Posts Tagged ‘Rusty Davies’

It is a bit of a truism that you never really appreciate something until it’s gone, and – for me at least – this certainly applies to the Doctor Who created under the auspices of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. I recall, a bit ruefully, the cheerfulness with which I was willing to disregard the flaws in the final episodes produced by this team, as they were heading out of the door anyway and a new golden age under Steven Moffat was only a year or so away.

Watching the episodes from David Tennant’s run now – those from his full seasons, anyway, as opposed to the various specials – my response is very similar to that I had upon revisiting Christopher Eccleston’s tenure, if not quite as strong. Most of these episodes are good, and some of them are very strong indeed. There is a tendency towards mid-season slumps (The Idiot’s Lantern, 42, The Doctor’s Daughter), which may be one of the factors which lead to the current format of dismembered seasons, but generally they start strongly and finish very strongly.

Picking one story in particular to write about has therefore been a bit difficult. The temptation is obviously to do a Moffat story, as his contributions are unfailingly one of the best stories each season, if not the best of all (I’m going to say it: he’s more Eric Saward than Robert Holmes, a brilliant scriptwriter but a bit questionable as a story wrangler), but they’re so very similar to the tone of the current show that I feel we would be missing out on the essential Rustiness of the Rusty Davies era.

And so – it’s a tough call, but I think David Tennant’s second season is his best. And of these episodes the one I found myself revisiting again and again, even in the days immediately after its first broadcast, is not Blink but the following episode, Utopia, written by Davies himself.


This is, by any sensible reckoning, only the initial third of a much longer story, but I’m mostly going to focus on it as opposed to the two following instalments. This is mainly because it is by far the best of the three, and one of the best episodes of 21st century Doctor Who.

The story goes thus. The Doctor pays a brief visit to Cardiff, not realising this is where his former associate, the man known as Jack Harkness, is now leading an underground team (this is underground in the sense of appearing on BBC3, not because their base is subterranean). Instinctively both he and the TARDIS recoil from Jack, who is now impossibly immortal, a fairly sizable flinch as it transports everyone involved to the planet Malcassairo in the final years of the universe’s existence – the End of Time.

However, life clings on and a tiny colony of humans are struggling to survive the predations of the feral Futurekind. Their one hope is a ship that will take them to the planet Utopia, a beacon of hope in the final darkness. But the ship is the creation of the kindly Professor Yana, a man struggling with the weight of expectation upon him – and also a terrifying secret not even he is fully aware of…

Why do I like Utopia so much? I think mainly because, more than virtually any other episode, it takes the greatest virtues of both 20th and 21st century Doctor Who and combines them almost flawlessly.

One of the ways this manifests is in the sheer amount of continuity essential to the plot, complete with copious flashbacks. The 21st century show under Davies got increasingly confident about this sort of thing, but this is still a high-water mark in terms of how involved the continuity references get. Never mind that most of the rest of the season feeds into Utopia and the two following episodes, there are also flashbacks to The Christmas Invasion and The Parting of the Ways, not to mention the fact that the Torchwood episode End of Days leads directly into this. Most gobsmackingly of all at the time, there are actually audio flashbacks to the 20th century series, although you have to be fairly hardcore to identify them as such.

Despite all this, Davies is careful to craft a story which is (I would imagine) pleasing to a wider audience and not remotely dependent on you actually having to remember the significance of the continuity for yourself. Every key point is helpfully signposted and recapped, usually by Martha. I’m not the world’s biggest Martha Jones fan, but I do think both she and Freema Agyeman weren’t really done any favours by a series of scripts which focussed on the Doctor not quite having got over his previous companion. There’s a bit of that here, but mostly she just recaps the continuity and has character-building moments with Chipo Chung.

Everything is slick and positive and generally upbeat, and the pace of the thing is a marvel – but there’s still time for a heart-to-hearts between Jack and the Doctor, so the relationships of the main characters aren’t neglected. In short, it’s a great example of how the series under Davies excelled. Except that on this occasion, the subject matter is much more like that of a 20th century story.

In some ways this is rather like a Terry Nation script, maybe even a Blake’s 7 script – most obviously in the presence of the Futurekind. Who and what they are is never really explained – despite initial appearances, they’re more of an incidental threat than the main menace of the story – but it’s clearly implied that they’re a possible evolutionary destiny of the human race. On one level this foreshadows the Toclafane from the rest of the story, but it also very much recalls the savage Links from Nation’s Terminal, and the origin of the Daleks as presented in a 1973 text story.

However, Davies also does something very clever in his presentation of Professor Yana. Davies is very keen on playing up the idea of the Master as a reflection of the Doctor, and in his Yana form the reflection is that of a generic Doctor from the 20th century series. The big difference between the Doctor in the 20th century and that in the modern show comes in his transformation from Ancient Wise Man to Juvenile Lead (I simplify, but not that much), and Yana is almost indistinguishable from an old-school Doctor in his diction and even his dress sense (there is apparently even a frock coat somewhere in Yana’s lab).

Every time the modern series revives a monster or villain from the original run it essentially constitutes a tribute, and so it makes sense for this particular revival to be so steeped in the ancient lore and mythos of the series. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that the last third of this episode is brilliantly, brilliantly done, the slow build from the almost-casual revelation of Yana’s watch to one of the greatest cliffhangers in the show’s history being perfectly executed. Direction, music, and Derek Jacobi’s jaw-dropping performance come together and the result is simply magical.

It’s not really a surprise that The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords struggle a bit to live up to the quality of Utopia. The consensus is that this story gets weaker as it goes on, and I would tend to agree – but that isn’t to say that there’s nothing of interest here, either. There’s some serious political commentary going on in The Sound of Drums, behind all the jokes and the fanservice – and there’s possibly a piece to be written on how public views of the establishment can be monitored through how they’re presented down the years. The Delgado Master is a threat to the establishment, but the Simm Master is the embodiment of it, and neither seem out of step with their zeitgeist. Last of the Time Lords has one of those climaxes you either like or you don’t, but I’m always impressed by the scene of the Master’s ‘death’ – it seems to me to get very little comment that here we’re presented with a hero who barely reacts to the loss of a woman we’re always being told he loves, but is reduced to tears by the death of his arch-enemy.

