Thursday, October 26, 2006


Let's play a game, Let's imagine that the TARDIS materialized in Cardiff shortly after a big meteor fell in the city. Let's imagine that, trapped in this meteor, was a big green gaseous alien that has no escaped and has possessed one of the citizens. The Doctor would feel right at home; pretty much the same thing happened in 'Spearhead From Space'. Let's further pretend that the person who is possessed by the gaseous monster is now killing other members of the public. The Doctor would take this in his stride. That's what these aliens do. But now suppose that the Doctor confronts the alien, possibly at the end of episode 3, and discovers that it isn't a psychic vampire and it doesn't feed on negative emotional energy: in fact, it deliberately came to earth because humans have the best sex in the universe and it feeds off, and I quote, orgasmic energy. It has to fuck, and fuck rather brutally, to survive.
Of course, you can't: because the Doctor is essentially a character from children's TV, and as such, he can't talk about rape or sex or orgasms, any more than Bagpuss can say 'bum' or the Famous Five can worry about whose going to dig the latrine. Advanced students might like to envisage a scenario in which, in order to save the life of the monster's mortal host, Rose volunteers to be possessed by the fuck-monster, with the idea that the monster can then gouge itself on the Doctor's Time Lord libido. Oh, and by the way -- imagine that the final scene takes place in a sperm bank, because merely being in the same building as so much masturbation can somehow sustain the monster. Sarah-Jane, thou shouldest be living at this hour.
But now, flip it round. Imagine that you are watching a serious, grown up, post-9PM realistic cop show, with a tough police-lady who says 'shit' but gets emotionally involved her cases. Suppose that she is investigating a violent series of sexual murders; and imagine that the surprise twist is that they are not being committed by a pervert or a serial killer, but by a woman who has been possessed by an alien that escapde from a meteor and which feeds off men's orgasms. You would, I assume, expect the realistic heroine to be quite surprised and skeptical about this revelation; and you would also, I assume, expect her to ask exactly how a pool of green gas can control someone's mind, and what orgasmic energy is exactly and whether it's actual copulation or mere proximity that the thing needs. You'd probably regard the situation as so ludicrous that your belief in the heroine and her world would evaporate: to avoid this, you'd want some explanations which made some kind of logical sense.
And there, I am afraid, is the problem. Doctor Who wears its silliness on its sleeve; it's about a time traveling phone box, for goodness sake. It's filled with alien menaces whose only real motivation is there need to be alien menaces, I mean, really, if you were Dalek Emperor couldn't you have thought of a way of taking over the universe that didn't involve game-shows? The flip-side of this silliness is a fundamental innocence: the hero is a child-man who somehow guarantees that while there may be evil and horror they'll be nothing sordid or nasty. The innocence somehow justifies the stupidity. Doctor Who anagramatized has thrown out the innocence which covered Doctor Who's many sins; but it makes no attempt to be serious adult drama in its own right. On the surface, it is full of post-watershed nastiness: monsters who fuck you to death; scientists who explode rate; people who really bleed when they are attacked; goblins who live in the sewers and eat shit. But take all this away, and what you left with is a Doctor Who monster; indeed, a Russel Davies era Doctor Who monster: a walking plot device whose powers and motivations are defined largely by what would make a cool scene. It isn't convincing as 'Doctor Who for grown ups'; but it doesn't really work as 'sci-fi cop show', either.
The specific reference to Doctor Who stick out like a sore thumb, or, more precisely, like a severed hand. In the middle of a sequence of bars and mean streets and police men who swear, Captain Jack suddenly asks Gwen if she remembers the afternoon when Earth was invaded by the Cybermen. Even pronouncing the word 'Cybermen' in this context feels ludicrously incongruous, you rather expect Gwen to reply 'Weren't they villains in an old black and white TV show that was canceled before I was even born.' A 'spin-off' happens when someone looks at an already existing TV series and says 'I reckon that the snooty psychiatrist could probably sustain a series of his own.' Torchwood is not, in that sense, a spin-off: it's an independently conceived series that happens to have been heavily promoted in Doctor Who. In fact, the Torchwood that appeared in 'Army of Ghosts' and this Torchwood seem fairly unrelated: the one was a shiny, quasi-governmental secret organization with hundreds of employees, a bad attitude, and misplaced loyalty to the British Empire. This one is a ramshackle, slightly chaotic organization with six employees and access to a huge amount of alien technology but a lax attitude to using it. Doubtless, the relationship between the two organization will be explored in future episodes, but it's very clear that this series could have been launched without the build up in Doctor Who and it would have been little different.
Episode 1 is largely about the attempts of the viewpoint character WPC Gwen Cooper to find out what Torchwood is, and in particular, to find out about Jack Harkness. When she catches up with him, she's being menaced by one of the shit eating goblins in a car park: almost the first thing he does is order her to run away. She keeps asking him who he really is, but he gives her very evasive answers. At the end of the first episode, he asks her to work for him, and she agrees. By the end of episode 2, it's clear that they have a bit of thing going. Jack is very aware that he is out of his time and has no long term relationships, and positively encourages Gwen to have an ordinary life. To which all one can say is: Jack Harkness is not, and shouldn't try to be, a substitute Doctor, and Gwen Cooper is a very poor apology for Billie Piper.
All we've had so far is two episodes; one which establishes character and premise and another which establishes adult credentials and tries to creep out any asexual fanboys who have tuned in by mistake. The acting is competent; and while I think it's rather a bore that since Buffy, all characters are obliged to communicate in wisecracks, some of the one-liners are fairly good. John Barrowman keeps the camp thing within reasonable limits. It certainly deserves to be allowed few more episodes to settle in: I just hope that no more of them read like rejected scenarios for 1970s porn flicks.


