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, “The Office of Never Was”!
SCRIBBLES: Rather excellent, all in all. Ianto’s always been a bit of an odd character in Torchwood, a focal point for fandom but rarely explored as the central focus onscreen. This is easily one of the meatiest explorations of him, and of his place in Torchwood. Every character in the series has a bit of darkness to them, and it was clear Ianto did judging by the whole keeping a Cyber-converted woman in the basement incident, but here, we really get to see him stripped down and desperate in a really wonderful way. It’s not quite the tallest triumph of this range, but it is very, very good at what it does, and what it does is something this range could always use. So, highly recommended, really.
TIBERE: It’s James Goss. Surmise. I mean, I know we do tend to praise him maybe a bit too much, and if we keep going a restraining order might be on its way, but still! The man is brilliant, and this is a perfect exploration of why his writing style is so good, and why it fits Torchwood so well. Admittedly, it’s not a revolution or anything, it doesn’t do the kind of things “Cascade” or “The Dollhouse” have done this year, and I think you could say there is a sort of comfortable Torchwood audio formula at work now – the writers have settled into their groove. But eh, said formula is terrific – taking, in every new story, a specific aspect of Torchwood and examining it in very critical, dark and upsetting ways. Can’t really mention what that story does in the spoiler-free part, but it manages to find a new and compelling angle to base a Ianto story on while being utterly faithful to the tone and principles of the show. It’s a lovely conceptual horror tale with absolutely stunning sound work and direction (seriously, can we agree that the TW audios have like, the tightest production work in all of BFdom?), and that’s plenty enough already.
TIBERE: So of course, what this audio is actually about is retcon. And more generally, the themes of work and memory that come with it. I mean, it’s not exactly a complicated concept, but damn, I’m surprised that the main show didn’t do more with it, because it makes a crazy amount of sense. Torchwood, in many respects, is a show about work – about how a policewoman finds a new job, really – and the alienation that comes from said work. Catherine Tregenna’s “Meat” is probably the most explicit statement on the subject. And of course, retcon is perfect for a story about alienation – the Torchwood operatives literally have to re-programm their brains, change their identities to be able to function properly, to deal with the horrors their lives entail. It builds nicely off a beat that was teased in the Before the Fall boxset, which showed Yvonne Hartmann retconning her employees on a regular basis, including the titular “New Girl” at the end of the set. Except of course, Torchwood, the show proper, is about the fall, not what happened before – so it’s not a clear, methodical exploration of a system. It’s about what happens when the system fails, the damages it causes – in that episode, much like in plenty of televised Torchwood, the team is awful at its job, but here, it’s very much the point. It’s about the visceral, properly awful degradation and decomposition of a system and just how much that will fuck with the people that are caught in the thunderstorm. It’s kind of reminescent of “Retail Therapy”, Goss’ Ninth Doctor Chronicle, that we covered here, in a way – except it doesn’t end in happy, uplifting resolution, but in fatalistic gloom, as per usual for Torchwood.
SCRIBBLES: Memory’s been at the forefront of a lot of concurrent Doctor Who media, hasn’t it? As we’ve spoken about before in the UNIT Big Finish series, the use of memory editing by these sorts of organizations is a recurring concern, the core site of ideological and political discourse. Jacqui McGee in particular is a wonderful character from that range defined by her political position through engagement with memory wiping. It’s a tool of social control and oppression, restricting human response for the sake of productivity and harmony.
TIBERE: And really, when you look at it, the conclusion this story arrives at is the exact same “World Enough and Time” came up with – the workers will choose to commit willing self-lobotomy to end the pain the system cause them. James Goss is really good to walk that fine line between paying homage to the past and bathing in the new, recent themes used by the mothership show. Much like the stuff John Dorney and Matt Fitton did with “Doom Coalition”.
SCRIBBLES: Or, perhaps, “The Natural History of Fear,” with its overtly political world built upon memory editing through Doctor Who to create a “happy” and “productive” society. What’s more, it’s about workers, the same sort of exploited employees that “Fall to Earth” brilliantly paid tribute to. While “Before the Fall” paid tribute to the office work environment of Torchwood One and the horrors of teamwork field days and other soulless enterprise, nothing has really dug into that space with such gusto before. In this case, rather than being an optimistic ode to the oppressed worker that Goss’ first Ianto Big Finish audio was, it’s a lament for the horror that environment drives people to do. Juggling the day to day office life with the TV guide and trying to prove oneself when in situations people should in no way reasonably be expected to handle alone, that’s where the tragedy is. Ianto’s actions in this story, mindwiping himself twice-over to forget the massacre he accidentally brought about, call attention to that. It’s his fault, but his fault as a result of a system, like you mentioned, that is a source of alienation and damage. And Ianto is really the perfect lens for that. His character has always been located within that damaging realm. His first tragedy was in trying to save a piece of his life that was his and that he loved after the hubristic downfall of Torchwood One’s offices. Indeed, there’s a rather excellent parallel here between the cyber-converted Torchwood One employees of “Doomsday” and the augmented corporate drones here, both cases of companies thinking they can’t die and messing with things they don’t understand at the expense of the bodily autonomy of their employees. This damage is inflicted upon the employees. They are exploited and dehumanized in the ultimate way. Destroying the workers like Ianto did was probably the right choice, really. They were already probably too far gone, converted by whatever the Committee did. And, again, the Committee is a rather pointed name, pointing to corporate management, isn’t it? But it’s all the same a great horror, Ianto destroying many people in the same exploited position as him. No wonder he can’t bear to remember. Not only is it self-destructive, but it also suggests to the fate working for Torchwood will eventually have for him, like it has for everyone. It’s not just a dangerous job, it’s an exploitative system indicative of a larger social evil.
