Friday, October 25, 2013
Outside the Government: To the Last Man
On television, Torchwood’s second season rumbles merrily on with Helen Raynor’s To the Last Man. It’s an odd thing that Torchwood takes the initial three episodes of its first season as quite so much of a template for its second season. Nevertheless, that is what we have here - an episode focused on reintroducing the team, an episode focused on Gwen bonding with an alien victim, and a ghost story by Helen Raynor. This time the focus of the ghost story is Tosh, not Owen, but nevertheless, the pattern is remarkably consistent.
But where Ghost Machine was an odd and oblique number with a structure that continually twisted out of shape, To the Last Man works with straightforward linearity, moving from its initial premise to its inevitable conclusion with a placid efficiency. This is not, in this case, a bad thing. To the Last Man picks a reasonably potent set of images such that it’s direct path from start to finish is tragic rather than predictable. Save a slight pacing glitch at the end (Tosh having to project into Tommy’s mind feels like using an extra scene to do what should have been done earlier), this marches along towards a satisfyingly doomful end.
Beyond that, it’s flecked with character moments. Tosh would use Tommy as a surrogate for an actual relationship. And Tommy’s bewildered disappointment at the things Tosh doesn’t pursue in her life stings just right. Better yet is Owen’s genuinely concern for Tosh, and the way in which it pays off longer standing character bits. Those who have seen the series know exactly why Owen is the one warning Tosh about the dangers of time-displaced love affairs. Even a somewhat lightweight scene, such as Tommy’s railing against the stupidity of continuing war as we cut to a news broadcast about Iraq is quietly elevated. The cliched bashing of the “war to end all wars” descriptor of World War I, which is usually employed because it’s the most lazily straightforward way to criticize militarism imaginable, is enlivened immeasurably by the tiny detail of Tommy describing World War II as “three weeks later.”
Indeed, Tommy in general is a particularly deft example of the man out of time. The decision not to emphasize Tommy’s anachronistic nature is a sound one. He largely understands the world around him. He takes on an interesting role within the world, able to make meaningful statements about it precisely because he’s seen snapshots of it over the course of nearly a century. 2008 is a peculiarly good time for a World War I story, coming right as the last of the veterans were swallowed up by the past, such that what we have with this story is one of someone whose sense of our history exceeds that of anyone save for Jack himself.
As with her previous ghost story, all of this forms a deft canvas, and makes it more than a little inscrutable why Raynor, on Doctor Who, is wasted on the early-season monster two-parters where her obvious strengths aren’t catered to at all. It’s a bizarre spectacle to see a writer with obvious gifts in creating a world that feels nuanced and haunted is perpetually used to do the most thunderingly obvious and superficial sorts of stories that Doctor Who does.
And yet To the Last Man doesn’t quite hold together. As with Sleeper, the root of the problem is that Torchwood is a sci-fi show, and thus when it abuts a sci-fi concept with normality, it actually needs to spend more time on normality. Torchwood, in other words, functions best on the logic of magic realism, but has an unfortunate tendency to opt for an attempt at realistic magic instead. And so in this case Tommy, after half an episode of pleasant nuance, becomes a mouthpiece for various anti-war sentiments framed in the most obvious way imaginable, with little to no thought to the fact that the entire grammar of the series goes against him. All of his railing against Captain Jack for being just as bad as the officers in World War I is pointless; the show can’t let us really believe that of Captain Jack. And so it’s moralizing of the most vapid sort.
Ultimately, To the Last Man succumbs to the problem that plagues most World War I stories, which is that they’re obsessed with reminding everybody of just how awful World War I was. It differs inasmuch as it doesn’t focus on the usual tropes of how horrible trench warfare is, instead focusing on the cruelty of executing shell shock victims for cowardice. But the fact that it provides a slightly more varied approach to the usual “World War I was the worst thing ever” rhetoric is not really in and of itself valuable. Everything that was good in the first part of the story focuses on the ways in which Tommy is able to provide World War I’s perspective on everything that came after.
This is the other thing that’s so good about the “three weeks later, World War II” scene - it gives us the intriguing experience of seeing World War I criticize all of the future. When every trope of World War I focuses on its status as the most futile and barbaric war ever, seeing it turned around so that World War I gets to call everything else out for not learning its lessons is compelling. And so to see the story shift back to being about how awful World War I is and how Tommy is going to die in a horrible, pointless way unique to World War I is a titanic letdown.