(I feel obliged to point out the slightly eggy plot device whereby the Master, even over eighteen months, is unable to repair the damage done to the TARDIS by the Doctor – while the Doctor himself is able to fix it all up apparently in a matter of days. When the plot demands it…)

I get a sense from reading interviews published not long after this story aired that the production team thought they had perhaps pushed the boat out a bit too far, in terms of the darkness of the plot and how convoluted the season-long arc was. Certainly the story of the following year was lighter and less demanding to follow, and I do think Tennant’s final full season is also extremely strong. But if you want to see just why the Tennant years were great Doctor Who, and why Doctor Who itself is such a legend, then this is a good place to look.

Read Full Post »

So, in the light of recent events I decided to revisit Torchwood: Children of Earth, almost entirely because of its Capaldi. I had watched it on its original broadcast in 2009 (I was meant to be working, but was fortuitously recuperating from what had briefly been suspected malaria but in fact turned out to be a combination of nervous exhaustion and burger-derived food poisoning instead) and vaguely recalled being impressed by certain elements, but my memory of it is mostly coloured by…

Well, look: I vividly recall turning to my family, with whom I was watching the closing stages of episode 4, and saying ‘Ructions on the internet over this.’ They asked why. ‘Because they’ve just killed off the most popular character on the show.’ Yup, the plight of poor dead Ianto, the wailing, rending of garments, setting up of shrines, posting of coffee beans, issuing of death threats, and so on, was really the big story when Children of Earth first appeared. For a long time I watched the doings of the dedicated followers of Coffee Boy with a sort of amused detachment, briefly attempted to engage with a few of them about it (needless to say this was not a situation in which reasoned argument had much sway) but on the whole just treated it as one of those things. Having watched Children of Earth again, though, I’m not sure that the Torchwoodites who complained about being betrayed and abused by the makers of the mini-series didn’t have a point, because while Children of Earth is brilliant – absolutely, indubitably, one of the best things on TV in the 21st century, better – it must be said – than most of the Doctor Who made since it was broadcast – it has virtually nothing in common with the original Torchwood TV series. Or, at least, there is a massive and fundamental difference between the two.


At least the move to BBC1 stopped them posing quite so ridiculously.

The English critic Mark Lawson has said that TV programmes fall, broadly speaking, into two categories: ones which allow you a brief respite of escapism from the unpleasant minutiae and truths of life, and ones which ineluctably remind you of it. The news, for example, is pretty much invariably Reminder, while most game shows, sitcoms, dance competitions, and whatever, are Escapist. With drama it is less clear cut, of course, but one of things which is very clear about series Torchwood is that it is about as flamboyantly Escapist as you can get. There’s a piece to be written on how it is that The Sarah Jane Adventures manages to be an unofficial remake of The Tomorrow People, and succeeds brilliantly, while Torchwood clearly sets out to be a Cardiff-set riff on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and – to begin with at least – bogs it up quite spectacularly from a dramatic point of view. Virtually the only way in which series Torchwood is wholly successful is as pure escapism – most of the time, when the characters attempt to behave like real people the results are a bit excruciating to watch. It’s not hard to argue that series Torchwood’s utter detachment from reality as we know it is the attraction it held for its most devoted fans.

However, while series Torchwood is Escapist, the crucial thing about Children of Earth is that it sets out to be Reminder, and on the whole succeeds. This is no inconsiderable achievement: Reminder SF is, as you’d expect, hellishly difficult to pull off. The original Survivors managed it, on the whole, while one gets a sense that Blake’s 7 started off trying to be Reminder but quickly realised that Escapism really suited it much better. Rather horribly, Outcasts didn’t seem sure which one it was going to be and wound up being neither in any meaningful sense. Children of Earth, like nothing else from the Doctor Who franchise this century, sits easily in the grim and dystopian lineage of British SF that includes John Wyndham and the Quatermass serials. Doctor Who itself has stolen ideas from these sources but never really explored their spirit; this is because Doctor Who  is much, much more Escapist than Reminder.

Children of Earth is lots of things – it’s a piece of SF (though not especially hard SF, I’ll grant you), a political thriller, an unfolding series of personal tragedies. But it’s also a horror story, and an unstintingly grim one. Some of this comes from the 456 and their unpleasant peccadilloes, but let’s not forget that the aliens are vague, background shapes for most of the story – we learn next to nothing about them, after all. The real horror in the story comes from the gradual revelation that in the world of this story, nobody of any importance has the moral high ground, nobody gets away clean, and some people don’t get away at all. Escapist stories deal in terms of heroes, villains, and bystanders – the characters of Children of Earth could be described like that, but it doesn’t operate in those terms. Here we have politicians, middle-men, and pawns (or victims), with some overlap between the last two. Heroes fight on the front lines – and this is the one place nearly everyone in Children of Earth is desperately trying to avoid. When it comes to the crunch, the Prime Minister is happy to be a middle-man and thus avoid personal responsibility.

At first it looks like the only traditional heroes in the story are going to be the Torchwood team themselves, but even this impression is shaken early on, as both Jack and Ianto quite coldly attempt to avail themselves of their families’ children while pretending to be attentive relatives. Later we are informed of what a fundamentally compromised figure Jack himself is – but this is one of the areas where the story perhaps fails to completely hit home, quite simply because Jark Harkness is such an outlandlishly weird character in the first place.

We’re shown lots of different Jack Harknesses across the franchise – the smoothly amoral con-man, the self-assured and righteous adventurer, the wisecracking hedonist, the broken self-recriminator – and while it might be possible for a single performance to tie them all together into a single convincing character, John Barrowman does not seem to be capable of delivering it. His performance, here as elsewhere in the series, is all glitz and no depth, and the mini-series at times seems to be struggling to know what to do with him: he spends most of the second episode either as paste or embedded in concrete (the series’ realistic exploration of what you’d actually do to get rid of someone literally indestructible is a lot of fun), and is largely sidelined for much of the closing installment.

