ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Torchwood, series 3 – “Corpse Day”

Welcome to DoWntime’s 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 tackle the latest Torchwood audio, “Corpse Day”, a story full of butterflies and sunshine AND OH MY GOD WHAT IS THAT BABY DOING ARGH NO NO NO NO NO

Spoilers follow. This got NSFW, too – both the audio (which deserves every content warning possible) and this talk. Be warned.

SCRIBBLES: Torch-a Torch-a Torch-a Torch meeeeeeee… I want to feeeeeeel diiiiiirty….

TIBERE: Thrill meeee chill meeee fulfil meeeee… Weeeeeeevils of the niiiiiiiiiiiiiight!

TIBERE: How to describe the experience of listening to this audio …?

SCRIBBLES: Like slowly scuba diving into an angst-ridden vagina dentata while a man in a gimp suit whips you and screams “who’s your daddy”?

TIBERE: Like getting flogged with a cat o’nine tails except the person doing it is an incredibly skilled dominatrix?

SCRIBBLES: Like being fisted by the troll from Philosopher’s Stone while wearing a mask that resembles your dad and smooshing your face into a dog food bowl?

TIBERE: Like being force-fed raw pig bowels for so long you actually start to weirdly enjoy it?

SCRIBBLES: Like “Countrycide” had hate-sex with an orgy of exploitation like Human Centipede and made us have baby talk with its unholy spawn?

TIBERE: Like nipple clamps shaped like shark teeth sinking into your flesh while your entire family watches and an Orthodox pope sings hymns of praise to the Lord? Like a Christian fundamentalist LSD-imbued nightmare fueled by a hefty dose of trauma about what sex is like, and for? Basically, if audios are sex, this is the equivalent of your partner welcoming you with a pair of slaps and then submitting you to violent, unlubricated anal intercourse in the basement for fifty minutes. Not necessarily bad, but better know what you’re in for.

SCRIBBLES: Suffice to say, “Corpse Day” was an extremely disturbing slice of Torchwood. In some ways it’s kinda striking the audios have taken so long to try out the exploitation horror model of Torchwood, since it was always a piece of the DNA of the show. It’s even more harrowing because they held off, though. Everything about this audio is a well-oiled machine of disturbed idea delivery and tension. It’s far less gory than, say, “Made You Look” or “Outbreak“, and it’s far less violent in terms of concept than “Countrycide“, but it’s the tense intimacy that really makes the horror hit. It’s not just using Torchwood to tell a horror story, it’s finding a horror angle on real abuse and trauma that’s uniquely Torchwood.

TIBERE: Like, the whole spiel of the audios, in a way, is to address and tackle all the cul-de-sacs and weird contradictions that defined Torchwood all throughout the years, so … I guess it was only a question of time before they tried to tackle the topic of violence in Torchwood. Which is very much problematic – Torchwood often tried to be dark, but often failed at it, I think that’s a fair assessment. Mostly because this violence felt without a real purpose, ungrounded, a bit showy and provocative more than really meaningful? Here, James Goss (who is, forever and ever, an absolute bae), on one side pushes the violence levels to their breaking point, revelling in purposeful and voluntary meaninglessness, and at the same time gives the whole thing a weird, offbeat positive message, a sort of final light of fucked-up optimism.

SCRIBBLES: James Goss absolutely does a masterful job of exploring it. My one critique is that Jan, Angela, and Marta don’t quite get the focus they could. They all feel very real, all showcasing believable responses to abuse, from Jan’s fearful parroting of dogma to Marta’s silence to, most resonant for me personally, Angela’s overly apologetic anxiety, crippling her behavior. But their agency isn’t a huge through-line. It’s unreasonable for me to expect, as focusing more on them really would likely dive far too far into exploitation, but it’s a basic difficult line this audio can’t avoid. If you’re going to tell a story about that kind of abuse, how do you walk the line? Can you really ever truly tell a story about that justly? James Goss does a damn good job at walking the line, but the most powerful question the audio provokes in me is, was this a story that should have been told? To that, I really don’t have an answer.

