...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, October 27, 2006

Day 2119: TORCHWOOD: Everything Changes / Day One

Sunday: (Wednesday for terrestrial viewers):

Mr Stripy and I have been sent to bed because this show is only for grown up and not for six-year-old [R: FIVE-year-old] baby elephants.


It's not like I haven't seen BOTTOMS before. I happen to have a rather magnificent fluffy bottom of my very own! It's not like I haven't heard BAD LANGUAGE before: Daddy is QUITE capable of turning the air BLUE if it is a REALLY good Today Programme or Newsnight Show!

Anyway, it's not like I don't know how to use the DVD RECORDER, either! I may have big flappy feet, but I can still stamp on the remote control until I hit PLAY!

I think it was BRILLIANT! It is just like Doctor Who but with a VERY, VERY COOL CAR!

As for it being for GROWN UPS: so far as I can tell, the message of TORCHWOOD is "GIRLS ARE BAD" – if they are not bouncing up and down on your tummy until you blow up, then they are stabbing you in the back in order to try out their latest fashion accessory.

But Daddy thinks that there is MORE to this series than that…

Torchwood is billed as the new "adult" spin-off from Russell T Davies and Doctor Who.

Now let's get this out of the way right up front, I do not think that by "adult" they mean that it's Doctor Who with bums and swearing. True, they certainly have all of those things within the first hour-and-a-half, but my suspicion is that they are there like great big warning signs to scare off the under-twelves (or more accurately their parents).

My suspicion is that "adult" is going to refer to the series underlying themes – themes that are hinted at but far from developed in the opening episodes. Connected to that, is my second suspicion that there will be a good few in the audience who moan about "soap opera" because I would guess that the series' themes will be largely emotional – touching more explicitly on the areas where Doctor Who itself can only allude. So expect love, betrayal, guilt, anger, despair.

The two central ideas that have already been seeded are clearly the dehumanising effect of working for Torchwood and the (possibly contradictory) way that it is an escape from a dull existence for Gwen Cooper.

The person most dehumanised is our hero Captain Jack Harkness. Jack is dehumanised to the point where he cannot die, thanks to a gift of resurrection. (You don't in fact need to know this was the intervention of Rose Tyler in the Doctor Who episode "The Parting of the Ways".)

I do have a bit of a theory about what regeneration for the Doctor might mean. As usually presented, it is just the rebuilding of his body when he gets killed. But, inspired by the "Cog Theory" of Continuity (that Doctor Who continuity applies smoothly from one story to the ones immediately before and after it, just not necessarily to stories further ago than last year) I speculated that when the Doctor regenerates he actually changes the whole of his timeline so that he is in a body that would have survived whatever killed him. This is of course retroactive (or how would it save his life) so it becomes that he has always been the new incarnation. This clearly has dramatic implications for the rest of the universe too, which is why things like Dalek history or the existence of the Master or the place of the Cybermen in the universe all seem to change inconsistently. (Given how dramatic these changes can be, no wonder most Time Lords stay at home on Gallifrey and try to minimise the amount of the universe they can affect.) It's also how adventures like the Two, Three or Five Doctors happen: the Time Lords are not summoning the alternative Doctors from the past, they are summoning them from alternative (and effectively deleted) timelines.

The thing is, though, Captain Jack was killed with a Dalek Gun, which can kill anything and in particular – if you think about who they'd be trying to kill in the Time War – it must be able to kill even Time Lords. So when Bad Wolf Rose brings Jack back from the dead, if it's anything like the way regeneration works, then she'd have to make it so that he couldn't have been killed by anything.

It is, incidentally, quite wrong to say that this immortality undermines the dramatic tension. In any ongoing series we know that the hero is going to survive the week anyway; this is just a bit more fourth wall about it. The drama should arise from whether and how he will resolve the situation in which he finds himself, and the way that he reacts to and interacts with the other people around him. Drama is about the relationships, and how people are changed by events. It would be a dull thing indeed if it was just about will he live or die.

