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Torchwood - John C. Kirk

Oct. 23rd, 2006

01:14 am - Torchwood

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I'm planning a general review of things I've read/watched recently, along with some fairly enthusiastic recommendations. However, for now I'm just going to post some thoughts on the first two episodes of Torchwood, while it's fresh in my mind (and springboarding off an IRC discussion). In brief, I didn't like it as much as Doctor Who; it seems to be emphasising style over substance. I'll give it a fair trial, but I think I'm going easy on it based on the production team's track record.

The basic premise here seems to be that they want a spin-off series which is aimed at an older audience (i.e. dealing with more mature themes) and which is firmly rooted on present day Earth rather than involving different times/planets. I think they've achieved this, but I don't think they've done so in a particularly good way.

The most obvious sign of adult content is that there's a lot of sex in this. More specifically, casual sex, e.g. two people who've only just met (and don't even know each other's names) going it at it in the female toilets inside a nightclub. We also have a fight between lots of drunk men in a pub, and screaming matches between arguing couples. I'm sure that all this is quite true to life, and demonstrates gritty realism. It may even be socially relevant. However, if I was really keen to watch people going out, getting drunk, fighting, and having sex with anything that moves, I'd just hang around Croydon town centre on a Friday/Saturday night. I wouldn't say that I'm offended, but I'm not entertained either.

Someone suggested that the producers are trying to appeal to the average BBC 3 viewer. I think it's the first time I've watched that channel, so I'm not sure what the demographics are. However, one of the adverts before the program was for a documentary on female binge drinkers having catfights, so this may well appeal to the same target audience, but I don't think that includes me.

Going back a couple of years, I remember the various rumours that were going around before the Doctor Who relaunch. Russell T. Davies (the producer/lead writer) was mainly famous for the TV series Queer as Folk - I never watched it, but from the brief clips I saw it seemed to revolve around the gay "scene" in nightclubs. Meanwhile, Julian Clary was rumoured to be on the shortlist as the new Doctor, which didn't bode well - why not just paint the TARDIS pink while you're at it?

However, when the series actually started, I was impressed. I've heard some people say that they're annoyed with Davies for putting his own sexual agenda into various episodes, but I never found it obtrusive. In particular, I liked the flamboyant Captain Jack, and it seemed reasonable to me that generally accepted sexual mores will change over the next few centuries (i.e. that it would be commonplace for people to be bisexual). One controversial episode of Doctor Who was "Love and Monsters" (the one where the Doctor and Rose just made a cameo appearance), but I enjoyed it a lot, and thought that the ending was quite romantic.

Just to clarify my own personal preferences, I'm heterosexual and monagamous. I think that being bisexual and polyamorous both make quite a bit of sense, and they do fit in with the idea of having a soulmate rather than acting on lust. However, after investigating them, I think that they're valid lifestyles, but not the right path for me. (I went along to a few meetings of the London Bi group back in 1999, and I was on the uk-poly mailing list from 1999-2002.)

Having said all that, I think that they are getting carried away in Torchwood. Out of the five characters in the team, we only know about the orientation of three of them. Of those three, two are clearly bisexual, and the third is a woman with a boyfriend who still had an extended kissing scene with another woman. I would question whether this is really representative.

This does remind me of a criticism I've heard of Diane Carey's Star Trek novels. Basically, she's a keen sailor, and by an amazing coincidence it seems that the main characters of whichever starship she's writing about are also keen on sailing, even though they'd never got round to mentioning it before. I'd describe that type of writing as obtrusive, boring, and self-indulgent. Taking another example from Star Trek, some of the stuff in Torchwood reminds me of the more shameless scenes from Enterprise. ("Hey, let's have Hoshi and T'Pol oiling each other up in the, erm, decontamination room!")

Moving on, it did seem that several of the main group aren't particularly likeable, particularly the men. Consider Owen Harper's behaviour, in the limited time we've seen him. He went off to a nightclub, tried to chat up a woman, and she wasn't interested, so he used alien technology to change her mind so that he could get her into bed. The context is a bit blurred, due to the meat market environment, but when you see the rapid change of heart from her boyfriend, I think it's fairly clear that they were acting against their will (or rather, what their normal will would be). Meanwhile, you've got Captain Jack slipping pills into a woman's drink so that she won't remember anything the following morning. The phrase "Date Rape Drug" seems to spring to mind here. Coming back to Owen, the guy's a voyeur (watching/recording Gwen kissing the other woman) and a sadist (blowing up rats after he'd already got the information he needed). Personally, I don't see any compelling argument against tying him to the ground and playing golf with his testicles.