TIBERE: It’s the eternal question of all horror media: does a good or positive message (and I suppose we’re gonna talk about the message, and how it relates to Owen, later on) justify an exploitative aesthetic? Because yes, this is exploitative – the codes it riffs on are exploitative – but at the same time, it’s partly an homage to tropes and genre conventions, and it’s got an interesting final beats that uses the darkness to do creative and interesting stuff. I’m inclined to a “yes”, with the caveat that, just as you said, the female characters should get a lot more focus – the ending becomes ambiguous that way, where them siding with Sonny is half-Stockholm syndrome and half-affirmation of agency: that might have been the point, but it’s still a flaw. And really, I think that’s the sort of story I would really have want a female writer to tackle – there’s something a bit problematic with the female character’s pain and exploitation serving the narrative of male characters, written by a dude. But I’m going to be honest: I think it’s an incredibly good slice of Torchwood, and of horror – incredibly dark and affecting, but crafted with amazing care and talent.

SCRIBBLES: It certainly knocks the socks off “Countrycide“. It’s less outrageous in its scale and scope, but that’s why it’s more of a gut punch. “Countrycide” doesn’t really manage any nuance with its yokel cannibals, it doesn’t really make anything about it feel quite true to the shocking revelation beat it wants to be about for Gwen. It prods her character and it prods the viewer’s stomach, but it doesn’t quite connect. Where this one really works is in intrinsically connecting the traumatic body horror premise to who Owen is and making it something more nuanced than eating people for fun. Glynn Lewis is still a bit of a cartoon villain, like the villagers of “Countrycide“, but he also gets to feel more real because we know real people like that are out there, hear stories about poor women trapped like that in abuse, see insane screeds like his by sexist internet trolls in YouTube comments. And grounding it all in the mundane works so well for Andy, too. The world of spice racks and speaking to grocers about cases, that’s far more his world, and adding that to the moral debate, merging normal with weird Torchwood aesthetics, creates a trauma that’s not just uncomfortable but a nuanced debate about the ethics and aesthetics of the show.

TIBERE: “Countrycide” is not a very good script, when you get down to it – it’s helped a tremendous, tremendous lot by Andy Goddard’s directing, which is a thing of beauty, but doesn’t really quite work on its own. The characters are far more realistic, and far better grounded here. Like, that final line in “Countrycide“, that grand nihilistic statement of purpose, does sort of work, but it robs the episode of its realism quite a bit. It makes the antagonists feel out of this world – this is horror rooted in the most mundane, everyday places. Glynn Lewis is over-the-top, yeah, but there’s a down-to-earth practicality to him: the dog food cans, that’s maybe the most genius thing about the episode. It’s a fucked-up, insane reversal of Russell T. Davies “food and work and chips” aesthetic, and damn does it hit hard. And of course Andy fits right into that – in a way, this episode is the perfect antithesis of “Ghost Mission”, where he took a deep dive into the campiest, most over-the-top aspects of Torchwood, guided by a manic pixie gay ghost; here, he’s still on a sort of tour of the town, but it’s a literal zombie that walks by his side. “Ghost Mission” was about Andy going into the parallel spaces that define Torchwood’s narrative; “Corpse Day” show the way these spaces corrupt the very fabric of our world, of the city they live in. There’s this absolutely fantastic little plot detail at the beginning, where Owen says serial killers flock to Cardiff because all the disappearances caused by the Rift make hiding their bodycounts really easy.

SCRIBBLES: About halfway through “Corpse Day“,  I concluded the audio was about a clash of aesthetics of what the show is, advocated by Andy and Owen. I figured Andy would be right, that it’d be about a victory of the camp and gay aesthetics over the trauma that this audio focused on. I was right about the battle, but wrong about the conclusion. This is unmistakably an Owen story (Andy doesn’t even make it onto the cover!), and those have always embraced the grim aesthetics and challenged you to find something beautiful in them. Take “Combat“, where Owen finds spiritual fulfillment in a dirty exploitation brawl with Weevils. And that’s what this does. Andy wants to reject the weevil baby for being something outside his aesthetics of Torchwood, but Owen offers a fascinating counter, that there can be the same beauty in these horrible, horrible stories, that they matter in terms of life. It’s not just the most coherent Owen’s character has been, but a good way of balancing the harshest and most disturbing aesthetics of Torchwood with the joyful ones I love.