TIBERE: I like what the Committee is turning into, really. They sort of are the manifestation of the darker sides of Torchwood – who’s already pretty damn dark! -. They’re the alien, evil version of that omnipotent “system”. Hell, as “Torchwood Archive” points out, the Committee and Torchwood are virtually the same, and bound together by centuries and millennia of shared history. Anyway – I brought up Yvonne Hartmann earlier, and I feel like there’s an interesting parallel with the ending of “One Rule” going on here. Both audios end with the protagonist committing an act of unspeakable brutality, but Yvonne just shrugs it off – and even kind of enjoys it – whereas Ianto is traumatized and has to forget. Actually, there’s also “Moving Target” in series 2 that ends that way, with Suzie also traumatized but still functioning, burying the damage, hiding it within her. It’s a sort of trilogy, chronicling the fall of Torchwood, in a way? You can see how this archetype, of the badass secret agent, the Man in Black, is collapsing with time. Which I think is very much tied to the political climate Torchwood was created in – it’s very much a product of the Iraq War. You can’t trust the establishment, the government. There’s something rotten at the heart of the state and it’s slowly collapsing. That’s what “Children of Earth” is all about.
SCRIBBLES: Interestingly, the ever consistent score evokes both those endings, as I recall, with Yvonne and Suzie. There’s a specific musical piece that both those endings use that gets repeated here, I believe.
TIBERE: Really, though, I feel like there’s something utterly fascinating going on at a meta level, here. It’s an audio full of fridge horror. If Ianto was able to forget all that happened here, what else is he hiding? What is the Torchwood team hiding? How many crimes like that have they committed? I feel like the audio intends to get a sort of very specific reaction, intends to make you ask if the TV show you know, if Torchwood, is not actually kind of some propaganda tool, a partial version of the team’s adventures. A whitewashed history, a more politically correct, policed take on the events, where the horror and ugliness have been carefully edited out by the storytellers. It’s kind of continuing what “Cascade” did – having Torchwood corrupt the very basis of storytelling: “Cascade” did it with the tools of the audio medium; and “The Office of Never Was” is all about framing – what stories get told and which ones don’t get a chance to bathe in the spotlight.
SCRIBBLES: And that’s particularly effective given we’ve already had one audio about the construction of Torchwood’s history, “The Torchwood Archive,” in which that entire arc of history was a corrupted one manipulated by a selfish force, that copy of Queen Victoria. God, it sounds weird writing that out.
TIBERE: A very nice touch is the way the security guard is used, I feel – as much as I like the story, it could easily have grown very abstract and a bit off-putting, but she grounds the proceedings nicely. Also, of course the person that ends up paying the price for the screw-ups of both corporate capitalism and government spooks is a woman. Of course.
SCRIBBLES: It was a nice concrete engagement with the existential darkness and individual dehumanization of these systems, wasn’t it? For my money, the best moment of the audio was her telling Ianto about the way corporations die, how they’re standing in its corpse. But everything about her, really, points to that in a wonderful way. Perhaps my favorite touch was the way she couldn’t even remember her own name, and defensively challenged Ianto on whether names really are a necessary thing. Another great detail was her one memory of her brother, was him liking cereal. Cereal’s such a soulless food, isn’t it? Corporate, pumped out, vaguely sugary grains for people in a hurry to get off to school or work in the morning and can’t have a full meal. It’s delicious, of course, or can be, anyway, but it feels like the perfect middle point of the endless circulation of corporations, dehumanization, and the self. I imagine loads of people love cereal like that. It’s not unique. It’s ordinary. And yet it’s all she has to cling to, which is odd and poignant and fascinating. In the limited spaces in oppressive systems people have to distinguish themselves, there’s something to cling to, even if a million others do, too. And, of course, I loved how the office owner pitted her against Ianto, another trapped and helpless and oppressed employee, rather than accepting any responsibility himself. He’s the one who more or less killed them all in the first place, even if Ianto did poison the water.
TIBERE: Although, her freaking out about Ianto is perfectly justified. She believes he’s a killer, and we, of course, automatically assume that it’s wrong, because Ianto isn’t the kind of person that would go around killing people in cold blood. But turns out, yes, he did kill all those people – there’s a nice play between the way we culturally picture murder, you know, serial killer frothing at the mouth and all that jazz, and the way it actually happens – which is, a lot of the time, tied to perfectly normal people doing unspeakable things because they’re told to or think they’re justified. In a way, it’s an audio about the banality of evil, to borrow from Hannah Arendt. If I can quote “Eichmann in Jerusalem” …
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
Not comparing Ianto to a Nazi war criminal here, but still – the principle remains. And it allows for some bloody wonderful storytelling.
SCRIBBLES: The banality of evil, that’s a good way to put it. But what’s more, the shared guilt of evil looms over it. These are complex, oppressive systems the individual gets tangled in, in which moral choice and individual liberation can be difficult. That seems to be something Goss is coming back to a fair bit. Stories like “Fall to Earth,” or Goss’ Ninth Doctor tale, “Retail Therapy,” they really offer a hope outside that oppressive system, don’t they? Outside a world that in trying to survive in one becomes complicit in horrors, that there’s a way to come together in solidarity through that and to overcome it, even just a little. This story, meanwhile, is the other side of it, the cynical take. It’s what happens if there is no way out, just a constant need to float by on empty reality television and drugs and day to day survival as the horrors mount up. It’s depressing, but in a very important and real way, far too relatable, really. Because that’s a place most of us fall into, and try not to think about. And really, what would Torchwood be without the space for taking thematic implications of Doctor Who and beyond to their cynical endpoints and find something poignant in that?