An Immodest Proposal

The “Children of Earth” mini-series perfectly encapsulates everything I like and hate about Torchwood

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My experiences with “Doctor Who” are already well-documented on here: I really loved the first couple of seasons (of the recent Russell Davies-led “reboot”), but as it went on it got more and more shrill and manic. There was still the occasional genius episode, but apart from that, it was just a lot of overblown climaxes with swelling music drowning out the dialogue (even with all the yelling). Plus it started to take more and more for granted: the makers of the series loved their supporting cast so much, and were so pleased with their repeated iterations of old-villains-come-back-to-take-over-the-entire-Earth story arcs, that they stopped bothering to make them genuinely appealing. Instead, it was just sequences of Spielbergian shots of people staring in wonder or moved to tears at the sight of each other.

I still want to love the series, though. And by extension, I really wanted to like “Torchwood.” I gave it plenty of chances to win me over, but it was as if they were actively trying to repel me. They took everything wrong with “Doctor Who,” and then slapped it down in Wales and slathered a heaping helping of skank on top. I know the description “Queer as X-Files” isn’t original, which is a shame because it’s so appropriate. It takes the most formulaic aspects of “The X-Files” but shamelessly panders to a more “adult” audience (than the ostensibly family-friendly “Doctor Who,” anyway) by making everyone gratuitously bisexual. If I remember correctly, they only waited until the second episode before they pulled out the alien who feeds on orgasms.

I would give it a second chance whenever they did some ratings-grab: like killing off a character, or bringing Martha Jones in as a cross-over, or stunt-casting James Marsters as a semi-recurring character. And without fail, I’d be intrigued for a little bit, and I’d start to think “this isn’t so bad; maybe they’ve turned the show around,” and then it would do something gross or stupid that turned me off again.

When making the third series, they structured it as a mini-series “event” instead of ongoing: five episodes in a single story arc called “Children of Earth,” each episode run consecutively in a single week, each one representing a subsequent day. I kept hearing almost universal praise for the mini-series on the internet; even the people who weren’t huge fans of the regular series were claiming that they’d finally got it right.

So I got sucked in again. For the first few episodes, I agreed with them. This was more like the show I’d been wanting to see, and it addressed so many problems I’d had with the long-running series. The cast of characters had always been pretty unappealing; here, most of them are dead. The only characters I did like were Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper and Kai Owen as her husband Rhys, who really do feel like a genuinely appealing, normal married couple sucked into a world of secret organizations and alien attacks; here, much of the story focus is put on Gwen and Rhys. The “Torchwood” team has always been comically inept to the point that I could never tell if it was supposed to be a subtle joke; here, they’re put at a severe disadvantage right from the beginning, so even if they’re every bit as incompetent as always, at least now they have an excuse.

I did have a few problems, but I could overlook most of them. One is the idea of starting up a computer and doing a search just on the world “Children” and instantly getting a list of relevant results. But whatever; computers work different on TV. Another is the idea that an elite paramilitary group of assassins could start firing on our team in a wide-open space and show an Imperial Stormtrooper-like ability to completely miss them. But whatever; they’re Welsh assassins, and we all know that the Welsh prefer to defeat their enemies not with guns but with games of Scrabble.

Another big problem I’ve always had with the series is its star. Somebody involved in the making of the show (and “Doctor Who”) has a huge crush on John Barrowman and/or the character of Captain Jack, to the point that it actually makes me uncomfortable to watch. He was annoying but tolerable as a supporting character on “Doctor Who,” because his being annoying was part of the joke. Building an entire series around him just wasn’t a good idea. I doubt that any actor would be able to make a character as cool and interesting as “Torchwood” believes Captain Jack is; but if there is such an actor, Barrowman isn’t it. He’s fine, but “dashing, devil-may-care immortal space rogue from the future” just becomes “grating guy who just walked in from the set of ‘Young and the Restless.'”

But even that’s mitigated because he’s not expected to carry the story. Instead, they’ve got a fantastic concept — some strange force that’s affecting all of the children on the planet at exactly the same time — and they get the pacing and the tension exactly right. The image of children all frozen in the street chanting “We are coming” in unison is a great one, and the tension and the hints of some kind of governmental cover-up are spread out well enough that you can’t help but be intrigued. It’s epic, creepy, and sinister, and it manages to keep that mood going over three solid hours, each one with a terrific cliffhanger.

And then it all starts to fall apart. (spoilers follow)

The mini-series is supposed to be a story about first contact with an alien race, and that’s done extremely well — there’s a real feeling of tension and mystery about the aliens, who they are, what they look like, how powerful are they, and what is their motive. They’re never given a real name, and you only see glimpses of them through most of the story.

It’d all be great, if it weren’t set in the continuity of two series in which aliens regularly invade the planet, attacking London every Christmas, and in which every person acknowledges the existence of aliens and has probably been attacked by at least one. I normally don’t care about continuity at all, and I’d be fine if they’d just ignored the problem and acted like everybody thought this was an unprecedented occurrence. But the writers seem to have gone out of their way to insert lines where people acknowledge all the history of frequent alien invasions, but still act as if this one is a particularly big deal.

On top of that, this is a series about a team of people who regularly fight off alien invasions. In the fourth episode, it seems like they’re finally going to get their shit together, go into the building, and take care of business… and then they just stand there until they’re gassed and one of them dies. I realize that it’s the Torchwood Method to be ridiculously incompetent, but that was anti-climactic to an unprecedented degree.