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of The Viewers Tale or Fish Custard which collects all my writings about Doctor Who to date.

Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.



Anonymous said...

While I thought it was generally OK as entertainment (slick and well-acted), the matter of cross promotion, however, is very troubling. Dr Who is consciously (and vigorously) aimed at younger viewers and it is clear that Torchwood is not going to be suitable for under-12s (even under-16s), but it is only natural that this audience is going to be DYING to see it. If I were the father of an enterprising 11-year old, I'd have a hard time keeping him from it, if I wished to. While I'm very much of the "I-saw-Scars-of-Dracula-when-I-was-eight-and-it-di dn't-do-me-any-harm" school of thought, it is utterly disingenuous of the BBC to pretend that younger viewers aren't going to be watching this. Frankly, I can see no good reason why it could not have been made a stand-alone.

It's like the makers of the Teletubbies made "Teletubbies Afterdark", with a smirking moon played by Jim Davidson making lewd remarks and Noo Noo as a sex toy.

Patrick H

SK said...

Torchwood is a very good example of the kind of thing it's trying to be, which is Angel rather than Ultraviolet.

I hope it's successful if only so that it leads to something that is genuinely like Doctor Who only more grown-up (as opposed to 'adult').

And it's a squillion times better than Robin Hood, though that's not difficult.

Anonymous said...

I’d tend to agree. My initial response was “falls between stools”, neither the charm and innocence of Dr. Who nor enough dark and gritty stuff to make it truly adult. With all the continual references to sex, it reminded me of that phase comics went through in the Eighties where they could suddenly make references to sex and violence – so did nothing but make reference to sex and violence. Those comics called themselves ‘mature’. Everyone else called them ‘adolescent’.

The cataloguing nerd in me feels compelled to point out the second episode was more a rip-off of Species than Spearhead From Space. (If you haven’t seen Species, you haven’t missed much.) Not very original, and anyway far too close to the Lynx effect gag to go in back-to-back episodes.

Both episodes counterposed Captain Jack’s ascetic scientific curiousity to Rose’s humanism. Okay, you could get some dynamic tension out of that but I can’t see it substantiating a whole series.

“There’s more to life than sitting in the lab feeling clever and measuring things, you know boyo.”

“Oh yes. You mentioned that last week, didn’t you?”

Captain Jack is just as annoying as he was on Dr Who – he’s the Zap Brannigan you’re expected to like.

Anonymous said...

Both episodes counterposed Captain Jack’s ascetic scientific curiousity to Rose’s humanism.

Err... think I meant Gwen there. (Old habits die hard it seems.)

Phil Masters said...

Of course, you can't: because the Doctor is essentially a character from children's TV, and as such, he can't talk about rape or sex or orgasms...

Except that, actually, the last two series of Doctor Who[?] have in fact included occasional mentions of sex. Brief and discreet and very pre-watershed, to be sure, but definitely there.

