Welcome to DoWntime’s new, not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.
And today, Tibère and Scribbles kick off our Big Finish coverage by talking about one of their latest releases, “The Dollhouse”, by Juno Dawson, the second episode of the third series of Torchwood audios.
TIBERE: To open, maybe some thoughts on the previous Torchwood audios? The general state of the range?
SCRIBBLES: Well, of course, we both love it, don’t we? I got you into Big Finish with their Torchwood, it’s phenomenal. James Goss is one of the loveliest writers and human beings in Doctor Who media and the stories have been of a uniquely high quality for Torchwood and for Big Finish!
TIBERE: Yes, yes you did. All hail the Audio God. It’s a terrific range, it really is – in ways you don’t really realize until you listen to more Big Finish and realize how much it avoids pretty much all of the flaws that plague the rest of their productions. It’s still heavy on continuity and, let’s say fanwank, but it uses it to create new, compelling storylines; it’s progressive in all the best ways; it’s short, well-paced, always finding new original ways to tell a story. It’s great and I love it.
SCRIBBLES: To be fair, continuity and fanwank could basically be described as Big Finish’s business model. They’re selling to people who want more of what they’ve fallen in love with. It’s just down to how it is used, which varies a lot. Torchwood is definitely a triumph in how it uses it.
TIBERE: Goss and his “retconning all previous continuity to make ideological point”, and Lidster going all hyper-emotional fix-fic on the listeners are highlights. But I think it’s fair to say, we both thought “Visiting Hours”, the opener to the third series, was a bit of a dud, right?
SCRIBBLES: That sums it up. It was still a high quality production with two nice characters, but it didn’t really have much to say aside from setting up an arc (I presume) which we know basically nothing about. On its own terms, it didn’t offer much.
TIBERE: Yeah. Like, the fact it might be called the worst Torchwood Main Range audio so far is more praise for the range than anything else, really – it’s still a fun little romp, but it misses on the ideological satire it could have achieved (seriously, how did they not make it about the NHS?), and just hangs in there stealing some jokes from Avengers 2, which is not what I’d call the best movie to steal from. It’s serviceable enough – but disappointing.
SCRIBBLES: I’d just say that while I’ve already listened to Dollhouse twice, I can’t see myself revisiting Visiting Hours in a hurry, at least not for any reason other than refreshing myself on ongoing story threads, in which case I’d just relisten to the whole series! (Which I do frequently, I might add, because it’s brilliant.)
TIBERE: I think what “The Dollhouse” has going for itself – and, looking at the coming episodes, it seems to be a bit of a trend for series 3, is just how much it expands the world of Torchwood, and the narratives that can take place within it. “Visiting Hours” seemed almost like a conservative episode, a piece of random filler, whereas this is much more wild, crazy and ambitious. It explores new space – and it’s named after a place, too, which seems to be a bit of a trend for series 3, between “The Office of Never Was” and “The Dying Room“.
SCRIBBLES: From the moment those wild synth stings filled my ears I knew I was in for a treat. The Torchwood range seems determined to provide something new and special with each outing, and damn, I love the new directions Juno Dawson has opened up. I do wonder if some fans might be disappointed that a couple audios this series don’t have any of the leads from the show, but I adore the world they’re creating and welcome more diversions and expansions if they’re all this good!
TIBERE: I don’t care what those people think, they’re doing one in Paris, I’m sold. France for the win.
SCRIBBLES: Yet another woman writing for the range, too. I crunched the numbers, there’s been eleven writers so far for Big Finish Torchwood and five of them are women! How amazing is that? Torchwood always was a bit better than Doctor Who with that. Series 1 has more women writing for it than any other run of Who, and series 4 has the highest proportion of episodes written by women. And now we’ve even gotten the first trans writer for Doctor Who, and she seems wonderful. Wishing Juno Dawson a bright future in Doctor Who media.
