Sunday 12 July 2009

Push the button, save the world: Torchwood and the British state

In response to a few requests, I'm continuing the review theme here. Partly because there's a lot of stressful stuff going on down in the trenches and I've been ingesting a metric buggerload of fantasy/sci fi/drama to get through it, and partly because, well. I've just this second finished watching Torchwood: Children of Earth, and it had me squeeing, and then shouting at the telly, and now it's got me thinking.

This is when Torchwood finally grew up, and I've come away with about ten times more respect for Russel T Davies than I had before. He's kept the cheek-wobbling ham acting, but ensured that the sex is far less important than the politics in the series, which is how it always should have been. The gay agenda is still there, of course, but there's simply too much going on for it to get much attention - which, in an ideal world, is how everyone should respond to the sexuality of strangers. And yes, they killed one half of the main gay couple, but in an incredibly bloody moving way that validated and contextualised homosexuality within the plot, a way that was definitively non-gratuitous. It was a GOOD death, it was shiny-dead-lover narrative logic turned effortlessly queer, and that's not something I've seen on TV before, and TV is what changes the way people think. That's why I love this show. It's shiny, it's clunky and it's all about ideas.

Bastards in suits sell us out: The Panto

This series didn't even try to make anything look particularly convincing, and instead pulled out all the old lo-budget sci-fi tropes, with the horrible robotic screaming children, wiggly green oscilloscopes down in the basement of Thames House, anti-poison boiler suits, and aliens so scary that no existing TV wizardry could possibly do them justice who spent the whole show growling in a tank of fog. And like all the best sci-fi, it was political satire thinly disguised as whimsy.

Turns out that we didn't need to see the monster in the tank at all, because the real monsters were the ones who were on screen most of the time: the ones behind the desks in Thames House. It all started to look suspicious when, soon after the horrible standing-still-kids started screaming 'We Are Coming', John Frobisher - Home Office Permanent Secretary, played brilliantly by Peter Capaldi - and various frazzled people in ill-fitting suits started blundering about trying to cover up something awful we'd done in 1965, which three episodes later is revealed to have been giving some aliens twelve parentless Scottish kids to torture until they released gummy chemicals that the aliens just loved to get high off. Dodgier still, the whole world was now looking at us, with every child in the world pointing at London and speaking flawless BBC English. When the same aliens, calling themselves The 456, finally did show up on our doorstep, it wasn't long before the PM and various ministers were around a table with an assortment of serious-looking world leaders being given a talking-to by the United States, looking like a 10-year-old caught shoplifting. Which was so painfully spot-on that it hurt a little bit to watch.

The first question on everyone's lips in the show was the most important, the one that the fine tradition of British sci-fi always forgets to ask: why us? Why do all the aliens and apocalypses happen to tiny, moist little Britain? Why were the kids even speaking English when, as Torchwood was at pains to point out, English is not even the world's most common first language (that would be Mandarin). The 456's response made me cackle: we came here because you have no significance. You are middle men.

Because that's what we are, isn't it. A nation of middle men. Of go-betweens and diplomats and middle managers, frantic to cover up anything that might put a stain on our reputation: just look at the next Prime Minister. Look at the government response to the policing of the G20 protests, where we were so very ashamed of how our rowdy populace would seem to world leaders that we were prepared to send the troops in on innocent bystanders. RTD's biting backhander worked because it was true. Of course, the real reason the 456 chose to crash on British soil was darker still: we'd given them kids in the past. They knew that we'd do it again. They knew that when threatened with any sort of inconvenience, the British government will take the coward's road. Even if it causes bloodshed and suffering, we'll play the big kids' game, hoping they won't hurt us: whether that's the USA or some bloody monster from the sky making vague threats to wipe out humanity. In Torchwood: Children of Earth, the 456 don't even bother to explain how they're going to kill us all: the merest threat of danger is all that's needed for the cabinet to give the order to start loading kids onto vans, and then, as it turns out, blame it all on the USA ,who were technically in charge at the time.

