|I’m somebody’s fetish.|
It’s still October 22nd. Stupid double bills. In any case, Day One.
Thing one about Day One is all the sex. Torchwood gets a fair amount of stick for being an “adult” show in a childish and superficial way – that is, to be obsessed with sex and violence. On the one hand, Day One rather supports that claim by having the first thing Torchwood does once it sets up its premise by fighting the sex alien. On the other hand, the episode manages to have its cake and eat it too with that absolutely marvelous sequence of Carys walking through the streets assailed by all the images of sex around her. Which is to say, yes, Torchwood is flagrantly about sex on a regular basis, but this isn’t entirely unreasonable given the apparent centrality of sex to our day-to-day lives. And while sex may be frustratingly inescapable, it’s also, if we’re being honest, a topic that is poorly served by the bulk of television, which handles sex very badly if at all.
Torchwood is a mixed bag on this – as I noted, the sci-fi rape in Everything Changes is absolutely appalling. But this episode does quite well with a number of small but deft touches – having Carys’s phone conversation as she’s infected by the alien eventually play into the plot, for instance, or the quiet establishment of her home life. The scene where she confronts Eddie is a marvelous depiction of the real sorts of tangles of contemporary relationships, which don’t follow television’s usual unwavering lines of clear-cut boyfriends and girlfriends. It’s a step more complex than just having her go after an ex-boyfriend, and considerably more honest.
Equally, however, there is something willfully provocative about having your second episode feature the sex alien. Even though it is, all things being equal, a pretty good sex alien, it’s still visibly and tangibly a stunt. Then again, this is in many ways the same structure that Doctor Who used in 2005 – take the second episode and go as far in a given direction as it is possible to go. So, yes, Day One has the sex alien, but it has it for the simple reason that putting the sex alien in at the start means that you effectively settle the “how far will this show go” debate in one handy shot. You really can’t get away with calling Torchwood “shocking” in terms of content after this episode, which is a useful bit of armor for the series. It’s a technique akin to Paul Abbott’s decision to work both an assassination and a nude shot of Chloe Sevigny with a prosthetic penis into the first two minutes of his actually very good 2012 Hit & Miss – by getting all the prurient bits of its premise on the table immediately it prevents the show, in the long term, from being defined by those bits.
I could go on in this tone for a while yet, beginning a defense of Chris Chibnall as a writer, but there’s an underlying issue here I want to address, which is that Torchwood seems to require a level of defensiveness. Oddly, this seems only true inside quasi-traditional Doctor Who fandom, which is to say, the sorts of people who read a blog like this one. Within Doctor Who fandom the doctrinal position is “Children of Earth was good.” Outside of Doctor Who fandom there seem to be loads of people who quite like Torchwood, all four seasons of it, including a non-zero number who came to Torchwood first and may or may not be all that into Doctor Who at all. And so there’s a fundamental tension here – my overwhelming sense from comments over the past two-and-a-half years is that my reader base, or at least my vocal reader base, is largely a bit hostile to Torchwood. I happen to rather like it, or else I wouldn’t be covering it episode-by-episode, but more to the point, that sets the default tone to suspicion.
Except that’s not fair. Especially because, and I admit I’m working from pure anecdote and the preponderance of my commenters’ names, the vocal community here is disproportionately male dedicated Doctor Who fans, whereas Torchwood seems to have a substantially if not primarily female fanbase that’s distinct from Doctor Who’s. Which is to say, the community here isn’t by and large Torchwood fans as such, and that makes the default position for talking about it one of unjustified skepticism. So let’s start over.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Torchwood is that it is about work. This is an odd rejoinder to Doctor Who, and in many ways a sharp comment on the entire Rose Tyler debate. The Doctor’s claim in Rose that she could “fill her life with work and sleep” always jarred a bit, a point reiterated at the end of the season when Mickey points out that a life of work and chips is “what the rest of us do.” But in the end, Doctor Who, necessarily given its premise, has to reject that and suggest that galavanting about the universe is inherently better than “what the rest of us do.” It’s clear that across Series Two, at least, Davies was uncomfortable with this, a point made clearest in Love and Monsters, but also in Army of Ghosts when Jackie suggests that Rose will eventually lose touch with her human identity.
But in the end, there’s only so far this logic can get away with going before the fact that Doctor Who is a show about falling out of the world reels it back in. The resolution of Doomsday features the Doctor looking crestfallen when he thinks Rose might have gone back to “just” being a shopgirl. There’s a fundamental limit to how much that show can value the day-to-day domestic life of having a job, that being, in part, everything the Doctor runs from. But Torchwood focuses on what Jackie, in Love and Monsters, calls “those who get left behind” – people who have ordinary lives within the extraordinary schema of Doctor Who.
