Sunday, July 12, 2009

On Fire

Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper+++ APOLOGIES +++ MINORITY INTEREST POST +++

So. Torchwood.

The Doctor Who spin-off returned for a third outing last week in a lavish new 5 part story that was broadcast every day, Monday through to Friday.

I was, I admit, dubious.

Series one and two of Torchwood were disappointing. Like a chocolate cake that just wasn’t quite chocolaty enough (the diet coke of sci-fi). Good ideas were there – but were spread to thin. The acting was good but the scripts were frequently weak. The stories built up nicely and then were abruptly deflated as Russell T Davies pulled yet another lame solution out of an all too convenient hat.

Deus ex machina done as cliché.

It was too lightweight. Which was a shame as Torchwood had promised much in the early days. Something meaty. Something more adult than the family oriented Doctor Who… but it seemed to fall at the second fence.

In various interviews writer Russell T has admitted he had neither the time nor the ideas to fully realize series two. It showed. The series was patchy and frustrating. So often nearly there… but never quite.

And here they were for series 3 – promoted to BBC1 no less. Somebody high up at the Beeb obviously had faith in them.

In my opinion that faith was at last validated.

Torchwood: Children Of Earth was as close to a sci-fi masterpiece as I’ve seen on terrestrial telly for a long time. Fantastic script, a plot that set the nerves jangling and disturbed the emotions and a proper gut wrenching finale that, while inevitable, left you gasping. It was harsh. Very harsh. But a good harsh.

I’m not going to spoil the plot for those of you who haven’t yet seen it yet (I’m aware that Torchwood makes it out to the US and NZ among other places) but the storyline dealt with some very difficult subject matter. Parenthood, our children and our desire (and our failure) to protect them. Self serving politicians. Child abuse. The rich / poor class divide. Bigotry… and for once Russell T didn’t pull his punches. He followed the dark path to it’s horrible conclusion rather than bottling out at the eleventh hour. It wasn’t pretty.

But it was truthful.

One particular scene where UK politicians decide the grisly fate of millions of children reminded me of the meeting the Nazi’s had to formulate their “final solution”. An entirely deliberate reference point, I’m sure, and of course it added a ring of truth to the entire premise: such a meeting taking place wouldn’t be that outlandish. It’s happened before. In living memory. Civilization is a very thin veneer plastered over a bubbling magma of waiting anarchy.

And as history shows it doesn’t take a lot to puncture the crust.

It made for uncomfortable viewing. Maybe having children myself over-sensitized me? But the idea of the state not just interfering with my children but claiming ownership of them for its own ends really upset me. Again Russell T was tapping into very real, very relevent fears – how much personal autonomy can anyone really have in a nanny state that is always looking over our shoulders for our own good? Who does the family unit really belong to? How far would you go to protect your kids? What if following the parental instinct to protect your kids at all costs became treasonous?

Dark, dark ideas. Which is exactly what I want from sci-fi. It should be far fetched, futuristic, in turns utopic and dystopic. But most of all it should be relevent to the here and now.

It is interesting to note that John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness) was not at all enamoured of the decision to reduce Torchwood to a single five-parter. He’s been very public in announcing his displeasure, feeling that the show has been punished in some way, deliberately constrained.

Well I can recall a tutor of mine telling me that true creativity comes out of constraint, out of limitation. It is a good thing. It should be embraced.

I think Torchwood series three is the proof of the pudding. Rather than a run-of-the-mill 12 part series that misses as much as it hits, we had An Event. We had something that has sadly disappeared with the advent of cable TV and iPlayers and “watch whenever you want to” telly. We had something that millions of people watched at the same time and talked about the next day in anticipation of the next part. It was a good move by the BBC. A clever move. It reminded me of the time in the mid eighties when ITV lost the rights to broadcast the Olympics and so instead bought a US mini series called “V”. It was a ratings success. Everybody sick of the wall-to-wall Olympic coverage on the BBC tuned in to it. Everybody tuned in together. It became an event.

I don’t know where Torchwood will go after this. My hope is that we will see more five parters like this. I’d rather see five lavish, top notch, intelligent, adult episodes per year than a 12 episode series that constantly flounders beneath its own padding.

Last week Torchwood finally delivered.

First class.

I’d like to place another order please.


24 comments:

Tenon_Saw said...

I agree. I cannot remember the last time I managed to sit myself in front of the TV for 5 consecutive nights. There was real horror at times and the ending posed such a great dilemma for Jack. At least it wasn't all solved by a sonic screwdriver [which is what Dr. Who stories always seemed to need]

Steve said...

Tenon_Saw: I can't remember the last time I stayed awake beyond 9.30 for 5 consecutive nights...!

Owen said...

Haven't seen any of these here in France, have no idea if they've been on, or will be... watch very little telly actually, and even less since starting this mad blogging business, but corrr, you've written such a fine piece about this, I'll have to keep an eye out for it. I grew up reading alot of science fiction, as my older brother was a huge book hoarder of everything weird and wonderful, and quite a bit of horror writing in the mix for good measure... Heinlein, Doc Savage, Lovecraft, Asimov, and so on...

So, what I really want to know is.... that red top looks vaguely familiar, wait a sec, that's not the Sagittarian by any chance ???
:-D
And a very happy Sunday afternoon to all of you blogging Spa people...

Steve said...

Owen: I was a big sci-fi reader as a boy but oddly read less now. I tend to go for "world literature" these days. As for The Sag... hmm. Wonder if she's been moonlighting? ;-)

Reluctant Blogger said...

