What is it about Meat that seems particularly urban?
There have been many science fiction stories about alien meat before. I would characterise these as being of two kinds. The first is where the alien erupts from the meat; food reveals itself as something more. In the second, the meat is silent, and its silence conceals a secret; these stories are usually initiated by the elimination of someone who knows the secret. Our episode is neither of these kinds. The alien meat is not a mutagen or a seed, yet this inertness hides no source that society cares about, nor any action that shapes society. The truck crashes not when the meat goes on a rampage or sabotaged brakes fail. The truck simply crashes. It’s a traffic accident.
Thinking about old alien meat stories further, I would say that their teleology is different to that of our episode. In those old stories, alien meat is often deliberately created or sourced. Regardless of whether original agency is involved, the alien meat is most often distributed with a purpose beyond nutrition: the distributors are in thrall to meat invaders, or they wish for personal power. In our episode the meat simply washes up the shore one day, and some small time crooks see a business opportunity. At the end of the day they want nothing more than to make some money.
Though most stories have alien meat distributed with a higher purpose, there are still a great number where it is distributed with nothing but profit motive in mind. These are closer to our episode but differ still. In those stories there is always something strikingly wrong that the distributors are doing. On the one hand this takes us back to my earlier characterisation of deliberate origin; it is never just a one-off thing in the older stories. On the other hand this shows a moral tone that our episode lacks. It is not clear that the crooks are being especially cruel to the alien, and its meat violates no taboo and causes no adverse affects. Torchwood’s interest is vague as always, its in their jurisdiction because it came through the rift.
An important figure in alien meat stories is the scientist. He’s sometimes the one who is killed in a cover up when the meat is silent. Other times he’s brought in to either explain and either justify or abhor what he’s done. Here, Vic doesn’t seem up to role, not even believing the alien is extraterrestrial. Ianto zaps him unconscious before he really gets to say anything to Owen. Again, Torchwood have a job to do, and they know how to do it.
The theme here is disinterestedness. It’s an accident that the alien turns up. It’s opportunistic of the crooks to take meat from it. It’s just a job for Torchwood.
Following the money, we have another form of disinterestedness, that of scale. Old stories of alien meat invariably work on a world scale, which is paradoxically a consequence of taking their story-telling model from the village. Toshiko’s leading line to Ianto notwithstanding, it seems unlikely the crooks could ever go global. Currently they have one small warehouse and one small truck. Even if the alien kept growing, kept under control, for years, could it ever compete with, say, the nine million cows slaughtered annually, producing two million tonnes of meat, in Australia alone? The crooks are just one meat supplier of many in a city like Cardiff.
This last point sounds like misplaced realism. Stories like this aren’t told to investigate the economic theory and logistics of alien meat production, it’s true. Traditionally these stories are told with some eye to the unpleasant realities underlying modern life, especially industrial hygiene, social conditioning, or animal rights. Our episode, I think, defuses these readings with the points of disinterest I noted earlier. It is a movement towards reifying genre elements, however what we end up with isn’t realism, but a dramatisation of the urban condition.
(The above are just elements specific to an episode that reinforces the fundamental urbanism of the show which is located in the Torchwood team itself. This urbanism is one of the key differences between Torchwood and village-as-city-as-world shows like Angel.)