Of course, they had to to work out which kids to sacrifice. And my mouth fell open as the ministers round the table calmly ensured that their own children wouldn't be at risk. They start out by siphoning off the kids noone will miss - the failed asylum seekers - before agreeing to send 'the lowest-achieving ten percent' off to the slaughter. How were they going to determine which kids were the lowest-achieving? Simple: the school league tables.

Which is also exactly what would have been done today, for a definition of 'today' involving slime-spewing aliens. Torchwood made no attempt to disguise the government's cold class logic, with a government agent telling middle-class Alice Carter and her son: 'don't worry. The nice kids are safe. They're getting rid of the ten percent they don't want - the kids on street corners'. Meanwhile, the chavs on the Cardiff estate were the only people showing the humanity to fight back and protect their own kids as the soldiers dragged them screaming out of their houses.

Can't stop the signal

New Who is all about ideas, and one of RTD's most enduring obsessions has been with citizen journalism, with ordinary people taking control and 'turning the signal back on them'. In fact, that's precisely how RTD's protagonists defeat the bad guys in three out of four Dr Who finales to date, as well as countless other episodes. And yes, it's cheesy and it's obvious, but I think it's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. And in this series the concept really came into its own, with heroic amateur reporters saving the day from the sidelines, and the Torchwood team holding the entire government hostage by threatening to release details of the dodgy dealings to the public. We'll release the tapes to the public is, in fact, the number-one absolute and final worst thing you can say to a politician, in Torchwood and in real life - has been since Watergate. The only thing we can do, whether we want to defeat aliens or our more earthly overlords, is to take control of the signal - and the way that simple agenda is handled in the miniseries is elegant and moving.

Because a British state ready to abandon its own people to pain, loss and hardship is not science fiction. It's happening right now, today. In the 20th century alone, the government sacrificed not 335,000 but millions and millions of its own citizens, mostly boys, some barely more than children, when faced with an enemy armed only with machine guns and lots of mud. Right now, our government is offering subsidies to wealthy bankers whilst kicking a significant proportion of the poorest and neediest in the nethers. Right now, our government is placing us all in terrible danger by maintaining an arsenal of country-killing weaponry simply in order to make themselves feel better about our dwindling importance on the world stage. Right now, saving face and staying powerful is more important than saving the world, and there isn't even a magic button we can push to make it stop.

In You Can Panic Now's far more erudite post, the writer concludes that the bleakness of Torchwood: Children of Earth prevents it from being truly excellent television - we're deprived of that glimpse of human heroism, that glimmer of hope at the end of a harrowing show:

The everyday heroism of human life is what is truly missing from this series, and it is deliberately excluded in favour of a political message: our leaders care only for politics, and in their pursuit of political power lose touch with real life, and we the people are too apathetic and powerless to stop them. Ultimately, the storyteller is responsible for the message that his story sends. And I think that Children of Earth failed, on Day Five, to deliver a message that was useful, morally coherent and worthy. Shocking and frightening us with the potential of our own brutality was step one, but it was not followed by a step two.

I'm inclined to agree, which is why I'd make a terrible TV pundit: I like unremitting bleakness. I find it energising not to be offered easy solutions. RTD has always been a nihilist, an atheist with an eye for showing us our own most terrible potential in disarmingly silly ways. The real genius of Torchwood: Children of Earth, as well as those shit-scary screaming kids, was its effortless grasp of what is truly to be feared in this world. The series didn't need super-CGI, brilliant acting or massive fight sequences. It didn't even need to take the monster out of the fog: the actual aliens were barely on screen at all. Turns out that the monster was on the other side of the glass the whole time, in Westminster, ready to sell us all out for the promise of a quiet life. We were looking at the monster all along: we're still looking at the monster, and ultimately we are offered no easy redemption. That right there is the sort of sci-fi that scares the bejeezus out of me. Bloody brilliant stuff.


  1. it was shiny-dead-lover logic turned effortlessly queer, which isn't something I've seen on tv before

    Pfh... Four Weddings and a Funeral, for starters?

    As for this as a portrayal of a nation of middlemen - yeah, bit like JK Rowling showed, innit?

