Outside the Government: Meat
It’s February 6th, 2008. Basshunter remains at number one, with Adele, Nickelback, Kelly Rowland, Britney Spears, Rihanna, and Hot Chip also charting. I put Hot Chip on the list mainly because it’s funny to end that list with “Hot Chip.” In news, several undersea cables are severed, disrupting Internet service through large parts of the world. Barack Obama acquires what is functionally an unassailable delegate lead following “Super Tuesday” such that Hillary Clinton has no meaningful chance of winning the nomination, ensuring a several month long nomination process.
While on television, we have the succinctly titled Meat. Meat is an interesting story in a large part because of its particular pairing of writer and story. Catherine Tregenna made her name in the first season of Torchwood with a pair of quiet character pieces, which happened to be two of the standout episodes of the season to boot. But with Meat she ends up with a more action-based premise – much more dashing around and solving crimes, and much less quiet focus on character. It’s not characterization-free by any measure, but it’s also not the quiet sort of story Tregenna’s previous work suggested.
In some ways this is a mistake, though not really one of Tregenna’s making. As with the previous time the brief included “let’s do the biggest Doctor Who monster ever,” insufficient thought was given to whether they could actually pull it off, leaving the story with a spectacularly unconvincing and rubbish monster as its centerpiece. This obscures the fact that Tregenna’s actual writing of an action/suspense thriller is actually quite solid, and that it’s merely sandbagged by having a lot of the key scenes take place in a giant warehouse dominated by a massive CGI slug that, accordingly, have to be shot from strange angles to cut down on the number of F/X shots, since Torchwood is the cheap show and doesn’t get many of those.
Nevertheless, Meat is a surprising story, especially coming off the heals of two stories that were terribly predictable and a third that was interesting along a narrow but substantive band. And it’s not interesting just for the decision to shake up the status quo and let Rhys in on the premise of his own show. Though this decision is interesting and worth talking about. These sorts of decisions are always a bit complex; on one level, it leads to the steady dismantling of the series’ original premises, and shows a small amount of desperation. In this regard it resembles major character deaths, not that Torchwood is ever going to do any of those. In any given premise there’s a set number of stories you can do that involve knocking down pillars of the premise. Doctor Who, for instance, could write any of its main characters out of the show, destroy the TARDIS, or reveal where the Doctor came from. All of which it did within the first six seasons before, somewhat sensibly, basically stopping and not doing any more of those save for The Deadly Assassin.
Likewise, in a show where a secret agent hasn’t told her boyfriend about her job, one of the obvious stories you eventually get is the story where he finds out. And so there’s a measure of caution to approach it with, just because resorting to it suggests a program that is at least partially out of ideas. On the other hand, it’s hard not to argue that it fundamentally improves Rhys’s character. When he was death bait in the first season him as a hapless dupe was one thing. But after having him find out about Torchwood twice and having him and Gwen get engaged it becomes difficult to sustain. Simply put, at some point Rhys becomes a cartoonish idiot instead of a workable character, at which point you might as well have killed him off.
Which makes this a brave decision, simply because it changes the overall landscape of Torchwood dramatically. Gwen is a fundamentally different character after this episode. Gwen’s relationship with both Jack and Owen is fundamentally different now. The show as a whole is fundamentally different. It’s not just a show about the interactions between eccentric spaces and the mundane world. For the first time since Gwen’s absolute earliest days Torchwood has a mechanism by which the ordinary world can pass judgment on the world of Torchwood. For all the storytelling challenges it introduces – and there are several – that’s significant and, indeed, dramatically brave. In that regard, at least, it does resemble Tregenna’s earlier work. But there are echoes of other writers in Meat that are worth exploring.
It’s an interesting fact that Andrew Cartmel had a pitch in for Torchwood Series Two, which got bumped to Series Three before that structure of Torchwood was abandoned entirely and we got Children of Earth instead. Cartmel’s planned story was to be called The Jinx, and was to be a fairly comedic script involving Gwen being cursed such that terrible things happen to all the men around her. Warring Celtic goddesses who turn out to be aliens, Rhys nearly dying in a tragic washing machine accident, the usual sort of stuff.