TIBERE: Miracle Day had the only POC director to work on Who-related stuff between 2005 and the arrival of Wayne Yip in 2016 & 2017, too. And yeah, definitely, Juno Dawson is wonderfully at home there. Really, most writers at work on this range could do some good stuff with the flagship show, so, let’s hope Chibnall will remember he was the Torchwood guy for a while and will call some numbers. Gimme Goss & Lidster, please. And Juno Dawson, god, a trans writer doing an episode of Doctor Who, how good would it be?! Not that I want to reduce her accomplishments to “she’s trans”, mind you – she’s also, and above all, a really, really good writer.
SCRIBBLES: So, let’s enthuse about her story for a bit! Very, very openly, blatantly feminist in some glorious ways. Building the story around the team’s choice to stop answering to the man on the phone was a nice device, and the women all are memorable characters with distinct attention to representation issues. I particularly liked the comment about how latina women get names and accents erased by Hollywood with the mention of Rita Hayworth, I also had Dolores del Rio in mind. The whole thing was wonderfully savage on the white patriarchal institutions in media, situating Torchwood as a feminist, queer revolution against that.
TIBERE: Mr. Beamish, he’s called, that guy on the phone. Played by Torchwood audio writer Guy Adams, too, so you get a wonderfully meta commentary, if that’s your thing – a female writer having her characters telling one of the range veterans to go fuck himself. Not that I think there’s beef between the two – it’s just funny.
SCRIBBLES: Certainly is, particularly as Adams is tied with one other writer as the most prolific in the range behind the great Goss himself! He’s also in Spain and communicating with Big Finish long-distance, so the phone takes on an extra meaning there.
TIBERE: You must really have loved Torchwood exploring your city, I figure! There’s something really great in the way they give Los Angeles this almost mythical, supernatural aura that the TV version of Torchwood gave Cardiff – they also make Los Angeles a weird, transitory space that’s not quite in our reality; but in a way that is typically linked to the town’s history. Also, let’s appreciate the coincidence that this series 3 manages to set audios in the places both of us live.
SCRIBBLES: It’s all about deconstructing the myth of the Hollywood industry, really. It doesn’t feel so much like a story about LA but rather about a story about stories about LA. Sort of Big Finish’s La La Land. I don’t spend much time in LA proper but I don’t think it used too much region specificity in that, it was more responding to Hollywood itself. For me, the real treat was in the integration into the American cultural landscape. The references to Denny’s and Area 51 got big laughs from me. Future story they should do: Area 51 refugees using Denny’s as a cover.
TIBERE: The absolute best bit was when they were flying the spaceship at the end, and when they run into the Hollywood sign. And of course, they “clip the D”. That’s a spectacularly unsubtle bit of dirty humour that I loved – it’s an outspokenly feminist audio, and that’s a delight.
SCRIBBLES: Speaking of, let’s talk about the dolls. What a wonderful commentary that was. Both on the commodification of women and in particular on the standards of actresses, the insanely small time gap when women are considered prime for film before they’re “too old,” pressures for waxing and makeup, all of it. Like the villain says, he’s essentially sending them off to the Hollywood dream they were pursuing. It’s just not as pretty as the dream. That’s dark and hard-hitting.
TIBERE: It’s also incredibly uncomfortable. The audio is great at pivoting from comedy to horror – like, the stuff about sexual harassment is there from the beginning, but it’s played as a bit of a joke, and then you’ll end up with the heroine getting wax on her nether regions without her consent. Yikes. It’s commendable, though – while there’s a lot of parallels with real life problems (human trafficking, a capitalistically hedonist system that treats women as products to be consumed during parties) – it chooses to tackle them through allegory, which strikes me as a good move. Great allegories, too – they’re made into dolls, both infantilized and treated like objects to be collected.
SCRIBBLES: Charley’s speech about the worst kind of women there was phenomenal. Funny and relevant.
TIBERE: It really was. It’s completly over-the-top, mind you – but in a way that never detracts from the relevance of the issues at hand. Like, the whole audio is written in this strange style – that kind of tiptoes towards parody but never falls into it. It’s really impressive. You do get the feeling that it’s an English woman writing about America – but it’s not a flaw, it’s a really, really interesting feature.
