Torching the Wood IV: Revenge of the Living Torch

Time for a look at Torchwood episode 7- plus a few explanations as to exactly why this has turned into such a running series of articles. Spoilers on the starboard bow…

TORCHWOOD: Episode 7- “Greeks Bearing Gifts”

Okay- confession time.

I’ve been writing a quite mind-boggling amount about TORCHWOOD, considering that earlier in the year, I made a deliberate effort to keep my ranting about New Who to a minimum. I have, and am currently not worried about watching the upcoming Who Christmas Special. A Who episode sharing a title with a Julia Roberts can’t be a good thing… but Torchwood is a different kettle of fish, and one which is terribly fascinating to observe, at least from a clinical point of view.

The reason I’m finding it so fascinating, frustrating and at times mind-bogglingly awful is the fact that, back in 1997, I actually got to the stage of having meetings with script people at production companies about a TV drama pilot that I’d written. It never got further than meetings and- to be honest- it’s probably just as well, as if someone had actually gone “Here’s thousands of pounds! Now go and write nine more!” I’d probably have had an aneurysm. I wasn’t ready at that point, but I learnt an awful lot through going through that process- and the series that I was pitching actually bears a relatively strong resemblence to what Torchwood is doing now.

Relax- I’m not about to expound a conspiracy theory that Russell T. Davies was rifling through my rubbish and hi-jacked my ideas- to be honest, one of the bizarre things about writing that script was seeing other bits of it turn up elsewhere (Like when I realised my original conception of my bad guys was worryingly close to the Agents in The Matrix). It’s often not just having the right idea, it’s having the right idea at the right time- but it’s very interesting watching Torchwood, ten years or so distant from writing the script, and seeing a very different take on some of the stuff I was trying to do.

Without going into major detail (mainly because, beyond the superficial resemblences, there’s a lot in that script that still works and which I want to try spinning into a novel sometime), essentially it was a ‘team investigation’ series, pitching a group of investigators, all of whom exist outside what we describe as ‘normal’, against the strangeness and surreal terrors that lurk just around the corner of contemporary London (If only I’d thought to set it in Cardiff, I’d have been onto a winner…). The ‘audience identification’ figure was an ordinary woman who gets dragged in by circumstance, one of the main characters was a mysterious figure with amnesia, enigmatic powers and who was also unable to be killed (again- the parallels with what they did with Captain Jack are downright freaky), and the whole thing was structured to intersperse self-contained character-based episodes with a big overall plot arc. It was my attempt to do an X-Files style British show, at the time when all the X-Files rip-offs that were ending up on UK TV were fundamentally dreary messes obviously made by people with no knowledge of how sci-fi works as a genre. I wanted to try and craft something that had more in common with the gritty comics of Vertigo and 2000AD, stirring the strangeness of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison into a pot and seeing what happenned. Plus- and this was the killer- I was going to do maximum weirdness, but avoid using FX shots wherever possible, instead using lighting, sound design, direction and near-theatrical style effects to create the impression of stuff happening in people’s minds. The pitch was ‘THIS LIFE with guns, demons, and lashings of adrenaline’ (again- hugely ironic considering that Torchwood’s pitch is ‘THIS LIFE meets THE X-FILES- two shows that are both now over ten years old, lest we forget…), and most of the ideas I had were about a hundred times too ambitious for TV, but I did have about three seasons worth of adventures plotted out. In the parallel universe where that show actually got on the air, they wouldn’t have known what hit them…

Of course, this is all academic now- but that’s the main reason why Torchwood is such a peculiar experience for me. It’s also one of the reasons why I find it so frustrating that, as in this week’s episode, the show is basically playing it safe. One thing I was determined to do with my idea was make certain that each episode had at least one genuinely funky twist, one idea that would make people sit up and go- “Whoah- I haven’t seen THAT before…” It’s the one thing I admire in shows- even enjoyable yet not quite brilliant shows like Heroes, which makes up for its occasional clunkiness in its willingness to pull off some wonderful storytelling. Torchwood, on the other hand, is both slick and empty, and grabbing at major subtexts and themes at the same time. It wants to be a rollicking adventure and wink at us for taking this so seriously- and yet it also wants to whack us across the head with the importance of ‘being human in the twenty first century’ that it’s enough to make your eyes water.

It’s the smirk at the audience that is particularly hard to handle for me, and it’s a problem I’ve noticed with general perceptions of Science Fiction on TV in this country. While Who’s success in the relaunch has opened up the doors for sci-fi projects, there’s still the general perception that sci-fi is a ‘lesser genre’, and that it’s excusable as long as it’s done tongue in cheek, and it’s obvious that nobody’s actually supposed to be taking it seriously. I’ve noticed it a lot- when Lost arrived on UK TV, there was a general disdain for its genre aspects and its ‘silliness’, when there’s very little in Lost that could actually be described as technically silly- it just bends reality a bit, treats the situation seriously, and dares you to laugh at it. I’ve got a lot more respect for that approach, especially because it makes the authorial voice of the script subserviant to the story- and it doesn’t remove the potential to be playful. There’s a very big difference between smug and playful- for example, Buffy, which is a massive influence on New Who, could be incredibly light and fluffy at times- but for the most part, the villains were played with conviction, and played straight. When it went for straight drama, it went straight for the heart, and episodes like the end of Season 2 were affecting because the show wasn’t trying to constantly wink at the audience and show how ‘in on the joke’ it was.