Not that you miss him much, for this is a story stuffed with memorable and realistic characters, most of whom have the opportunity to develop and suggest enough detail to really convince as people. Hazel Spears, Frobisher, the Prime Minister, Dekker, Johnson, even a minor character like Yates – it’s easy to imagine a backstory and a wider existence for any of them, and one has to wonder just how much of this is thanks to fact that this story has time in which to properly develop itself. At five hours or so, this is challenging for the position of the longest continuous narrative in the history of the Doctor Who franchise, and it doesn’t feel overextended either. At a time when the parent show more often than not feels cramped by the demands of 45-minute storytelling, this mini-series is an important reminder that big stories can really work.

In a way it’s a shame that one knows going in to Children of Earth that it’s a five hour series, because – if it was following the rules of standard Escapist fiction – it would obviously finish after the first four. This is how it’s set up: the self-serving politicians have done their best to get rid of our Torchwood heroes, and now they’re making horrific plans to collaborate with a ravening, hostile alien presence. But now Torchwood have turned the tables on them, and it’s time for the final showdown with the evil 456, which will conclude with the aliens in full retreat and Torchwood’s moral stand vindicated. But, as should have become clear long ago to anyone paying attention, this is not that kind of story and it does not follow those rules. Jack plays by the rules of a hero, running to confront the 456 face to face (ish), waving a gun at it and making a big speech about morality. And the result is total defeat, and a building filled with corpses (Jack himself only survives due to his little ontological quirk).

Were it not for Jack’s Escapist origins, Children of Earth would finish nightmarishly, with society collapsing and the Earth in thrall to the 456. But of course he comes back from the dead, and when he takes on the 456 again it is as a politician rather than a hero: not face-to-face, not nobly, and not with honour or distinction. He has to make a horrible choice and live with the consequences of it – the only thing, really, which distinguishes him from the suits in the cabinet room is that he is honest and open about his own moral responsibility for what he has done. But this at least keeps us on his side.

Children of Earth itself raises the issue of why it is that the Doctor doesn’t put in an appearance to save the day at some point in proceedings, and as a follower of the parent show one inevitably wonders this. It’s probably pushing it a bit to suggest that Children of Earth is intended as a demonstration of what happens when aliens threaten the Earth and the Doctor doesn’t show up (nasty, grubby, self-serving humans make a mess of everything), but you can certainly interpret it that way. It’s rather facile to wonder what the Doctor would have done differently in Jack’s place – quickly knocked up a cure for any 456 viruses and come up with a neater version of the same solution, without the collateral damage, probably – for this is a different kind of story.

Ghidorah had let himself go after the Godzilla movies finished.

Ghidorah had let himself go after the Godzilla movies finished.

One can see this simply from the presentation of the 456 – like most Torchwood aliens, it doesn’t have an ‘alien name’ (think of Weevils, Butterfly People, the Cash Cow), but beyond this it is a being from a different tradition than most Doctor Who aliens. Most Doctor Who monsters ultimately derive from HG Wells’ Martians, one way or another: they have more advanced technology and a different physiognomy, but they are by and large comprehensible. The 456 are more HP Lovecraft than HG Wells, with proper indistinguishable-from-magic faculties and a very different sort of presence. One couldn’t imagine the 456 taking part in the Pandorica alliance, for instance, but then one couldn’t imagine any existing race of Doctor Who monsters successfully being swapped in for them here. Quite how the 456 figure in the wider fictional universe is never explored; but then Children of Earth quite rightly doesn’t care about such things.

It would have been very neat if Children of Earth had turned out to be the very final gasp of Torchwood on TV – all the people who like it could declare the show went out at its absolute peak, all the fans could point to proof that killing Ianto killed the show (it’s amusing that ‘people who like it’ and ‘hardcore fans’ should be polar opposites in this case). One is inevitably drawn to contemplate the possibilities of a return to the series format with a new team (the line-up of Jack, Gwen, Lois, Johnson and Dekker surely radiates potential), I’m not sure this was ever on the cards. And probably the best thing one can say about Miracle Day is that it attempts, sometimes successfully, to replicate the scale, scope, and lacerating political cynicism of Children of Earth: but its lacks its pace, conviction, and sheer darkness. At least it doesn’t actively diminish the achievement of Children of Earth, which I think is very considerable. For me this is the only part of this spin-off which lives up to its promise – Doctor Who for adults, Doctor Who without the Doctor. If the result is something so unremittingly grim and dark, then so be it; perhaps that in itself tells us something important about the parent show.

Read Full Post »

Further to my thoughts yesterday on the importance of keeping in touch with the news media, I woke up today and – as I usually do on a Sunday – popped on Not the Andrew Marr Show just while my brain put itself into gear. They were reviewing the papers, particularly the front of the Mail on Sunday – which has as its headline some pointlessly vague nonsense about a terribly important political sex scandal which they aren’t actually permitted to give any meaningful information about. Sharing the front page with this was a picture accompanying the announcement that Matt Smith had announced his departure from Doctor Who.

We take it for granted that an outgoing (or indeed incoming) Doctor is big news, but it really does prove that this is not a TV show like other TV shows… will there be a dedicated programme just to make the announcement of the new guy this time? Hmm.)

Anyway, I mention this just because had I gone straight onto the internet this morning without looking at the TV my first inkling would probably have come from an invitation to ‘Like’ a Facebook page lobbying for ——– ——— to become the twelfth Doctor. I don’t want to be unkind to the performer in question, which is why I’ve —-ed their name, but they would probably not be amongst the top 7000 names on my own wish-list.