Any coolness built up around the aliens themselves evaporated as soon as we go into their holding tank, take a look at them, and find out what their real motivation is: they absorb human children to get high. Seriously. They couldn’t just leave well enough alone; they had to turn the melodrama up to full blast and ruin everything.

Same goes with the government surveillance/paranoia theme they set up in the first few episodes and then pound completely into the ground by the fourth. That one security camera gets so much screen time over the series, it should’ve gotten top billing. There’s also a storyline about government corruption and “the evil that men do to ourselves” that would’ve worked well as a subplot, but like everything else, gets amped up to ridiculous proportions. If you haven’t already stopped caring by the time one of the bureaucrats is making her over-long speech about the desirable children vs. the expendable ones, they guarantee you’ll stop caring at the moment another bureaucrat gets a gun and shoots his wife and children before committing suicide. As with everything else on “Torchwood,” they start out okay, but they just don’t know when to quit.

My biggest problem with the whole thing, though, goes back to my least favorite character. His incompetence has already needlessly killed his boyfriend, and by the climax, he “saves the day” in a huge deus ex machina that involves sacrificing his innocent grandson. They make sure to show the audience scenes of the boy being tortured, but the entire thing is structured to show how difficult this is for “Captain Jack.” This is the same show that earlier expected us to get emotional at the sight of a child that was being absorbed by an alien (with swelling music and tears in the eyes of our plucky mole inside the government), and simultaneously showed our heroes Gwen & Rhys giving their all to rescue a bunch of kids from a single neighborhood (and this after wringing a lot of melodrama out of a scene where an evil bureaucrat picks and chooses which kids were to be saved). But in the story, this kid is expendable. We see the torment it puts his mother through — which, again, is only really a problem because it affects “Captain Jack’s” relationship with her — and it all gets stretched out and played up and is pretty much inexcusable.

And the coda, of course, is “Captain Jack” leaving because he’s wracked with guilt, and Gwen absolutely devastated that he’s leaving, because he’s done so much good for the planet. I appreciate that they’re trying to make a character who’s tortured by the tough decisions he’s forced to make; but the only thing they succeed in doing is making a grating and reprehensible character with no redeeming values, who everybody just loves without justification or explanation. He’s not an anti-hero; he’s an irritating, mincing, incompetent prick. And I say that it’s impossible to make an interesting or satisfying story about an unlikeable character unless you treat it realistically; “Torchwood” loves melodrama way too much to ever be able to do that.

Still, even though I thought it failed miserably and horribly at the end, this is still the closest “Torchwood” has ever come to being good. And there are several parts in the mini-series that are genuinely excellent, and plenty of memorable images. If they’re planning to do any more with this concept, they should definitely keep the mini-series format, and keep the focus on Gwen and Rhys. If they could free themselves from all the melodrama and attempts at epic world-changing storylines, and instead just try to be genuine and interesting, they might have something.

3 thoughts on “An Immodest Proposal”

  1. The thing that I enjoyed the most was that even RTD now seems to be acknowledging how crap Torchwood is/was as a unit. They spend three days being utterly useless, are finally allowed into the loop, and promptly…

    “We will go to WAR! We will FIGHT YOU! We will NEVER SURRENDER!”
    “We’ll kill Ianto.”
    “NO! PLEASE! WE SURRENDER! WE’LL DO ANYTHING!”

    And then of course Jack saves the day, not because of Torchwood, not from any futuristic technology, but thanks to an elite black ops unit and a third-party expert who specialises in this one alien race and reversing the polarity of something stupid. Go team!

    For me, Peter Capaldi was hands-down the star of the show. As much as the opening credits seemed to think it was about Captain Jack and the Incompetence Gang, the real plot for me was Frobisher trapped between the government and the 456. He carried every moment of tension that Barrowman and co stumbled with, and all the more impressively if you’ve seen him as the raging, control-freak Malcolm from The Thick Of It/In The Loop. He even saves the insanely stupid scene where the Prime Minister tells him to sacrifice his children to the aliens, simply because as idiotic as the set-up is, his face is absolutely genuine.

  2. He did the best he could with the material he was given; the problem is that the material just wasn’t there. There just wasn’t enough of a character for even a good actor to work with, and he was expected to carry half the storyline. Once the Prime Minister started with the full-on mustache-twirling, I’d already given up on that whole story.

    Now that I think about it, I probably only realized that the Torchwood team is so incompetent after you’d pointed it out on a message board. The concept of building an entire series around a group of people who are just awful at their job is so alien to me that I didn’t even recognize it. I just knew that there was something terrible about the series that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

    I really wish I had enough faith in the show that I could believe the Torchwood team’s incompetence were intentional. In this one, they blow their cover in front of a civilian in the first 20 minutes or so, and even lose their cool car and have the punks who stole it drive by, mooning them. Even with all that, the whole series has this air of ineptitude about it that I can’t give them that much credit.

    In the Loop has finally opened in the US, and I’m hoping to see it tomorrow.

  3. I’ve said before that if I was writing Torchwood, I’d have very much focused on it being the Z-team suddenly thrust into the limelight and expected to save the universe despite previously only been the equivalent of traffic wardens. That way we could have sympathised with them, watched them grow as a unit, and seen them earn their place as a force to be reckoned with.

    As it is, I find the whole lot so arrogant that I almost want them to fail. Seriosuly, why would anyone bother listening to Captain Jack when they have both UNIT and Sarah Jane on speed-dial? It’s not like he even knew who the aliens were until mid-week, and even then, only because of the idiotic cover-up. Bah!

    (walks off in slow-mo, coat swirling in the breeze)

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