Last week I mentioned how Torchwood is not a series “burdened” by joy. To be clear, I mean it’s not a show that is often very happy, so it’s very suited to darker storytelling, certainly more than its parent series, Doctor Who. After Owen beat death last week, he is trying to come to terms with what it means for him and the ramifications of the zombie life he’s… well, I can’t say “living”. I guess, he’s coming to terms with what it means to be a zombie. And man is it bleak!
In a way, I credit the show for this approach. I can’t imagine it was ever going to get the following of Doctor Who because it does lack that joy! But at least it can try to tackle another tough subject while still offering a little light in an otherwise dark world. Owen Harper is dead and it seems no magic is going to save him. Even in an episode where team Torchwood is looking for an alien device called the Pulse, there’s no quick fix for Owen. The episode is told from the future: we know Owen makes it to the end of the story, because he’s telling his story to a stranger who he is trying to help. Maggie has hit an all time low and considers jumping from a roof, and Owen goes to offer her hope. Just by itself, I can say Owen has become a hero in death more than he ever was in life. First, last week, he gives hope to a small child. This week, he brings hope to a distressed woman. No wonder he gets the best musical piece in Torchwood!
Like the subject, there’s a lot to find interesting but it gets coupled with the standard list of mistakes or just things to dislike in general; this has plagued the series since its beginning. Jack is exceptionally cold to Owen taking away his access and all of his roles under some misplaced idea about “rules and regulations”. None of these mattered before; why should they matter now? It seems unnecessarily cruel and even Martha says he’s 100% human. Owen also is able to shove his hand into the electrical circuitry to knock out power to a building because he’s “already dead, mate!” But the brain is still controlled by electrical impulses and he would not be able to do what he does if he touched that amount of electricity. It’s as though no one knew about how the brain worked when they wrote this episode. Equally, when Owen sees an old man dying, he needs to administer mouth-to-mouth, but realizes he has no breath. Yeah, dude, you do. You’ve been breathing all episode. You have no need of air; that’s different. But the breathing function is a muscular one and we’ve seen he can still control muscles. Speaking, in fact, is produced by pushing air past our vocal chords. He is taking in air and moving it past those vocal chords all episode long! So that was ridiculous. Even when Owen leaps into the water and let’s out that (chilling) silent scream, it’s not like he can’t take water in if he chose to – that was the whole problem with drinking in the last episode: he can do it, but he can’t digest it! These are some big oversights. Even Tosh gets a bad rap in this episode when she comes to see Owen and goes on about her life making me lose all interest in her and not caring if she ever got to be with Owen again. And for the final episode with Martha, she is absolutely a background character which is weird since she was here for the series!
All that said, in typical Torchwood fashion, the episode takes on a lot of the other side of the coin too giving us much to ponder. Owen is finally a real person, actually making us care for him. What he does for Maggie and the old man whose house he breaks into, sitting with him, holding his hand until he passes… these are big wins for the character of Dr. Owen Harper. Ianto has a chance to tell Owen that he’s always admired him and Tosh does get a redeemable moment at the end where she promises to be with Owen until his end, asking him to share the burden if it ever gets too heavy. The music played in Owens house is perfect too – not good, but perfect for the scene. It’s a redundant mix of monotony that captures the feel of Owen’s now utterly pointless life. And when Owen slices his hand open, the full magnitude of the problems really hit home. There is no way for a happily ever after for Owen without some magic from the rift. It’s not looking good. But its very thought provoking and does give one pause thinking about our own mortality. (What am I doing here watching TV! I should be out being heroic! One needs to find joy where one can with a series like this, or be confident in ones own pondering!)
The episode is powerful even in its predictability. The “mission for a dead man” was obviously the only way to give Owen a sense of purpose and that wasn’t original in any way. What was original was the way they handled it giving Owen more to do than just find purpose. What we get from this is a chance to share with others (and the audience) that there is light in the darkness; even a glimmer can bring immense hope. Don’t give up because there is always something to live for. The final scene on the rooftop with the beautiful glow of the Pulse emanating out across the city was lovely. For my money, there’s a lot that makes a good episode. Hope is an emotion dreadfully underplayed in tv these days, especially when love can be the subject instead. But I’d almost argue that hope is more powerful because it goes beyond love. Owen Harper: my least favorite character throughout the first season, improved in the first half of the second season and made an actual hero as we enter the second half of season two. I may not love the character, but he has come a long way in his arc. I guess there’s hope for us all. ML
I think the problems you have with the science are interesting and very valid, but I don’t think you can accept an idea like a dead man walking around, which is intrinsically magical (given a veil of sci-fi) and then complain that the logic doesn’t follow through. I’ve mentioned this before, but the story has to come first, and I’m happy for writers to throw out the science in favour of an entertaining story, rather than be shackled by it. We saw on the parent series what happened when a script editor started worrying about the science too much – Christopher H Bidmead spent his time on Doctor Who taking entertaining stories and methodically making them less enjoyable to watch.
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It’s curious that you should mention throwing out the science, even in science-fiction, for the sake of entertaining stories. Because I found the science particularly entertaining in some SF classics of the last century like Star Trek and Dr. Who. Maybe it’s a sign of all that’s changed for SF shows and films in these times. But it might also depend on how science-fiction fans actually define science.
If this Torchwood episode is about the science of hope, then it’s passionate rather than analytical which makes me appreciate the effort I made to be flexible enough in writing Continuum City, which nearing its finale was also about hope. Of course the best story ever about hope is The Shawshank Redemption and so it’s no surprise that it’s opened many new doors for dramatic entertainment. Including science-fiction.
Stephen King once said that in the darkest corners the light has the best chance to shine and in Torchwood’s case, thanks to Owen, there can be truth to that.
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Rog, the problem isn’t creating a fiction and asking me to believe it. It’s creating a fiction that you want to adjust on the fly to fit ideas without seeing how they tie in with previously established ideas.
Vampires are real but can’t go into sunlight. A fiction with an established reality.
Vampire are real and can’t go into the sunlight, except for when they can because it suits the episode to give them some outdoor time. A fiction with a destroyed reality that now takes away everything we’ve been told before.
It’s a willy-nilly storytelling idea that just takes away from the whole. Had it not been for the total lack of thought around some of those ideas, I’d have ignored others. For instance, the electrical scene I’d have been fine with because a minor scientific oversight in favor of a good story is fine. But don’t act like Owen can’t drown because he can’t breath since we saw him drinking just last episode. Since you could not have the actor jump in the water and start drinking without choking in real life, leave the scene out. Don’t add it for a pretty effect when it blatantly contradicts what happened just one episode earlier.
That’s where I disagree with you. Science can be ignored in favor of a good story but don’t ignore the established story with whatever science you included just for a scene or a shot. ML
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The more hopeful outcome for Owen makes up for how several dislikeable characters throughout TV drama history have not been so fortunate, even with some hope at some point which suddenly gets dashed, which I for one have seen too many times. Owen’s miracle therefore proves to be a rare glimmer for a series like Torchwood where his character may finally make the best sense. In regards to how the not-so-likeable characters in TV and films may often be the most interesting, I think that Burn has done Owen justice and I’m glad that he’s gone onto other worthy roles as well including William Blore in 2015’s And Then There Were None.
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