In short, here we go again. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add to the masses of slightly frenzied speculation already clogging up vast swathes of the internet (I mean, I don’t want to be a killjoy here, and I’m aware I’m going to come across as a massive hypocrite, but come on, folks: there’s everything happening in Syria, and now Turkey’s kicking off, not to mention the current government’s attempts to destroy the fabric of British society by stealth, and we’re all discussing personnel changes on a TV show? If future generations were to describe us as decadent, how would we be able to respond?). However, there are just a couple of points that occur to me.


Firstly, with Matt Smith leaving the show before the end of the year, surely the clock must now be ticking on Steven Moffat’s own tenure with the programme? I don’t say this purely because of my lack of enthusiasm for Moffat’s version of the show (although considering the high hopes I approached the eleventh Doctor’s tenure with, I have to say that most of what’s happened over the last three and a half years has been disappointing), but because if history shows us anything, it’s that now is the right time for Moffat to go.

If you look back at Doctor Who‘s production history, you do see that a change of Doctor usually coincides with a change in the production team: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ time in charge matches the run of the third Doctor to within a story either side, Tom Baker was motivated to finally leave by the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer, incoming producer Innes Lloyd was the instigator of the first change of lead actor, and so on. (This is not to say that a change of producer is necessarily always accompanied by a change of Doctor, by the way.)

The only times we have seen the same regime overseeing multiple Doctors have been with Rusty’s work with Eccleston and Tennant, and John Nathan-Turner’s tenure with Davison, Baker, and McCoy. We’re still not quite sure when it became apparent that Eccleston was only going to be a one-season Doctor, but in any case this is surely a special case; it’s hardly as if Rusty and the crew had done all they wanted to do with the show in the space of 13 episodes. But as far as the JNT years are concerned – as I said just recently, if there was ever a time when the show wobbled and threatened to look tired and irrelevant, it was in the 80s, with a production team who seemed to be running out of ideas and didn’t want to be there.

The character of the Doctor is so much a creation specifically of the showrunner these days, rather than the script editor, lead actor and individual scriptwriters working in concert. (Gareth Roberts has observed that Rusty Davies and Steven Moffat both wrote the Doctor almost as idealised versions of themselves.) Does Moffat have ‘another’ characterisation for the Doctor in him that will match the eleventh? Even if he does, doesn’t that commit him for staying for another three years, until the Next Guy in turn announces his departure? I can’t quite imagine another showrunner coming in and taking over a Doctor created by someone else (though I suppose it is possible: there was a distinct possibility of David Tennant staying on for the first year with Moffat, after all). Also, Moffat’s effectively cracked America for the series and is in the process of overseeing what’s looking like a very successful anniversary year: what else can he realistically expect to achieve by staying on?

Still, unless talks have quietly been going on and a successor is already moving into place (in which case we can expect a departure announcement from Moffat fairly soon), I expect we will be seeing at least one full season with Next Guy with Moffat as lead writer. A shame; a completely fresh start with Next Guy and New Showrunner would have been a genuinely exciting prospect. As it is I’m just battening down the hatches for more of the same, albeit with different hair.

Secondly – I love Tom Baker. For me he is the Doctor above and beyond all others (sorry, no discussion on this one). But I really, really wish, when planning the announcement of his own departure in 1981, he hadn’t turned to JNT and said (I paraphrase from memory) ‘Let’s have some fun with the press – how about if I feed you a line that the next Doctor could be a woman?’ And I really wish JNT hadn’t gone along with him on it.

I know the possibility of a transgender regeneration has now been written into the text of the series (I love Neil Gaiman. But I really wish etc, etc), but if there was one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between me and the show in perpetuity (and the very idea is a shocking one, it’d be like losing a leg or a major sense organ in terms of how it would affect my sense of myself) it would be a sex change of the main character.

Partly this is because many of these cries declaring ‘now’s the time!’ seem to come from people who don’t really seem to care about Doctor Who as such, but simply have an agenda to push or are just looking to make mischief (one such burblehead popped up on News 24 to give his, ahem, informed opinion on the issue). But also I think it would be genuinely bad for the series as a piece of drama, and completely at odds with the way it has developed over the last eight years.

The 20th century version of the show frequently treated characters as collections of plot functions, rather than actual people: when a regular character did succeed in coming to life it was most often down to the efforts of the performer involved. What 21st century Doctor Who has managed to do (and whether, in fact, it’s gone too far in doing so is another story) is to treat characters as people. In this context suddenly turning the Doctor into a woman would be a massive retrograde step: it’d be effectively saying to the audience that there are no unbreakable threads of continuity where the Doctor is concerned, just a narrative construct that can do or be anything necessary to either propel the plot, or – in this case – grab some publicity.

Or, to put it another way… I have issues with Steven Moffat as a showrunner, as I think is abundantly clear by now. But I’m really reassured by his response when this very issue was put to him a few years ago. His response was (again, I paraphrase from memory) ‘sure, in the fictional universe of the show maybe it’s possible – but I’m not sure you could make it work as a story. I worry that you might not believe it was still the same Doctor.’

So, in short, I’m really hoping that Moffat takes the opportunity to move on, gracefully, soon. But I’m also very relieved that, as far as we know, he’s the one in charge of casting the new guy, whoever he may be – and I use the word ‘he’ with precision.

Read Full Post »

We’ve all become so used to the idea of the internet as a repository of all wisdom and knowledge that sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to discover it doesn’t necessarily contain everything you’re looking for. There have been masses of Doctor Who-related material online since the earliest days of the medium, and so you would assume something cogent and insightful was available on any topic related to the show.

However, I’m currently mulling over a piece about the sometimes peculiar intersection between real-world history and the series’ version of it, and it occurred to me that it’d be quite hard to do this without addressing just when some of the present-day stories are supposed to be set. This, in turn, would inevitably lead us on to the dreaded topic of the UNIT Dating Conundrum. So I had a quick look around to make sure there was a decent, clear, well-written article available on this topic, just so I could be confident newcomers to the show would be able to bring themselves up to speed.

