Monday, October 30, 2006

These are your favourite things

I undertook last night to defend Torchwood against its critics. Having seen last night's episode I'm less enthusiastic about this task than I was - about the kindest thing that could be said about episode 3 is that it was a load of old tosh. Still, I feel much more kindly disposed towards the series than Justin or Dave - and some of their criticisms strike me as not so much unfair as irrelevant.

I'll set the scene with a couple of Russell T. Davies' earlier hits.
DOCTOR: Look at these people, these human beings, consider their potential. From the day they arrive on this planet and blinking, step into the sun, there is more to see than can ever be seen, more to do... no, hold on... sorry, that's the Lion King... but the point still stands!
HOMELESS MAN: Big Issue?
VINCE: Yes, it is! Unrequited love - it never has to grow old and it never has to die!
A lot of Davies's dialogue - a lot of his best dialogue - is like this: elaborate, tasteless and entirely unbelievable, but at the same time moving, funny and enthusiastic.

Especially enthusiastic. Davies's imaginative world has three consistent features, all of which play in the direction of upbeat. There’s faith: faith in love and desire (which are seldom far apart); faith in emotions, and letting them out and acting on them; and ultimately an optimistic faith in people. Nothing is more characteristic of Davies than his setting a vision of the end of the world, in the eponymous Doctor Who episode, five billion years in the future:
DOCTOR: You lot, you spend all your time thinking about dying, like you're going to get killed by eggs, or beef, or global warming, or asteroids. But you never take time to imagine the impossible. Like maybe you survive.
Then there’s sex. For Davies there’s always sex - he’s described it as the single most basic plot driver, whatever the plot is. The promise that Torchwood delivers on (or at least promises to deliver on) was made by Doctor Who as long ago as Captain Jack’s first appearance, and as recently as the Doctor’s parting with Rose. (And remember the Doctor and Rose tumbling out of the Tardis into Victorian Scotland? Why were they so unsteady on their feet - and why were they giggling so much?)

The third key element of Davies’s vision - and the one which seems to have given Dave and Justin the most trouble - goes back, I think, to Davies’s early days as a screenwriter for children’s TV. It’s a quality which Torchwood and Doctor Who share with Buffy and Serenity but not with Star Trek, let alone Star Wars. It’s a kind of unencumbered, disrespectful, not-quite-adult lightness, flippancy even. This is partly about the dialogue - you don’t ask whether a line is credible, you ask whether it sounds good in performance - but it also goes deeper, to the level of character. You don’t say, What does the willingness to do this say about Character X? or How will Character X handle the consequences? You say, Would Character X do this? What about you - would you? What about if you could get away with it, would you then? The characters aren’t burdened with foresight or moral reflection, and the writing doesn’t take up the slack with foreshadowing or ominous sound effects. They do what they do, and the consequences come along later to bite them - or not, as it suits the plot. And what they do is what you would do, if you weren’t too inhibited, too boring, too grown-up. I felt quite comfortable with this element of Torchwood - or rather, I wasn’t consciously aware of it - until I read Dave’s comment
The writing team has a low opinion of their creation’s integrity; three out of six are office thieves.
and Justin’s:
A member of the Torchwood team is revealed (in a *hilarious* scene) in the opening episode as a bisexual rapist who traps his victims using an alien aftershave he’s borrowed from work that makes him irresistible.
Office thieves? Rapist? They borrow stuff from work (including the said alien atomiser which induces immediate desire in anyone who gets a whiff). Sure, they’ve been told not to do it - but with stuff like that lying around, well, you would, wouldn’t you?

Youth, sex and optimism: the trio embodied in Queer as Folk in under-age Nathan, amoral Stuart and the eternally hopeful Vince, and subsequently rolled into one in David Tennant’s Casanova, John Barrowman’s Jack Harkness and (most strikingly) Tennant’s Doctor. This isn’t a world where gains are wiped out by their cost, where dilemmas are unresolvable or where darkness means more than the absence of light. It’s a bright and mostly beautiful world, where external threats needs to be resisted because people matter - and people matter because of their capacity to love. It’s also a world brought to us in a hectic patchwork of action scenes, character development, horror, plot exposition, character-based comedy, backstory exposition, beautiful camerawork and moments of calm, still wonder.

It’s not Our Friends in the North; it’s not even ER. It’s not trying to be. But what it does, it does well. At its worst it’s tosh (albeit beautifully-executed tosh), but at its best it’s good.

Update 31/10

Whoa, comments! Sod the politics (and the music), Whoblogging is obviously the way to go.

There's some interesting stuff coming out. Jonn:

"So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn't nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be
...
but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it's what the show is going to be all about."

biscit:

"Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankind's best interests- they keep a lid on things because others can't be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn't subtle extrapolating, the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought in to be the team's moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral."