I'm afraid I haven't watched Torchwood and whilst I have been fairly sociable this week I haven't been part of any discussions about it, so I can't even pretend to know anything about it. I am not keen on TV really. I did watch "Mock the Week" and stayed awake for Question Time - but that's the best I could manage. Sorry!

I haven't had swine flu either! But I did meet someone the other day who had it. He was barely ill at all. I tried not to breathe in his presence but I have to say everyone was joking about it. But yes, it is not good for those with poor immunity - but a lot of those would be wiped out by something else if it weren't for swine flu.

But yes, if my youngest got it, as an asthmatic his chances would not be as good as most people's. But such is life - we have our genes and we have to live with them. At least he does not throw himself out of trees like my oldest son does! Life is an adventure and it's all down to survival of the fittest and the luckiest. I tell my sons to live each day to the fullest cos there are no guarantees. Trouble is their idea of fullest is climbing high trees, skating fast down hills and staying up late. But it's good really.

Steve said...

RB: a hard truth but a very true one I guess. It is amazing how the media stirs everyone up though: the newspapers just love a good drama...

Andrew Glazebrook said...

Didn't much care for series 1, didn't see any of series 2, but loved this 5 parter ! Had the feeling of Quatermass, and the old Dr Who's with the cliffhanger style endings ! 5 stars !!

Steve said...

Andrew: series 2 started very weakly but got more interesting towards the end. This 5 parter, however, blows all that went before it out of the water.

missbehaving said...

Completely clueless here but on the upside, here at 5a.m on Monday morning, I had to look up 'dystopic', so my day begins with learning, that's a good thing, but cannot comment on Dr Who or anything else sci-fi, I have no knowledge of dis topic ;)

Steve said...

Missbehaving: worth it for the bloody awful pun! Made me laugh! ;-)

The Sagittarian said...

I don't think we have even seen the episode with Monkey Face getting topped yet! Having read this review, I'm willing to skip straight to thiese episodes instead.
As for ther ed top...I can niether confirm nor deny. But I will mcasually mention that I'm a blonde.

KayDee said...

Well I have never been a fan of the sci-fi genre or Doctor Who but I must admit your fab critique made me want to research whether we get Torchwood here in Oz.

It's great when you watch an event as you very aptly put it. Remember back in the 80's when the mini series was the big thing (along with big hair)? I remember when everybody was watching Roots and we couldn't wait to get to work the next day to talk about it. Anything that makes you look forward to going to work has to be a powerful medium :)

Steve said...

Amanda: the episodes with Monkey Face biting the bullet are actually the best in series 2 in my opnion... the whole premise is very interesting but I won't say anymore about it in case I spoil it. This 3rd outing is definitely worth a look-see. As for the blonde thing... we all know you can buy some really excellent costume wigs these days...!

KayDee: I missed out on Roots at the time - not old enough (or too shallow) to appreciate it - though I remember my parents talking about it. V is definitely the one that sticks in my mind. I even bought the paperback novel and and actually read it - about 500 pages which was a big thing for me at the time.

A Write Blog said...

To quote; 'Well I can recall a tutor of mine telling me that true creativity comes out of constraint, out of limitation. It is a good thing. It should be embraced.'

Perfectly put. I rarely bother watching a series because they tend to meander and have too much space filling to justify the number of episodes.

If they are any good they are usually released on DVD and then you can watch them when you want, without interuption by adverts etc.

We got 'Life on Mars' and enoyed that.

It saves time because TV can take up so much. Bit like Blogging.

With blogging you can control it more. TV is just too passive for me.

Steve said...

AWB: I don't watch a lot of TV - despite the fact I originally started this blog as a forum for my questionable TV reviews - just a couple of hours a night before I go to sleep where the passivity is most welcome! But even then I like to think I'm very discerning in what I watch - informative documentaries and high quality dramas; the latter because secretly I'd love to be writing stuff for TV!

The Dotterel said...

Another fine programme missed! Still, reading your post it almost feels like I've watched it. Thanks.

Steve said...

The Dotterel: hey - I may even have saved you the cost of having to buy it on DVD! Glad to be of help... maybe I ought to charge a nominal fee for this service?! ;-)

French Fancy said...

I've never seen it but I know it must be good because on the Digital Spy Big Brother thread there have been lots of complaints because it is on at the same time as the highlights show.

Steve said...

FF: now Torchwood has really made it! People are having to choose between Captain Jack and Big Brother! That's a true measure of success...

Rol said...

I agree too. I gave up at the beginning of the last series, but was tempted back because I was knackered after the move and so 5 hours of TV seemed a nice relax. Though it was still flawed, it benefited greatly from not having to wrap everything up in 55 minutes, and was akin to John Wyndham in its examination of how easily society crumbles when faced with a sci-fi bogeyman. They even nicked some ideas from 24, which were usefully added into the mix.

Steve said...

Rol: wow. Now I know Torchwood finally hit the mark 'cos I know how discerning you are!

Annie said...

Sorry, I'm a bit late with commenting on this.
I thought Torchwood was very disturbing and upsetting at times but gripping nevertheless. As long as it's tapped into our emotions it's a success. John Barrowman blown to smithereens and also encased in a vat of cement was HORRIBLE but the latter was worth it to see him with his kit off afterwards lol.

Steve said...

Annie: can't say that Captain Jack's butt did much for me but I did think it was the best bit of sci-fi we've had on TV for a long time!

Steve said...

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