|Dance Magic Dance, O Human Child…
It’s November 12th, 2006. Westlife are at number one with “The Rose,” with U2 & Green Day, Beyonce, Girls Aloud, and Madonna also charting. In news, Democrats regain control of the House and Senate for the first time since 1994, and three men are convicted of racially motivated murder in the 2004 death of Kriss Donald in Glasgow, a case notable because Donald was white and his killers were of Pakistani descent.
A reminder, then, that the question of alien worlds and wondrous others contains an at times brutal dimension. This is always the unsettling possibility of the “other world.” What if it simply does not want us? What if we are wholly extraneous to its wonders, the relationship completely one-sided? What if we are just raw matter, like trees or meat, granted no value save what we can be transformed into? This is the horror at the heart of Sapphire and Steel, a show whose cosmology was deliberately incomprehensible so that all that could be interpreted was the basic fact of something scary and the outline of its narrative rules.
It’s difficult to think of any decision taken in setting up the first season of Torchwood quite as sound as getting Peter J. Hammond to contribute an episode. Still an active television writer, but mostly better known for his crime and mystery output (he contributed two episodes of Midsomer Murders the same year as this), Torchwood was the perfect fit for him – the shell of a cop show wrapped around the supernatural horror he used to write to such effect. True to form, he strips the underlying metaphor of Torchwood down to one of its most basic forms – the cultural original of the “wondrous space alongside the mundane one,” namely the Land of Fairy.
The value of using the basic form is that much of the narrative is pre-existing. As long as nothing is inconsistent with the basic high concept tagline of “evil fairies” the story can hang together without much explanation – which is basically the trick Sapphire and Steel used. This means that the fairies do not have to be evil fairies in any sort of conscious or motivated sense. It’s sufficient that they look like they belong to the broad category of evil fairies. In practice what we have is something far more unnerving – indifferent fairies. Fairies who simply do not care about us or our world, and who are best understood as features of nature, not as an “other civilization.”
So the fairies are presented as creatures from the dawn of time – as an unfathomable order of things that only Jack can truly understand, and that only because of the weird span of his life. Even given this his understanding is choppy – it consists mainly of having been alive enough to have had his world intersect the Land of Fairy before. Jack’s description of them is at once evocative and vague: “something you can only half see like a glimpse, like something out of the corner of your eye with a touch of myth, a touch of the spirit world, a touch of reality, all jumbled together. Old moments and memories that are frozen in amongst it. Like debris spinning around a ringed planet – tossing, turning, whirling. Then backwards and forwards through time.” All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life.
If the fairies are unfathomable, they are not, of course, unfamiliar. That’s the point. Fairies are old European folklore, and the image of them as a hidden world laid alongside our world is a specifically Celtic invention. The Welsh form of fairies specifically is the Tylwyth Teg, who are a fairly standard set of frolicking child-creatures who steal human children and replace them with changelings. This is, of course, echoed within the story through its use of Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” throughout the episode, a reference Davies used previously in both Springhill and Damaged Goods. But to limit this imagery to fairies alone misses the point.
Zeroing back in on Welsh literature, the Mabinogion, which collects medieval Welsh folktales widely considered to date to the eleventh century, has several tropes that feel like the world of fairy without quite counting. The first of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi – the biggest and most famous part of the Mabinogion – opens with Pwyll, prince of Dyfed encountering Arawn, lord of Annwn, a magical realm that lies alongside our own much like classical Fairy, but without any sort of “cute playful children” imagery mucking it up. Instead, as in The Book of Taliesin, Annwn is described as containing creatures like “an animal with wide jaws, / On it there were a hundred heads. / And a battle was contested / Under the root of his tongue; / And another battle there is / In his occiput.”
This is not a terribly complex or controversial observation. The image of fairies and hidden spaces has a longstanding cultural role in Britain. And that cultural role has, fittingly, become that of old mythology – a pre-Christian tradition dating all the way back to a couple centuries after Wales was Christianized. Fairies become the unnerving implication of the old, the forgotten, and the dead. Which is interesting, because everybody knows that fairies are just for children’s stories.
It’s a fair question why, out of the thundering mass of “hidden worlds” mythology, it’s fairies – the ones with an overt connection with children – that have risen to the top in recent centuries. Why, in other words, is there not more interest in Annwn or Mag Mell or Avalon? It is telling that the Mabinogion was first collected in English by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. As centuries go the 19th is an interesting one, particularly for Torchwood, which is defined in contrast to two important 19th century concepts: childhood and empire.
Empire is, of course, the easy one – Torchwood is an imperial organization, at least in original concept. Torchwood Three is clearly pitted as a reaction against that, but thus far, at least, the terms of that reaction remain oblique at best. Still, the basic fantasy of empire remains – that it is somehow possible to meet the other and to have the other change to suit you instead of the other way around. Torchwood is about our attempts to hold onto ourselves as we encounter the strange worlds around us.