A couple of preliminary thoughts. Firstly, I think RTD is a genuinely amoral writer, partly because he sees morality as anti-sex and partly because he likes people. In other words, I think he'd argue that if you just wind people up and let them go it'll work out for the best, probably, for most people - and that even if it doesn't always work out well it's still a better alternative than trying to control them. So I don't think an RTD character is ever going to be riven with self-doubt - or if they are they'll probably grow out of it (cf. Vince). Secondly, there's a question of genre (and in this respect I stand by the comparison with Buffy); you could even say that a basic character makeup of looking for fun and acting without forethought (but learning from the consequences) is a genre convention for this kind of drama.

That said, even I found the shooting-range scene hard to take. I haven't seen lethal violence made to look so attractive since the Matrix - and even that didn't make it look so sexy.

So, I dunno. Two basic possibilities, I suppose. Perhaps it really is just the Double-Deckers with added sex and guns, in which case I'd reluctantly concede that RTD may have pushed the young/sexy/optimistic thing a bit too far into amorality - and amoral nastiness at that. Or perhaps there's some dark stuff coming, but it's not really being foreshadowed - which would fit with the lack of overt morality and the "act first, reflect later" thing. (Let's not forget, the first episode included a character who'd become a serial killer for the love of Torchwood - and who killed herself onscreen. That's pretty dark.)

The big question for me is what they're going to do with Captain Jack - the second and third episodes have suggested that he's not the best person to look after the kids he's surrounded himself with, what with being an amoral bisexual seducer, but also that he's so damn attractive that you probably wouldn't care. Gwen's relationship with her partner - who's been laboriously established as a boring old Welsh spud - is going to be one to watch, I think.

One last update 2/11

It occurred to me today - not that I'm brooding over this obsessively or anything - that the key to Captain Jack may be that odd scene with Gwen where he told her that he couldn't die, and added that if he could find "the right kind of doctor" he might become mortal again. We all spotted the D-word, of course, but was there something else going on there? Why would somebody who'd just survived being shot in the head want to be mortal again? What this suggests to me is that, despite all the tall buildings and general Neoish posturing, the Captain Jack we're seeing is damaged goods. He's survived a major trauma (none more major) and been abandoned by his closest friends - and now, perhaps, he's trying to outrun the effects by turning stress into duty ("Gotta be ready!").

Alternatively, perhaps it really is just a load of old tosh.

12 Comments:

Blogger Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Not just a defence, but a worthy explanation of RTD's writing and core concerns. Beautifully done! Brilliant!

31/10/06 08:39  
Blogger Marie said...

I second Lisa. Hurrah for RTD!

31/10/06 09:43  
Anonymous Backword Dave said...

Lisa is right about your explanation of RTD, and I learned some things. But back up a bit, and I'll (try to) justify Justin's criticisms and my own.

Rapist first: he's right. If the spray really makes whatisname irresistable, then it's no better than a date rape drug. Having sex with someone who hasn't or can't give consent is rape. You can watch a wildlife film of young lions optimisitically chasing antelope - and you'd have two of Davies' trinity, but that's not how the antelope see it.

And, yes, office theives. My reading of the scene at the end where they handed the things back was that Barrowman had declared some kind of amnesty. They didn't just sneak them back into work, they had to show that they'd returned them. If they were supposed to be experimenting: sorry, that's not how scientists do things. The experiments in CSI are all about rigour.

If you're going to write about characters 'without foresight or moral reflection' then you've limited the roles they can play - mostly to junkies and rent boys. The Rodney King assailants excepted, most people in the police have plenty of both.

I think your second last paragraph is very good but the only sense of adult it describes is the euphemism for porn sense. I don't think the camera work is beautiful, BTW, the best term I can come up with is 'pretentious journeyman'.

31/10/06 10:07  
Anonymous Justin said...

I stand by my point about the rape allusion. In fact the more I think about it the less happy about it I am.

I'm not suggesting that Davies' handling of that scene and the issue was anything other than a terribly misjudged joke but it still leaves a nasty taste. Also, I think that sloppiness is indicative of the writing as a whole. Phil, you waxed lyrical about Davies' ability with dialogue (and I agree, in general, wholeheartedly) but then you didn't cite any examples from Torchwood itself.

There was, as a friend pointed out to me after I'd written my bit, another date rape allusion in episode one when Jack spikes the drink of the female copper (sorry, her name escapes me) - with what was effectively Rohypnol.

Of course, Mickey Finns have been a staple of espionage fiction for ages but, again, I thought the issue was mishandled - these are paranoid times. I could go on but I wonder if all of us have given the show more analysis (and time) that it truly deserves.

31/10/06 10:37  
Blogger Phil said...