There are a few open-ended mysteries at the moment, but one major concern I have is that they may just be making this up as they go along, rather than gradually revealing information that they've already planned out. More specifically, I'm not sure whether they've really thought about their basic premise. (I had a similar problem with the series Dead Like Me, which I'll discuss in more detail at a later date.) For instance, is this still the same organisation that Queen Victoria founded, or are they a splinter group? If there are only five of them, and they claim to be a global power that outranks the UN, i.e. they have no particular allegiance to Britain, why do the Army and the Police just step aside to let them through? I think you can do some interesting stories with that premise (Warren Ellis did something similar with Stormwatch and The Authority), but I don't think that Torchwood is going down that path.

There were a few times when the episodes seemed to contradict themselves. For instance, Captain Jack (and is he actually entitled to that rank?) initially told Gwen that she'd never get tired of following him, implying that she'd be around for a while, but then he gave her the amnesia drug to get rid of her. So, why say that? Similarly, he told her that they never take alien technology out of the lab, but this is clearly not true - she'd seen them use the metal glove on the dead guy, and Jack had the controls for the invisible lift on his wristband. So, is this an indication that he's a compulsive liar? Some kind of clumsy foreshadowing? Or have the writers just lost their own plot? Since they changed things around a bit in the second episode (Jack said that the others should only take alien tech out of the lab with his explicit permission), maybe that was what they (writers) meant in the first episode, but they just bungled their job?

Another odd aspect is the "mystery" about Jack's origin, given that people who've seen the relevant Doctor Who episodes now know more than the other characters do. Why drag this out? Are the writers trying to make it easier for new viewers, by not relying on prior knowledge? If so, I can sympathise, but I think they've handled it badly. By contrast, the first Dalek episode of the relaunch handled a similar issue very well - they were able to address the issue of "Daleks can't go upstairs" by showing the levitation when Rose was there and the Doctor wasn't. That way, long-time viewers (who saw this levitation back in 1989) aren't bothered, because Rose made an understandable mistake, and the Daleks didn't claim that this was a new trick. On the other hand, new viewers wouldn't be aware that this ability had been previously established. That was only a brief scene, but I think it's a shining example of the right way to handle continuity in various storylines, which is why I'm disappointed that Torchwood seem to be dropping the ball.

In fairness, they have followed up on the idea from "Love and Monsters" that normal people haven't really been affected by absolute proof of extraterrestrial life, and that they either ignore it or disbelieve it. It's a bit quirky, but I'll accept that premise. However, if people will ignore a huge battleship floating overhead, why bother with vague excuses about "special ops"? They might as well just go around with big FBI-style jackets that say "Hi, we're the alien hunting squad", and then let people draw their own conclusions.

Speaking of previous Doctor Who episodes, I'm assuming that the hand in the vat was the one that the current Doctor lost in the Christmas episode. Maybe they can have it running around like that thing from The Addams Family (cue "snap snap" sound fx)...

Overall, I'd agree that Torchwood is aimed at an older audience, but I'm happy watching Disney films, so I don't see child-friendliness as an intrinsically bad thing. Taking an analogy, I think that Angel worked well as a more adult version of Buffy, and I was able to enjoy both series on their own merits. However, Torchwood doesn't seem to have quite got the balance right as yet. For instance, there's this business of having people standing around on narrow ledges at the top of tall buildings. It looks cool, I'll grant you (although if I was doing that it would be brown trousers time), but it doesn't really make sense. By contrast, when Angel went for the "brooding on rooftops" approach, that worked better. In particular, there's a scene in the first episode, where Angel is pretending to be drunk in a bar, but then he stands up, and it seems as if his drunkenness is dropping away from him in the same way that a loose coat would fall off his shoulders to the floor. That's one of the few times where I've seen something and thought "Wow, that was really well filmed". The trailer for City of Angels had a similarly effective scene, with angels in dark clothing/boots striding across rooftops, although as I recall they cut that out of the finished film.

I do wonder whether this will lead to more Doctor Who episodes that aren't set in present day UK, in order to get a distinct tone from Torchwood. However, I gather that the main reason for spending time on Rose's council estate was to spare their budget, and that may still be a concern for them. Ah well, if nothing else, they (hopefully) won't be namechecking Torchwood every week in Doctor Who anymore!

So, I'll watch it again next week, but I may not stick around for the long haul.

Comments:

From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 23rd, 2006 10:32 am (UTC)

Torchwood

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Good review, I'd agree with a lot of what you said. Especially about unlikeable characters. Gratuitous swearing and sex does not necessarily attract or retain an adult audience!

Kenny

http://kenny.aitchison.typepad.com/kenny_aitchison/2006/10/torchwood.html (http://kenny.aitchison.typepad.com/kenny_aitchison/2006/10/torchwood.html)
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From:ghulah
Date:October 23rd, 2006 10:54 am (UTC)
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Aye, I agree with a lot of what you've said here (and have reviewed it myself in my blog). Shame really. I'm going to obviously re-watch the episodes to see if I can learn to love them... we'll see eh?

Keep on keeping on.

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