ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION #5: Torchwood, series 3 – “torchwood_ cascade_ CDRip.tor”

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. Spoilers after the “read more” tag!

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest Torchwood audio, “torchwood_ cascade_ CDRip.tor”

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle the latest Torchwood audio, “torchwood_ cascade_ CDRip.tor”

And tay, Tibère andribbles tackle e ltest Torcood audio, “torood_ casDRip.tor”

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Spoiler-free verdict –

TIBERE: It’s a terrific audio. One of the best of an excellent range, really – maybe other episodes hit harder emotionally or have better character development, but this is a serious contender for tightest, best-constructed script so far. It’s complex, and voluntarily hard to approach and listen to, and I can get that it’s not necessarily for everyone, but it does what it does perfectly. It’s a continuity-heavy, meta, weird-ass triumph. And I love it.

SCRIBBLES: “torchwood_cascade_CDRip.tor” keeps up the pattern of this audio series, which is to say, it uses the trappings of Torchwood to tell stories daring and strange and unlike anything else we’ve really seen before. It’s a difficult story to dissect, at the very least on first listen, and builds a lot on the context of previous audios; certainly, some of its structural tricks wouldn’t work without hearing other audios, like “Zone 10“. But for fans of this range so far, you’ve gotta check this one out. It’s continuing to push and provoke with some of the most interesting aspects of Toshiko Sato, already one of the strongest Torchwood characters in my mind, and does inventive and clever things with the format beyond just the storytelling in a way that really makes for a compelling listen. Recommended for sure.

SCRIBBLES: For me, what’s compelling about “Cascade” is how it tells its story. The story is fairly simple, but the plot structure threatens to do your head in, really. The way it cuts in other clips from throughout the audio, including from the end of CD interviews, and, delightfully, even from the “Torchwood: Before the Fall” trailer that’s on the disc, to enhance and expand on meaning; for example, Naoko Mori’s reaction to pirating, or Yvonne Hartman’s trailer monologuing about what Torchwood is, get cut into relevant scenes to expand on them. And, delightfully, Scott Handcock gets to cut in his little preachy sound bite about how small companies like Big Finish are impacted by pirating right while Tosh confronts someone engaging in pirating; the wall between the fictional narrative and the real world is pretty thoroughly shattered, and compellingly and meaningfully so. Also inspired, I think, were the inclusions in the formatting of this audio to really engage with and recreate the world of the Internet. The porn sequence in particular was a delightful choice, really, as was the inclusion of a random musical number toward the climax. It feels like a bit of a regurgitated mess of download culture through the lens of Torchwood, and that’s excellent.

TIBERE: I almost regret that they didn’t play on memes more, but yes, definitely agreed.

SCRIBBLES: Oh, there’s room to expand on so much of the Internet. Memes and social media posts would have been fun to see. But in the end, this isn’t just the Internet. It’s downloading in specific. And that’s porn, music, and television. And here the first two are explored through the lens of the third. I can’t even imagine the kind of conversations that went down in the Big Finish studios over how to recreate porn on audio, but the squelchy sounds were a nice touch, I will say! And it’s indicative of the mad, gleeful brilliance of this audio. It knows its world and it knows how to use it to tell a simple tale in the cleverest and most meaningful way. With squelchy sex tapes and random music cutaways.

TIBERE: Oh, so very, very squelchy. You can just feel the squelchiness. It’s lovely. That’s a part of Torchwood’s charm, really – Who, not always, but often, and definitely under Steven Moffat, aims for a certain universality in its storytelling, whereas Torchwood felt much more in contact with the popular, cultural and sociological trends of the day. From the Iraq War’s influence on the narrative to the constant pub scenes and LGBT inclusion … Really, I absolutely think Torchwood would have tackled the internet if it had lasted a little bit longer – I mean, when you look at it, it’s so very influenced by the vision of technology that was carried by the whole wave of police procedurals, CSI and what-have-you; now, we’re in world of social media and hacker stories – even CSI launched a cyber-crime spin-off. It bombed, by the way. Shame, I quite like Patricia Arquette.