If you're going to write about characters 'without foresight or moral reflection'

For what it's worth, I didn't mean to suggest that characters like these are incapable of moral reflection on their actions - just that they act first and reflect when the consequences come around.

then you've limited the roles they can play - mostly to junkies and rent boys.

And kids. Imagine applying your ethical standards to the Famous Five, or the characters in Malcolm in the Middle - or the characters in Buffy, come to that. Torchwood isn't about defending the earth against aliens - it's about being young, naive and sexually active, and defending Cardiff against aliens. It's a kids' drama with added sex and death - very like Buffy, really (remember all the stuff about the Scoobies). It's nowhere near as good as Buffy, I hasten to add, but it's early days yet.

31/10/06 10:37  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

Dave: while I agree the pheremone-spray-rape scene was horribly mishandled, I don't think we've seen anything like all the consequences of those kind of actions yet.

So far the pattern seems to be that a) the Torchwood team have moral compasses that are spinning wildly; b) Gwen is already getting corrupted by it all (look at the shooting range scene); c) Jack isn't nearly as concerned about these missteps as he should be (I mean, he screams at Owen while he's threatening someone with a knife, but he doesn't seem bothered once it's all over), preusmably because he's too busy standing on rooves and anghsting.

The show has an upsettingly large number of flaws - the tone is inconsistent, it sometimes looks cheap, there's a lot of stuff thrown in there for the "hey, cool!" factor...

...but I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere. In fact I suspect it's what the show is going to be all about.

31/10/06 10:41  
Anonymous ian said...

I trust the moral grey area stuff to be going somewhere

I think this is the case. The Dr Who series telegraphed all the big plot lines from well in advance. I think Davies is too good a writer/producer to allow something as sloppy as this without good reason.

The other line which has already come up twice is "the 21st century is when it all changes - we have to be ready"

Incidentally - which universe is this set in - the Doctor's or the one Rose ended up in? Could be significant.

31/10/06 10:48  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

It's definitely the 'real' universe. There are a distinct lack of zeppelins.

But yeah, I agree: during the Eccleston series of Who everyone* was complaining that the Doctor seemed to be entirely passive, and was never involved in plot resolutions...

...which turned out to be kinda the point.


*Well, not everyone.

31/10/06 10:59  
Blogger Biscit said...

Isn't Owen all part of the whole "the most dangerous thing about Torchwood is Torchwood" ethos. The Pheremone spray where he almost committed date rape, the vigilante behaviour in Sunday's episode. Torchwood are supposed to be acting in humankinds best intersts- they keep a lid on things because others can't be trusted. But the thing is can they? This isn't subtle extrapolating the question is more or less baldly asked by Gwen, a policewoman brought it to be the team's moral compass.

This is a post watershed show, there is scope for the central characters to be devious and amoral.

31/10/06 11:51  
Blogger Backword Dave said...

Phil, thanks for your reply. I thought about it, and there is lots of scope for stories about people without foresight. 'On the Road' and 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' being two of my favourites. But these aren't stories about responsible people. And so far the team are all tossers. They're not even likable. Perhaps the two best comparisons are Spooks and CSI. In the latter, as I originally said, two characters have demons of irresponsibility - Warwick and Sara. But they're professional at work, and the Torchwood lot aren't. Thus if Phil and Jonn are right the question has slipped for 'quis custodiet ipsos custodies' - which is the eternal question of serious society - to 'who gave these idiots guns'? In Spooks Harry has nearly insuperable moral dilemmas, and if Spooks gives the impression that the security services can't be trusted not to torture and lie and twist the apparatus of the state, that's because the world is twisted and there is nothing straight. These guys are immature kids. So, OK, perhaps it's a parallel for Iraq.

BTW, Torchwood is set in this universe. CJH mentioned Torchwood 1 in London, also the Cybermen, the Christmas Invasion - these only happened in the Doctor's universe.

31/10/06 16:17  
Anonymous Katherine said...

I'm giving Torchwood a chance to dig in personally. But my own thoughts are that the Torchwood team seem to be a bit, well, crap actually. What are they good at? Not very much really. The analogy with Buffy would work if Torchwood was a self-appointed thing, but they're not. They seem to be at least some way official, in the way that the police defer to them (and ignoring all that "beyond the United Nations" bollocks), so who the hell is paying them to be so bad at their jobs?

7/11/06 15:31  
Anonymous Anna said...

More like Carry On Dr Who without the sophistication, featuring all the jokes rejected by Donald McGill's quality controller.

Note the lazy Spielbergian open-mouthed, wide-eyed gaze rendering the characters passively receptive, and reflecting the same in their ideal audience. Cardiff Buffy is sadly aping The Master.

For the real McCoy, click here:
http://www.annachen.co.uk/ gallery/annajamesmarsters.htm

15/11/06 12:31  

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