Sunday, July 12, 2009
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.
I’d like to place another order please.