|Not so much bovvered as… dead, really.|
It’s December 10th, 2006. Booty Luv’s “Boogie 2nite” has slipped into a newly formed gap between Take That and “Smack That.” Gwen Stefani, Lazy Town, and Jamelia also chart. In news, Joseph Kabila is inaugurated as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kevin Rudd becomes leader of the Australian Labor Party, and Robert Gates is confirmed as United States Secretary of Defense. Also, Igor Smirnov wins the presidential election in Transnistria, also known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, which is generally considered not to be a country so much as a particularly ornery region of Moldova.
Random Shoes, on the other hand, is something of the forgotten man of the first season of Torchwood. Called Invisible Eugene until two weeks before it aired, and in fact still listed as that in the Radio Times, this is, quite frankly, the bit of the season where it becomes aggressively, painfully obvious that Torchwood proved a little too much to manage alongside Doctor Who and that things got dropped. It’s an astonishingly sloppily done episode.
Somewhere in here there’s a good idea. Doing Love and Monsters for Torchwood may or may not have actually been it, but even that feels at least vaguely admirable. Love and Monsters was, in many ways, the gem of Season Two, and an approach worth exploring again. But Torchwood is an odd venue for it. Love and Monsters is ultimately one of the most optimistic statements of Davies’s basically hedonistic theme. This theme is present in Torchwood – it’s reiterated in its darker way in They Keep Killing Suzie via Suzie’s “This is. Driving through the dark. All this stupid, tiny stuff” line. Indeed, it’s central to Torchwood, with its myriad of wondrous spaces alongside ordinary life pitched against the absolute oblivion of death. But Torchwood takes a rather darker view than Love and Monsters, to say the least, and the Love and Monsters approach doesn’t port over.
Mind you, Random Shoes basically gets that right by realizing that Eugene, unlike Elton, has to actually die at the end. The problem is that this happens a week after They Keep Killing Suzie, and thus the ascent into the heavens in a blaze of white light with a halo is… metaphysically incongruent, to say the least. A more thorough and accurate assessment would be that it plunges headlong into the bathetic – which, actually, the whole thing does starting roughly with when Eugene’s father breaks out into “Danny Boy” at the funeral. The result is a completely miscued ending that attempts to pull off a darker and more cynical ending than Love and Monsters and ends up with what is arguably the Russell T Davies era’s second most stunning moment of shooting for camp and ending up in “what the holy hell am I even watching.”
This is a big problem, though honestly, mucking up the ending after a good buildup is less of a problem than it might sound. There’s lots to really like about Random Shoes. The betrayal of Eugene by his two friends is a wonderful story beat, and one that suddenly explains why redoing Love and Monsters on Torchwood makes sense, which is that you can look at the isolation instead of the community. Which is basically the theme of Random Shoes – it’s about the state of loneliness and banality that LINDA rescued Elton from. It’s about someone who can’t move past their early-life tragedy, and who can’t build a life – someone who’s stuck and alone. Someone whose best friends will try to cheat him out of fifteen thousand pounds, who gets killed in a stupid bit of bad luck the moment he’s about to change anything about his life. There’s a delicious small tragedy to it.
And in this regard, Gwen is perfectly suited to the story. The basic image of Gwen being haunted by Eugene’s life is a lovely one, and while Eugene’s “climb into bed with you without you knowing it” antics are rather creepier than anyone intended them to be, the basic on-screen dynamic that drives this episode forward works. Eve Myles is asked to shoulder a huge amount of this episode, and while she’s not good enough to save it, she’s very solid as someone who’s been drawn into someone else’s life and is trying to understand it as much so she can understand why she cares as anything.
But there are so many problems. The plot’s shambolic – its beginning relies on Eugene being known to Torchwood as a nuisance so that they can be called out to look at it in the first place. But we have to somehow believe that he’s known to Torchwood as a crank but that he never once went “hey by the way I have an alien eye, would you like a look at it” to them. A key moment in the middle depends on Jack casually going “oh, this kind of alien eye” at the very mention of an alien eye, which results in the most awkward exposition of the new series era. This is, on a very basic level, not very well put together television. You can get away with a sloppy ending if it at least pays off a solid buildup. You can get away with plot holes in your buildup if the ending feels right. But this is just shot through with ineptitude.
But the biggest problem it has, frankly, is that it flops on the subject of death the week after They Keep Killing Suzie. It just doesn’t work to tease “there’s something moving in the nothing that exists after death and it’s coming to eat Captain Jack” at the end of one episode and then have a happy ending about someone ascending to heaven in a blaze of white light. You’ve really got to pick one or the other. And everything else about Torchwood points towards the They Keep Killing Suzie approach, which makes the Random Shoes approach a bit of a non-starter here. When that’s combined with the sheer bathos of the ending, you get an episode that suddenly veers into disaster.