And you know what, I could only find one, and I think it leaves a bit to be desired. So just for my own satisfaction, and as background to other pieces on in-universe history which may appear in future, here’s a look at when the series’ present day episodes are actually set (and the thrilling continuity disasters resulting from this). Knowing this stuff will enable you to walk amongst serious Doctor Who fans unnoticed and unremarked upon. (I can’t think why you would want to, but still.)

Present day episodes are rare to non-existent in the first four or five years of the programme. We’re not given an on-screen date for the setting of the very first episode, but this is retroactively dated to late 1963 in Remembrance of the Daleks. Parts of The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and Evil of the Daleks all seem to be taking place simultaneously on the same day in mid-1966, to judge from the on-screen dates (very slightly near-future in the case of the first story, then progressively less so, for obvious reasons). So far, so (fairly) straightforward.

Then we come to 1968’s The Web of Fear and suddenly things get interesting. This is a sequel story, set ‘forty years’ after its precursor – which was The Abominable Snowmen, set in the mid 1930s. So The Web of Fear is apparently set around 1975, moving the ‘present day’ of the series nearly a decade into the future.

The same year’s The Invasion is a further sequel, established as taking place four years down the line – which means UNIT, the organisation which has been a staple of the show’s universe ever since, came into existence sometime between 1976 and 1979. This appears to establish a solid timeframe for the long run of present day stories that appeared between 1970 and 1976: assuming the stories occur over the same period they’re broadcast in, the third Doctor arrives in exile around 1980 and carries out his final assignment on secondment to the WEB round about 1986.

Groovy fashions from 1979, apparently. It's like punk never happened...

Groovy fashions from 1979, apparently. It’s like punk never happened…

Even here, of course, there are more problems than you can concisely shake a perigosto stick at. Britain, it appears, is using pre-decimal currency around 1980 (during Doctor Who and the Silurians) – in the real world it went decimal in 1971. The Prime Minister during The Green Death, presumably set in the early 80s, is a man called Jeremy – although, to be fair, a woman is in Number Ten by Terror of the Zygons, two years later. Sarah, in a story made in 1975, claims to be a native of 1980, when (given our hypothesis) her home time is at least five years later. This is before we even get to all the charming examples of wonky futurism the series indulges in, such as the British space programme (The Ambassadors of Death, The Android Invasion), ‘futuristic’ TV channels (BBC3 appears), and UNIT’s occasional use of high-tech weapons (most visibly the laser cannon in The Seeds of Doom). Even so, it all hangs together. Just about.

This is largely due to the efforts of the script editors of the period, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes, who – particularly the former – went out of their way in order to maintain the conceit of an unspecified near-future setting. At one point, the specific date on which Day of the Daleks is set becomes a plot point, which Dicks gets round by having Jo indicate it off-screen, as revealed by the rather inelegant dialogue ‘You’ve already told me what year it is…’

Unfortunately, the 1980s production team were perhaps not as familiar with this conceit as they should have been, as the present-day stories at this point are all set in their year of transmission – which makes a certain kind of narrative sense, in terms of allowing the audience to identify with the setting. So Attack of the Cybermen‘s 1985 setting is significant to the (excuse for a) plot, for example, as is the (unconvincing) November 1988 background of Silver Nemesis.

However, given this period is widely criticised for being too interested in continuity, it’s a bit ironic that in terms of dating stories there are (relatively speaking) serious contradictions, all due to ignorance (intentional or otherwise) of previous work. K9 and Company is set at Christmas 1981, which in order to work means that all the UNIT-related stories between The Invasion and The Hand of Fear must have occurred in the space of two years.

It’s when Mawdryn Undead appears on the scene that the continuity anomaliser really blows a fuse, however. Here we are boldly told that the Brigader retired from UNIT in 1977 – which is fine if you extend the set-in-the-year-of-broadcast principle back in time to the 70s stories (the Brigadier was last on screen in 1975), but utterly irreconcilable with the implied dating of The Invasion to 1979. (Yes, seasoned Who fans, I’m going over basic stuff. But think of the younger generations.)

This single continuity error is at the dark heart of Doctor Who’s fictional universe, impossible to escape, impossible to ignore, impossible to incorporate into any coherent history. DVD documentaries have been made about it (The UNIT Dating Conundrum on the jollied-up version of Day of the Daleks, which covers this topic concisely and entertainingly). The old FASA role-playing game had a valiant go at coming up with an in-universe explanation for it (too much TARDIS-use around 1970s and 80s Earth had mucked up the timelines). Whenever anyone has a go at presenting a history of the fictional universe, they make a point of acknowledging that the UNIT dates are an insoluble problem.

This didn’t stop DWM having a good go at coming up with an ambitious, if somewhat off-the-wall solution, which also deals with the slightly odd nature of the Brigadier’s retirement. A senior soldier would, according to some, automatically receive an honorary promotion on retiring, so why is the Brigadier still a Brigadier? Why is he teaching at a prep school at all? (Is the UNIT pension so poor?)

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

The solution suggested was that the 1977 version of the Brigadier is himself a time traveller from the late 80s, zapped back there by unspecified means during an unseen, post-Terror of the Zygons adventure and living a purposely quiet life in order to avoid meeting the younger version of himself who, in 1977, would be in the process of setting up UNIT in the first place. It hardly qualifies as Occam’s Razor in action but it’s the best solution on offer if you really care about this sort of thing.

One curious area which I haven’t seen receive much attention is the status of the final UNIT story from the original run, Battlefield. This enthusiastically resurrects the idea of UNIT stories happening in an unspecified near-future, and specifically draws attention to it: ‘we are in the future,’ the Doctor reminds Ace when she is shocked by the prices in the local pub, there’s a possible suggestion of voice-activated phone technology being in use, and – most tantalisingly – the Brigadier himself dismisses a phone call with ‘I don’t care if it’s the King!’ The implication is obviously that the UK is ruled over by a male monarch at this point.