TIBERE: Or the best example, Lidster’s wonderful “A Day in the Death”. Yeah, I can get that. That always was what Torchwood was about: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” vs. “Adrift”, basically. What Goss does so damn well is that he puts those two aspects in a dialogue, in a conflict, and doesn’t just try to make them work on their own. This is just such a good Owen story – and that’s a rare and precious thing, because his character generally sucks pretty badly: there’s a lot of beauty in his character arc and the themes surrounding it (also, can we talk about his musical leitmotiv? Because it’s damn splendid, especially when arranged by Blair Mowat here), but most of the time they’re not allowed to be expressed because his character is such an unpleasant, unmotivated dick whose darker aspects are not rooted in any kind of meaningful aspects. Here, it’s not the case – he feels much more textured, and layered: I love the way Goss leans on his medical background and calls it front and center (a dead man that brings life! Awesome symbolism!), and even more those little moments of sympathy he gets, like that early scene where he has Andy literally eat by proxy for him. Which of course is foreshadowing for another, later scene of forced feeding …

SCRIBBLES: I never liked Owen much on TV, but damn if his musical motif isn’t one of the most beautiful things about this show. I guess that’s what’s so exciting about “Corpse Day“, as a whole. It looks into the darkest and most disturbing aspects of Torchwood, its attempts at mature that veer hard into overwhelming grimdark and gore and anguish, and finds something to stir the soul in them, something like that theme as the grace note to the otherwise unpleasant Owen. And sharing that with Andy is an inspired choice, because he’s a powerful everyman perspective that can share that horror and revelation with us. I’m not sure this is territory Big Finish/Torchwood can or should ever explore again. I’m not entirely sure that they should have done it, though I should stress in general I’m far less engaged in the horror genre and aesthetics than Tibere is, it’s very much not my cup of tea. But I’m glad I’ll soon have this CD on my shelf, alongside the others. The worst thing any line of Doctor Who can do, particularly in spaces like Big Finish which are bursting with sheer quantity of content, is never push in new directions or try something unlike anything else. “Corpse Day” did, and it’s ballsy and scuzzy and executed with grace. I do have to admire and applaud that. Of the three audios in the Torchwood monthly range series 3 so far, only one hasn’t tried pushing the envelope in some direction or another. “The Dollhouse” and “Corpse Day” have both been gloriously unlike anything else Torchwood and Big Finish have ever done, exploring similar feminist concerns of exploitation of a trio of women in vastly different, fascinating ways. And the next three to come sound similarly unique, a glorious premise for Tosh, something enigmatic and fresh for Ianto, and whatever oddness the Paris one will bring, exciting for how little we know of it. This line is refusing to stay still and be pinned down, constantly shifting into new shapes and directions. Some, like “Corpse Day“, might feel a bit too raw to me to truly sit well with. But they all are valuable and make this the most exciting Big Finish line ongoing by far (now that my beloved Doom Coalition is over, at least). So here’s to you, James Goss. You’re doing a fabulous job.

TIBERE: Amen to that. Torchwood is such a fantastic range – incredibly cohesive in the way it tackles and analyses it mother show (which makes me very hyped for the eventual continuation of said mother show, coming this August), while showing colossal amounts of creativity and diversity in the way it approaches it. Not to forget some nice amounts of thematic coherency – I love the way all the audios in series 3 have so far been about given places: the hospital, the Dollhouse, the basement here … It’s incredibly exciting, and grippling, and I love it to bits. The next few audios, as you’ve pointed out, look incredible – and I do wonder if they’re going to tackle some arc stuff, considering it’s mentioned how the baby Weevil was entrusted to his keeper by a “Committee of good people”. But yeah – overall, this is a really stunning audio, probably one of the best the range has ever done; it’s not perfect, and I think one could make a damning, but perfectly fair and justified critique of it, but at the end of the day, it has all I want from Who: it’s unique – there has never been an audio like this before, and I really hope there will never be another (exorcising your show’s demons once is good, more is just overkill). And as someone who’s endlessly fascinated by the way horror as a genre can intertwine thrills and meaningful commentary, this really touches an aesthetic spot somewhere in my cold dry heart. Plus, come on, it has Weevil on human sex and umbilical cords being ripped off with teeth. That’s the kind of insanity only the Whoniverse can give you.

SCRIBBLES: Weevil sex dungeon, the audio. What can get more Torchwood than that?

TIBERE: Hum. If they had eaten chips and gravy afterwards and if the Weevil were gay, I think THAT would have been peak Torchwood.

SCRIBBLES: There’s your goal for next time, then, Goss and co.

TIBERE: We are all counting on you. Fly and soar, you sick, wonderful bearded writer.

4 thoughts on “ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: Torchwood, series 3 – “Corpse Day”

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