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An analysis of Torchwood 2.05 “Adam”
Contains major spoilers!
1. Analysis of memory and forgetting
[1.1] In Torchwood 2.05 “Adam,” the Torchwood team has a new colleague: Adam. He’s their new best friend: Jack’s confidant (he recruited Adam 3 years ago!), Tosh’s lover (it’s the 1-year anniversary of their first kiss!), all-around great guy. He’s even in a clip or two in the show’s opening credits. But despite all their memories of times shared, our heroes have only known him for 2 days. Adam is an alien who only has reality when others have memory of him. He feeds that memory into people by touch, and by so doing, he constitutes his own existence.
[1.2] Torchwood 2.05 “Adam” is interesting to me because of the ways it explores the fascinating historical idea of the trace. In addition, it explores the idea that memories comprise the person, and if one alters, so the other necessarily must. The character of the aptly named Adam takes this one step further: memories literally create a person, and without them, he is literally nothing. He would disappear, his existence restricted, doomed to drift in the Vortex. To exist, he must construct false memories in others, thereby creating a false reality in a house of cards that, as we learn, can’t be sustained for long.
[1.3] Paul Ricoeur, in Memory, History, Forgetting, notes that there are three kinds of trace: the kind of trace associated with our brains, which can be analyzed by brain scans and neuroscientific analysis; the trace of affect, or the inscription of something onto the soul; and the more usual documentary trace, which comprises written records, archives, and writing. In “Adam,” all three kinds of trace are in evidence, with the last kind, documentary trace, resulting in Adam’s discovery and downfall.
2. Literal brain trace
[2.1] Adam is the agent of the first kind of trace, that of the literal trace in the brain. His very touch affects the brain, feeding in memories that contextualize his presence: playing basketball together, sharing a cup of coffee, laughing—simple day-to-day stuff that embeds him in their reality. It’s unclear whether his touch also imbues his victim with an emotional context. I think it more likely that the memories he weaves evoke the victim into creating the associated emotion. But the end effect is the same: the Torchwood team love him. They think he’s a great guy, one of them, a real pal. However, his touch may have untoward side effects. When he incorporates himself into Gwen’s memory, she loses all memory of her fiance, Rhys. In fact, when she goes home, she takes him for an intruder and holds him at gunpoint. She thinks he is stalking her, and the documentary traces of their life together—photos of the two of them together decorating their shared apartment—she takes to be Photoshopped fakes created by a deluded madman. Even the engagement ring she wears and Jack’s insistence that Rhys is her fiance do not convince her because she does not recognize him, and she feels no emotional resonance when she sees him. Jack attempts to remind her by recording Rhys describing memories of the two of them together, but for Gwen, it’s all dim, long ago, barely remembered.
[2.2] Similarly, Adam’s alterations of the Torchwood team’s brains affects their personalities. Although Adam has only been with them for two days, the changes in the characters are marked. Normally prim Tosh’s sweater is daringly low cut, and she moves with an air of self-possession and confidence she normally lacks. Her memories tell her that she is dating Adam and that the two of them are in love. Dashing Owen, now wearing geeky glasses and a dull cardigan, is shy and rule-bound, and in a nice reversal from canon, he moons after Tosh instead of vice versa, quite unlike his normal ladies’ man self. By incorporating himself into their memories, Adam has changed their personalities.
[2.3] Adam tries to convince Jack that he has somehow brought their true selves to the fore: “You didn’t remember who you were. I helped you. Look at Owen, all his cynicism gone. He’s a different man now—selfless, happy. And Toshiko too. She’s never been this confident.” Adam believes that rather than fundamentally changing them, he has brought them back to their real selves—he believes that he has helped them “remember.” This implies a truthful sort of existence beyond memory, a fundamental self that transcends the trace. Yet can such a thing exist? Adam is merely posturing, I think, buying time for himself by trying to convince Jack that things are better this way. Still, the undeniable connection between alteration of memory and alternation of character imply that memory’s alteration can be far-reaching, a cascade of cause and effect created by the mind as it sorts through available information in order to construct a worldview.
3. The trace of affect
[3.1] The second kind of trace is the trace of affect, and the character who articulates this change is Jack. Ianto keeps a handwritten diary, and when he examines it, he realizes that everyone is in it except Adam. When he confronts Adam, Adam retaliates by attacking Ianto and feeding terrifying memories into Ianto’s brain—new memories are of Ianto stalking and killing three women. Overcome with remorse, Ianto confesses to Jack, who is unable to reconcile this new information with the impression in his soul that Ianto is incapable of being a serial killer. Even after a lie detector test proves Ianto guilty, Jack refuses to believe it: “No. This is not you. Something’s changed you. You are not a murderer.”
[3.2] Similarly, whereas Gwen loses all memory of Rhys as a side effect of Adam’s insertions, Jack sees his long-dead father and brother everywhere he goes: his little brother, Gray, in a holding cell, then again on a street corner; his father in a street. A traumatic memory associated with emotion has broken free, and once again, he’s the boy who was unable to save his family when the invaders came (Jack says, “I let go of his [Gray’s] hand. It was the worst day of my life. It’s the last thing I want to remember.”). Adam holds this crucial memory hostage in a last-ditch attempt to retain corporeality even as Jack’s fruitless search for his long-dead brother illuminates his character. He will always try to save Gray, over and over again, we understand. It’s what Jack does.
4. Documentary trace
[4.1] The third kind of trace, that of documentary evidence, is Adam’s undoing. Ianto’s diary is just the beginning. When Jack searches the Hub’s CCTV records, he finds a visual record of Adam locked in combat with Ianto, feeding in the negative memories. “Remember it,” Adam’s voice repeats over and over. “Remember it.” Of course it’s not remembering; it’s completely false. Still, the human mind has been altered and it becomes reality, with worldviews changed to match, memory given undeniable primacy.
[4.2] Jack’s gut feeling, his memory of affect, led him to seek documentary evidence, which in turn supported his gut feeling. He knows that Adam is not one of them because the computer records of Adam Smith’s existence have only recently been updated, because he has records of Adam attacking Ianto, because Adam has only been on 2 days’ worth of CCTV, because Gwen forgot Rhys. But the impetus of all this is Jack’s affect. He tells Adam, “All I know is that when I think of my team, I see you there but I don’t feel anything for you—no pride, no warmth.”
[5.1] The cure for memory is forgetting, of course. Jack tells the team, “Our memories define us. Adam changed those memories, changed who were are. Now I have to help you all go back. Find a memory that defines you. Rediscover who you are.” He asks them to think of something that makes them who they are, and then he hands them each an amnesia pill, which will wipe out the last 48 hours. This, we understand, will be Adam’s downfall. With no one to remember him, with no trace left, he will cease to exist. Each character is defined by something: Owen by rage at his family, Tosh by the comfort of math, Gwen by Rhys, Ianto by his lost love. The last person to take a pill is Jack himself, after Adam makes a last-ditch attempt to use memory to pull in Jack and permit Adam existence.
[5.2] When they all awake, Jack has ensured that all three kinds of trace of Adam are gone. The memory pill wiped out the brain’s literal memories, and with it went affective relationships. All the evidentiary trace has been erased as well: CCTV records, relevant computer files, all wiped. The only thing that’s left is the alien box that they presumably opened, thus releasing Adam. When Jack opens it, only sand is inside. Perhaps it’s a sign that Adam has been reduced to constituent parts. Perhaps it’s a link to Jack’s memories of his past and his long-lost family. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for time and memory, sand slipping through the fingers.