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 Dying Room”, by newcomer writer Lizzie Hopley! Seat comfortably, don’t mind the handcuffs, and take some more water, here we go …
TIBERE: It’s a nice one. Not necessarily what I’d call a highlight of the range, but considering the range is about the strongest thing BF does at the moment, that’s not exactly a condemnation. It’s a very effective way to expand the Torchwood universe, a bit like “The Dollhouse” was, except instead of finding new and weird territories to explore, it digs into the show’s past, channeling the aesthetics of something like “To the Last Man” or the Victorian bits of “Fragments”. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s a very-well executed story that builds up to some great, incredibly fun twists – with a dash of utterly lovely politics. And dammit, when you examine what the story is about, at the end of the day, it’s about the most Torchwood thing to ever Torchwood – the spirit of the show and of the range is alive and kicking here. And as always, it’s a joy.
SCRIBBLES: It proves “The Dollhouse“ wasn’t a one-off, that’s the main thing to take from it. In our eyes, I think, it’s safe to say that’s a good thing. Like that story, it takes the unique lens of Torchwood and extrapolates it to a different genre to examine the results. The results are, while not quite on the level of Juno Dawson’s camp masterpiece, very enjoyable, and what’s more, very Torchwood, particularly once all the pieces of the story fall together. It finds a bit of space for Torchwood’s campy queer lens in the midst of a Nazi exploitation torture story, and makes that the triumph to focus on. Not going to blow anyone away or convert them to the range, but it’s nice to come out of the third strong series of these audios with a story I just can’t help but say to, “That was so, so Torchwood,” even in the absence of any characters from the show.
TIBERE: I’m not sure this is an audio where you really can make big bold thematic statements about its purpose and stuff – the ideas are clear, and clearly exposed. It’s more based around a few strong concepts and a sense of aesthetics than an actual point to make.
SCRIBBLES: There is one moment, though, that’s one of my favorite thematic moments in the whole range. When LeDuc and Berber talk about their change in outlook as a result of the war, I was blown away. Just in general, when examining history, the disillusionment of this period often comes up as a recurring theme in texts. And here, that gets mapped onto the core disillusionment with the utopian future that Torchwood is all about. The twenty-first century, rather than a shining beacon of humanity’s progression and technological advancement, becomes something corrupt and stagnating, a source of great horrors. And that has real world precedent, right there in World War II. The sheer power of that thematic juxtaposition single-handedly justifies the existence of this audio in of itself.
TIBERE: Oh god, yeah, that’s a fantastic scene. I was almost certain that they were going to drop a “the twentieth century is when everything changes”. It’s makes a very deep point about the nature and purpose of Torchwood, I feel – they like to describe themselves as these all-powerful vanguards that defend the Earth against the most dangerous threat possible; but the fact is, each new century is going to bring its own new forms of dangers, new ways to make “everything change”. Torchwood is a cyclical process, that keeps on giving, that goes through countless different iterations, from the Russian one to that German Institute that is discussed here. And I guess you can also add the Forge, too, if we’re digging into BF canon.
SCRIBBLES: It reminds me a lot of “The Torchwood Archive“’s blurring together of that opening monologue to emphasize that. Really, this audio in general exquisitely encapsulates the thematic statements of “The Torchwood Archive“, which can never be a bad thing.
TIBERE: Back to your point about the different ways to view the twentieth century – I feel like this is something that makes the choice of a Paris setting especially inspired. At the turn of the century, it was the City of Lights, the place where you had the Universal Expositions, where the Eiffel Tower was built – a place of culture and arts, and also the birthplace of Auguste Comte’s positivist ideology (ie: science and techniques improve constantly, and therefore the world is bound to get better if we submit it to the rule of reason). And then, the wars come, and disillusion strike. The monsters that the Nazis turn into are not that different of the way a writer like Céline has painted post-war humanity. And really, even the choice of the hotel is relevant here – you have a place of richness and culture; dance, and wine and champagne, and music; and the monsters howling in the night just next to it.