Childhood is the more difficult one. Childhood as we recognize it is a relatively recent invention – dating, in fact, to the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution shifted labor requirements sufficiently that the date at which children were required to work receded by several years. This meant that childhood came to be treated not just as a period in which a person learned the skills they would need for eventual labor, but rather a state of protected innocence that ought be preserved for its own sake. This idea went from being radical and visionary when Blake used it in the late 18th century as the basis of Songs of Innocence and of Experience to being completely commonplace in the 19th.
With it came a new sort of children’s literature in which childhood is treated as a playful period of exploration, adventure, and discovery. And since Britain was at the forefront of the industrial revolution and, really, the world at that particular moment in time, a lot of this new sort of children’s literature was British. And unsurprisingly for a country with a nice swelled head regarding its own inherent value in the world, the children’s literature drew on specifically British mythologies. Indeed, these are many of the same motivations that explain why old British tales like the Mabinogion were getting fresh translations in the first place, or why, towards the end of the 20th century, Andrew Lang did the colored Fairy Books.
So the old “other worlds” mythology of Britain got grafted as a metaphor for childlike exploration, and fairies, the specific bit of other world mythology that intersected with children, became particularly popular. This can be understood by comparing the tones between, say, Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and the topically similar “Der Erlkönig,” a late 18th century German poem by Goethe. In “Der Erlkönig” the eponymous Elf King is a source of terror – the child cries in terror, “he’s grabbing me now! The Elfking has done me harm!” and is killed by the Elf King. Compare to Yeats, writing a century later, where the prospect of being stolen by the fairies is made almost idyllic, and a respite from a cruel world that’s “more full of weeping than you can understand.” The basic nature of how people, or at least children relate to the hidden world has changed.
Small Worlds is interesting not just in the fact that it tries to split the difference, retaining the fairy/children’s literature connection, but restoring fairies to their “Der Erlkönig” horror. But in doing so it provides a chilling commentary on the larger thematic issues of Torchwood. If we treat empire in terms of the fantasy mentioned above – that it is a fantasy about one’s own immutability – then the terror of Small Worlds and its indifferent world becomes straightforward. If the dream of empire is that it is possible to retain one’s self even in confrontation with the other, its nightmare is an other that simply is not subject to change – something we recognize as like us in some fashion, but that does not reciprocate.
It is, in other words, the fear that in amongst these wondrous spaces our world is small and fragile. It is the fantasy of Roy, who thinks that he can be king of his little life and little world, that he can control Jasmine. He’s wrong, of course – his world is safe only inasmuch as it is too small to be interesting. He cannot wage any sort of stand against the world of the fairies. Not even Jack can, in the end, losing Estelle and ultimately deciding that giving Jasmine to the fairies is the only sane course of action.
The result is to pit two concepts against each other, both of which are inherent to Doctor Who, and by extension to Torchwood. On the one side you have the children’s adventure story, featuring its portals to fairy and doors to wondrous spaces around us. On the other you have the Victorian adventure story, with its underlying notion of the smart and virtuous British man who can sort out the world’s problems for it. Doctor Who spawned clearly out of both, and Torchwood, by vocally rejecting the “children’s television” label and setting up a complex and strained relationship with imperialism, still maintains a close relationship with these themes. But Small Worlds suggests a fundamental tension around these themes, and shows Torchwood as unable to really function with the themes.
Which is just about the only thing that might be called a problem with Small Worlds – the actual cast of Torchwood is all but irrelevant, reduced to Jack as the mysterious older figure and Gwen as the inquisitive younger one. Owen, Tosh, and Ianto are essentially superfluous to this story, which doesn’t really need to be a Torchwood episode as such – it would work just as well as an episode of Doctor Who, or, perhaps more cuttingly, one of Sapphire and Steel. There is an odd distance to the action – Torchwood has never felt quite so separated from our world. There’s a distance here. It’s telling that Hammond is thirty years older than any of the other people working on Torchwood – this feels like a much older sort of television, with an austere distance. It’s a fascinating web of themes that are meticulously put together, but it’s more fascinating than engaging.
On the other hand, if you’re inclined to treat a “for one night only” return of Sapphire and Steel to television as a problem then I admit, I don’t quite understand you. Small Worlds may not make use of the full set of tools Torchwood offers, but its content and themes are central to Torchwood, a show that is, as we’ve already seen repeatedly, very much about the relationship between the mundane world and the world of fairy. And this is a rich and complex exploration of that theme that introduces what will, over much of the back half of the first season, prove terribly important: what if the wondrous spaces alongside our world just… don’t want us.