Cartmel would have been an interesting fit for Torchwood, not least because of the irony of Cartmel rejecting a Davies script for Doctor Who in the 80s. But The Jinx is an odd fit for Cartmel, who one usually associates with a bit of political bomb-throwing mixed with a focus on character. Indeed, if you were to imagine an Andrew Cartmel script for Torchwood in a vacuum, you’d probably end up imagining some politicized parable, possibly about animal exploitation (a passion topic for Cartmel, hence Warlock), with a focus on character drama, probably Gwen, in particular, given Cartmel’s taste.
In other words, you’d be imagining Meat. The underlying theme, though, is pure David Whitaker – humans discover something new and abuse it for their own purposes. The plot, in other words, of The Rescue, Power of the Daleks, Evil of the Daleks, and The Ambassadors of Death. Whitaker and Cartmel are closer cousins than might be expected. Whitaker is not the social justice obsessive that Cartmel was. But his larger mixture of a sense of wonder at the universe with an angry pessimism at human frailty is tailor made for Doctor Who. In this regard Meat fits in a longstanding tradition within Doctor Who, framing those themes in one of the most real-world (and, in our modern world of horse burgers, prescient) concepts Torchwood has ever done. This is, broadly speaking, Torchwood that honors some of the greatest traditions within Doctor Who. And, more to the point, it hones them – the repeated defense that “it’s just meat” is, in many ways, one of the most shocking and grotesque examples of abusing the wondrous for profit imaginable. It’s a bracingly cruel portrayal of humanity – give them something magical, and they will literally treat it like a hunk of meat. Ouch.
There’s a slight niggle, however, or at least the appearance of one, which is that this comes perilously close to splitting the story into an A-plot and a B-plot, a contrivance Torchwood usually goes to (appreciated) lengths to avoid. Although the Gwen/Rhys dynamic and the alien meat plot are interrelated plots, there’s nothing thematically that ties them together. This goes against one of the basic strengths of Torchwood. It’s not a story about how the eccentric spaces throw light on our mundane world. It’s a story about a relationship that happens to feat a giant alien meat slug.
Whether this is a problem, of course, is largely a matter of personal preference. The lack of symbolic tidiness, however, does leave the story without quite enough time to explore both of its goals. An awful lot of the process of their working this out seems to go on off-screen, to the point where it feels a bit rushed. Gwen and Rhys get some lovely moments, though the “oh my God, aliens are real and now my horizons are broadened and I see the world in a new way” speech on Rhys’s part marks the point where the Davies era finally crashes into outright self-plagiarism. But it’s good stuff. In many ways its distance from the narrative itself helps it. Gwen and Rhys’s relationship is the barometer for normality in Torchwood – the great link to the mundane world that the show exists to comment upon. Hence Tosh’s comment that Gwen and Rhys give a form of hope to the rest of the team. Obviously Gwen coming clean about what Torchwood is can’t be done outside the context of alien mayhem, but equally, if Gwen and Rhys’s relationship troubles were actually solved by aliens in any sense, it would be absolutely awful.
And so it’s important that Gwen and Rhys solve their relationship problems on their own terms, in the human sphere. The alien has to be a backdrop to that, as opposed to the content. The arbitrary nature of the connection is part of the point; Rhys could have found out in any of the preceding sixteen episodes. (Indeed, he did. Twice.) Gwen and Rhys get a relationship (and later this season a marriage) that exists in a world of aliens and strangeness, but the relationship itself remains stubbornly and beautifully human.
More interestingly, there’s not a sense of complete resolution. Gwen is still keeping secrets from Rhys even as she reconciles with him and integrates Torchwood into her day-to-day life. She refuses to drug him, but there’s no sense that she’s told him she was considering it, or that Jack ordered her to. And that makes sense – the fragile trust between them would have a hard time surviving knowledge like that. Because that’s human interaction for you – a negotiation in which no shortage of stuff is politely hidden from other people’s view because knowing it won’t do them any good. Letting Rhys know about Torchwood doesn’t solve all the problems of their relationship. It just changes the specific shape of the problems.
But in its own way, this just highlights the larger problem facing Torchwood right now, which is that it makes a terribly unconvincing case for being a show of standalone episodes. So far this season the only times it has managed to be interesting are when it’s gone beyond being a monster-of-the-week show. You can see the logic that pushes it into the format it adopts for its latter two seasons here. Torchwood can be very good when it’s distorting and twisting its character’s lives into new shapes through encounters with the strange. It has a harder time when it’s just “sexy people fight aliens in Cardiff.”
