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.


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