It’s… still February 13th, 2008. Torchwood has rejiggered its schedule slightly, showing next week’s Torchwood a week early on BBC Three immediately following the BBC Two broadcast. This has an interesting effect, as it moves the first airing of the show away from its main airing. Torchwood is still treated as a BBC Two show. But it now has a “for the fans” transmission a week early. It, in effect, makes Torchwood the opposite of event television.
Which is funny, because Reset is, in practice, an event episode. First and foremost, of course, is its ending, which features the shock death of Owen Harper. Although the contours of this are questionable since, again, once this goes out on BBC Two it’s immediately resolved by “Dead Man Walking” showing on BBC Three. (This seems to have basically worked, in fact – 849k of the 3.8m people who watched Adam tuned into Reset on BBC Three. The next week, one million of Reset’s 3.2m viewers went for Dead Man Walking. The total ratings, however, remained about level, making this a curious experiment.) But the other big event is that this is the first of three Torchwood episodes in which Martha Jones makes a guest appearance.
Bringing Martha Jones back is tricky business, to say the least. She has to be brought back, of course. The world of the new series forces that on you. Because companions never really leave and we get them bound into their home lives, returning them to their home lives isn’t a departure. This isn’t a complaint, though it does force a sort of ludicrous escalation of stakes on companion departure episodes as writers try to find bold new ways of stranding someone so that the Doctor can never see them again. The move towards companions who have lives outside the TARDIS is, on balance, a good thing, in that it allows companions who are more than just plot functions. Even the classic series had basically moved to that by the end, with Ace’s disconnection from her life on Earth becoming a factor of Ace actively wanting to get away fro her life, as opposed to just an incidental and unacknowledged fact.
This really is important. Because plot-wise, the companion’s job is fairly straightforward. They’re supposed to act in a particular way within the narrative. In that regard they’re fairly interchangeable. Most basic plots would work with any companion. Nothing about what Jo Grant does is that noticeably different from what Mel or Rose or even Romana would do in a similar situation. Yes, the flavor of it would change – the dialogue changes, and some of the mechanisms by which characters accomplish things change, but the basic shape they fill in a plot is the same. Which leads to a sort of diminishing returns – all you can do with them is switch the iconography around. A knife-wielding savage! A bossy Australian stewardess! Bonnie Langford!
By giving companions lives outside the TARDIS you get the ability to do different sorts of stories – ones in which who the companions are matters. Army of Ghosts/Doomsday plays out the way it does entirely because it’s Rose Tyler in the TARDIS. The story would have an entirely different shape with Martha. This is an improvement – it widens the toolbox of what Doctor Who can do, while not taking away the ability to do anything. But it means that Martha, the one companion who voluntarily departed and is still alive and on a planet the Doctor routinely visits during the time she’s alive, something trickier. You have to come up with a post-Doctor life for Martha.
The problem, ironically, is that everything we’ve just said about how filling in a companion’s backstory and tying them to home is an improvement is rubbish for Martha, who is actually designed entirely in terms of her function on the TARDIS. Martha is not-Rose. This is ultimately handled very well within Doctor Who, with the fact that the Doctor and series defined her as Rose’s replacement being held up and consciously critiqued, thus clearing the way for future companions to be themselves. But it means that Martha has no function as such outside the context of Season Three.
So what we have here is a muddle. The one companion who doesn’t make any sense outside of the TARDIS is the one who has to appear post-TARDIS. And that’s what Reset is stuck handling. And so we see Martha Jones revert to a fairly generic professional woman. She’s a capable Doctor. That’s all there is to her. Even the portion of the story that tries to give her more status than that ultimately falters. Jack builds her up as super-capable, and justifiably so given her single-handed defeat of the Master. And yet in the end she’s captured, tied up, has her bodily autonomy violated, and requires rescue from a man. Literally any Doctor Who companion to have been left on Earth would have been capable of this plot. The only reason to pick Freema Agyeman over Jackie Lane is that Agyeman, at twenty-eight, fits Torchwood’s “young and sexy” aesthetic.