The change that has been wrought in Jack is one of melancholy. We do not know how much time has passed for him since his travels with the Doctor, and if the immortality affects the way he ages then it might be a very long time indeed. There are moments that suggest that his life weighs heavy upon him: certainly his insistence that he cannot die seems to suggest that he may have actively tried to. His habit of standing on high roofs – at first glance all heroic Batman homage – leans towards the idea that he might also practice falling off high roofs to see if he's still not dead.

But a man looking for death might also be a man looking for a new life. Certainly he seems to see a spark of something in naïf PC Gwen Cooper when she comes calling. In spite of his intention to drug her and erase her memory, he certainly takes the opportunity to show off to her, show her around and generally appears to be enjoying her – human – company for its own sake.

And he confesses at the end that she may be right about Torchwood being better if it helped people. And by inviting her inside he could be reaching out for a new life as well.

Road not taken: Gwen has her second, and highly coincidental, encounter with Captain Jack just after receiving a blow to her head, but nothing is made of the possibility that it’s just a delusion brought on by concussion and an over-active imagination, what Alex calls the "Life on Mars" explanation.

But, he also asks, does Jack deliberately lure Gwen up those stairs – Torchwood jump out and grab the Weevil pretty smartly once it has already attacked the unlucky porter; did they want some live bait?

Reflecting further on that: at the conclusion we see that Gwen's return to the Millennium plaza triggers Suzie's plan for flight and her confession just as Jack emerges from the invisible lift. Or is it a coincidence? Has Jack been using Gwen as live bait again?

Aside from the Captain, Torchwood's opening story "Everything Changes" presents us with several addiction metaphors: clearly the Resurrection Glove has addictive properties that unbalance the user, but we see that both Owen and Toshiko have their own guilty pleasures for which they are willing to steal from Torchwood's alien tech stash. The way that the scenes are intercut ought to tip us off that Russell is asking us to consider the equivalence of all the moral actions here: while it might seem from the resolution that it is Suzie Costello who is the out-and-out villain – she's the one who kills to further her addiction – does that in fact absolve the others or rather flag us up to the fact that they too might be equally bad?

Certainly Dr Owen Harper has provoked much debate through his use of what is depending on your point of view either a super-effective cologne or a date rape drug. Superficially, Owen goes to a bar, sprays himself, and immediately the woman finds him irresistible. This would certainly seem to say that he is controlling her. Re-watching the scene, though, there is some evidence that she is interested in him to begin with, but either not enough or playing hard to get or just aware that she already has a boyfriend, in which case when he sprays himself does he just encourage her to do what she wanted but for inhibition? But then, when they are caught by said boyfriend, Owen sprays himself again and it results in a total change in the man's mood, from anger to lust.

The problem with any analysis of course is that we do not see the outcome for the couple: how do they feel in the morning? Have they discovered something new about themselves that makes them happy, or do they feel used and dirty? (There's even some question as to whether he did have sex with the couple. It's my interpretation that he did, but I've heard the alternative viewpoint that he calls the taxi for himself so that he can leave them behind, squabbling.)

Personally, I lean to the idea that Owen did have sex with the couple without their consent.

And this is typical Russell T Davies: he gives us brief, throwaway almost, scene that is in itself very funny, a twist on many an old fairy story where you get too much of a good thing. But in fact you should turn it over in your mind and be asking questions about what this means.

Remember that the second episode, "Day One", also presents us with someone irresistibly sexually attractive, but the consequences of that are dramatically fatal. Yes, it might superficially seem like an excuse to show pornography on the BBC – a point underlined by the fact that the club bouncer is using it as pornography on the BBC! – but it is also about the destructive power of rape. Taking away someone else's choice in sex is bad.

There is also the question of whether we will see further consequences for Owen: I think we will. It is unlike Russell T Davies to build a character without planning for their development, and there are also hints to be found on the Torchwood Website that Owen's behaviour has been noted.

