Tag Archives: torchwood

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!

The Triumph of Torchwood

At the start of last year I wrote a post entitled The Trouble with Torchwood detailing everything I thought was so terribly wrong headed about that show’s first season. The second season finished last night so I thought I’d give my review of how I thought it went. In summary: much, much better.

The second series was less a continuation of the last series as it was a reboot. Pretty much all my criticisms were dealt with. The unremittingly dark tone – ditched. The ugly sex – bye bye Guppy’s bum! Stupid characterisation was replaced with emotional intelligence. And not just one but a whole series of metaplots wove throughout the series, giving each of the characters their day in the sun. One recommendation – to ditch Chris Chibnell – was not taken up but given that he is responsible for all of the other improvements, I don’t think we can really begrudge him that. Well done, Chris.

Not everything was perfect. Reframing Ianto as the bimbo love interest got a bit tiresome after a while, although whether I would have been half as irritated if it had been a female character is a moot point. John Barrowman’s scenery chewing seems to have got worse and he seems to be turning into Jon Culshaw’s caricature of him. Freema Agyeman/Martha Jones guest appearance was largely squandered by having her moping about in the background of two of the three episodes she appeared in, both of which largely focussed on Owen. The second episode Sleeper was well acted but plotwise was utterly derivative (has a single science fiction series ever avoided this stock plotline about sleeper agents being “out there”?). Dead Man Walking seemed to ramble in a way that made little sense to me, focusing on a “myth” which seemed to hinge on us believing that medieval plagues were the result of alien beings rather than viruses. From Out of the Rain was the standout worst episode for me, making very little sense (again with the fairy stories) and it was too dependent on the creepiness of the villains who were frankly not all that.

But overall these are minor gripes which were eclipsed by the high points. With the exception of From Out of the Rain even the weaker episodes were misfires which had several strong points. No longer cyphers, the characters were allowed to grow. At the same time, some of the subplots from the last series that were going nowhere (I’m thinking specifically of Owen and Gwen’s relationship) was allowed to die – to be replaced with a triangle between Jack, Rhys and Gwen and a focus on Tosh’s unrequited feelings for Owen. The latter was particularly strongly handled and ended up underpinning the whole series (for reasons that become clear in the final episode).

The scope of the series has been extended. No longer terrified of touching on Jack’s past for fear of treading on the Doctor Who team’s toes, we got to explore 100 years of Torchwood and his own 51st century childhood. In Fragments, we got to see everyone else’s backstory as well – it’s a shame this episode didn’t come earlier in my view. In Adrift, we some idea both of how the rift affects ordinary lives in Cardiff and about the worlds that lie on the other side.

So where does the series go from here (assuming there is to be a series three)? Well, they’ll need to find two new cast members for one thing. Will Martha Jones get to return as a full time cast member rather than attractive guest cypher? With the Doctor having to juggle three assistants by the end of his new series it seems unlikely he’ll carry on with all of them. There are hints of more guest appearances of “Captain John” and the door has been left partway open for a return of the already undead “King of the Weevils” (but not Tosh). Nobody seems to stay in the Torchwood freezer permanently so expect to see more of Gray.

For me though, I’d like to see the third series spend a little bit more time outside of Cardiff and even Wales. Torchwood Three, in Scotland, was mentioned in the pilot episode and it’s high time we got to see it. It would be nice to see some of these other worlds as well, rather than just hearing about them from mad people. More explanation about the Weevils, and just why they are so polite to dead people, would be nice too.

Here’s a thing. By the end of the last series I was frankly bored to tears with the whole exercise and slightly surprised a second series had been commissioned. By the end of this series I’m imagining future plotlines. That’s got to represent a success in anyone’s book.

Meg Review: 267

Megazine 267Quote of the month: “So we’re going to be best friends. At at journey’s end, you’re going to give your best friend Tempest fourteen billion creds. And if you don’t give your best friend Tempest fourteen billions creds… your best friend Tempest is going to tie you down and hammer nails in your skull until you die screaming in hideous agony. Because that’s what friends are for.” Tempest bonding with Johnny in Tempest.

Cover: Jon Davis-Hunt draws Tempest in a dramatic pose.