As to Torchwood - I agree with most of what everybody has said, but I'm prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt for a while yet. The shifts and juxtapositions of tone and sub-genre are disconcerting, and may just end up turning the whole thing into a car-crash of a programme, but they may just possibly establish this as something a bit innovative. (Like those '80s comics, the thing may settle down into something worth watching. Or just into something annoyingly adolescent.)

(This is unlike Robin Hood, which is indeed already well into the car crash category. The producers have clearly watched the new Dr Who[?], and drawn all the wrong lessons from it. Being knowing and anachronistic, and letting the writers get the occasional liberal annoyance-of-the-moment off their chests, is all very well, but you need something more than that, and you need to keep things under control.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, I will certainly carry on watching it. I probably skipped over the "It was quite fun. I rather liked it" part and headed straight for the "critique" part.

I've just reached the end of Season 2 of Buffy on DVD. It's rather good, isn't it?

SK said...

End of season 2 is the high point; if I were you I'd stop there and pretend the series ended with Angel in Hell and Buffy heading off accompanied by Sarah McLachlan.

Phil Masters said...

The idea that Torchwood is to (21st century) Dr Who as Angel is to Buffy is quite sound, actually. I can see it becoming widespread in fan circles.

(And Buffy is probably worth hanging onto for at least a couple more seasons, actually. "How soon Buffy started going downhill" is one of those metrics for fannish purity. Most would say to hang in there until about Season 5, though.)

Anonymous said...

I definitely saw potential. I have the feeling that it could blossom into something very special if the ratings stay good and the writers gain confidence.

I'm definitely a fan of Captain Scarlet, sorry, Jack and Gwen already. As for the other team members i'll have to wait and see. Except to say that they definitely picked the wrong one to kill off in Ep. 1 ...

Phil Masters said...

Well, yes. No sane producer who wanted a maximum audience would get rid of that particular cast member if there was any alternative...

Brendan Moody said...

My biggest problem with Torchwood at the moment is the inappropriate moments of Who-ish humor, like the piss-take when Gwen arrives at the Hub with the pizzas. I think it's funny (if not terribly original) when they all break out giggling, but it seems out of character for the style and characters of the programme. If you're going to break with Doctor Who, you should go all the way, I think.

Torchwood also lacks the uniqueness of Who; whatever its sins, DW is the only thing of its kind on modern television, and Torchwood isn't. Grim 'n' gritty secret operatives are a dime a dozen lately, and the metaphor behind the sex monster was pretty Whedonesque.

I didn't mind the sex monster as much as most fans seem to have done, though I didn't think it was any great shakes, and it worries me a bit that Chris Chibnall thinks this was a shockingly funny concept. One hopes his three remaining episodes this year are actually those things. On the plus side, doing the sex monster story now means it won't happen in a future season, and we'll all be spared the "omg they did the sex monster they've jumped teh shark" reaction.

I don't buy that RTD did the sex stuff purely to be shocking; to my mind it was actually pretty tame compared to what they probably could have gotten away with. (QAF was far more explicit seven years ago.) I really would just put it down to setting the parameters of the show, just like the "f***ing disgrace" line in the beginning of the first episode.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

End of season 2 is the high point [of Buffy]

[Everything Changes] was certainly better than Rose.

So much wrongness in a single comment thread.

Louise H said...

Captain Jack is just as annoying as he was on Dr Who – he’s the Zap Brannigan you’re expected to like.

Wonderful comment! But then I've always had a soft spot for Zap.

I happen to like S5 Buffy best, but that's where I first picked up on it.

I await next week's Radio Times letters with interest.

Phil Masters said...

I thought that the Zap Brannigan we were supposed to like was, umm, someone else.

Mike Taylor said...

Having watched Friends a lot (and, I don't mind admitting, enjoying it), I've always thought of Captain Jack as the Doctor's Joey. Unsurprisingly enough, as Joey was by far the least interesting of the six Friends, his spin-off was pretty lame. So I suppose I shouldn't too disappointed if the same is true of Captain Jack's spin-off, too.

Me, I'm looking forward to Sarah Jane investigates. Now there's a character with some back-story.

Anonymous said...

Patrick said:
It's like the makers of the Teletubbies made "Teletubbies Afterdark", with a smirking moon played by Jim Davidson making lewd remarks and Noo Noo as a sex toy.

That sounds like the sort of thing that would once have appeared on TV Go Home