Daily Archives: 11 July 2009

The Tribulations of Torchwood (SPOILERS!)

Unlike some, I’m neither a Torchwood hater or a “Rusty” hater (the habit of calling Russell Tiberius Davies “Rusty” is the Whovian equivalent of referring to a certain political party as “ZaNuLiebore”). The first season of Torchwood completely failed to live up to its potential, to be sure, but it had its moments and season two ironed out most of the creases. While the weeklong story format would certainly have lead to some changes, I was expecting pretty much more of the same.

How wrong could I be?

Torchwood: Children of Earth was a big meaty lump of good old fashioned paranoid and bleak British TV sci-fi, actually far more reminiscent of Quatermass than Doctor Who. Okay, it still had flashes of the old Torchwood’s silliness – episode two, with all its gratuitous nekkidness and concrete entombment, contained almost as much ridiculousness as the whole of season two combined – but much of that was to wrong foot the audience so it wouldn’t be prepared for the very different direction the series took for the rest of the week.

In fact, the way the writers played with expectations was a particularly clever aspect of the series. The first episode started off as Torchwood-as-usual. As the first series ended with the death of two key cast members, the impression created was that this story would be about how they rebuild the team. As such, we are introduced to Doctor Rupesh Patanjali – an obvious replacement for Owen Harper. Lois Habiba, who is clearly a dab hand with computers, is set up as the next Tosh. We’re introduced to Ianto and Jack’s respective families, which is very cosy. So far, so very conventional. But by the end of “Day One”, Dr Patanjali is dead and revealed as a deep cover government agent and the Torchwood Hub has been destroyed thanks to a bomb stuck in Jack’s ribcage (immortality has its drawbacks). It quickly becomes apparent that this story is going to be bigger and more climactic than anything we’ve seen before.

For all that though, while the scope was bigger, this didn’t mean bigger explosions (the biggest happened on Day One) and kewl CGI monsters. What we got instead was proper sci-fi, which is more about ideas than special effects. The bug eyed monsters are never fully seen and aren’t even given a proper name; all we get to see is the occasional claw jutting out from the mist and a particularly disturbing reveal about what had happened to the children given away in 1965.

Indeed, the monsters themselves, while unpleasant, aren’t the true villains of the piece. It turns out they are little more than bullying drug addicts. The real horror is how the people – and in particular the government – respond. What’s worse, that established rule of modern sci-fi – that with a bit of spunk and an inspiring leader, the human race can beat anything – is left wanting.

So it is that the cabinet sits down and casually discusses what criteria it is going to use to decide which children it sacrifices to the 456, leading to the immortal line “And if we can’t identify the lowest achieving 10% of this country’s children, then what are the school league tables good for?” (I got told off for laughing at that line too loud). We are left asking, would we do it differently? I’m sure everyone likes to think that they would have the moral fortitude to insist that the children had to be selected at random, but there is a certain cold logic to it (after all, could you really operate a ‘random’ policy in practice, and wouldn’t the lowest performing schools be the least likely to stand in the way of the military suddenly appearing and demanding their children? Somehow I doubt Eton would stand for it). A highly political drama (and it is surely no coincidence that Brian Green’s name remarkably similar to Gordon Brown, another Prime Minister famed for sitting back and letting other people take the blame), at one point the 456 asks – quite reasonably – why it is that the human race is so precious about giving up its children in this way while being entirely comfortable with daily infant mortality rate of 29,000. The first instinct of government is to give up the children of failed asylum seekers (no doubt the BNP are preparing a press release right now to denounce the BBC’s low estimate of just 62 failed asylum seeking children in the UK at any given time).

Meanwhile, Captain Jack decides that he won’t stand for it, confronts the 456 threatening revolution and… gets Ianto killed in the process. By the end of the story, Jack has thoroughly debased himself and is forced to sacrifice his grandson in a bid to save all the other children. His only recourse is to run away, off planet. To top it all, the most cold-hearted, nasty member of the cabinet ends up replacing the Prime Minister (Britain in the Whoverse seems to go through Prime Ministers on an almost weekly basis). Have you ever seen a programme on the telly that was so utterly anti-heroic?

A lot of people have been very critical of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who output. Some of it, it has to be said, is fair. Davies has two writers rummaging around inside him. One comes up with grandiose stories that end up becoming schmaltzy, soggy messes such as last years’ season finale. But when he is stricter with himself, Davies is capable of pulling off superb drama such as Midnight and Turn Left. Torchwood: Children of Earth was also quite reminiscent of The Second Coming, his pre-Doctor Who collaboration with Christopher Eccleston (the last good thing I’ve seen on ITV and also an example of event television that ran on consecutive nights). I’m a big fan of Stephen Moffatt but while he has proven his ability to do “creepy” he hasn’t thus far shown much of a “dark” side. For every Blink there have been two “everybody lives!” By contrast, even in something as seemingly bland as the Kylie Minogue Christmas Special, Davies set the story up so that all the “good” people died and the “bad” people lived. If Moffat’s Doctor Who lacks this edge, it will be much the poorer for it.

Back to Torchwood, what next? Well, opinion seems to differ on whether they have effectively killed the series or set it up for an exciting reboot. Notwithstanding the fact that bad ratings would almost certainly have killed it, I was left thinking they are planning on the latter option. They even had a bit of foreshadowing: just what was that incident that Ianto referred to “150 years ago” that Jack was somehow mixed up in that was apparently proof that the 456 should back off? But essentially the series will have to start again from scratch, with a new Hub and a new cast (Lois Habiba will presumably be back – and Johnson?). And I really want to find out what is up with the Weevils, and what has happened for Captain John – and Billis? One thing is clear: from here it can’t go back to business as usual. I, for one, really want to see that series.

UPDATE: I finally got around to reading Daddy Richard’s take on the series. Some similar conclusions but much more depth: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four | Day Five