SCRIBBLES: It certainly couldn’t have been any worse than Buffy, the show that really inspired Torchwood’s stylistic approach, when it tackled the web. There’s a basic joy to a demon being unleashed on the Internet, but gosh, that story did not age well. But what’s important here is in the structure, like I was saying. The plot is effective, certainly, but very simple, almost underdeveloped in a way. The complaint easy to land on “Visiting Hours”, that the whys of its plot are avoided and leave much of it unanswered, works here, too. But that’s just a testament to how you tell a story being every bit as important as what’s in it. Cascade shows its understanding of the Internet in how it tells the story, porn and all. And furthermore, it uses that to engage with what Torchwood is. Cascade manages to play a clever structural game, slowly unveiling the mystery of when this story is actually set and what it’s really about, gives it a stronger build and stronger payoff than “Visiting Hours” really managed. And gosh, what a great moment it reveals that it is about in the end. Because Toshiko Sato is something of an unfortunate character. In my opinion, she’s one of the most compelling the show ever produced, but she rarely got a focus, and indeed, no sooner had they finally put out her dark, screwed up, and compelling backstory than they killed her off. But here, we get a story expanding on that moment of her death, and willfully engaging with the questions it raises about her and about Torchwood.

TIBERE: I think this audio, even more than the average Torchwood one, almost reads like a thematic manifesto, in some ways. And boy, is it a good one. I feel, at the very least, that it’s the one that comes closest to express in story form my own theories and interpretations of Torchwood – there’s this powerful concept at the heart of the show, this idea of corruption. Torchwood corrupts you – it corrupted Suzie, it corrupts Gwen, and so on. It even goes as far as doing this very Who thing, this transcription of the thematic ideas at a physical, biological level – “Miracle Day” is literally Jack, and his blood, corrupting the entire Earth. And in a way, the story the TV show tells you is in itself a story of corruption, of decay – the fall of Torchwood, its disintegration. That’s what “Cascade” is all about, and it finds two different, and bloody clever, ways to express it. First thing first, there’s the idea of the download that kills you – like, yes, it’s a classic “technology goes wrong” conceit, and in execution, it borrows a bit from stuff like the movie “It Follows”, or “The Ring”, and a lesser story could just have kept the whole thing as an hommage. But really, what I find interesting is the meaning behind it. Torchwood is so toxic, such a corrupting influence that the mere act of listening to a Torchwood story puts your life in danger, makes it fall into that weird, confusing in-between, that transitory, dangerous space that defines the Cardiff of Torchwood (or the Los Angeles of “The Dollhouse”, let’s not forget”). It’s paralleled in a very clever way inside the story itself – the love interest, Stephen, is trying to get close to Torchwood and risks his life doing so; and so is the listener. That’s the first big one.

SCRIBBLES: And, of course, we get the inspired dawning realization that all of Stephen’s calling Tosh, trying to get close to her and Torchwood again, that’s interspersed into the story, comes after the events of the main plot and, indeed, after Toshiko’s death. The audio doesn’t need to spell it out, it can imply it through its slow build and dramatic juxtaposition of scenes and corrupted inserts. Torchwood inevitably did corrupt Tosh, and it killed her and broke her heart. That sort of has saved Stephen, really, though he’ll never know, and always wish to get close to the toxic thing he’s been saved from. He’ll still long for it. That’s sort of a recurring thing in Torchwood. The darkness is sick and overwhelming and destroys you, but how could you ever leave it? How could you ever go back? That’s the content of Suzie’s speech to Gwen in the very first episode, and that’s the question that hangs over the show all the way through. Torchwood takes and takes and takes, but you also want to keep going with it. In that way, something like last month’s “Corpse Day” is sort of the purest essence of the show: it dares you to look at its rawest darkness and asks you to keep going, keep staring at it. Stephen’s a bit like Andy, really, an outsider whose longing for Torchwood is linked to his crush on one of the team members. And even faced with that darkness and corruption, there’s still a bit of wishing for that. Stephen sees nothing near as horrible as Andy did in Corpse Day, but there’s the defining irony throughout it, that he’s just missed out on understanding the real cost of Torchwood.

