|David, you have to try this. I call it standing in the rain looking|
dramatic. xoxo, John
It’s October 22nd, 2006. My Chemical Romance are at number one with “Welcome to the Black Parade,” with Scissor Sisters, Girls Aloud, P. Diddy, and Meat Loaf also charting. Since the Battle of Canary Wharf, Twitter launched, a war broke out between Israel and Lebanon, and North Korea claimed to have conducted a nuclear test. While in the week before this story, the US actually gets around to confirming that North Korea had a nuclear weapons test, and the Iraq war keeps going badly.
On television, meanwhile, Torchwood debuts with Everything Changes. That Everything Changes tacks fairly straightforwardly to the approved Joseph Campbell playbook for origin stories is perhaps unsurprising. It is, after all, how you do these things, and no matter how popular Doctor Who is as a program, it would have been borderline suicidal to launch Torchwood with an episode that relied on the assumption that everybody knew who Jack was and what Torchwood did. And so we get an episode that, for most of its runtime, is a structural mirror of Rose: girl is witness to strange goings-on, investigates, and after a couple of tries is finally initiated into the mysteries of an already familiar series premise.
Like Rose, then, the premise of Torchwood lurks in the background of the episode. Much of the audience spends much of the episode knowing more than Gwen does about the show’s premise, and being introduced to it anyway. Captain Jack and Torchwood are both known quantities. Except that they’re not. Torchwood Three seems miles away from the slick corporate excess of Torchwood One, and, perhaps more importantly, Torchwood are clearly meant to be the heroes of this show, whereas just a few months earlier they were solidly villainous.
In this regard the outsider perspective is an odd barrier, in that Gwen asks what are, for the audience, mainly the wrong questions. The audience doesn’t need Torchwood explained so much as they need the relationship between this Torchwood and the Canary Warf operation from Army of Ghosts explained, but Gwen, as a genuine neophyte, doesn’t know to ask that question. Similarly, the question really isn’t who Jack is and where he came from, nor even why he’s immortal (the answer clearly being “some bit of technobabble involving Rose’s resurrection of him), it’s “how did he get to Earth in the present day and what’s he doing running Torchwood,” both questions that Gwen, not having seen The Parting of the Ways, fails to ask.
Which is perhaps the most interesting thing about Everything Changes. Structurally, at least, it hums along at a brisk and followable pace. The Campbell-style call to adventure narrative is so shopworn that it manages to obscure the questions the audience comes to the program asking. We know so much about how this episode works and enough about Jack and Torchwood that we think we have all of its twists figured out ahead of time. Even the twist of Jack slipping retcon to Gwen is reasonably well-telegraphed – it’s the point in the narrative where the hero’s initiation is rejected and they make a failed return to normal life. About the only thing in the first portion of the episode that can be called a surprise is the explosion of blood when the Weevil attacks, and that’s not so much a narrative surprise as a cheap shock designed to flag the fact that this is post-watershed BBC Three and it can get away with things like that.
And then there’s Suzie. This twist is, of course, nicked from elsewhere – the fake lead character is a trick Joss Whedon semi-pulls in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and pulls in a different sense over the first few episodes of Angel. In essence, you include a character who is set up to be a main character in the show, and then brutally kill them off early in the show. It’s a solid trick that efficiently shouts “anything can happen in this show,” and Davies is savvy to nick it, but just as with the “blonde girl in a horror movie unexpectedly kicks ass” trick he stole from Buffy for Rose, Davies actually quietly outdoes his inspiration. There he used the scene Whedon described Buffy stemming from instead of the scene Whedon actually opened the series with (in which the blonde girl turns out to be a vampire). Here he both carries off the idea Whedon never managed (in Buffy he failed to get the character listed as a main character, whereas in Angel he takes a half-season to enact his idea) and uses it to greater effect, not as a shock about how anything can happen in this show but as a shock that reveals that the underlying assumption the audience has been making all episode – that they know the premise of the show better than Gwen does – is totally wrong.
It’s important to note that the shock isn’t actually when Suzie turns out to be evil (the triple scene of Tosh, Owen, and Suzie all taking alien tech home establishes quickly that someone’s going to be evil, and given that Suzie’s got the bit of tech the episode is actually about, it’s pretty clear who it is), but when she shoots and seemingly kills Jack, which is completely against all of the rules. But really, that entire scene amounts to the episode steadily coming unglued, with everything we as viewers thought we knew about its premise unraveling before our eyes. And so by the end of it Jack becomes a source of real anxiety – a character we don’t entirely understand anymore, working for an organization we don’t entirely trust.
It’s easy to understate how remarkable a structure this is. Anyone who comes into Torchwood with a working knowledge of Doctor Who – which must have been the lion’s share of its audience – is set up to depart the first episode knowing less about what the show is like than they did coming in. This would have been easy to have not happen – there’s not actually that much done to make Torchwood unnerving. It’s really just Jack’s newfound immortality. But because that immortality is presented as an unexpected culmination to a comparatively straightforward plot it serves to make the entire show and premise strange.