SCRIBBLES: It’s definitely a masterpiece of over-the-top joy. Big Finish historically has a bit of an accent problem, I’d say. As an American listener, their attempts at America can be…awkward, often times. I suppose Peri set that precedent. But here, the forced accents were part of the over-the-top joy of it. So much fun! My one niggle would be if Gabi isn’t played by a person with that natural accent. I don’t know if she is and I understand if in the UK it’s rather hard to find actresses from Mexico with heavy accents, but it could feel a tad insensitive that way.
TIBERE: If you think their American accents are bad, try to listen to the French ones … But yeah, the actress, Ajjaz Awad, is of Middle Eastern descent, as far as Internet lets me see. Still, the character is awesome. Lesbian latinas are always a win.
SCRIBBLES: Glad she’s at least a woman of color and the accent is no less over-the-top than any of the other characters, then. Definitely an enjoyable character. Marlow got the most of my love, though. Tough and strong and clever and witty, always in command. I loved her.
TIBERE: Her line about needing some “Richard Roundtree motherfucker” was a highlight. Her backstory is really cool, though – they do include elements of racial struggle to her character, but never let her be defined by it. Which is fantastic. I guess that leads us to the question of Charley, and of her final demise. Which makes sense, in a way – considering the episode very much plays out like an American remake of “Everything Changes” – mixed, in an interesting way, with “Charlie’s Angels” – you’ve got to have your Suzie character somewhere.
SCRIBBLES: “Everything Changes“, though, used Suzie as a signifier of the corruption innate to Torchwood, that would take its toll on Gwen. Here, Charley is used to interact with that corruption, but also to reject it. The story has them throw off being a last bastion of the British Empire because of her fate, and throw off the patriarchy, as well. Earlier in the story Marlow argues with Beamish that the mission is a bad idea, but he insists they do it, and that kills Charley. So instead, they reject the basic corruption of Torchwood and can thrive. With, as the ending implies, an exciting new teammate.
TIBERE: The fact they kill the only character that is neither LGBT nor a POC is good, too. Also, they don’t throw out their most interesting character in the first episode. Yes, I’m still salty at the end of “Everything Changes”. But I really like your point – it’s interesting, it builds off this idea developed in Miracle Day, that America is sort of the point where the tensions inherent to Torchwood reach a breaking point. Gwen’s final realization that Torchwood is a corrupting influence, in “Immortal Sins”, is paralleled with the typically American story of Jack and Angelo arriving to Ellis Island. It’s a bit of that same story you find there. Maybe America is not quite the Land of the Free, but it at least offers distance from the branch of British Imperialism that’s at the heart of Torchwood.
SCRIBBLES: “Everything Changes” is a 10/10 episode for me, but I see your point. The choice to kill Charley is a very, very shrewd one made based on representation, for sure. But it’s interesting still how her character is tied to themes of class and underprivileged background. I love the parallels between her and the other victims, how so many women are given so little option in their lives, fighting to scrape by. Her final moments with Gabi are wonderful. That she finally found someone who cared at least to make her passing mean something. She didn’t have to die a trailer trash nobody.
TIBERE: Yeah, definitely. It’s a wonderfully crafted scene, and it’s a testament to Juno Dawson’s writing that she manages to make you care about her fate in one hour, without images to back her writing up.
SCRIBBLES: Girl’s got serious talent. I can’t wait to find out what she’s bringing to Big Finish next. I’m so here for diverse gay woman-lead revolution, that’s exactly what Big Finish needs. I’m so glad Torchwood is providing that explosion of cracky content and well-crafted diversity.
TIBERE: With f-bombs, disco remixes of the Torchwood themes, and jokes about the Chupacabra. What more can you ask for, really?
And that wraps up our debate.
Audio coverage will continue on a non-too-regular basis.
The next episode of Assessing Stress will be covering “Smile”, and will see Tibère, Scribbles and Scarves being joined by a new guest, on Sunday!