Strips: Judge Dredd, Armitage, Tempest, Bob the Galactic Bum (reprint)

Features: Two Interrogations (interview with Alan Grant part 2 and Al Ewing), New Comics (Alan Moore and Kev O’Neill’s The League of Extradordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier), New Movies, Dreddlines (letters)

Spoilers… Continue reading Meg Review: 267

The inexorable rise of Chris Chibnell

After the last episode of Torchwood Season One, I offered my own considered thoughts on the programme which, with the exception of the Guppy Fans, appeared to go down quite well.

One of my arguments was that the main problem with the series was the lead writer: Chris Chibnell. In the last series he wrote 4 episodes. For season two, I am now informed, he will be writing 3. Well, that’s a sort of progress, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Chibnell will be returning this weekend with the Doctor Who offering 42. I’m torn on this one. A pre-watershed Chibnell might actually work, as one thing we are guaranteed is that Martha won’t be getting jiggy with the Doctor (or, to follow the Torchwood habit of giving all the sex to the ugly annoying sidekick, K9). On the other hand, and I’m guessing here, but I suspect the name of the episode has less to do with Douglas Adams and more to do with Jack Bauer. A 42 minute episode in real time? This is either going to work very well or very badly.

I’m magnanimous enough to hope it will be the former.

The Trouble with Torchwood

So that was Torchwood Season One, then. Hmmm… It certainly had its moments, but overall I think it was a serious misfire from a team that, up until this point, has provided some cracking telly over the past 18 months. So what was the problem? As far as I can see there a several main issues:

It’s Buffy Season Six
Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is known as the dark season. It’s the one where Buffy gets yanked out of paradise by her friends to resume her slaying career, shags Spike, alienates everyone else and the main villains are a bunch of inept losers. Derided by many Buffy fans, there’s a actually a lot to like in this season, such as the musical episode Once More With Feeling, Normal Again (the episode where Buffy finds herself in a mental institution and discovers that the last 6 years have been nothing more than a paranoid delusion) and the obligatorily apocalyptic season finale, but people disliked the unremittingly depressing tone of the season.

If that went down like a lead balloon in a well established series, Torchwood Season One is a good example of what happens if you try the same tone for a completely new series. For you to have sympathy for a character behaving in a thoroughly dislikable way, you have to get to know them well. Otherwise, you tend to just think of them as a bunch of shallow gits.

Ugly Sex
In order to establish itself as a ‘mature’ show, the makers of Torchwood felt it was necessary to stuff it as full of sex and violence as the budgets would allow. In fact, violence is quite expensive to film well, so in the event it was relatively infrequent and quite derivative (I have to guffaw when I watched the Combat episode of Torchwood Declassified to hear them all going on about how ‘realistic’ the violence was), but sex is cheap. You don’t even need any costumes.

The problem is, much of the sex in this series seemed to be there for no better reason than to fill precious airtime. It was rarely used for dramatic reasons. And it all tended to look very staged, very uncomfortable (all the characters seem to have a look of horror on their faces mid-coitus) and very dispassionate. And worst of all, most of it seemed to involve Burn Gorman.

Now I liked Burn Gorman in Bleak House. He made a great Guppy. But that was because he looks so much like, well, a guppy. My idea of a great Sunday night in is not watching a fish-faced unlikeable twerp getting his freak on. Especially when it involves someone as undeniably attractive as Louise Delamere. Twice.

But he wasn’t the only problem. Take last night’s episode, Captain Jack Harkness for instance. At the end of this episode, the two eponymous captains snog in front of the doomed 1941 version’s colleagues. This presumably struck the makers as being incredibly daring and right on, given the views of homosexuality in the forties, yet it had no dramatic impact (the episode wasn’t about Harkness being gay, repressed or otherwise, it was about meeting a guy who you stole your identity from, 24 hours before he died) and didn’t make any sense. It was completely gratuitous and cheapened an otherwise quite good episode.

Stupid characters incapable of growth
Leaving aside the fact that they never explain why they leave such a small band of five disparate individuals in charge of something as potentially world-threatening as the Rift without supervision. The real issue is why they are such stunted idiots.