At the time of writing, this is not the case in the real world, and it definitely wasn’t the case in-universe at the time of Voyage of the Damned, which features Liz Two as a character (and is set in late 2008, as we shall see). Sadly, the intriguing prospect of Battlefield being set further into the future than the present day of the revived series does not have legs, simply because it features the Brigadier, whose death is referred to in the (apparently) present-day setting of The Power of Three (though, as we shall see… well, all in good time). The Brig’s reference to the King is presumably a rather odd figure of speech – possibly he’s referring to the King of Peru, given how much time the Brigadier appears to spend there in later life.

The revived series has not been above making the odd joke about the intractability of the UNIT dating question – in The Sontaran Stratagem the Doctor himself admits he can’t actually remember whether his initial stint as UNIT’s scientific advisor was in the 70s or the 80s. However, this is not to say that the revived show and its spin-offs have an entirely spotless record in the dates department.

The End of Time establishes that Rose meets the Doctor at some time in 2005, which means that – very briefly – we’re back in the territory of on-screen year and year-of-broadcast being the same. However, almost at once the present-day setting shifts a year into the future (in the opening moments of Aliens of London, to be precise), which remains the case for most of the Rusty Davies era. You can say what you like about the dramatic merits of the Christmas shows, but the fact they initially share a present day setting (and refer to their precursors) makes it easy to keep track of which year the ‘present day’ is supposed to be.

The ‘one year ahead’ situation persists until Journey’s End, which was broadcast in 2008 but – given the three Christmas specials between it and Aliens of London, set in 2006 – can’t be set any earlier than 2009. It’s a bit unfortunate that the series itself muddies the water on this in The Waters of Mars, by explicitly dating the Dalek invasion of Journey’s End to 2008, but you can’t have everything.

There is also the slight oddity of the main part of The Eleventh Hour taking place in 2008 (‘two years’ before the Ponds’ wedding, which is in June 2010), which means that from the point of view of planet Earth, the Atraxi blockade happens before the near-crash of the Titanic (Christmas 2008), the business with the Adipose, and so on. Funny how no-one mentions it to the tenth Doctor (or even tries to phone him up during it), but there you go.

The dates hang together pretty consistently, which is even more impressive when you consider that there were three shows sharing a fictional universe in simultaneous production for several years in the late 2000s. One has to assume that all three share the one-year-ahead timeframe, which presents a few minor problems with car tax discs being out of date and so on, but this is much less of an obvious poser than, say, the decimal currency slip in Doctor Who and the Silurians.

However, if the 1977 Brigadier of Mawdryn Undead is the continuity nightmare of the original run, then the year 2009 in toto is shaping up to be the great unmentionable of recent continuity, because the amount of stuff which appears to happen in this one year is astonishing.

(This assumes that The End of Time happens at Christmas 2009 – it’s not obviously impossible that it could be Christmas 2010, but this does mean some of the tenth and eleventh Doctors’ present-day Earth adventures occur in a sort of jumbled simultaneity, which has never been how the series has approached this sort of thing in the past.)

Anyway, here is everything that happens in Who-world in 2009, if you do the sums and pay attention:

  • The entirety of the third season of adventures for the tenth Doctor (must occur after Voyage of the Damned (set at Christmas 2008) and before The End of Time (Christmas 2009).

  • Planet of the Dead (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth – and the story must happen prior to The End of Time, as Naismith is still in business and advertising on the side of the bus).

  • Series 2 and 3 of The Sarah Jane Adventures (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth in series 2, while the tenth Doctor’s final encounter with Sarah is at Christmas 2009 – this must mean her third-series wedding, which he attended, happened earlier in the same year).

  • The final episodes of Torchwood series 2. Fragments‘ on-screen dating, miraculously, doesn’t commit any major blunders. However, it dates Ianto’s joining the team to ’21 months earlier’. As this was after the Battle of Canary Wharf, which happened in 2007, it places both Fragments and Exit Wounds to some point in 2009.

  • All of Torchwood: Children of Earth, which obviously follows the second series, but concludes prior to The End of Time (Jack leaves Earth at the end of the miniseries and is still off-world in the Christmas show).

UNIT staff in 2009 getting ready to file some serious overtime claims.

UNIT staff in 2009 getting ready to file some serious overtime claims.

Cripes, that’s a busy year. It only gets worse when you realise that Torchwood‘s second series must conclude prior to The Poison Sky (the Donna’s World version of this story indicates Toshiko and Owen are already dead by this point), and Journey’s End must in turn be finished prior to Easter 2009, which is when Planet of the Dead is set. That’s a lot to squeeze into three and a half months.

(One unintended consequence of all the above, taken at face value, is that Martha Jones comes across as emotionally volatile, to say the least: early in the year it’s implied that she’s engaged to Tom Milligan, but by the end of the year she’s married to Mickey Smith – a bit of a whirlwind romance as she’s already on her honeymoon during Children of Earth. I give it a year at the outside…)

Once we get into the eleventh Doctor’s tenure, things initially calm down a bit – presumably Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures are back to year-of-setting and year-of-broadcast being identical, given that the Ponds’ wedding happens on the day the episode depicting it was broadcast, and the same being true of the Doctor’s cross-my-fingers-not-really ‘death’.

However, from the Ponds’ point of view, the latter part of the eleventh Doctor’s second series occurs in Autumn 2011, at the end of which he (sigh) fakes his own death and they don’t see him for two years (the period is given at the end of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe).

The production team, whether deliberately or not, have kept fairly quiet about the fact that the ‘present day’ for the Ponds at the start of the most recent series was at least 2014 (given their reconciliation with the Doctor at Christmas 2013). Adding the super-extended time period covered by The Power of Three means that the Ponds’ home time in The Angels Take Manhattan is no earlier than 2015.

As I said at the time, this makes it a bit curious that the ‘present day’ sequences of the New York story are specifically dated to 2012 – this was a trip back in time for them anyway! Which leads one to wonder why they didn’t stay in 2015 for their American trip… given that Amy apparently becomes such a famous model she is accosted by autograph-hunters while out shopping (as seen in Closing Time), popping back to a point before she becomes such a celebrity may just have made for a less stressful holiday for everyone (at least, that was the plan…).