But to some extent the problem is simply that this sort of ending doesn’t work in Torchwood. Important to Random Shoes’s failure to quite work out is the fact that Torchwood has a very different relationship with camp to that of its parent show. Doctor Who can do camp because it starts from a position of frivolity. It can “go serious” when it needs to, but any move to camp is a return to form. This has the pleasant side effect of giving it a tremendous amount of protection against any given screwup of visual effects or tone; if it misses and ends up a bit camp a few times it wasn’t supposed to, it still ends up in the broad territory of what works for Doctor Who.
But Torchwood doesn’t default to camp. Captain Jack is camp, and occasionally we see glimpses of that fact, but for the most part Torchwood purports to be a serious show. It’s tempting to leave the discussion here and say that this is why Random Shoes’s descent into camp is so perilous and failed, but that’s not entirely accurate. Torchwood is tremendously camp – and not just because of Jack. At the end of the day, Torchwood is still a mad parody of a cop show, not a serious-minded show about fighting aliens. It still moves towards pastiche and parody – Countrycide being the most obvious example so far this season, although Day One and Greeks Bearing Gifts are both more than slightly aware that they’re a bit silly in places.
When Torchwood works best it’s because it’s possible to imagine a sincere reading of it, but the camp reading is still more fun. The camp reading is thus a subtext – a joke for people clued in enough to recognize it and to remember that Torchwood is Doctor Who that’s stayed up past its bedtime and will be in big trouble when its parents get home. This, however, is a terribly difficult balance to work out. Pitch the camp too hard and it becomes impossible to read the show as sincere. Pitch it too lightly and it just looks like a show that’s trying to be a serious drama and failing laughably. Worst of all, the line is in different places for different people, and so there’s no way to pitch it reliably at any given time.
This phenomenon is sufficient to explain why Torchwood goes off the rails for almost any given moment that you think it goes off the rails, pretty much regardless of whether anyone else thinks that particular moment is off the rails. Some episodes – Countrycide and Cyberwoman spring to mind, as, honestly, does this one – are off the rails to a particularly large number of people, but at the end of the day the problem with almost every flawed Torchwood episode is that it doesn’t quite manage the balance between seriousness and camp in the way that Torchwood tries to.
But there’s an interesting underlying question here, because in the end that suggests that camp and seriousness can only be combined in cases where camp is dominant. You can default to camp and reach for seriousness, but you cannot, it seems, default to seriousness and reach for camp. There is no obvious reason this should be true, or, at least, not one that inherently values seriousness over camp in a way that’s antithetical to Russell T Davies, if not to Doctor Who as a whole.
But this mostly seems like a reason to try doing it. And once again, after a lengthy discussion of where a given episode of Torchwood went terribly wrong, we’re forced to point out that the ratings were fine and that this got an AI figure consistent with the rest of the season. This remains, broadly speaking, popular. Suggesting that the problem is not actually an aspect of the series, but another instance of why this sort of critical engagement isn’t always helpful. The minute particulars of quality simply aren’t actually interesting to an awful lot of people, whereas Random Shoes itself seems to have been.
Which brings us back to the original good idea. It’s notable that this got a much better AI figure than Love and Monsters did. Part of that is surely that Love and Monsters was going for a larger audience, and that many of the sorts of people who would not like Love and Monsters simply didn’t tune in to Random Shoes. The story of a lonely man whose life intersects fruitlessly with Torchwood, and who is finally, in the last moment of his life, understood and accepted by everyone around him was, it seems, powerful.
The idea of an alien artifact that gives us clarity on the past and lets us understand what our lives were turns out to be a solid idea with interesting emotional resonances. And the fact that the plot was miscued doesn’t actually impact that. The point isn’t the metaphysical clash with They Keep Killing Suzie, but another reminder of the fact that human life is full of eccentric and wondrous spaces, and that individual lives and histories are themselves wondrous spaces. Where Eugene goes at the end of Random Shoes isn’t what the story’s about – him watching as Gwen slowly comes to understand him better, and, eventually, watching her understand him better than he understood himself is what the story is about. The story is actually over the moment Gwen calls Eugene’s father to tell him about his son’s death, and everything after that is just running out the clock. And that, at least, is a compelling story that Torchwood would be poorer for losing. This is another significant evolution and expansion of Torchwood’s system of eccentric spaces – a system that’s frankly big enough to contain multitudes. So some days death is a source of hope instead of despair, and some days things are a bit silly. The world’s weird enough to allow for that. Or, at least, Torchwood’s world is.