The week of my coauthor Alex Reed and I guest-editing 33 1/3’s blog in promotion of our book on They Might Be Giants’s Flood continues with Alex counting down the ten best TMBG non-album tracks. You can buy the book here.
It’s March 21st, 2008.
In Miracle Day there is a startlingly large continuity gaffe when Jack knows the “fixed point in time” explanation that he’s given in Utopia several decades too early. And yet this seems, in light of Fragments, to be just one of many gaffes in attempting to reconstruct Jack’s experience of the twentieth century. While employed by Torchwood, after all, he is seen to, for no apparent reason, enlist in the military to go to Pakistan, work for a travelling circus, and go romp around the US for a while. There is no coherent timeline to be had of Jack’s twentieth century.
This is strange given that the norm for Torchwood is rapidly shifting to being about various secrets from Jack’s long life that he’s been hiding. And yet these secrets exist in a fundamentally incoherent timeline. Jack’s twentieth century is so oversignified that it can contain anything. There are consciously no limitations to the secrets contained within it. He’s gone from having two years of his life that he knows nothing about to a hundred that the audience knows nothing about.
Which makes his life in Fragments odd, given that it is defined in essence by his being captured by Torchwood and steadily coming to accept their ways. The narrative is one of corruption – Jack goes from being appalled by Torchwood’s tendency to randomly murder aliens because it can’t think of anything to do with them to running the joint. Yes, he runs it in a more humane and less murderous way, but this is still the sense of progress that suggests that putting less evil people in charge of corrupt structures will fix them. Which is to say, New Labour.
In many ways this perfectly sets Jack up for the future of the show, in that it properly makes him a site of anxiety within the narrative. Jack is not a heo, but someone who has been corrupted by the system he sets out to work – a concrete demonstration of all that is wrong with the logic of changing the system from within. And yet on the other hand Jack is forever without – external to the world and to its systems. His status as a fixed point in time becomes all too symbolic; he becomes locked as a bridge between the world and its eccentric spaces. This liminal space is a source of danger. Jack becomes the eternal transgressor – always in between two spaces, but, unlike the character he derives from (who remains unspeakable within Torchwood) never moving as such. He is stuck on Earth, and festering there.
When, on New Year’s Day, he is finally given control of Torchwood Three, it is visibly a poisoned chalice. The site of too many crimes and murders. He will rebuild it in his own image. And it will be full of nothing but fragments of people – narrative roles stuck in the ever-hardening amber of the present moment.
In some ways the prospect of explaining how Tosh came to work for Torchwood seems superfluous. She is, after all, the crack Asian computer genius. Of course she works for Torchwood. Every character on television like her works for an organization like Torchwood. To explain how that came to be is thus strange.
And so it’s particularly interesting that of the origins given, hers is by far the most viscerally traumatic. She spends an unknown period of time locked in a cell with no legal recourse whatsoever. We are told that the plan was originally that she would stay there for life. When she is released it is because of Captain Jack’s intercession, and even then only on a conditional basis, her release predicated on her working a fixed term of service with Torchwood and not having direct contact with her mother.
In all of this there is a distracting element, which is that it us UNIT who imprisons Tosh like this. In the past the division has appeared to be that UNIT is the cuddlier government organization dealing with aliens, while Torchwood is the darker one. And yet here we get UNIT being as unsympathetic as Torchwood ever has been. Indeed, moreso. It’s worth observing that the usual justification cited for indefinite detention are various forms of national security justifications. But even this comforting fig leaf is denied to Tosh. She is given indefinite detention without trial to make an example out of her, and yet the example is apparently too secret for anyone to know about. It casts UNIT in the role of reflexive totalitarianism, which is an odd fit with the organization as portrayed in the past, albeit not an odd fit at all with what such an organization would probably actually be like.
And yet underneath all of this there’s an essential truth that remains unexpectedly captured. Tosh, as noted, is the character least in need of any origin story. The question of why someone like her would work at Torchwood is utterly straightforward. But a closer look at Tosh’s origin story reveals that, in fact, she still doesn’t have one. She is an object, not a subject, at every stage. Her initial actions are because she has being extorted by criminals who have kidnapped her mother. She is locked away for life, and essentially purchased as an indentured servant by Jack. At no point anywhere in her story does she make anything that could be mistaken for a free choice. And even within her story the horror and degradation she suffers is outshone by the shock of seeing UNIT recast as Guantanamo Bay. There is no Tosh to be found anywhere in this origin. Indeed, there never was any Tosh. There was just an actress explaining the plot of twenty-five episodes of television while staring at a computer screen.