And in that regard, this is where Meat does feel like Tregenna’s first season episodes. Neither of them were big “event” episodes. But they were quiet character pieces that took people to interesting places. Out of Time provided an arc for Owen that significantly changed our understanding of his character. Captain Jack Harkness was the only episode of the season to actually do anything at all with Jack as a character. Meat moves a little bit more towards event status, in that it’s not just about expanding characterization, but about making permanent changes to characters’ status quos. There’s no obligation for the series to treat Owen any different after Out of Time, and the fact that they writers do is to their credit. There’s actually no way that the show could pick up in Adam with Rhys not knowing about Torchwood. But the broad approach is there.
And this becomes, starting in 2009, the status quo for Torchwood. Tregenna herself is out after the next story, (which is an inexplicable pity – I’ve no idea why people who talk about how Moffat should hire female writers keep making pie in the sky wish lists topped by Jane Espenson instead of pointing out that Catherine Tregenna has worked on Doctor Who related stuff before and is brilliant. To his credit, Chris Chibnall had the good sense to poach her for six episodes of Law & Order: UK.) but her influence is real and genuine. Her stories come by far the closest to what the show eventually morphs into. In many ways, she understood it better than Russell T Davies initially did.
October 28, 2013 @ 5:46 am
Surely the thematic glue of this episode is that Gwen has gotten perilously close to treating Rhys as a piece of meat, as opposed to engaging in a real relationship. It's got that reversal of polarity, of course — Rhys is a gift of the ordinary world, not the wondrous space.
October 28, 2013 @ 6:51 am
" To his credit, Chris Chibnall had the good sense to poach her for six episodes of Law & Order: UK."
Which if you like that sort of show is an absolute treat. Fantastic work. We would be lucky to get her on Doctor Who proper.
I don't know why but something about this episode deeply unsettles me. I can't watch it and get a good night of sleep afterwards. There is just some quality that puts me out of myself. I think it's the idea of the creature being tortured and brutalized so unknowingly. That we can drain away the wonder from the universe. The idea that there might be something wrong with humanity on a fundamental level is disconcerting.
October 28, 2013 @ 8:24 am
That we can drain away the wonder from the universe. The idea that there might be something wrong with humanity on a fundamental level is disconcerting.
Given how much SF uses the idea of wondrous spaces to tell stories about how much better and more special we are than anything not like us, you may be onto something here…
October 28, 2013 @ 9:26 am
This is actually the first episode of series 2 I remember beyond (at most) a soundbite summary: (1) two rogue time agents kiss and fight; (2) some woman is an alien agent without knowing it; (3) er, no, got nothing (though to be fair I recalled enjoying it more than the first two once your post reminded me what it was about). I thought at the time that Meat was a step up. A horrible step, but a step nonetheless.
Hm, I really need to find time to rewatch these!
October 28, 2013 @ 7:34 pm
Horrible people have always done horrible things. What makes this episode unsettling to me is the fact that apparently lots of people had been unwittingly eating from a sentient alien life form with God knows what side effects. It's like Countrycide, except the cannibal villagers maintained a butcher shop in London where they passed their kills on to unsuspecting customers.
October 28, 2013 @ 7:40 pm
The thing that amazes me the most about this episode is the absolute dearth of Jack/Rhys slash fiction that resulted from it. I DID find it somewhat arousing when Rhys got into Jack's face and revealed that he had already infiltrated the bad guys. In that one scene, Rhys and Jack seemed to have better chemistry than Jack and Llanto did in all three of their shared seasons.
And I think the best move the series made was allowing Rhys to know about Torchwood without really being a part of it. It injected a human element that had been completely lacking, just as all the Powell Estate "domestic" drama made Doctor Who more human than it had ever been before. Frankly, I wish every cast member had had someone at home so that their characters could be more well-rounded and less "I work at Torchwood so I'm a detached weirdo."
October 28, 2013 @ 8:13 pm
This episode has a certain affinity with "The Beast Below."
October 29, 2013 @ 6:20 am
It's not horrible people do horrible things that I worry about; it's that there might be an innate quality to humanity that makes the wondrous and magical become lessened and diminished.
November 24, 2014 @ 1:30 pm
"I’ve no idea why people who talk about how Moffat should hire female writers keep making pie in the sky wish lists topped by Jane Espenson instead of pointing out that Catherine Tregenna has worked on Doctor Who related stuff before and is brilliant."