|Well that’s all a bit SHODAN.
It’s November 26th, 2006. “Smack That” has been unseated by Take That, with Emma Bunton, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, and Girls Aloud also charting. In news, Michael Richards has his racist meltdown at a comedy club, and Alexander Litvinenko died of polonium poisoning in London. Israel and Palestine declare a ceasefire over the Gaza Strip, and Augusto Pinochet accepts, in one of the greatest euphemistic hedges ever, “political” responsibility for everything that happened in Chile during his regime.
On television, meanwhile, we have Toby Whithouse’s second contribution to the world of Doctor Who, Greeks Bearing Gifts. Those who suspect Torchwood of largely being Joss Whedon’s Angel have their work cut out for them here. Technically the underlying plot here is actually nicked from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, specifically the third season episode “Earshot,” as Angel only ever did a demon who could read your thoughts if you were singing, but that’s largely beside the point: this is still the most Whedonesque episode of Torchwood to date.
The basic premise of either of Joss Whedon’s fantasy shows is that the horror is always a metaphor for something personal – in Buffy either for an aspect of high school, college, or early adulthood, in Angel, whatever puts it a few years ahead of Buffy at the time. In this model whatever supernatural goings-on there may be in an episode, the point is really for the supernatural to illustrate character development. Phrased this way, for all that the supernatural investigation team of five people, three male, two female, led by a mysterious immortal with a dark past is not actually the most original concept Russell T Davies has ever come up with, Torchwood can actually be seen as a reasonable advance of the Angel format, in that it moves from the comparatively narrow structure of the supernatural as a metaphor for individual experience and towards a story about the psychic relationships of various cultural spaces.
Greeks Bearing Gifts, on the other hand, is a perfectly competent episode of Angel with the Torchwood cast. Its central piece of supernatural technology, the mind-reading pendant, is strictly there to provide a metaphoric representation of Tosh’s isolation and awkwardness. Her ability to know what other people are thinking becomes a metaphoric contrast to her own social ineptitude and inability to express herself to her colleagues. This is not, prima facie, a bad approach – Buffy and Angel were great shows, and Tosh needed a focus episode, making this sort of approach a more tempting match than it might have been. We might also note that they hired Toby Whithouse for it, he having already written the Buffy homage School Reunion for Doctor Who this year.
But it feels slender for a Torchwood episode. Interestingly, it’s not slender in the way of Cyberwoman or Countrycide, which had reasonably nuanced premises that were then wedded to high-octane action episodes. No, Greeks Bearing Gifts is slender conceptually, offering very little to talk about in its themes. It’s a fairly by-numbers character focus using one of the standard tropes for genre television of this sort. Heroes had an entire character built out of this plot line. If we expand it to the slightly larger sub-subgenre of “shy/unpopular supporting cast member is given a magic power that gives her social superiority” episodes in post-Buffy shows we… basically realize that this is a formula, competently executed.
Where it’s enlivened, it’s enlivened by Toby Whithouse, who is a particularly talented writer. He has a calm aptitude for structure combined with versatility of tone that make him well-suited to a variety of briefs. Here he increases the basic narrative velocity by bringing in a second old standard of “shows like this” (which are actually secretly all just the plots of 80s children’s television), the evil tempter. So Tosh runs through two standards, and we get to simultaneously see how Tosh is virtuous and pure and how she doesn’t need magic powers because she’s good enough as she is. Neither of these are even remotely creative themes (Whithouse is almost never good at this, actually), but that’s not a problem in and of itself. Toby Whithouse is the classic example of the one-trick pony who’s trick is good enough that it doesn’t matter. He always does these almost classically modernist “no ideas but in things” plots where the high concept central premise is a metaphor for some facet of the characters’ interior lives.
And where he’s good is what we might call thematic exposition – the bits of the story where characters are basically relied upon to explain the ideas that Whithouse has successfully put into things. In this case, the scene at the end in which Tosh and Gwen talk about what has happened is particularly strong. Whithouse handles Gwen and Owen’s affair in this episode deftly, relying on the fact that the audience is opposed to it to make Gwen dislikable for the entire runtime. This tacitly builds tension around Gwen – she’s played against type. The sort of show Torchwood is depends on each character having one or more default modes in which they are hyper-competent and sexy. Jack is the charismatic camp action hero and the brooding magical hero. Tosh is the geek. Owen is the cocksure brat with a heart of gold. Ianto is the tireless one. And Gwen is the moral center, or, if we want to revert to the 80s children’s television nomenclature that underlies all of this, the heart. These characters in these modes are presented as pleasurable, usually by having them be funny when in those modes. So the audience wants the characters to return to these default states.
So throughout Greeks Bearing Gifts Whithouse keeps Gwen dislikable, meaning that we want her to return to the role of moral center. All very neat and tidy. And when Tosh has to come to Gwen for forgiveness for what she’s done all episode, Gwen is teed up perfectly to return to being the moral center and give a theme exposition about the episode. But, of course, for her the episode has been wall-to-wall nastiness, and so her return to being the moral center isn’t a discussion of why what Tosh did was understandable (which is what, structurally, we should expect here), but instead a discussion of why Gwen has been so horrible all episode. Gwen reclaims the moral high ground through an autocritique, and becomes a considerably more interesting character for doing so. This fits in with a deftness all season in the managing of Gwen’s character. Her story arc is very sharply drawn, and while the things around it aren’t always, the meticulousness with which each story picks her up and puts her down in a slightly new place is admirable.