SCRIBBLES: Paris is really a character in this story, isn’t it. “Look at her,” says Berber, and it sort of gets the whole point of that. Paris, like you say, was this utopian beacon, and now it’s withering. It’s a personification, really, of the core corruption Torchwood is all about examining, through the choice in setting. And, I guess, arguing for the transcendence of it, through gay love and rage. Making Gabriel LeDuc’s lover rather than his son was quite an excellent twist for that, even if I did predict it right from the off. A gay art-lover is the weapon against the Nazis just by making them themselves. Torchwood’s queerness is its radical power to overcome such corrupt horror. Delightfully, he doesn’t even die, and it’s barely even dwelt upon. Of course he doesn’t. Gay love just blew up Nazis, it’s not the place for death.
TIBERE: It’s a terrific twist, honestly. That only becomes better when the other penny drop – and god, Simon Russell Beale slays in this story. His U-turn from “frightened victim” to “cold, Hartman-like Torchwood killer” is a thing a beauty. There’s of course the delightful irony of having the Nazis killed by a biological attack specially conceived to target Aryan DNA. It’s glorious – the audio does insist on it a bit too much, admittedly, but eh. It’s a clever idea, I can let it slide.
SCRIBBLES: I also can’t have musings on the Gabriel twist without pointing out the fact that we just had a Torchwood audio about weaponized daddy kink. I’d shake my head, but honestly, that’s the most Torchwood thing ever.
TIBERE: Considering you’re an avid “Dream Daddy” player, don’t you think shaking your head would be a little hypocritical?
SCRIBBLES: Oi, shut it, you. I can play a game about dating dads if I wanna. But seriously, that was a really delightful plot twist that fits in every way with the queer insanity I love this show for. Lizzie Hopley, like all the other writers for this range, just gets Torchwood as a series. That shines through no matter what characters or genres it gets taken to, because what’s wonderful about Torchwood extends beyond just its wonderful characters to a unique tonal and thematic place.
TIBERE: A nice political touch I enjoyed was the way they portrayed torture, too. I mean, I’m hardly an expert in the historical practices employed by the Nazis (although, if I recall correctly the stuff Klaus Barbie did, it had more to do with electricity), but when I hear “waterboarding”, I’m not thinking Germany. There’s a nice point about torture and queerness and politics somewhere in there – doesn’t really get developed, though. Same thing about the class dynamics – there’s potential to contrast the quiet “professor of philosophy” and madame Berber, that’s actively engaged in resisting, doing black market, and so on. Not to forget she’s named after a North African ethnic group, which doesn’t seem neutral, especially considering the French history with North Africa (spoiler alert: imperialism, torture, and killings).
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, as they muse in the extras, there’s a nice ambiguity as to whether that’s really who LeDuc is. It could all just be cover.
TIBERE: I really like the character, I must say. Wouldn’t spit on more stories with him – hopefully (and let’s throw a prayer in “The Dollhouse”’s way, too) they will get back to him in a further series.
SCRIBBLES: As for Berber, I think she was a delight. How can I not love a woman who swans about chuckling about how camp Nazis are to their faces? She may not have been Torchwood initially, but she’s absolutely Torchwood material. Just needs to get herself a few lovers of a variety of genders next and she’ll be fully qualified.
TIBERE: I dunno, I think she has that already covered.
SCRIBBLES: Better yet. And you bring up the class angle with her and resistance, how can we miss the key feature of that, the hotel itself? So many conversations are given over to discussing elite tastes in food and wine and dress repairs (particularly good scene, that last one, with how the shop was replaced so swiftly), and that in a way becomes a form of resistance itself for them, maintaining a degree of personal status and dignity when it’s been stripped from them.
TIBERE: Enjoying life and being an hedonist in dire circumstances. That’s very French – I’m reminded of the cultural responses there was after the 2015 terror attacks; people went back to reading Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”, and made a show out of living their lives at their fullest and enjoying it after the tragedy. I think that’s a very French story, in all honesty – I’m reminded of at least two entire high-profile movies from my country that were about two people talking in an hotel just before a war ends, making negotiations for the future and enjoying little things. Specifically, “Diplomatie” and “Le Souper”. You know, it’s really nice to feel pandered to that way. They should make more stuff about France. France is good. But still, it remains a Torchwood story above all – there’s a nice balance of tones and style. Much like they play with the most obvious and basic tropes of Nazisploitation genre (mutant Nazis! Mad science! We’re not quite at the “werewolf women of the SS” point, but it’s not far!) while still exploring the real horror of the war and taking them seriously.