Take Gwen, for example. In Ghost Machine, she learns all about the tricksy nature of looking into the future, and how it can become self-fulfilling prophecy, or worse. So what does she do in End of Days? Make exactly the same mistake all over again, without even pausing for thought, or questioning why the clearly dodgy bloke who can walk through time is showing her this.

Indeed, all the characters, with the possible exception of Jack, fall apart during the smallest of crises, fail to resist the temptation to play with alien tech, never think about the consequences of their actions and throw tantrums like spoiled three year olds.

The question that Russell T Davies et al need to answer in Season Two is why should we like these dangerous arseholes?

In fact, the only character that has grown on me as the series has progressed is Tosh, yet she is the one who has had the least screen time. In the one episode where she got the spotlight, Greeks Bearing Gifts, she switches from being a boring backroom character to an actual human one. Of the four, she seems to be the least prone to falling apart and her fears tend to be the most well founded. Yet Jack seems to invest all his trust in stupid, wailing Gwen.

No Metaplot
In short, what is Torchwood about? We know there’s this nasty Rift thing they have to keep an eye on, but who is the baddie? What’s the threat?

Most superior TV series establish this pretty early on, or in the case of Doctor Who and classic Trek, establish a format that renders such a thing unneccessary. Torchwood has been screaming out for a metaplot, but it has failed to deliver.

That’s not strictly accurate. In They Keep Killing Suzie, we learn there is a big, nasty Thing Out There; in Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness, we learn that the Rift is increasing in activity and causing links across time; Bilis Manger emerges as a recurring villain (in two episodes at least), and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, in the shape of Abaddon.

Except that all of that has been very disjointed, too late in the series in coming, and have just been events that the main cast have reacted to. There’s been absolutely no sense of them mounting a counter offensive or a sense that they have any idea what is actually going on.

A lot of this has been down to a refusal by the makers to give the characters any help. By the end of Season One you would expect the rest of the team to at least know as much about Captain Jack as we do: namely that he is a former Time Agent from the future gone freelance. Jack’s refusal to answer any questions about his past (future) smacks more of lazy writing than any real determination to keep things mysterious. After all, every small titbit of information would surely pose as many questions as it answers. One gets a sense that the real reason we haven’t learnt anything is that the writers don’t know either. I get a sense that much of his backstory will be revealed in the next series of Doctor Who, which is great from the POV of the flagship programme, but sells Captain Jack’s own series somewhat short – is Davies truly committed to Torchwood?

Chris Chibnell
In my view, the standout worst episodes have been Day One, Cyberwoman, Countrycide and End of Days. Only after establishing this did I learn they were all written by the same person: Chris Chibnell.

I have no idea who this guy is, but his episodes have characteristically lacked any subtlety, with Countrycide doing for violence what Day One and Cyberwoman did for sex, are full of examples of the ‘team’ running around like headless chickens, have poor characterisiation and make little sense.

For example, in the last episode, it turns out that Jack can kill Abaddon by standing under his shadow (although it ends up killing him as well, albeit temporarily). Why not simply walk out of the way then, and get on with killing everyone else? And if he is the Big Bad alluded to by Suzie, then you’d think he’d have thought about this vulnerability first? In any case, after meeting the Devil himself in Doctor Who’s Satan Pit, this version comes across as a bit of a wet blanket.

The main writer of a series doesn’t have to be best, although Joss Whedon, Chris Carter and Aaron Sorkin all give a good run for their money. He or she however should not under circumstances be the worst. Having had four shots, more than anyone else, I would suggest his P45 should be in the post.

***

The most damning indictment to Torchwood is that I’m looking much more to the Sarah Jane Adventures than the second season. Sex and violence free, featuring a character who is determined to solve problems with brains rather than brawn, SJA is everything Torchwood is not. Explicitly aimed at children (anyone with a day job will have to record it), the pilot episode of SJA was far more intelligent and grown up than whole series of Torchwood put together. To be fair however, Torchwood was still better than most brainless sci-fi on TV. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes in Season Two.

UPDATE: One suggestion just made to me is to make Lembit Opik a consultant for the show, given that he is an authority on Wales, intergalactic phenomena and sex with odd-looking aliens.