But Martha’s presence in the narrative causes a pile of headaches for Torchwood itself. Every character other than Jack shuts down this episode, becoming good only for some comedy bits. Gwen and Ianto get lovely scenes with Martha, but they get them as guest stars in the Martha Jones show. The problem is the same one that plagued Cyberwoman; Torchwood is the junior show in terms of Doctor Who, and so when Doctor Who shows up on Torchwood it crowds it out.
So what we get in Reset is a neutered Martha Jones who nevertheless overshadows everything about Torchwood except its main character. So much so that the only way Torchwood can reassert itself as a series is to do a sudden character death at the end of the episode. We’ll deal with the largely puzzling fallout of Owen’s non-death over the next few episodes, but at least in terms of this episode what jumps out is the degree to which the episode would be unsatisfying without it. It’s only the fact that the show pulls a huge and series-changing plot twist out in the final moments that makes Reset have any substance. Take away Owen’s death and you have an episode of Torchwood in which the entire team is marginalized in favor a guest star from another show.
And yet it works better and is more interesting than most of what we’ve had this season. But the reason here is terribly depressing. It’s not that Reset is any more interesting than what’s come before on Torchwood. It feels as though it was assembled by committee. Torchwood hasn’t done a miracle drug story yet. And it’s not done alien parasites yet. So check those two boxes off and go. Get a semi-big name guest star as the villain (that guy from The O.C. will do perfectly) and you’re off to the races.
The actual story here is as banal as what’s come before. There’s nothing new here – skepticism of miracle cures and condemnation of shoddy medical ethics are ancient tropes. There’s no insights offered here. Indeed, the story is mostly a bunch of unconsidered moral hedges. In the end it’s not even a story about miracle cures and medical ethics – it’s a banal utilitarianism vs Kantianism debate. Is it acceptable to kill people to save more people? The answer, of course, is that it depends on whether it’s the hero doing it or the villain. When it’s Jack sacrificing Tommy it’s OK. When it’s Dr. Copley sacrificing test subjects it’s not. This is the sort of stuff Lawrence Miles was savaging back in Interference, pointing out that television ethics are really just aesthetics.
And there really isn’t any reason this has to be true. If you can’t find moral obscenities in the medical industry, you’re just not looking. Tregenna pulled off something much more effective last week with Meat by actually paralleling things that happen in the food industry. But here we get a fake moral debate. One gets the sense that somewhere along the line it came from a real image – probably the disastrous trial of TGN1412 that took place in London in 2006, in which six subjects were administered a drug and had severe reactions, including one whose head swelled massively. But there’s no sense of detail to this beyond “man, sometimes experimental drugs do horrible things.” And there are, frankly, just so many better reasons to critique the medical industry. Something that weds a pantomime moral dilemma to one particular moment of horror is just flaccid. I mean, I’m not going to derail this post with a lengthy exploration of the many horrors of the medical industry, but surely something less cartoonish than a drug company that has its own hitman to cover up the death toll of its clinical trials is possible. Something with at least a little bite?
And this is the real problem. There’s no content. There’s no impact. This is just empty recitations of televisual imitations of moral dilemmas, carefully insulated from the possibility that they might matter. The only thing that makes it work is… Martha Jones. Because Freema Agyeman is pretty and charismatic, and fun to watch. It works because there’s a satisfying double act on the screen between her and Jack, and watching a good double act in a pacey action-adventure plot is fun. But ultimately, the story runs smack into the problem that it’s only interesting because it’s a spin-off of Doctor Who. If you take the connection to Doctor Who away, everything falls away and this becomes merely baseline-competent action-adventure with a fun double act in the lead. Which is watchable, certainly. It serves a purpose and is credibly entertaining. That’s enough, certainly. But it still doesn’t make it interesting.