Nor should we think that Tosh is more innocent than the others either. It would appear that her "alien book reader" is a benign piece of technology that just enables her to copy text from paper to her computer. And maybe it is. But it is another example of the dehumanising effect: the simple human act of sitting and reading has been by-passed. How much has Tosh let this device get into its head, or into her head? It remains to be seen.

The second theme is the obvious excitement that newcomer Gwen feels on discovering this new world. It is her escape from the humdrum. To tie to the first theme, possibly addictively so. Even when Jack ticks her off for finding fault with the wonders he's showing her, he already knows she's hooked. For Gwen, it's almost like having an affair – see how she is already deceiving her partner. Rhys seems drab and dull to us in comparison with the exciting world of Captain Jack, and deliberately so.

There is an obvious comparison to make to Rose Tyler whisked away into a world of adventure and her stay-at-home boyfriend Mickey Smith. But there is a subtlety of difference as well, in that Mickey is the dumped boyfriend left for the new guy whereas Rhys has no clue what is going on.

It is quite possible that much of "Everything Changes" is deliberately designed to echo "Rose". The opening incident witnessed by the young female protagonist; her investigation of the mysterious man; the entry – literally – into his world, a huge and alien space with a central column and disguised entrance…

Or it could all be a coincidence.

Of course, given that the Torchwood staff are scavengers, scrabbling up the alien technology that they covet, it could also be a source of rich irony that Torchwood the series scavenges much from the successful formulae of television past:

Things that TORCHWOOD takes bits from…

BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER: monsters attracted to the Hellmouth/ monsters attracted to the Cardiff rift; Vampires/Weevils

ANGEL: brooding tortured hero stalks the darkened streets / brooding Torchwood hero stalks the darkened streets

DEEP SPACE NINE: aliens coming through the Bajoran Wormhole/ aliens coming through the Cardiff rift; those circular cog-wheeled doors

CAPTAIN SCARLET: the hero who was killed, brought back to life and now can't die / yadda yadda; also, the cool elephant-pleasing Gerry Anderson cars / the cool elephant-pleasing Gerry Anderson car

QUATERMASS (2006) (and the rest): night shots of roads to look like arteries

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: Lector's glass prison in the cellar / the Weevils' glass prison in the cellar

BABYLON 5: mysteriously missing Babylon 4/ mysteriously missing Torchwood 4

(Which reminds me: of the four Torchwoods the two that we know of are both built around breaches in the space-time continuum, and from its mysterious disappearance we might guess that Torchwood 4 was somewhere similar. So are all the Torchwoods built around rifts?)

Oh, and the pet Pterodactyl reminds me of the "pet" Vortisaur in the first season for Big Finish of Paul McGann's eighth Doctor.

From a simply stylistic point of view, the series is clearly trying to use the techniques of modern American television to carve out a new and unique style for itself. It isn't very unique yet, but I remain hopeful. The music is fantastically good, rather better than Doctor Who gets, actually, and the visuals are nicely composed even if they don't quite have a house style that instantly says Torchwood in the way that "Spooks" and "Hustle" have both built up thier own visual "feel".

On the whole, solid foundations which, I hope, will bear re-watching in future when hindsight will change our perception of the key moments. There are references forwards in the pilots of each of Buffy, Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, even if they are not obvious to begin with. I look forward to seeing what will develop from these roots.

Oh, and I expect we will find out what is large and nasty and driving the Weevils up out of the sewers too.


The Badger King said...

wow. Reading that was more fun than watching it!

Torchwood was awful, if only it had had half the qualities you mentioned... Maybe there's a lot of thematic depth, but whos going to get there to find out when the script/acting/production design/pace/plotting is so dire, so very BBC3?

p.s. why not allow non-bloggers to comment?

Nimbos said...

Yes - I loved the music too.
It's very reminiscent of the music used in Channel Four's Ultraviolet.

Now there was another series which was centred around a secret monster-fighting organisation which comes into contact with a police officer and ends up hiring them.

Ultraviolet also had the stash of bodies in a large underground storage facility where they were slotted into the walls like gym-lockers...