However, there is one final thing to consider. If 2009 is the first big problem of revived continuity, the second is Miracle Day – when exactly did it take place?

Miracle Day (from the spin-off of the same name) was presented as a massive global event, unfolding over many months and with after-effects which would take a long time to fade. However, it has never been directly referred or even alluded to in the present-day stories of the parent series. The first episode of Miracle Day indicates that it occurred around the same it was broadcast: thus placing it in late 2011.

This is very unfortunate from the continuity cop’s point-of-view: had the miniseries been given a vague date, or a slightly near-future one, it would fit fairly neatly into the two-year gap between the late-2011 scenes at the end of The Wedding of River Song and the Christmas Day 2013 conclusion of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.

But it wasn’t, and so we are forced to either wonder why Rory and Amy never mention Miracle Day to the Doctor despite the fact it is apparently in progress at the time of Let’s Kill Hitler, or banish it from mainstream Who-world entirely. This latter would practically constitute an admission of defeat and – worse than that – that the overall history of the fictional universe is not completely coherent. We can’t have that.

On the face of things, the new companion is the first not to hail from contemporary Earth (but as long as Moffat is running the show, it would be very unwise to take things entirely at face value). Even so, one would have thought this would free the series up considerably in terms of when its present day actually is. Will they stick to the three-years-ahead currently in place, or revert to a same-year or one-year-ahead formula? I don’t know that for sure, but I’m pretty certain that sooner or later they’re going to mess it up – and people like me will be waiting to explain exactly how, in horrifying detail.

Read Full Post »

I’ve often said in the past that Russell T Davies’ genius in overseeing the return of Doctor Who lay not in what he changed about the series – and let’s not forget how controversial the focus on the companions’ families was, at least to begin with, nor how strange the change to the 45-minute story initially felt – but in what he didn’t. I myself was firmly in favour of rebooting the continuity from scratch, entertained various notions of a mercurial, Hartnellesque Doctor, and so on – but the series that eventually appeared stuck very closely to the template the original had used, especially from 1973 to 1977: the Doctor and a single companion, with frequent trips to a ‘home base’ of sorts on contemporary Earth, with a bunch of other recurring characters there.

At this point in the original run, the TARDIS was semi-steerable and so it was implied that the companion travelled with the Doctor out of the sheer joy of it – Sarah is clearly pretty distraught upon being told that she has to go home at the end of The Hand of Evil, and many years later it’s during Rusty’s tenure that this is properly articulated.

That it’s done so at all demonstrates one of the distinctive things about the modern show: the focus on the regular characters as just that, individual characters rather than ciphers carrying out plot functions – there’s an overall swing away from it being a plot-driven series to a character-driven one. Obviously this extends to how companion arrivals and departures are dealt with.

As part of the series’ new style, one thing totally (and thankfully) absent is the out-of-the-blue departure, with a companion deciding in the last five minutes of a story that this would be a nice to move on. (This may be due to the artistes’ contracts being handled much more professionally, who can tell – in at least one case during the original run, the producer kept hoping an actress would stay on, only finally accepting they were leaving while their last episode was actually being filmed.) Companion departures are foreshadowed, written into the overall story of a season, and arise seamlessly from the way they’ve been characterised.

And so it is that Rose, who is established (however objectionably, if you’re anything like me) as the Doctor’s One True Soul Mate throughout her stories, has to be physically ripped from his side and banished to a parallel universe by a series of wobbly and arguably contrived plot devices. There is no way this character, as written and performed, would ever leave the Doctor’s side voluntarily, and her departure reflects this. Doomsday, until very recently, was unique in that it is fundamentally the story of how a companion leaves the Doctor. This is not the story of how the hubris of Torchwood unleashes a Cyberman-Dalek conflict on present-day London – all that is just window-dressing for Billie Piper crying on a beach somewhere. The Daleks and Cybermen are just there to lend heft to the circumstances of Rose’s leaving – the same is not true of the Master in Martha’s final regular story or Davros in Donna’s.

Oh, stop milking it.

Oh, stop milking it.

If you want to properly characterise companions and not make them basic ciphers, you almost instantly run into the problem of how to differentiate them. We have yet to see how Steven Moffat will make the new girl distinct from Pond – although having someone likeable whose backstory isn’t completely wrapped up in the Doctor would be a good start – but in Rusty’s case the defining characteristic of the lead companion was the nature of their romantic feelings for the Doctor. After the quasi-romance between the Doctor and Rose (and I’ll fight to the death to keep that ‘quasi’, dammit), the dynamic between the Doctor and Martha was one of unrequited affection (the way this is played has the unfortunate consequence of making the Doctor look like a thoughtless arse and Martha a drip, but that can’t be helped) and this again feeds into her departure and provides a decent rationale for it – all the business with her traumatised family helps too.

(Although one has to wince a bit at the way Martha Jones gets treated after her initial departure – shuffled over into Torchwood for a bit, then dragged back for three dud episodes with Donna, then a lot of running around with plot devices in the finale where she plays third fiddle to Donna and Rose, and then finally showing up in what can only be described as a marriage of convenience never even hinted at before. Really? Really?)

In the same way, the relationship between the Doctor and Donna is explicitly framed in platonic terms – that this, which was implicitly the default setting throughout the original series, was stressed as something new and unusual at the time, tells you a lot about how the series has changed – but again, she is, like Rose, presented as someone who finds travelling with the Doctor to be a transformative, utterly fulfilling experience.