  2. Has anyone else noticed that the posts are getting longer and longer? Shorter, more concise ones please.

  3. Enjoyed the reference to Serenity.

  4. it was shiny-dead-lover logic turned effortlessly queer, which isn't something I've seen on tv before

    Have you only just got a tv? This was the _only_ gay storyline for years, and is still the one that all the laziest writers turn back to.

  5. I actually didn't know that, PD. Thank you. (And no, I don't own a TV!)

  6. "Which is also exactly what would have been done today, for a definition of 'today' involving slime-spewing aliens."

    Frankly, Penny that Cabinet meeting looked like a meet-up of the nuttier elements of 'Comment is Free'


  7. The only good thing that I can say about the last Torchwood five parter is that John Barrowman's character Captain Jack Harkness will be gone for a long time if not forever.

    But I expect that super-gay Barrowman will be camping it up in the new Doctor Who series next year!

    You just can't keep a good girl down (although I wish the opposite was true for phenomenally bad Scottish-American actors)!

  8. I'm impressed you haven't heard of the "Bury your gays" trope, when it was mentioned and linked in the article you quote from.

    Reading comprehension just isn't what it was.

  9. Don't forget to e-mail this to Tom Harris MP. If he keeps ranting about your posts it'll do wonders for your ratings. ;)

  10. I liked Tara on "Buffy"! I don't think she was killed for being a lesbian. Someone had to die. Although why not Anya? Did it have to be Willow who then lost it rather than Xander?

  11. Well, kinda. It had to be Willow. How was Handyman Harris supposed to go postal and threaten the world? With an unsafe set of scaffolding?

  12. ...also, Anya was a bloody dreadful character, and nobody would have been sad if she died. Well, I wouldn't, anyway. Personally, I think they should have killed Giles; then EVERYONE would have gone nuts.

  13. Interesting post, Laurie!

    Hmm, see, the point you make in your concluding section is precisely the reason why I think this series is too bleak and morally confused:

    New Who is all about ideas, and one of RTD's most enduring obsessions has been with citizen journalism, with ordinary people taking control and 'turning the signal back on them'.

    Unforunately, in this case, the images are never released to the public. As a threat, it is hollow and never followed through on. So we don't get a chance to see the public react, revolt, refuse to go along with the terrible behaviour of their politicians.

    We the public, at the end of the series, are powerless dupes. Our voices don't really matter, and that is, in my opinion, antithetical to the message of the rest of Who: we can save the world with words and ideas. And, as you say, that might be cheesy and trite, but it's an aspiration that's a damn sight better than anything offered to us in Children of Earth!

    PS- After some discussion on my blog about Torchwood: Declassified and RTD's statements about his motivations for Ianto's death, we seemed to conclude that not only did Ianto end up a Buried Gay, but a Disposable Woman as well. Sadly, it fits rather well into the Dead/Evil Lesbian cliche (Willow and Tara's storyline on Buffy is a good example)-- the love interest is killed to provide angst for the protagonist, and the protagonist goes insane/loses their moral compass/murders lots of people as a result. The subtext remains that queer love is a destructive, potentially dangerous, uncontrollable force.

  14. Hmm. I get what you're saying, but I'm not sure we ARE powerless dupes at the end of the series, unless we happen to be children. Actually, the thing that worried me most about the whole thing was the way in which children - all children - were treated as having no autonomy at all.

    Ianto's a Disposable Woman, no doubt about that, but I think that's as far as it goes - what RTD engineered was to slot Ianto/Jack into an INCREDIBLY het state in people's heads by playing into Shiny Dead Girlfriend syndrome.

    What's interesting is that Jack actually seems to recover very quickly after Ianto, and is much more affected by having to sacrifice his grandson. Ianto was never any sort of moral compass for Jack, that's made clear - in fact, Jack never actually HAD a moral compass. Jack himself is a destructive force, and never more so than when he's embroiled in the fallout of *heterosexual* relationships (he seems to have left a string of broken early-20th-century households behind him). So yeah, I reckon Ianto's death was specifically Shiny Dead Girlfriend, NOT 'bury your gays'. It was still weepily nasty, though.

  15. In the future, all conversation will simply consist of references to TV Tropes. I bet that's how the Tamarians got started.

  16. Now we have po-faced discussions about Torchwood, a badly scripted and even worse acted children's television programme masquerading as an adult entertainment.