New Who has suffered from this ‘smirk’ a lot- although a little less in Season 2- but while that kind of approach works (for better or worse) in a family drama, slapping it down in a supposedly gritty, sexy adult drama, you get a schizoid show that can’t work out what it’s supposed to be. Sadly, it does seem to be a trademark of Russell T. Davies’ writing (I haven’t dared trying to watch Queer as Folk- a show I really, really enjoyed- again since New Who, as I have the horrible feeling RTD’s dialogue will make my head explode) that’s been absorbed into much of the house style, both on New Who, and on Torchwood. Yes, it’s all very self-referential, but where science fiction is concerned, it’s the equivalent of taking the story out back and beating it with hammers.

Bringing this all back to episode 7 of Torchwood, we have yet another example of RTD’s tabloid approach- where all that really matters is having a big, easily understandable idea, and all the SF storytelling is just window dressing. Here, the shocking, major idea that Torchwood tackles is that- prepare yourself- sometimes when people say something, they’re actually thinking something different. Earth-shattering stuff, and it’s delivered in an episode that seems to consist of about three seperate stories that aren’t apparently designed to go together at all.

As Episode 4 was centred around Ianto, here it’s Toshiko who takes centre stage- and it’s a bit of a shame as Naoko Mori is definitely the weak link in the cast, and not up to carrying some of the eye-wateringly awful dialogue she’s handed here. Tosh is meant to be the ‘brains’ of the outfit, the one with a real passion for what she’s doing, but a little socially inept and with a crush on one of her workmates that’s not destined to be reciprocated. What she needs, obviously, is a dose of hot girl-on-girl action, provided by the unlikely prescence of ex-Eastender actress Daniella Denby-Ashe (She played a determinedly do-gooding Christian teenager- and her dad was Brian Croucher, who was once Space Commander Travis on Blake’s 7! Hurrah!). Yes, it seems they can’t get enough of that Lesbian Chic- and Tosh is soon discovering that her hot new girlfriend isn’t just giving her great sex and a telepathy-inducing trinket simply because she likes her eyes- it’s actually because she’s an alien political prisoner who’s been stranded (for reasons that remain somewhat unclear) on earth since the early 1800s, and has been occupying herself by randomly ripping people’s hearts out and eating them. (Her reasoning for this? “This body needed to be fed!” At which point, I would have replied “Um… what about a nice fruit pie? Or maybe a stew?”)

It is at least refreshing to see that Torchwood seemed to have learnt a lesson about checking for previous cases on the computer, but it’s all blindingly obvious stuff, mainly put in place so that Tosh can discover the ‘shocking truth’ about her workmates, and also re-enact a sequence from UNBREAKABLE by conveniently rescuing a family from a nutty ex-husband. Everything is flagged up well in advance- and it’s once again easy to see that Torchwood refrains from actually treating the character relationships like genuine adults interacting- Tosh instead gets swept off her feet by a stereotypical lipstick lesbian seducturess, who turns out to be halfway between the creature from SPECIES and- rather worryingly- the Mer-People from HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE. It all builds up to a hilariously significant speech by Tosh about the human condition which- apparently- is like ‘drowning in ink’- and then we get a showdown in Torchwood which would have been completely avoided if Jack had just handed Evil Lipstick Lesbian her transport device (which, for some reason, she left to be buried, and didn’t actually unearth and put in a safe place) and allowed her to be teleported into the Sun.

The other ‘adult’ relationships continue to play, thanks to the ‘smirk’ effect, like bad fan-fiction, and the Gwen/Owen coupling is now being played like a pair of sixteen year olds getting hot under the collar. It’s also a plot device that’s obviously meant to darken the characters and make them more three-dimensional, but simply makes Gwen into an even more annoying and rather hypocritical bitch who apparently doesn’t mind her workmate knowing that she’s cheating on her cypher of a boyfriend, as long as she’s getting a good shag in the bargain.

Also- for an ‘adult’ show, it’s very strongly in the habit of spelling out the themes of the episode in triplicate. It’s not enough to have a story where the main theme is pretty obvious already- it’s got to have a character actually say it out loud, so that nobody’s confused (As in the sequence in episode 6, where Gwen helpfully explains to Owen exactly why she’s decided to leap into bed with him). ‘Greeks Bearing Gifts’ does this to excess, with a series of scenes that consist of nothing but purple dialogue spelling out the big message about ‘being human in the 21st century’.

It is, at least, giving me something fantastic to react against when I get around to writing my script up into a novel. I’m just worried that this kind of relentlessly slapdash storytelling is going to become the norm with any British SF TV that we get- that as long as it’s slick, fast, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, that it doesn’t matter if the plot falls apart if you breath on it. TV as a medium is capable of so much, particularly in the realm of SF and Fantasy- and I just don’t want to see it squandered on stuff that’s too busy being self-referential or recycling age-old ideas and passing them off as shockingly new to actually tell a decent story. Torchwood is definitely better than some recent British cult TV (and certainly stands head and shoulders over the similarly juvenile ‘adult content’-themed HEX) but every time I watch it, I can’t help seeing the conceptual holes, the gaps in the thinking, the fact that the ‘smirk’ approach is actually indicative of a certain contempt for Sci-Fi as a genre. Torchwood isn’t a show that loves SF- it likes to play with the basic framework, but it’s really playing dress-up with old stories that have been told better before, and frequently pointing out- like with the twist in ‘Countrycide’ where it’s actually Welsh Cannibals who are the bad guys- that ‘human emotions’ are vitally important, and all the SF stuff is just a little bit silly when it comes down to it.

Hey ho. At the least, I may try and leave it a few weeks before sinking my teeth into the next few episodes- (Next week features a return of the faintly ridiculous ‘Alien Medieval Knight’s Gauntlet’ from the first episode)- although I said that to myself last time, and look where it got me…

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