Posts Tagged ‘Buffy’

What shall I do today? The luge? BASEjumping? Shark-tickling? Hmm, all a bit passe. How about Russian roulette? Still not daring enough. I know, I’ll do something really risky and write about Torchwood and its fandom…

There was a strong turn out for the semi-final of the Cardiff Bay Posing Competition…


I suppose I would describe myself as a supporter of Torchwood rather than a bona fide fan of the show. I went out of my way to watch the first two series (I was living in Japan and Italy at the time, and you wouldn’t believe the trouble I had tracking parts of season two down on the internet), own all three on DVD and generally know my way around the series and its characters. There are other programmes that I think are considerably better which I’m a lot less committed to, and yet I still hang in there. I suspect this is almost certainly because Torchwood is a Who-world show, even though its place within that world is a sometimes awkward one (for instance, don’t get me started on how the chronology of the two interlink) .

That said, I know I’m very much in the shallow end when it comes to Torchwood fandom, and no doubt many of the hard core will dismiss I even have the right to claim as much. I am aware that there are a lot of people who love Torchwood fiercely but who are only dimly aware of, or largely indifferent to, Doctor Who. (This is one of those things I don’t understand but will happily admit exists.) Torchwood-specific fandom seems to be one of the most committed and ardent followings currently in existence, and I’m certainly not going to start taking cheap shots at them (I’d be on rather thin ice if I did, after all).

However, I am rather fascinated by the way that mainstream and fandom opinions of Torchwood have always remained, broadly speaking, polarised. The first two runs of the show were the ones which established the ardent following it still enjoys, even though mainstream¬†reviews were generally negative (season two got slightly better notices, which it deserved). The third series, on the other hand, was mostly rather well-received in the media – but it seems to be reviled, if not actually abominated, by fandom. Comments that I’ve seen from fans about Children of Earth include ‘the writing was offensive and lazy’, it ‘was a shambles’, and it ‘bordered on sensationalism’ – and those are all drawn from responses to a single blog post about the show!

Well, talk about rifts… It seems that the things that the mainstream likes about Torchwood are the ones that fandom hates, and vice versa. Normally I would say that there’s nothing wrong with Rusty and the programme makers worrying first and foremost about cultivating a large mainstream audience – the show would implode otherwise – but in the case of Torchwood, I can see how fans would feel justified in seeing this as a betrayal. If ever there was a series which appeared machine-tooled to acquire and retain a cult following, it’s early Torchwood. It’s derivative of other series, often knowingly so, and seems designed to appeal to a certain type of very dedicated fan.

(I’m a cult TV fan myself of many years standing, I have many friends who are equally afflicted, etc, etc, and once again I should stress I’m not dealing in lazy generalisations or cheap shots here (is this disclaimer really necessary, I ask myself? Better not take the chance: I suspect tagging a blog post Torchwood or Ianto Jones will result in a bit of a hits spike – part of the reason I’m writing this is to test that thesis – and I’d like to keep the amount of grumpy feedback I get to a minimum…). However, that said…)

Torchwood may – ostensibly – share continuity with Doctor Who, and has borrowed a few characters from it, but its roots as a TV format clearly lie elsewhere. This is probably because the concept for the series was one Rusty Davies came up with prior to his Who revival, and which he returned to and retooled when asked to submit an idea for a Who-world spin-off show. Broadly speaking (and this is by no means a new or particularly insightful comment), Torchwood is Buffy the Vampire Slayer relocated to South Wales and (theoretically) made for an adult audience (a debt the show surely openly acknowledged in casting James Marsters in the second series).

…and the winner went on to challenge a strategically-employed guest star for the title.

Buffy was the biggest cult show in the world around the millennium, with the same kind of zealous following, but it also managed to be popular in the mainstream media as well, mostly due to the strength of the writing – both in terms of the on-going plots, and the characters’ endless capacity for pithy one-liners. The fans in particular became deeply invested in the various characters and their relationships, which helped to ground the show when the monster-of-the-week element became particularly silly.

There was also the fact that – and if you thought I was treading carefully before, you ain’t seen nothing yet – Buffy appealed to minority groups not often well represented on TV. I’m talking about the LGBT fans, of course, which Torchwood also has (or, possibly, had – one other way in which Torchwood has followed Buffy has been in controversially killing off a hugely popular LGB character).

I think one of the reasons why early Torchwood falls down is that it fails to recognise another key element of the Buffy formula – both shows consistently include outrageous (please note that I’m definitely not using the words ‘preposterous’ or ‘silly’ here) stories, but the makers of Buffy, mainly through the dialogue and performances, make it quite clear that they know this, and that the show isn’t meant to be taken completely seriously. Torchwood doesn’t do this – at least not consistently – with the result that it frequently comes across as unintentionally camp, sometimes embarrassingly so.

