|What do you mean I have to take the battery out to swap|
It’s October 29th, 2006. McFly are at number one with “Star Girl,” with Beyonce, Razorlight, and Amy Winehouse also charting. In news, George W. Bush signs into law a bill ordering the construction of a fence on the US/Mexico border, and severe wildfires caused by arson rage in California. On television, meanwhile, Torchwood airs its third episode, Ghost Machine.
With Ghost Machine we see Torchwood finally starting to show off its range, moving beyond the straightforward focus on alien presence and into other genres. This is not a surprise as such – Doctor Who, after all, has long used science fiction to do more than traditional sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, it’s another step in the process of Torchwood mirroring the 2005 season of Doctor Who and using each of its early episodes to stake an entirely new claim for what the series can be. Having established itself as the sexy X-Files, Torchwood calmly (and thoroughly in line with how The X-Files actually worked, as distinct from the usual memory of The X-Files in which the day-to-day is completely overshadowed by the godforsaken mytharc) moves on to doing a ghost story in which the eponymous piece of alien technology is little more than a MacGuffin to set up the real plot, a fairly classic ghost story of long forgotten crimes.
Ghost Machine is, however, a thorough oddity. Structurally speaking, it’s bizarre – the first twelve minutes focus entirely on investigating the alien artifact, not on what turns out to be the story’s real plot, the unsolved murder of Lizzie Lewis. Even after that Lizzie Lewis’s plot, if you’ll pardon the choice of a word that tips my hand a bit, haunts the narrative, slowly exerting its influence. This is interesting, because in most regards this is bog standard “and now for the supporting cast” material – having done two episodes setting up Gwen, we now expect that we’ll see focus episodes on Ianto, Tosh, and Owen. (This actually gets quietly subverted with the fifth and sixth episodes, which hold off from focusing on Tosh. If this weren’t delaying the other female character, it would be easier to be happy about that.) And sure enough, Ghost Machine expands Owen’s character considerably.
On one level this is necessary, as Owen is by miles the least sympathetic character on the team at first. This isn’t just because of the fact that the first episode sets him up as a rapist – that is bad, but it’s fairly obvious by this point that Russell T Davies was not actually trying to make Owen that unsympathetic and evil. At this point the “obviously not what the writer’s intent was” defense used for Mark Gatiss in The Unquiet Dead applies, though in this case the blindness involved in missing the fact that you’re having one of your male leads become a rapist really does deserve serious condemnation. It really is the single worst thing Russell T Davies has ever written.
Nevertheless, to use the fact that Everything Changes fucks up massively in this regard to treat Owen as a character who can never again be sympathized with is a flawed reading. On aggregate Owen is clearly not meant to be the sort of character who rapes people, and holding every subsequent story accountable for Davies’s colossal screw-up accomplishes nothing save for misreading twenty-five episodes of Torchwood. Owen is not a real person, but a collection of narrative signifiers, one of which is a misfired bit of sci-fi rape. To treat the sci-fi rape as one would treat an actual sex crime committed by an actual person is to fall afoul of Gayatri Spivak’s maxim that novels are not gossip about imaginary people. (Indeed, this is a prime example of why that maxim is so important, as absent that maxim you’re stuck aggressively rewriting about twenty-six hours worth of television because of a poor decision in about two minutes of television.)
Which is to say that Owen’s sci-fi rape is part of a pattern of behavior in the first two episodes designed to mark Owen as the asshole. The error on Davies’s part is not to miss that Owen’s sci-fi rape is bad, but rather to treat it as “asshole” level bad instead of “oh my fucking god what the hell is wrong with you, you fucking monster” bad. The overall read of Owen over the first two episodes is firmly as “the asshole one.” And when the sci-fi rape is taken in context with all of this it is clearly a misfired bit of characterization that is meant to contribute to that larger implication. Here it’s notable that Owen adopts the exact same moral position Gwen did last episode – that everybody around him is absolutely bonkers for focusing on a mystery involving some aliens when there’s a human dimension. Most of Torchwood wants to solve a mystery about a little handheld widget, whereas Owen wants to avenge a brutal murder.
The result is that we understand Owen as Gwen after she’s been burnt out by the job. This is an important character shift, and quickly justifies his utility as a character. He goes from being the most easy-to-hate character on the show to being as fascinating as the two leads. That, in and of itself, is an impressive job of a character spotlight episode. But what’s interesting given this is the extent to which the episode doesn’t focus on Owen, including having its primary resolution be about Gwen. Owen’s emotional arc takes place within the episode, off on the edges of it, as Gwen’s story still dominates. This has fascinating effect – Owen’s emotional journey becomes just another form of strangeness lying alongside Gwen’s seemingly ordered, normal world.
Here also Gwen’s world starts to be overtly reinterpreted through Torchwood as the Ghost Machine also provides flashbacks to her pre-Torchwood relationship with Rhys. There’s an interesting effect here – one doesn’t get the sense that any strain on their relationship is coming from Torchwood (the organization) as such – the sense really is that her job as a policewoman was already intense enough to put a strain on their relationship. Nevertheless, it is Torchwood (the show) in which this strained relationship happens. Again, Torchwood is not simply about some sort of double life, but rather about the strange spaces that surround Gwen’s and, metaphorically, our existing lives. Owen’s confrontations with Ed Morgan and the ghost of Lizzie Lewis happen on the outskirts of her life, a B-plot in an episode that is still framed around her actions and her life.
