This episode – ‘The One With An Alien In It’ – toys with audience expectations that some sort of extraterrestrial force or technology will finally be unveiled… only for the Brain Spawn beastie (trailed in ‘Next Time’ promos) to be rapidly dispatched amid a flurry of intertextual references to Doctor Who and, potentially, the child-orientated Sarah Jane Adventures. The Trickster’s brigade may have been responsible, but it’s hard not to see this gambit as a narrative trick played on audiences. And it’s not the only one, because this is an expertly structured episode in which the frame story (Gwen driving Jack to a hand-over) and nested flashback (Jack and Angelo meeting in 1920s America) merge to provide a final twist.
Forget the alien, though. The real pay-off this week isn’t a sci-fi creature at all, but rather three men joining arms to form a triangular motif. Yes, the spinning-triangle baddies have their apparent origins in a pact sealed with the manly grasping of wrists. Because these three men acquired the rights to none other than Captain Jack himself. The Miracle, and all its corruption of humanity, seemingly stems from treating Harkness as a commodity to be bought, and owned, and cashed-in. He’s given religious meaning by the crowd that repeatedly torments and kills him – a “miracle” and a “blessing” – but only before a price is put on this sacredness. Welcome to the land of the free.
Oh, the delicious irony, the implicit subversion of co-branding and international TV partnerships. Russell T. Davies must have been chortling – insert various “hoorays” here – when he first pitched this storyline to Fox executives (Starz later stepped in, of course), waiting to see whether they were buying. And whether they’d get the subtext. Because on my reading, the meat of this episode is that moment when American (immigrants?) purchase Jack: the ultimate villains of the piece are those who assume they can own a piece of Harkness’s distinctiveness, manipulating him as a commodity to their own ends, as well as satisfying their own desires for a shortcut to immortality. Theirs is the sin; the immorality of assuming that everything can be bought and sold.
It’s an odd story to decide to tell when attempting to sell Torchwood, as a commodity, to American TV executives. Or perhaps it was the only story for an auteur to focus on when writing for new imagined paymasters, and looking to hawk Harkness to new global markets. The spinning-triangle baddies even have their own logo that pops up when they’re in touch via telecomms, rather like a TV network, say. Perhaps all that earlier stuff about US-UK cultural differences was just a distraction from the fact that Miracle Day is actually about itself at a deeper, narrative level. And about what can be done with Captain Jack as (a) property.
In Stacey Abbott’s excellent edited collection, The Cult TV Book, there’s a piece by one Jane Espenson entitled ‘Playing Hard to ‘Get’: How to Write Cult TV’. Among many observations on the importance of cult TV’s storylines and characters, Espenson includes the following:
Captain Jack Harkness is as complex a character as you’re likely to find… Moral shadings and unexpected weaknesses, and the way a character evolves over the course of a show, these all help make complicated people. When an audience has to bring contradictions into focus as they try to understand the totality of a complex character, they cannot help but get involved. Characters that defy easy analysis invite investment (2010: 49—50).
And ‘Immortal Sins’ – written by none other than Jane Espenson – restores Captain Jack to narrative centrality and complexity in a series where he has sometimes seemed to be an afterthought, competing for screen time with new additions Rex, Esther, Jilly and Oswald, as well as being rendered less powerful by his newfound mortality.
But this week is all about Jack.
In reality, it’s always been all about Jack, but to keep viewers (and US TV execs?) guessing, the unfolding storyline has presumably had to hold that fact back for a while. (It was hinted at in eps one and two, only to be set to one side once Phicorp took precedence in the narrative game). Following her own advice in ‘How To Write Cult TV’, Espenson sketches out a complex Jack who comes back for his lover and companion Angelo Colasanto, but who tells Gwen he’ll rip the skin from her skull if it means he gets to live on. And this Jack cannot forgive Angelo’s mistakes, despite his immortality. Angelo is likewise depicted with deft vibrancy. His religious beliefs come into conflict with his sexuality, ultimately causing him to radically misjudge Jack and fear him as a sort of devil. Religion and capitalism: twin devils of the Davies-verse.
There are also many wonderful Espenson moments: Jack not knowing the name of Gwen’s mother; that initial seduction scene as Jack and Angelo discuss their passion in a het-coded way; the fleeting lifecycle of a firebird. And there’s a real sense of Jack being on a mission-of-the-week, meaning that the flashback feels somewhat like a throwback to Torchwood series one and two. Jack’s history reminds viewers of the programme’s history. But although Espenson was writing about audience and fan devotion when she noted that characters like Jack Harkness “invite investment”, in the end it’s a different and more literal investment that Jack invites here by unwisely sharing his secret with a mixed-up bootlegger. This series was initially entitled Torchwood: The New World before morphing into Miracle Day. Somewhere out there, faithful viewer – perhaps in Russell T. Davies’s mythical bottom drawer – I like to imagine there’s an even earlier draft. Torchwood: Bought By American Baddies.