SCRIBBLES: And, of course, the subtext implicit in the genetic extermination and manipulation abilities as the Nazi wet dream is made explicit as it can get, with a gloriously over the top speech by the SS interrogator Grau, merging the camp melodrama of Nazis as pulp villains to the very real horror of their ideology that still gets paraded to this day as a scientific pursuit despite being nothing of the sort.
TIBERE: It’s the right sort of approach to adopt in 2017, I feel. It’s still important to show just how terrible were the Nazi atrocities, but you don’t want to make them look good while painting them as super-villains. Here, there’s always a sense of ridiculousness to them, that doesn’t erase their nastiness and the danger they represent, but completes it, undercutting their potential grandeur. It’s a very smart, very acute look on fascism. I’m reminded of a very good video by Lindsay Ellis about Mel Brooks and the difficulty of satirizing the Reich, that I’m gonna link here – it expands on that point quite nicely.
SCRIBBLES: That’s always the difficult line to toe, isn’t it? Providing the validation of fascism by treating it seriously to explore its horrors, or brushing them off as a camp baddie to fight Indiana Jones and the like and erasing the very real human capacity for such awfulness. There’s been some strong examination of fascism in Doctor Who, and some very not strong. Bernice Summerfield, for example, has lent herself to some magnificent takes.
TIBERE: Is that the point where I rave about Bernice’s adventures “Just War” and “Closure” being two of the absolute best stories in sci-fi fiction, ever?
SCRIBBLES: Always a good time for that. Klein, as well, really nailed it, though her latter stories also show the difficulties in that kind of storytelling. But on the other hand, you have something like “Genesis of the Daleks“, which you have of course ranted about a fair bit, which no matter how beloved or impactful it is as a story, doesn’t really encapsulate the social issues it engages with. I think Torchwood, in its innately campy environment for exploring existential horror, is really better suited than most for that. And as a result, “The Dying Room” toes the line pretty deftly. The racist cruelty of the Nazis is never once erased, nor the damage that’s done as a result. Like I said earlier, the bit about the dress shop Berber used to visit being wiped away silently is really quite a chilling picture of those realities hitting the mundane world. But we also get the high camp joy of kinky gay love (given the term DILF is used in Aliens Among Us, can we start calling daddy kink a Torchwood motif?) killing Nazis. I suppose you could even look at that as a validation of why we need the camp, taking the mickey out approach to fascism. Overthrowing human xenophobia and cruelty with laughter and taboo sex.
TIBERE: It’s the most Who thing ever. Camp and ridiculousness as a weapon of attack. It’s not different from the Doctor’s electric eels in “The Girl Who Died”, or Jack shooting a giant ray of Gay Energy at the Devil himself. And as always, it’s glorious. I’m now eagerly waiting for the 2027 audio where they destroy the alt-right by throwing copies of “Dream Daddy” at them.
SCRIBBLES: Ideal. Till then, while “The Dying Room“ won’t revolutionize Torchwood or its fanbase, it feels like a really nice place to be ending its third monthly series with Big Finish in. Not formula breaking, but a stable reassertion of the joys of the show and an expansion of its mythos, bringing what’s more a new woman writer to the table who shows she knows her stuff. Torchwood really and truly feels back and in the middle of its stride.
TIBERE: And, you know. We’ll always have Paris.
- 6: “Visiting Hours” (Scribbles 6, Tibere 6)
- 5: “The Dying Room” (Scribbles 5, Tibere 5)
- 4: “The Office of Never Was” (Scribbles 3, Tibere 4)
- 3: “Corpse Day” (Scribbles 4, Tibere 2)
- 1: “The Dollhouse” (Scribbles 1, Tibere 2) and “torchwood_ cascade_ CDRip.tor” (Scribbles 2, Tibere 1)