And so with Day One we get a story in which the strangeness scattered throughout the world is a job, thought of primarily in terms of work/life balance. This is not, of course, used as a means of making the strangeness of the world banal. Rather, Torchwood is shown to be a job of the sort that can’t be left at work. It’s impossible to say enough good things about Kai Owen’s performance as Rhys, who, with just a handful of scenes each episode, fulfills the entire Mickey/Jackie role for the show. There’s something very hard to explain to anyone who doesn’t live with it about being married to someone with a phenomenally intense job. My wife’s an oncology nurse – watching people die is a part of her day-to-day job. It follows you home – it can’t help but doing so. Large portions of my emotional life are tied up in the deaths of people I will never meet or even know the names of. Home life is at once a release from a job like that and a place that is continually invaded by the size of it. And being the person who doesn’t have that job is an intense experience in its own right.
Which is to say that Torchwood isn’t about our jobs in the general case, but about a specific sort of job – the ones that are as intensely draining as they are rewarding. It’s about the jobs that consume our life, and about remaining grounded in the face of the extremes of humanity. In this regard it follows in different ways from Love and Monsters, specifically from that story’s complicating of the basic life pattern of “grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have a kid, and that’s it.” Torchwood is quickly finding complex spaces of wonder within the mundane day-to-day of the world. And, crucially, Torchwood quickly positions itself as a show about balancing the two sides of that. The sense that Owen, Tosh, Jack, and even Ianto don’t see the wonders of their world anymore because they’ve completely lost touch with the world in which they exist and can be seen to be wonderful is terribly compelling as an idea.
Very rapidly, Torchwood is developing a nuanced and complex understanding of wondrous spaces and how they interact with our world. Interestingly, it’s also starting to carve out Doctor Who itself as one of those spaces, as with the entire “hand in a jar” sequence, which is left nominally unexplained, save for a musical cue derived from Flavia’s Theme as, in one of the most breathtakingly dissonant scenes imaginable, Jack cradles a severed hand. But Doctor Who becomes just one of a bevy of wondrous and haunted spaces that Torchwood concerns itself with. But Torchwood continues to set up an interesting and complex relationship with its parent show – a savvy Doctor Who viewer will pick up fairly easily on the nature of the severed hand, but Torchwood continues to treat Captain Jack’s origins as a mystery within the show even though his nature is largely known to most of the audience, or at least, much more known than it is to any of the characters.
So Doctor Who simultaneously serves as the origin for all of the weird spaces in Torchwood and as the ultimate weird space within Torchwood – the one that the show cannot fully grapple with. This is a fascinating inversion, given that two episodes into Torchwood it’s still Doctor Who that’s the better known show. By putting the known components of its own mythology in place as its biggest mysteries, Torchwood makes the entire network of mundane and wondrous spaces in which it functions a little bit more uncertain.
This complex theme is paired, however, with an aggressively straightforward structure that helps to anchor it. We talked in the lead-up to Torchwood about the question of what it would use as its structure. The answer is, in practice, a bit of a surprising one – it’s basically configured to work as CSI: Cardiff. This is an instantly recognizable structure, and it saves the show a profound amount of heavy lifting. Much like the structure of this episode is largely based around the shop-worn structure of “Gwen’s first day at work” so that you just know, without even having to watch any of it, that it will start with her screwing up and end with her saving the day, the basic dynamic of a team solving crimes is such an easy format that it allows the show to just get on with it, and to quickly evade most of the cult pitfalls that might have waited for it. The structure is also terribly useful for keeping the show varied – which isn’t something it shows (or can show) in its first two episodes, but is still very important in giving the show something like Doctor Who’s variety (more about which on Monday). Note also, however, that the series is consciously aware of the tropes of that genre, and willing to poke good fun at them – the decision to have Torchwood, with all its magic alien technology, be unable to do the genre-standard magic image enhancement to see blurry details is delightful, to say the least.
These two episodes have also, as mentioned, focused heavily on Gwen, who is another lynchpin of the series. Eve Myles is simply fantastic in the part. In the first two episodes Gwen’s role is in many ways limited – she’s stuck being the mouthpiece for the show’s theme, which means she has to deliver somewhat tiresome speeches about the importance of Carys’s life and to hit the fairly standard newbie notes. Still, even with this she’s magnetic and capable of selling a terrified and joyful wonder at the world around her. It’s not that the writing isn’t serving her well so much as that the beats she’s going through at this point in the story are fairly standard ones that don’t give her a lot of room to make the character distinctive. Despite that, she’s managing it with aplomb, making Gwen’s point of view distinctive even when her actions aren’t particularly.
So two episodes in, and before we’re even on to week two of the show, we have a complex but coherent set of concerns and themes, a bold claim for the series’ range, a flexible format, and a cast that’s developing nicely. It is difficult to argue that the show ought, or even really could accomplish more in its first two hours. No, this is’t the beginning of a legend of British television. But it’s the beginning of a good and interesting show.