood Three as a forgotten regional office – they clearly get sent things from the main office like the Torchwood-branded basketball hoop, but they’re also clearly working without much oversight or, more to the point, much in the way of people who care what they’re doing.
This is closely related to the show’s setting in Cardiff, which is not so much Britain’s second city as a city that lingers well past the point where the numbering leaves off. Cardiff is not, by any conventional measure, cool. And though Torchwood treats it as a source of cool, it does so with its tongue carefully nestled in its cheek. The selection of Cardiff is, in truth, in part because of its manifest failure to be an impressive, cool place. To locate the eccentric and wondrous spaces Torchwood is concerned with alongside a “cool” television city like London or Manchester is one thing, but to put them in Cardiff and see them through the eyes of a forgotten branch office is an entirely different thing. And so in that regard, it’s fitting that one half-converted Cyberman is so dangerous for Torchwood Three – that’s the level of competence they’re supposed to be on.
But Cyberwoman, and really Torchwood as a whole can’t quite figure out how to split the difference. Lisa is simultaneously the Big Doctor Who baddie come to menace the spinoff and a half-monster of an eminently defeatable species. Torchwood themselves are simultaneously the wondrous alien investigators and the dilapidated branch office. Everything about the show is simultaneously pulling it towards big ambition and modest scope. For the most part it actually manages to keep all of this on an even keel, but unfortunately when Doctor Who itself gets pulled into the equation the balancing act collapses. At the end of the day, Cyberwoman’s biggest problem is simply that it exposes the premise that Torchwood needs to keep quiet about for its own continued function, which is that Torchwood amounts to Doctor Who methodone – the show you watch when the main one isn’t around.
That’s not to say that Torchwood can’t function on its own, but to function on its own it has to move away from being Doctor Who-lite and into being its own show. Nevertheless, we have to admit that one of the most interesting things about Torchwood is its status as a spin-off of Doctor Who. In past stories – most notably in Day One – this worked well by having Doctor Who be something haunting the narrative – flitting at the outskirts and shaping it without actually entering the narrative. The show’s usual approach of treating Doctor Who as canon, but as a canon nobody but Jack entirely knows about or understands basically works. More to the point, it’s at times compelling, with Torchwood becoming the story of Doctor Who’s absence in a real sense. Not just “what would happen if the Doctor wasn’t there,” but a show about the absence of that unambiguous anchor in the mythic and a world where the lines between mundane and magical bleed together much more.
And the irony is thus that Doctor Who just doesn’t work within Torchwood. It obliterates it, eclipsing the things Torchwood can do and highlighting the things it can’t. Torchwood may depend on its relationship to Doctor Who, but that relationship is always going to be subservient. It’s there in the programming – Doctor Who is an anchor of BBC One’s annual schedule, and Torchwood is in BBC Three, or Two, or is a miniseries, or is actually a rerun of an American show. Torchwood is never allowed to outshine Doctor Who.
This helps explain what the correct structure of Torchwood is. We’ve seen its own grammar of wondrous spaces. And so, in a straightforward application of “as above, so below,” Torchwood uses its own concept to frame its relationship to Doctor Who – it is a wondrous space in the margins of Doctor Who. This, ironically, further explains the constraint on its overall quality. Because Torchwood simultaneously fears and loves wondrous spaces, Torchwood is put into the position of simultaneously fearing and loving itself. This creates a slightly stuttering quality within it.
This is often a good thing; when Torchwood works – and it does work more often than it’s given credit for, that stutter of tension within it is why. But the trick for Torchwood is always to avoid falling into the stutter. It can’t get caught for long in the switch between loving and hating itself. And unfortunately, Cyberwoman traps it in that stutter, because in Cyberwoman it tries to come to a conclusion about the one thing it cannot possibly come to a firm conclusion about: the space it’s haunting. Because if it ever does that, it’s no longer haunting it. The problem is that a wondrous space exists around and within a mundane one. Doctor Who is the mundane space of Torchwood – the thing, for better or for worse, it is an escape from. To allow the mundane space into Torchwood itself is a doomed endeavor – it gives Torchwood no choice but to be mundane and uninteresting.
But, look, it was a mistake that had to be made. There was never any way Torchwood wasn’t going to try a Doctor Who monster. It didn’t work, they learned their lesson, they moved on. It took Doctor Who how many years to finally figure out that Dennis Spooner hit on the right way to handle history in The Time Meddler and to just go with that approach to history for good? How much longer after that for them to grasp the “historical figure plus alien” formula that seems, in hindsight, like the single most obvious Doctor Who story ever? And yet everybody wants to crucify Torchwood because its stab at a bad but inevitable idea failed? Torchwood learned its lesson after this. It never tried this again, and stuck to its native structure of being a rabbit hole leading off of Doctor Who.
It was an understandable mistake, the show moved on, and nobody got raped. Let’s move on; the next one’s good.