11.7.09

Torchwood - Children Of Earth

Gotta fess up. I do not 'get' Doctor Who. I know, and me a nerd and everything. Maybe it's because, umm... the show is for seven year olds? That may be it.

But Doctor Who's success means we get a spin-off adult-orientated series called Torchwood. I've not watched the show when it was on BBC3, but I did tune in to this week's big budget mini-series event. And wasn't it great? Quality entertainment, I thought.

And also clever. What got me to watch Children of Earth was listening to creator Russell T Davies talk about it on the radio. Without giving any details away, he said this series had a specific concept behind it -- exploring how we keep far-away humanitarian disasters (such as in Africa) at a distance. He promised that Torchwood would bring an apocalypse to Britain, and in so doing, tear down the illusion that 'we' are any better than 'them'.

Oh really? Well I'll hold you to that, Mr. Davies. And if you do not deliver, I'm gonna rip you to shreds, before singing a long groveling paean to Joss Whedon, the writer you wish you could be. But no. The Whedon ass-licking session will have to be shelved for another time (like, every other note I write). Let's talk about Torchwood.

And let's start with Jack. Or should I say... JACK! (picture jazz hands). John Barrowman is definitely the biggest gay in the village. It's great that we have this all-singing-all-dancing presence at the centre of the show. My only quibble is that Harkness is quite a dark antihero character, and sometimes Barrowman's camp panto energy gets in the way of that. When he's being heroic, he sometimes gets too silly. When he's being dark, he sometimes gets too melodramatic. But enough! He's fabulous. Let's leave him alone.

I actually love the wound-up, nervous Ianto even more. He's got to be the most English Welshman ever. Curt, immaculately dressed, but quite vulnerable all the same. His relationship with Jack is one of the most charming aspects of the show.

And Gwen. She's sweet, isn't she, but she's also kickass. I mean, the double pistol and leather jacket combination? Gotta say, kinda hot. But moving on...

Gwen is the one given the profound existentialist speech in the first episode, which I imagine is Davies summing up the underlying idea behind the entire Doctor Who franchise. There is no God, but look at how marvelous the universe is. Do we really need Him? Great stuff, but mired slightly by the fact that it comes out of nowhere. Very stop, insert speech, play. But it's obviously something close to the writer's heart. I'll sacrifice pacing for that any day.

We get this at the beginning. By the end it's apocalypse. Aliens arrive demanding 10% of the world's children, or they wipe everyone out. The kids will be lobotomized and used to produce some alien recreational drug (bastard aliens!). The show is at it's most brilliant when it contrasts the way humanity reacts to this ultimatum in different contexts. As parents, family members and friends, we are horrified. These personal bonds make us analyze the situation with a personal ethical mindset. But such morality no longer works when it comes to big problems and big solutions. Politics means looking after the common (or majority) interest. The attitude is strictly utilitarian pragmatism. 10% is better than 100%, so we comply. In the end, a more favorable option is uncovered, but that still leaves one family torn apart. The world is saved, so it was 'good' in that respect. But on a human level a most profound evil was committed.

All that was really interesting, but I did feel the show did some of the political stuff a bit simplistically. The idea that the Prime Minister could somehow shirk the responsibility of dealing with the Fourfivesix by giving it to a civil servant is pretty ludicrous. Moreover, the PM was a bit too cowardly, manipulative, villainous. The show needed to say that it was the office, not the man, that makes him act in the way he does. It doesn't matter who's in the chair, they will always do the same thing. By making the PM completely unsympathetic, that important distinction was lost.

Before watching episode 5, I was gonna treat the idea of Torchwood as an adult show with a fair amount of distain. Yeah, 'adult'. If by 'adult' you mean sheltered teens who have never seen a horror film. For the most part, the show is pretty gentle -- edges all filed away. Even the humour was all nice and inoffensive. There was none of the nasty, sarcastic stuff I like. (Hello Warren Ellis).

And then Peter Capaldi had to go and do that. My problems with the PM character meant I had trouble accepting what was going on. This was ridiculous, I kept thinking. But there's no way of not being shocked at what happens. Torchwood isn't all good-humoured down-to-earth charm and silliness. It goes to that dark place.

Davies is still no scratch on Whedon, but this Torchwood show isn't half bad. There are worse ways to spend five hours. I'll definitely be back for the next series.

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