    An alien race exists, "The 456", that are so fabulously technologically advanced as to be able to travel between worlds through space and threaten whole planetary populations with extinction; yet these beings seem to possess no organs of manipulation delicate enough to enable them to build the technology that would enable them to do these things. So "The 456" invade our planet and turn out to be junkies for a chemical "hits" produced by imbibing "chemicals" produced by children. (Sadly, despite their obvious technological genius, "The 456" are presumably unable to synthesise the pharmacological substances that give them these "human highs" in whatever passes on their planet for a laboratory.) But the planet is saved by Captain Jack Harkness' creation of a feedback loop which sent "The 456" packing by sacrificing his own grandson a la Abraham and Issac, although unlike Abraham super-gay Captain Harkness actually went through with it!

    Pretty daft all in all, even for Russell T. Davies. Kind of reminds me on the daft Dr. Who episode where David Tennant towed the Earth back into orbit from the other side of the galaxy with a cable! Beat that AA and RAC!

    What a load of wank.

  17. In the homosexual relationship enjoyed by Ianto and Jack, if Ianto is supposed to be the "shiny dead girlfriend" does that mean he's was supposed to be the passive partner in that relationship or do you think that Jack and Ianto alternated roles and gave each other top and bottom?

    Which one of them was the dog and which one the bitch? Or do you think they mixed it up a bit for variety?

    Personally I thought Ianto gave a better performance as a corpse than he ever did as a living person... certainly his acting was much better, far more animated and infinitely more believable.

  18. Personally, I found Ianto's death moving and well done (even if it might be a trope - I hadn't realised, but then I don't have a tv either). That said, whilst sympathetic gay characters = , what I’d be really heartened to see is a non-hetero relationship like Gwen and her husband’s – i.e. stable, kindly and almost boringly normal.
    [oh, and I thought that Jack was taken to pieces by the death of his grandson because he was responsible for his death and because he’s not just lost his grandson but also made his daughter hate him. It doesn’t mean he didn’t properly care for Ianto]

    I have to disagree with You Can Panic Now’s point though. I thought Children of Earth was very bleak but I thought it had a moral message, or at least a worthy consideration of a moral issue. It seemed to me (and I'd be really interested to know if it did to anyone else) that the central underlying focus behind the series was the way in which, in the face of enormous challenges, people make compromises with what they’d previously thought to be right – and how incredibly seductive this is.
    For, (and I found this particularly compelling and difficult) although some of the politicians were clearly deeply unpleasant careerists, none of the decisions they were faced with were easy. Even if they had been better men, but men who lacked assurance of a TV audience that the goodies will save the day in the end – what should they have done – gambled with the lives of the human race?

    But, after the series took us in that direction, I thought the series also seemed to suggest this – although in the face of enormous difficulties, we may feel that we must compromise our principles, actually there may be more options than we initially thought if we refuse to do the easier thing. As Jack discovered in the end. Not easy options, nor pleasant ones but more options than the politicians of the British government, so used to ‘adapting to the realities of the situation’ thought there were.

    But what the series didn’t say (and perhaps this is the weakness of it’s consideration of this issue) is that governments and individuals should only consider acting in such horrendous ways when faced with enormous, scary problems that stand outside our normal abilities to cope. Most of the problems that politicians face are different. There are solutions, albeit difficult ones, that don’t require the sacrifice of key principles. The ‘problem’ is that it seems that, lacking a sense of proportion, history or perspective – some problems can seem more world-threatening than they are. And so, we delude ourselves into thinking that we have no choices, when in fact, we can hold certain principles as absolute if we have the will to.

    But yes, I thought, as TV, it was brilliant.

  19. @ Daniel, yeah, I see what you mean. But they could have given Xander freak superpowers. He did split into two Xanders once. About ruddy time, given there can't be that many actors of that generation with an identical twin.

    Of course, if the current celebrity babies go into showbiz, there will be twins a-plenty, although not all identical pairs.

  20. Secret Lemonade Drinker29 July 2009 at 14:46

    Discussing Torchwood...

    Get yourselves lives you hoplessly sad bastards!

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