TIBERE: And I think that’s where the second aspect of the metanarrative comes in – the story shows the corruption in pushing to the utter maximum the concept of narrative collapse. It merges Torchwood the organization and Torchwood the TV show. The corruption is so powerful the story itself breaks, leaving only bits and pieces – it’s very interesting to see how the musical leitmotivs, opening theme and stings, that usually “define” the Torchwood story, at least on audio format, that give it its form and shape, are used here, being distorted and played at the wrong moments or on a loop. And the sort of impact point, the thing that breaks the story, so to speak, is Toshiko’s death – it gives it the symbolic weight and importance it didn’t have in season two by making it the central point of an uncanny nexus. She could dictate the narrative, she could trap the creature inside the Torchwood mainframe, but without her, the prison breaks, and with it, the whole structure of the show comes crashing down. It really works splendidly well as a complement to “Exit Wounds”. There’s a lovely detail that made me chuckle quite a bit when I heard it – Tosh wants to help the hacker because he reminds her of her brother. She literally has a secret brother. Now, ain’t that familiar … It’s one of the finest examples of what the Torchwood range does so well, this simultaneous expansion / metacommentary, and not in small part because it chooses to comment directly on the the metacommentary. It’s a Torchwood audio about Torchwood audios, or, more accurately, about the need for Torchwood audios – the show is so messy, so confusing (really, it is this audio landscape, a pandemonium of self-contradicting fragments), that you need to talk about it, you need to discuss it, you need to try and control it through the psychic structures you can build. What can I say? It’s brilliant. And it definitely shows a sort of author streak, too – I’m not too familiar with Scott Handcock’s work in general, but his script for the Ninth Doctor Chronicles, “The Other Side”, showed that same kind of preoccupations, that same desire to examine the loose ends of the show through high-concept storytelling.

SCRIBBLES: What’s more, as the opening sequence suggests, and as I immediately posted on Tumblr after hearing this: Tosh lives. A corrupted, Torchwood-ified Tosh transcends her death and rises up, like a screwed up phoenix. She’s not herself anymore, and it’s not really her, and yet, it unmistakably is. The choice to present it with her voice in these sequences of resurrection conveys that meaning quite overtly. She is now a virus intent on revenge and its own strange notions of justice, but it looked into her memories and now speaks with her voice, it has total access to her identity as data. It’s pretty notable, too, what this computer zombie version of her is set to do. Being the aftereffects of Torchwood, it can only strive to collapse in on itself and corrupt itself, as is the way for the world of Torchwood. In a way, like you suggested, that almost feels like a comment on the marginal space of spinoff media for a dead television series: all it can do is eke out a half life of CD files and downloads, extrapolating on the corrupted original run and building new stories out of that death and decay. If nothing else, “Cascade” is in on the joke of its own existence. This is a story that could only exist as a tie-in audio for a show that’s finished. This is a story that couldn’t have been told before “Exit Wounds” given how it is built from that episode’s dramatic weight, and couldn’t have been told after, due to the change of format to serialization and due to, you know, Tosh being dead.

TIBERE: I wonder where they’re going to take that thread. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, it works very well in and on itself, but if they have a sort of long game going on, it could lead to some incredibly compelling stories. After all, these audios love to play on the theme of the imperfect mirror, the uncanny valley, they love asking questions about the humanity of the not-quite-human – from duplicates to ghosts to time-displaced persons. The range’s coherency is always admirable, really.

SCRIBBLES: I’ve said before that my ideal Torchwood follow-up would be Tosh getting resurrected and pitted against Torchwood, building off the tensions of enslavement in her backstory. This, well, this is close enough to that for me. Like you say, it doesn’t have to go anywhere. But gosh, wouldn’t it be glorious to see this Tosh virus confront Jack about her? After all, the virus judges Tosh as innocent, guilty of “zero infringements,” even if she doesn’t feel that in her heart because of that past, in a nice little implicit nod to the events of “Fragments”. It genuinely seems to wish her well. It’d be interesting if it tried to apply its instinct for justice to the structure that oppressed her and imprisoned her. You hear that, Scott Handcock? Sequel, please!

TIBERE: I think they still haven’t quite confronted the full ugliness of her situation yet – this feels like it’s more centered around her death, and the general notion of Torchwood’s corrupting potential than around the specifics of her predicament (although, there certainly are a number of meaningful echoes – it’s a very precise script where almost everything seems to signify something). “Zone 10” came closer to it, with the parallels between her and the stranded cosmonaut. But it’s not a reproach, really, just an observation that there is still a huge, huge lot of storytelling ground left to cover for these audios.

SCRIBBLES: Really, I think, that’s why I’m more excited for Tosh releases than I am for any other. Not only do I love the character, but she offers so much narrative room to dig into and respond to. And “Zone 10” and “Cascade” both engage with that wonderfully. These are two tremendously cerebral and experimental releases that build themselves around the questions of Tosh’s identity and treatment by Torchwood. And they show that there’s plenty of room left for this range to move forward, many stories left to tell. Like Tosh the virus says, “Torchwood is never the end, not for the likes of me.” The corrupted, weird corners of this dark and wonderful show can’t stay dead. Suzie comes back. Now so does Tosh. And so does Torchwood. In weird, half-life ways. But ways that seize whatever life they have and make the most of it. Torchwood’s new audio life continues to be one of the best things to have ever happened to the series.

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