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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

‘Torchwood’ blogging: “They Keep Killing Suzie”

(before commenting, please read the intro to my Doctor Who blogging; the same caveats apply to Torchwood / previous: Episode 7: “Greeks Bearing Gifts”)

Holy crap, ‘Torchwood’ is returning to the BBC for its second season on January 16, and to BBC America on January 26 (and I expect to be able to watch those new episodes shortly after they air in England), and here I haven’t even finished up Season 1 yet. So I’m cracking down on myself and promising to try to get through at least an episode a week, and then to jump right into blogging about the new stuff right away.
We snark about how no one ever dies in science fiction (or in comic books) but still… this is the weirdest extrapolation of that idea ever. Torchwood is a deeply weird show, of course, but it gets weird and profound in this episode. The resurrection glove is one of the most interesting SF objects ever invented, and one of the most disturbing: how awful, to be awakened, however briefly, from death! And the implications such an idea are barely hinted at here. Suzie’s been dead for months, but obviously there’s been some sort of residual activity in her brain — she remembers shooting herself, which suggests that her brain kept working long enough after that moment to write the memory of that to her brain, and her brain is able to wake up after so long, and resume its normal activity: it hasn’t deteriorated. I mean, I know this is all invented fiction, not rigorously researched fact or anything, but still: it’s dealt with plausibly enough, within the realm of fiction, that you sense that there’s lots more to be explored here.

And of course Suzie, having seen what she had seen about some of what the glove can do, might be drawn to a religious support group: the glove challenges all our ideas about what happens when we die. Even if you’re an atheist who doesn’t believe in life after death. The atheistic idea is usually: “Well, there’s nothing. Your brain stops working, and that’s the end of you as a sentient being.” But the possibility that your brain could start up again… and Suzie’s cryptic line about how there may not be a heaven of fluffy clouds and angels playing harps, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there (“There’s something out there in the dark, and it’s moving”)… it’s all deeply creepy and disturbing and — most thrillingly — a new concept of what happens when we die. You don’t actually have to believe it outside the context of the narrative to recognize and appreciate the special intellectual delight in discovering some new extrapolation about an area of human experience that appeared not to offer much in the way of new possibilities short of the invention of an actual Brainstorm device.

This whole episode gives me the screaming heebie jeebies in all its tiny, ugly details (however beautifully they are appointed, from a perspective that values excellent storytelling). Suzie with half her head blown away, and still alive — truly, that is horrific. Suzie who wants to see her father again, and how easily we accept the sentimentality of that — how Suzie’s final meeting with her father plays out is a reminder that “family” is not a cozy concept for everyone. All of Suzie’s belongings being relegated to a storage locker — whatever security implications are involved, Tosh hits it on the nose with how all of our lives can be reduced, in the end, to our accumulated stuff.

That’s a cynical idea, in many ways, one that dispenses with the idea that we are beautiful and unique snowflakes, that we have an impact that outlasts us… except it reinforces that idea, too. Suzie was, well, not a very nice person, and she diminished her own beautiful and unique snowflakeness, perhaps, by her selfishness. She tells Jack that “life is all,” and deems all us sentient creatures “moths around a flame… clinging together in the cold,” which sounds terrible, until you consider that it’s also a plea to make the most of what you’ve got while you’re here. Jack seems to be doing that. And the more he learns about what awaits us after we die, the more it seems he shouldn’t be so ready to die no matter how long he’s destined to live…

Random thoughts on “They Keep Killing Suzie”:

• I mentioned, in my blog on the Doctor Who episode “Idiot’s Lantern,” how ordinary cops seem to know about Torchwood, and how odd that seems, and in comments Ryan H. refers to this episode, what with “Torchwood” emblazoned on the side of the Torchwood SUV, and cops at the crime scene knowing about the organization (“God help me, the stories are true”), but still: I wonder how much all these cops know about Torchwood and its mission. On the other hand, Fox Mulder didn’t seem concerned with keeping the X-files and his mission secret, either.

• Owen’s quip about the “four or five million people” Torchwood has pissed off, and Jack’s rejoinder about that number covering “only the humans,” and the cop’s line about “Torchwood walk[ing] all over this city like you own it” all tie in together with the gritty realism of the new Doctor Who, making these events things not removed from reality, not existing in a realm of fantasy, but impacting real people (human or not) in the real world. Fantasy is fantastic, but stories like these have so much more shock value when they seem to be that much closer to actually happening to you. (Plus, that line about Torchwood and the city hints at all sorts of intriguing stories we’ve yet to see.)

• “I had a boyfriend who used to walk into rooms like that. The grand entrance — got kinda boring. Though he was one of twins, so I put up with it. Twin acrobats. Man, I gotta write that book, maybe even illustrate it.” Man, I love Jack. I suspect a lot of what he says is bluster — not that it’s not true, necessarily, but that he’s not as jolly and carefree as he makes himself out to be. But that only hints at a deeper sensitivity that makes him even easier to love.

• What’s with Jack and Ianto and the stopwatch?

• “That’s the thing about gloves: they come in pairs.” I expect a sequel episode eventually…

(next: Episode 9: “Random Shoes”)

[Torchwood screencap from The Institute]

MPAA: not rated

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