Now for the problem. With Tosh being sapphically tempted and Gwen being made into the man-crazy “bitch” for thematic reasons, this episode ends up with a kind of horrible portrayal of women, with bonus use of a host of really unfortunate stereotypes about lesbian relationships. We may as well start with the obvious – the fact that all of the female characters need Jack’s paternalistic ability to tell when something’s wrong with Tosh in order to sort them and their crazy out. Then we should point out that there’s a longstanding stereotype of lesbian relationships as psychologically destructive, and lesbians as particularly crazy and irrational. So the “Tosh goes kinda evil because she’s shagging a woman” plot is terribly unfortunate, and the fact that Jack’s ability to sort it out with his magic gay man empathy only exacerbates the degree to which this feels like a specimen in a longstanding tension between the gay male and lesbian communities that feels not entirely unlike good old-fashioned misogyny.
And, look, it’s a small thing. I don’t think it’s deliberate at all. I do think it’s genuine, which is different – that is, I think this actually is kind of a misogynistic story that reflects quite badly on Whithouse and Davies, and I’m disappointed that nobody caught it during production. But I don’t think it was written out of any sort of conscious malice or intent. I think it’s a classic exhibition of unconscious and ingrained prejudices. They’re prejudices that are ingrained in the show, with its dashing and all-knowing male lead and his sexy female sidekick. And look, that’s just as ingrained in Doctor Who as it stands, so take this complaint in light of that for context. And there’s an explanation for all of it – none of it needs misogyny to explain how it got into the episode. It’s the path of least resistance for making a story with this structure that says the things it needs to say about Tosh and Gwen. The problem isn’t so much what the story does as the things it doesn’t make the effort not to do. Particularly maddening, it’s not actually the last time we’re going to see Whithouse end up with lazy misogyny.
And if we want we can build a general critique of the Davies era here, which is at times awfully about how the magic touch of a gay man can fix a poor dumpy straight woman right up. (This becomes especially true if you opt to, as is perfectly reasonable, read the asexuality of the Doctor as making him a broadly “queer” character.) And, to be clear, I don’t think this is some catastrophe that requires rejecting the entire Davies era. It’s no more damning than the tiresome mute black strongman in The Evil of the Daleks or virtually everything in The Talons of Weng-Chiang. All of them are reactionary and unfortunate. We should know better. In thirty years we’ll look back on Greeks Bearing Gifts as having a facepalming moment of misogyny, much as we look back on The Mind Robber and think “god that’s a gratuitous ass shot.” We probably wont’ look at it as a classic in other ways in the way we do The Talons of Weng Chiang or The Evil of the Daleks, but I suspect we’ll look at it as basically competent television that was rather unfortunately sexist.
The problem of sexism is not helped by a particularly dire portrayal of Mary by Daniela Denby-Ashe, who decides to play the dangerous and manipulative woman with no subtle touches whatsoever, thus making the stereotype particularly garrish. Nor by the overly singular focus of the episode. Where Owen’s character focus episode kept Owen intriguingly out of frame, and Ianto’s distracted itself from Ianto with lots of stuff that went boom, Tosh’s story ends up overwhelmingly based around Tosh. With Gwen and Owen having to be unsympathetic sex addicts and Jack off the table because telepathy would screw up his whole “man of mystery” shtick, there’s nobody left for the episode to focus on but Tosh. That Tosh’s plot line is based primarily around weakly acted stereotype does more damage to the episode than a weak actor elsewhere might have. To borrow an idiom, it’s a particularly bad day to have a bad day. Had Mary been done as something other than the vagina dentata incarnate and, say, Ed Morgan back in Ghost Machine not been played so brilliantly by Gareth Thomas, the two episodes might have looked very different. (Ironically, of course, back on Doctor Who proper it’s Toby Whithouse who has several more well-regarded stories to his name, while Helen Raynor gets stuck as the go-to writer for the naff early-season monster two-parter.)
We’re stuck in the rut of reviewing again, obviously, as if the most interesting thing about Torchwood is the week-to-week quality of its episodes. But in many ways it is; that’s first season television for you. You can find a lot more shows with growing pains than not, especially with a relatively large first season, as thirteen episodes is. At this point Torchwood is in something of a holding pattern – it’s demonstrated an ability to turn out reasonably good television at a reasonable rate. This is sufficient to justify its existence. Nevertheless, it’s also painfully clear that there’s a show with vast potential here, waiting to spring into action. This, perhaps, also creates a certain slide towards reviewing – as with the Saward era and much of the wilderness years, this is one of those things that comes so painfully close to working that one is desperately curious about what went wrong. Inevitably, the actual answer disappoints – it’s some minor detail like a weak actress or an unfortunate implication of plot structure. But then, it’s fitting that the explanation for a slightly disappointing show should be slightly disappointing.