And there’s no particular reason for it. Nothing about the premise of To the Last Man requires this ending. Yes, it requires a tragic ending in which Tommy and Tosh are separated and, ultimately, in which Tommy dies. But the details are up for grabs, and the script ultimately picks the least interesting option on offer. Not for the first time this season, Torchwood has a choice between going for the obvious or going for something unusual or unexpected, and it ends up being obvious.
In this regard it’s got problems akin to those of Sleeper, although unlike Sleeper, the bits of thundering obviousness are at least balanced out by its moments of real cleverness. But the larger problem is here, and visible in comparing To the Last Man with Raynor’s previous story. It’s not just the way that Ghost Machine was structured unusually, changing shape midway through the episode. It’s the way that Ghost Machine was about an entire haunted landscape - a vision of Cardiff with its tragedies and romances lurking in the margins, haunting the present day. Ghost Machine provided a world teeming with the past.
To the Last Man, however, offers a world dominated by a single, immutable horror from the past. World War I is an absolute concept, unchangeable, with nothing new to say about it. Ghost Machine had our world haunted by the tiny lived moments - fears and terrors and loves - that make up lives. To the Last Man has our world watched over by a deathless sentinel from the master narrative of history, whose end is to be swallowed up by the historical tragedy from whence he came. The only reason not to call it heritage theme park history is that a World War I theme park is not a particularly appealing concept.
In a way, this shift is noted in the new opening credits, which instead of suggesting that we have to become ready for the changes of the 21st century suggest instead that Torchwood is presently ready. The hubris here is unmistakable, but there’s a larger issue, which is that we’ve fundamentally shifted the sort of narrative we’re telling. “The 21st century is when everything changes, and you’ve gotta be ready” is a slogan suggesting possibilities and transformation. “The 21st century is when everything changes, and Torchwood is ready,” on the other hand, reverts Torchwood back to its original Victorian conception - the fixed state of affairs imposing its will on the rest of the world. Torchwood will guide us as everything changes. Torchwood is the way.
In this regard the refutation to Tommy’s objection that Jack is just as bad as the generals is baked into the program. Jack knows the future. Jack knows what’s right. The show consciously positions him in charge of the master narrative of history’s development, such that his word cannot be questioned within it. Given the way in which Torchwood explicitly stems out of Victorian imperialist ideology - the same ideology that ultimately caused World War I. In this regard, the show quietly undermines its own ostensible message, and certainly ends up abandoning its most interesting approaches from the previous season. This isn’t a show about the strange abutting of mundane and fantastic spaces anymore. It’s just a show about solving the case of the week.
This does represent a moral turn for the series, although it would be stretching the point to suggest that the moral turn is the point of the exercise. The moral turn is just a consequence of what appears to be an active decision to relaunch the show on BBC Two in its most generic version imaginable. We’ve gone to a “hook new viewers” approach that means having the show be a familiar and unthreatening part of the televisual landscape. There’s a sense that the show is being punished for its success; having done reasonably well as an odd BBC Three show, it now gets “promoted” to being a blander BBC Two show. The degree to which this can reasonably be treated as a reward is debatable, to say the least.
One consequence of this has been a real drain on the characterization. Part of why the Owen scene jumps out is that it’s the one moment in the episode where the characters feel like they’re being pushed to interesting places. After a first season that went to great lengths to take the sympathetic Gwen Cooper and push her in uncomfortable directions. Here, however, all of the characters are remarkably static. Rhys - the character most responsible for pushing stories to interesting places - has been absent for two episodes, after a bare cameo in the first. Ianto - the other interesting perspective - has become a fully fledged Torchwood member, and, by extension, more or less generic. Jack is no longer a dangerous figure of mystery. Nobody is doing anything to rock the boat. Even Tosh, who’s the focus of the episode, doesn’t really do much of anything. She’s back to being a generically repressed woman who doesn’t stand up for herself or pursue anything other than work. Not that she was ever allowed to stray that far from that template over the course of the first season, but there was at least some movement.
But here nothing is allowed to shift. The entire world of this story is designed to be a straightforward tragedy with a clear cut moral point. The story never threatens to do anything other than exactly what it sets itself up for in the first few minutes. Its world is almost cynically simple and straightforward. It’s not that it’s a bad story. It’s effective, and it tugs heartstrings when it means to. It’s just that it’s a well-made piece of generic television. This is perhaps preferable to deeply flawed attempts at being interesting. But when you know everybody involved is capable of both, it’s tough to be that excited about the choice.