This is an extremely intricate structure, and this is something Torchwood does not get nearly enough credit for. Its plotting is every bit as complex as Doctor Who’s – any one of these first three episodes could have been subject to the same level of analysis as Rose, and it is more that they’re not quite narratively worth it that is why we haven’t really done that. In the end, this episode seems a good place to just flag our overall conception of Torchwood down. Let us assume a baseline of being someone who, like me, considers the whole of the new series to be basically high quality television. Whatever my personal preferences on an episode-by-episode basis are, I broadly consider the new series of Doctor Who to be a a well-made piece of television that, based on its quality and cultural impact, deserves to be talked about in the same context as other high-profile contemporary television such as The Sopranos, Luther, Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, et cetera. Not all of which are shows I watch, and some of which are shows I’ve tried and not enjoyed. This is, of course, the answer to a purely technical question – how good is Doctor Who?
How much I enjoy Doctor Who is a separate matter. It, for lack of a better word, energizes me more than other television. This is necessary. I couldn’t sustain this blog if it didn’t. I get stick occasionally for being an apologist for either the Davies or Moffat eras, or for my insufficient love of the Pertwee era. But, you know, there’s not much I can do. The basic momentum and desire to write this much about Doctor Who necessitates that I’m the sort of person who loves most of it. You can’t have a critical project this long that isn’t borne out of love, or at least, not one that won’t be terribly unhealthy for the writer. Both of these factors are, of course, important to criticism, especially criticism of the sort we do here. (And here I switch to the inclusive, because TARDIS Eruditorum is, in part, the community in the comments who play alongside the blog and form a vocal dialogue around my writing.) A show must both be well-made enough and energizing enough to a sufficient number of people to sustain criticism. Doctor Who is very good on both fronts, hence millions of people watching it and a very active and engaged fanbase.
Torchwood is not quite as good. It’s basically as well-made as Doctor Who, but it doesn’t quite energize people on the same level. It’s just not quite as good. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a reasonably interesting and engaging show; it is. It’s as well-made. It just lacks the same spark. A result of this is that it never quite gets to the soaring impact of something like Doomsday or The Girl in the Fireplace. Its high points simply are not quite as high as Doctor Who’s, or, at least, not on a regular enough basis. Nevertheless, it is interesting and complex. The schema of parallel worlds – in the sense of worlds running in parallel, not in the conventional sci-fi sense – is thorough in the show, and the show is constructed around it. This is a show about the strangeness of the mundane; not merely the strangeness of the planet, but the strangeness of our day-to-day lives of work and sleep. It pursues that theme with skill. It’s just that this theme is not quite as exciting as those explored by Doctor Who. It’s in general the Peter Davison era to Doctor Who’s Hinchcliffe era, or, on a micro level, the Masque of Mandragora to its Brain of Morbius.
Which is to say that there are regularly moments of brilliant television, flitting about the well-produced ephemera. The sequence of Gwen learning to shoot a gun is fascinating. On the one hand it’s pure fantasy secret-agent world – she instantly goes from having never fired one because she’s just a Welsh beat cop to being a superhuman killing machine capable of having a badass sci-fi gunfight. This is not actually a possible increase in skill. She goes from being a quasi-realist character to being a Torchwood secret agent heroine. Another, more cynical (but very much deliberate) way to put this is that she actively becomes a sex object over the course of the scene, going from a realistic woman to an Emma Peel descendent in the course of a montage in which she grinds against Captain Jack a bunch.
On the other hand, however, the gun remains present and physical through all of this. The fact that most of the British audience (unlike the American one that this is in no way being made for, even as it is in part being made about) of this show has never handled a gun is made tangible here. Gwen is in a cop-worship hero show like CSI or NCIS (or, in British television and with a bit more angst, MI-5) only with space aliens. But she’s still a beat cop in Cardiff, or at least, she was. She’s a middle class Rose Tyler, put into a different show than Doctor Who, and the show has the sheer thoughtfulness to show her encountering guns for the first time, instead of just smoothly reinventing her as an action hero instead of as a person.
This is the sort of thing Torchwood exists to do. This is the thing that justifies it over a dozen similar shows, making it that little bit better. Even if it only does it in fleeting glimpses, this is what makes the show remarkable and worth talking about. It is these moments of magical realism, in which we see moments of the human in the epic, and of the epic in the human. The existence of the gun scene, or of Owen quietly having a terribly well-acted emotional arc in the background (Burn Gorman is absolutely phenomenal in this part, incidentally – as an actor he’s capable of stealing scenes from John Barrowman if he wants to, though he knows his place in the show’s pecking order and chooses not to, playing Owen as the secondary character he’s written as even as he gives him a television performance the caliber of Idris Elba or Bryan Cranston. There’s a top quality show in him if someone can crack the alchemy of writing a lead character for him) are what make those quiet scenes of Rhys and Gwen’s past reanimated as ghosts, explicitly equated with the dead, so poignant.
There’s a troubling tendency in television to treat the epic as the enemy of the mundane. Nobody on NCIS ever goes home to their wives and has an ordinary life. The job consumes their humanity. This is true on a consistent level, which is part of why the standard issue male action hero is almost fundamentally hostile to feminism. Shows of the sort Captain Jack hale from are not the sorts of shows that those of us with ordinary lives get to play in. That doesn’t get to be our world. And part of Torchwood’s point is to refute that – to give us an ordinary person who’s job is to be in that sort of show. So we see her boyfriend and then husband on a regular basis – someone who does not belong in that world. But more to the point, we get a basically realist portrayal of a relationship. Gwen and Rhys feel honest, and like an imitation of the real phenomenon of love, not the stupid action hero movie one.
And then that gets paired with Torchwood’s borrowing of Doctor Who’s ability to get to any genre it pleases. So we have a classic ghost story of revenge and tragedy, and a quite realist portrayal of a relationship gets swallowed up in that, rewriting our everyday lives as the fuel of ghost stories and revenge tragedies. Torchwood, when it gets everything right, sings epic poetry of our everyday lives.