It also presents what can charitably be called some problems for the show. First among them is that its main character is designed to frustrate expectations. The sexiest rogue in the universe that we knew and loved from the last five episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s run on Doctor Who is replaced by a character we are actively kept from enjoying too much. Interestingly, John Barrowman’s performance hasn’t modulated around this yet, which serves to make it more interesting and effective. Barrowman is still playing the sexy rogue in a television series that’s actively skeptical and suspicious of his character. In an odd way this is actually more effective than the later years of Torchwood in which the “Jack is a bastard” trope has been well-enough established. This early stage of Torchwood where Jack teeters on the edge between dangerous antihero and the lovable rogue from Doctor Who are pregnant with possibility.
This is, of course, terribly important for Torchwood, in that it quickly gives the show more interesting things to do than faff around waiting for the Doctor to show up in it. Torchwood was only going to work if it could distinguish itself from Doctor Who, and just adding more sex isn’t sufficient. And so it has to move Jack from being a popular character on Doctor Who to being the lead character of his own show. Adding to his character so that the role he played in Doctor Who is a slightly limiting subset of the character is necessary.
What’s more interesting, however, is that it’s specifically and more to the point exclusively Jack that’s used as the source of anxiety within the show. Torchwood as an institution is largely irrelevant – Torchwood Three is presented as essentially independent of the other Torchwoods, such that the evils of Torchwood One become a matter of “well that’s not our office.” This is remarkable – the entire conspiratorial plot that wound its way through the second season of Doctor Who is almost but not completely irrelevant to the show whose name it shares.
But equally non-anxious is the matter of aliens. Indeed, one of the most surprising things about Torchwood as it’s set up is that it’s an essentially optimistic show that presumes not just a future, but a long future. To declare in 2006 that “the twenty-first century is when everything changes” is quite bold, reaching forward and encompassing the next ninety-four years in a claim that presumably reaches far further. This is, of course, all perfectly ordinary within Doctor Who, which assumes millennia of futurity for the human race. Indeed, Davies flagged this idea way back in New Earth when (in a scene that got eaten by a camera malfunction) he endorsed the idea that history is cyclical and that there’s always a human race. Jack himself is a product of this reasoning as a fifty-first century man, although this isn’t stated in Torchwood.
But in a show set in the immediately contemporary world such a future-oriented scope is uncanny. To bind the day-to-day of life in Cardiff with a future history that not only spans centuries but that identifies the day-to-day of Cardiff as a cornerstone of that history is a remarkable perspective. It’s not, of course, unreconstructed utopian optimism. The future is inexorably linked to the alien, and serves within Torchwood a similar purpose as something haunting the world. The original title of the episode, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” is telling, suggesting that the episode’s image of the future’s (and past’s) debris endlessly washing into the world is central to Torchwood as an idea.
The present moment is haunted by the discarded relics of the very future it’s tasked with bringing about. That, within Torchwood, is what the alien stands for. This is not, in other words, just Doctor Who with more sex, for the simple reason that it takes as its central premise the very thing Doctor Who actively rejects – the idea of characters who are actually bound to the arc of history. Doctor Who has always (well, except for a few years in the early 70s, about which we’ll really have to talk in more detail one of these entries) been a show about falling out of the world, but Torchwood is a show about living in the world as the arc of history extends unfathomably in every direction.
Put another way, in Doctor Who the alien is a destination – it’s what the show brings us to. Even when it stays in contemporary Earth settings, it’s about the world of strangeness and about living within that world. But Torchwood is about living adjacent to the alien. There’s no destination – just the day-to-day business of waking up in a world where strange things happen. None of the major characters in Torchwood belong to the world of death and epics except, perhaps, for Jack, whose relationship with death is best described, at this point, in terms of Facebook: it’s complicated.
But we still have, if you will, the Problem of Suzie, a character who is consumed by the epic and by death until it takes over her life and, eventually, kills her. If the job of Torchwood is understood as providing a buffer between the onrushing future and the present moment, Suzie serves as a chilling reminder of the cost of this. By placing one foot in the world of the epic, Torchwood doom themselves to eventually get pulled into it, chewed up, and spat back out. And so the long future that Torchwood assumes as part of its premise becomes a source of both wonder and anxiety injected into the day-to-day.
It is by no means perfect. Things rankle – most obviously Owen, whose casual use of sci-fi rape goes unremarked upon in a way that is absolutely awful. (I suspect the goal is to establish Owen as a particularly on-edge and dangerous person, but it’s completely miscued by dint of the fact that rape is not merely edgy, it’s horrible and wrong and makes him every bit as bad as Suzie. It’s appalling, is easily the worst thing Russell T Davies has ever written, and is in fact considerably worse than anything Moffat has ever written for Doctor Who.) More broadly, the narrative gravity asserted by its spin-off status is such that most of these ideas are, at this point, inchoate possibilities. Which is fine. There is, in fact, quite a lot of Torchwood for them to develop over; its forty-one episodes make it longer than the Peter Davison era in screentime. Not everything can possibly be set up in the first fifty minutes. What we have here is, at least, an interesting start worthy of further exploration, and a set of ideas that at least make the prospect of a Doctor Who spin-off essential. When spinning off a show whose premise allows it to do absolutely anything, that alone is a major accomplishment.