The pitch for Torchwood‘s first two series would be ‘the adventures of a pansexual time-travelling adventurer as he leads a team of alien hunters, in Cardiff’ – perfectly good stuff for a conventional SF series, except for the last two words. ‘In Cardiff’ makes it something oddball, potentially ludicrous, possibly brilliant. One or two episodes excepted, Torchwood never shows much sign of realising what an odd show it is, though. It spends its time self-consciously trying to be mature and serious when it ought to be being arch and knowing.

Those are the flaws of early Torchwood, for me – obviously ‘proper’ fans of the show will disagree. I suspect any defence of the show will hinge upon the strength of the characters and their relationships with one another, rather than the quality of the scripts and direction of individual episodes. Certainly, I’ve read more comments along the lines of ‘For me this show just won’t be the same without [insert name of recently deceased regular] in it’ in association with Torchwood than any other programme.

For me, though, Children of Earth was a quantum leap forward for Torchwood, the moment at which it finally became the ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’ we were initially promised (but surely Doctor Who is ‘Doctor Who for grown-ups’? Mutter, grumble…). For the first time it didn’t seem to be trying to do anything beyond just telling a really good story – and, while a few incongruous lapses in plotting still got onto the screen and the story peaked a bit early, they generally succeeded. It may not have been perfect, or up to the standards of the best of the other Who-world series, but it was at the absolute very least no worse than the first two series.

And yet the Torchwood fanbase says things like ‘a shambles,’ and ‘lazy and offensive’… let us turn our attention (finally) to the dark heart of Children of Earth, and what is surely the reason why it is so hated: they kill off Ianto Jones. I said at the time, even as the lad was gasping his last, that this would cause ructions on the internet, and I was right. Torchwood fans are wont to complain about commentators fixating on the, er, strong and varied response to Ianto’s death by a small minority amongst their number, so I will only be mentioning the death threats against the script-writer this one time. For those not familiar with the situation (and, hey, thanks for reading this far if so), the Save Ianto Jones campaign has, over the last year and a half, regularly sent the BBC messages by post and email, dispatched packages of coffee beans to the makers of the series – the exact number is disputed, although the people at SaveIanto.com claim it’s well over a hundred bags – and maintained a physical shrine to the character in Cardiff itself.

A picture of your actual Ianto Jones shrine, should anyone doubt it’s real…

(Surely it’s a bit late to ‘Save’ Ianto given that he’s already dead? Wouldn’t Resurrect Ianto Jones be a more appropriate rallying cry? I suspect my pedantic tendencies have slipped the leash again. Anyway…)

Quite why Ianto’s passing has caused such a strong reaction is, on the face of things, a mystery, given he was very much in the background for much of the first series, and rather lacking in personality. Then again, this may be the beginnings of an explanation – this isn’t the first time a relatively minor supporting character has gone on to become a fan-favourite, as something similar happened to Worf in TNG. Could it be that, in some cases, fans actually prefer a character who’s a bit of a blank slate? It’s a lot easier to idealise someone like that, than someone much more strongly conceived and characterised like Owen (a shrine to whom is not, to my knowledge, extant).

Then again, the issue of Ianto’s sexuality complicates the matter, with his death criticised on the grounds that it perpetuates the trope that gay people are doomed to cruel and untimely deaths. This leads on to the mind-boggling accusation by some people that Rusty Davies is homophobic. Er, yeah. This is a complex issue that I don’t propose to tackle in detail here, and all I will say is that if it’s unfair and misleading to show a gay character dying, it’s surely also equally unrealistic to suggest that they are less prone to unhappiness and tragedy than anyone else (which seems to be what some people propose be done).

Well, anyway, he was my favourite character too, and I was sorry to see him go… but his death was memorable, and certainly in keeping with the general tone of Torchwood as a series, and quite possibly necessary to the plot of the story (your correspondent braces for angry feedback). It certainly hasn’t put me off watching future installments of the series.

We are now in a situation where a fourth series of Torchwood is in the works, produced by the (presumably now-well-caffeinated) BBC and the Starz network – a new run of a show which has never truly been a mainstream hit in either the USA or Britain, and whose dedicated fanbase, while largely respectful of the programme-makers, still seems in part to be deeply unhappy with them. Is Torchwood: Miracle Day going to be pitched wholly towards a mainstream audience in the same way that Children of Earth was? It seems unlikely to me – it would surely be easier to come up with a new show along similar lines, with less baggage. I suspect that Starz may have come on board on the strength of the size of the Torchwood fanbase and the guaranteed audience that appears to represent. If so, they could be in for a shock. Certainly the makers of the new run have a herculean task on their hands if they want to win back all the disaffected Ianto-lovers out there. Hell hath no fury like a cult TV fan scorned. I am cautiously optimistic about the new series, but one way or another I think it could really struggle to find a properly appreciative audience.

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