What is perhaps most interesting about Ianto is that he is the only one who is never given any sort of characterization outside of Torchwood. The knowledge that one of his primary motivations in joining Torchwood is his half-converted girlfriend hangs over everything in this episode. It’s alluded to in passing in places – most notably when Ianto suggests that he salvaged things from Canary Warf. But the audience, or at least a savvy audience, is expected to read between the lines.
Still, it’s necessary for the character to make any sense. Absent that, Ianto has no visible reason to join Torchwood, nor indeed any visible character traits. He is simply a guy wanting to join Torchwood. Nor, tellingly, does the show ever really give a reason why Jack would change his mind. Ianto starts by helping Jack deal with a Weevil, and ends by helping him catch the team pterodactyl, He’s helpful in both cases, and there’s no real shift in his character that would explain why the previously reluctant Jack would reverse course.
The closest thing to an explanation is Jack’s attraction to Ianto – the fact that the pterodactyl chase doubles as a seduction. The implication is that Jack hires Ianto because he fancies him. But this is a change to Ianto’s origins. The Ianto/Jack romance was teased in an online short during the first season, but it mainly belongs to this season. By moving the seeds of the relationship to the very beginning of Ianto’s career at Torchwood Three the story fundamentally shifts. The result of this is that Lisa largely drops out of Ianto’s narrative. Ianto becomes defined purely by his attraction to Jack.
And yet underneath all of this Ianto remains the most straightforwardly human of the preexisting Torchwood staff. This is clear back in Adrift, where it’s Ianto who overrules Jack and reveals the existence of the facility to Gwen. Ianto is the character who is grounded in humanity and human experience, and yet, ironically, he’s the character who least exists outside the confines of Torchwood itself. It’s at once entirely clear why he’s allowed to survive the season and why he cannot make it out of the next one alive.
Ultimately, for all his humanity, Ianto was never designed as a character. He survived his death storyline in the first season and got a new love interest in the second. But he’s always been tied to someone else’s narrative, and kept from having his own. He exists purely for these purposes, lacking any identity of his own. He is anonymous, fit only for his own tragic end.
What are we to make of Owen? Earlier in the season, under the deformation of Adam, Owen became a shy, awkward man unable to express his attraction to Tosh, who gained the confidence Owen lacked. And yet now we see an origin for Owen in which, even absent Torchwood, he’s stubborn, angry, and not someone it is easy to see how would, under any circumstances, become the sort of person he does in Adam.
Of the four characters who are defined in this episode it is in many ways Owen who needs that definition the most. Everything about Owen seems to hinge on some tragic past that has jaded and broken him. And yet the nature of that past has been obscure. The explanation given here – a fiancee who is killed by an alien parasite – works well enough. But as with the other characters, this amounts to an origin story. Indeed, it follows the beats of a standard superhero origin story. Owen undergoes a great personal trauma and out of the trauma gains, if not superpowers, at least a new gig fighting aliens. Structurally, it’s act one of every generic superhero movie ever.
What’s puzzling comes at the end of the sequence, where Owen has a brief monologue about wanting to save a life to justify himself, and about never being able to save enough. Aside from its odd dissonance with the rest of the scene – surely after his failure to save his fiancee’s life the concern isn’t so much saving enough as saving “the one that matters” or some line like that – this is an interesting moment. For one thing, unlike the entire rest of the origin, it does harken back to Adam and it’s surprisingly good, if overcooked moment of Owen meekly asking who will save him.
But under all of this Owen as a character disappears, fizzing away into nothing more than Burn Gorman’s performance. There’s nothing underlying this character – merely a vague explanation that is ultimately disconnected from anything. His origin doesn’t explain anything – it’s merely a diffuse trope plugged into his narrative in order to say “there is something here.” In this regard it’s oddly fractal – the narrative equivalent of what Torchwood has been on television all season.
And yet there’s something unresolved here – some sense that Owen could have been so much more. Instead he is a character with an explanation that explains nothing, cast into a plot role in which he’s expected to do something that is never quite defined consistently. He is always meant to irritate the narrative – to exert some sort of conflicting pressure. But as the show flops around uncertainly so does is role within it. The inexhaustible hunger to save people expressed at the end is almost perfect, save for the subject matter. It is not that he can or cannot save enough lives. It is that he can never manage to have one of his own.