Tag Archives: science fiction

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

Torchwood and the Gay Agenda

Never mind Iain Dale’s Gaygate, I spotted an article about the latest series of Torchwood in which the author, John Scott Lewinski (any relation?), has this spot of wisdom:

And, in case fans weren’t aware, Torchwood boss Captain Jack Harkness (pictured) evidently has occasional homosexual tendencies — as does actor John Barrowman. This reporter wasn’t sure if folks had picked up on that subtle plot point communicated in the show’s whispered subtext during the two previous seasons. That fact seems to eclipse what has become a very good sci-fi show.

Assuming this is sarcasm, WTF? The “gayness” has always been an integral part of Torchwood. If sex has, on occasion, got in the way of good plotting, it hasn’t actually been Captain Jack’s “gayness” – indeed he is the only character whose sexuality hasn’t been annoying in the show.

How on Earth can someone tut about the occasional angst-free gay snog, while ignoring the fact that the series was almost destroyed by Gwen and Owen’s disastrous (and conveniently forgotten about) fling in the first season? Indeed, the ugly sex that has marred the series on occasion has almost entirely been heterosexual. You could make the claim that it is heterophobic (I think it was more a case of trying too hard), you could even make the claim that Barrowman’s scenery chewing has got in the way. But Captain Jack’s omnisexuality is one of the few things the series has got right.

Incidentally, you can still support John Barrowman’s penis on Facebook. Stick it to the Daily Mail!


Related to my previous post, I was a little disappointed by this article, which promised so much yet failed to deliver.

The last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, Gillian Anderson wore pants. There were two Star Trek series at once, which promoted women and minorities and looked at the dark side of the Federation. Cyberpunk reigned supreme. The future was a shiny place — but with dread lurking just beneath its polish. Now that the Democrats have finally scored another grand slam, are we going to see the return of sunny-but-questioning science fiction?

The main thing it lacks is a contrast between sci-fi under Bush with sci-fi under Clinton.

First of all, let’s be clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation was a product of the Reagan/Bush Snr years: there were only one-and-a-half seasons under Clinton; its optimism was entirely driven by the ending of the Cold War. DS9 and Voyager are authentically Clintonian and they took the franchise down a much darker path than their predeccessor. TNG’s two greatest contribution to Star Trek were the rich development of Klingon culture and, of course, the Borg. The former was a rather more optimistic look at Middle Eastern culture than would ever have emerged post-9/11 while the Borg is of course influenced by communism (although these days, anxieties about assimilation of the individual would no doubt be presumed to be anxieties about Islam).

DS9 and Voyager by contrast gave us ideas about living in a divided society. Both Bajoran and Human societies have their culture wars. The Bajorans are also “good” arabs (Bajor = Kuwait/Saudi Arabia) while the Cardassians are the mean old Syrian/Iranians. Meanwhile, with the humans, Trek was able to explore what was increasingly becoming a divided USA, the Maquis being all but cheerleaders for Ruby Ridge and Waco. You could easily imagine B’Elanna Torres blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building.

How does all this contrast with Star Trek in the Bush Jnr era? I’m not the first to observe that Enterprise was the Bush Doctrine in Space. Captain Archer even resembles Dubya. In the first series they seemed to stumble from one major diplomatic incident to the next. The Xindi were as transparent an analogue of Al Qaeda as you are ever likely to get. As for the fourth season… well, I couldn’t tell you because I had given up by that point.

The main difference between Clintonian sci-fi and Bushian sci-fi is that the latter is far more miserablist. Dare I say that doesn’t necessarily make it bad? In Buffy we had a superhero learning that life was hard, while in Angel we had a vampire discovering that superheroics is equally complicated. Both have in spades something which all too often Star Trek lacked: drama. The reboot of Battlestar Galactica may be darker than the original, but it is far superior.

And while in the post-9/11 world we may have lacked the spectacle of Independence Day, we still have hope. Children of Men is about as dark a film as you can get outside of Schindler’s List, but its ending is far more emotionally uplifting than any 90s cheesefest managed to deliver. As I wrote in my Watchmen post below, entropy is a key theme in 90s sci-fi, but there is always some measure of hope, and that leads to a pretty mighty payoff when it is made to work well. Think the ending of Sunshine or the flashes of hopefulness during the darker points in Spider-Man (1 & 2 – the less said about 3 the better, sadly).

How will this change under Obama? Well, the io9 article cited above already points to the new Star Trek film and its return to a 60s ethic. But the transition film, thinking about it, may yet end up being The Dark Knight. Characteristically Bushian in its darkness, the film is riddled appeals to hope and optimism. In a year characterised by elections, one of its key motifs (borrowed from The Long Halloween) is the election slogan “I believe in Harvey Dent” – Obama might have used that one. There surely can be no doubt that this theme about how the hopes and dreams of the people can be embodied in a single good man (even if it is a blond, white man rather than a dark-haired, mixed race man) was tapping into the same undercurrent that Obama’s campaign was also taking advantage of. It ends with not only The Joker defeated, but The Batman recognising the best thing he can do is disappear. The time of madness is at an end.

So, we can probably expect a period of greater optimism in our science fiction. Let’s hope they don’t get too carried away however and shut down their critical faculties. Bush may not have done much for world stability, but he’s been a gift for sci-fi.