So here again it’s obvious that there can only realistically be an involuntary departure for this character. I find it a little curious that after frequently vowing he would never kill off a companion – this would send the wrong set of messages to the show’s young audience – Rusty effectively does just this to Donna, or at least the Donna the audience has come to know and care about. Another set of wobbly plot contrivances is invoked, requiring the Doctor to wipe her memory of him – or, to be more precise, block it from her, on the understanding that if she gets it back her brain will fry. Hmmm. Or, possibly, she will just shoot energy out of her face and then faint for ages, which is what actually happens in The End of Time. So much of the latter end of Rusty’s tenure is deeply suspect in narrative terms that it feels mean to pick on this particular element: suffice to say that it is another example of a companion not quite leaving the TARDIS feet first, but certainly doing so kicking and screaming.

'My mind's burning! I'm about to die - oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.'

‘My mind’s burning! I’m about to die – oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.’

With two of the three previous companions departing via some form of banishment (with a liberal helping of mind-wipe mixed in in Donna’s case), should we be surprised that the same fate ultimately awaits the Ponds? It’s interesting that after a set of stories that specifically sets out to explore the consequences of a long-term association with the Doctor – lasting over a decade, if Amy’s maths is to be trusted – their actual relationship concludes with a bang rather than the whisper and a slow fading from each others’ lives that one might expect. It’s tempting to conclude that the overblown sentimental finale is now so entrenched as a staple of the programme that not even Moffat can break its’ grip; personally I rather hope not.

And so the Ponds are banished also. Even the bods at DWM, who are contractually obliged to be broadly positive about the new series, accept that the actual plot mechanics of The Angels Take Manhattan are chiefly notable for Not Making Any Sense. Once again, the need for an overblown sentimental finale trumps all other considerations – I’m tempted to make my standard complaint here that, currently, Doctor Who is much more interested in being Clever and Moving than it is in actually constructing coherent narratives, but that’s kind of the subtext of nearly everything I’ve written about the post-2010 series – and again it’s a finale revolving around an involuntary departure from the TARDIS.

It’s tempting to blame this spate of moderately soap-opera-inflected tragedies on the shifts in the series’ format that occurred in the mid-70s, most notably the convention that the TARDIS gradually became more and more susceptible to the Doctor’s controlling influence (The Doctor’s Wife probably constitutes a semi-retcon to this, but no matter). With this in place, the plot device of the companion wanting to get home (one of the series’ initial drivers) instantly became redundant, with the replacement idea being that the companions were there out of choice.

I’m not sure this explains everything, though. It seems to me that one of the key characteristics of the modern series, and one of the few which really betrays the deep fan roots of its creators. The characteristic in question is this: the new series routinely takes things which, in the original run, were either deeply-buried or unconscious subtext, and foregrounds them as key narrative elements.

The loneliness of the Doctor is never really addressed head-on in the original run, but only alluded to in passing in a few memorable scenes. It’s one of the key themes of many tenth Doctor episodes. His status as a mythic, titanic figure, which has been at the heart of so many recent episodes, never really gets going in the original run – significantly, the few references to this were picked up and elaborated upon in the fiction coming out of the fan culture which was in many ways the place of origin for the revived series’ approach and style.

One of the main principles of Rusty’s tenure on the show was ‘The Doctor is wonderful, and travelling with him is wonderful too’ – and Steven Moffat seems to have retained this as a precept, too. This is an idea which, stated in those terms, is entirely new to the revived series – it’s almost literally impossible to imagine anyone from the original run talking in such an on-the-nose fashion – emotional articulacy was an unknown concept back then. Watching the original run, you can infer that Jo and Sarah and so on must clearly feel this way, but no-one ever talks about it quite so directly.

Nevertheless – and this may be a consequence of the compressed storytelling demanded by a 45-minute timeslot – in the new series this idea is dragged into the foreground and recited almost as a mantra. Given that we’re frequently and explicitly told that Travelling With The Doctor Is Wonderful, options for plausible companion departures, particularly of the voluntary kind, naturally become rather limited. Hence the wobbly logic and involuntary nature of so many recent leavings of the TARDIS.

I hope I’ve made it clear that, even if I think recent companion departures leave a bit to be required in the plotting department, they’re no worse – and, in many ways, arguably better – than the way most companions were written out during the original run. With a few very distinguished exceptions, this is one aspect of the format that the series has always struggled to come to grips with in a truly satisfying way. Whatever the problems currently attendant in this area, they seem bound up with the wider issues of the series’ storytelling style. Whether a change in the latter would produce an improvement in the former remains to be seen: not that such a change would appear to be imminent. The big goodbye is now, I suspect, part of the format, for good or ill – and it’s likely to remain a tragic goodbye, too.

Read Full Post »

Hmmm. Torchwood‘s move to an American production-base and transmission schedule meant that, amongst other things, for a while it and its parent show were running in the same week. Never would have happened in the old days, obviously, but the fact it happened made it fairly easy to contrast the two and the ways they’ve gone.

You can wait in vain for cheap gags about superglue on the set, faithful reader.

Once upon a time Doctor Who and Torchwood were clearly the product of the same storytelling sensibility – only the formats of the two shows (and Torchwood‘s self-imposed need to demonstrate its maturity via extraneous effing and jeffing) really separated them. Not so much these days – Doctor Who is so wrapped up in its ongoing storylines and character arcs, and so permeated with calculated daffiness, that it doesn’t remotely resemble any other programme on TV any more. Part of me even wonders if it’s as self-absorbed now as it was in the 80s, the difference being that – for a while at least – the mass audience is prepared to come along for the ride.

Torchwood, on the other hand, has grown up and doesn’t have much in common in terms of tone with Doctor Who any more. More crucially, it’s also a lot less of an obvious clone of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although once again the change of format is really responsible for this. I’ve enjoyed Miracle Day a lot, for the most part, but I can understand the disillusionment and annoyance of fans of the old show who see it as an in-name-only cash-in on their devotion to the series.

The second half of the run was much of a muchness with the first, in retrospect. For all the assertions that this series was going to build on the strengths of Children of Earth, it really was a very different animal – sprawling, a bit saggy in places, almost indefensibly self-indulgent and occasionally quite exasperating to watch. Very strong episodes were followed by obvious fillers and narrative gaps and jumps were allowed to slip by unresolved.

Most annoying was the final reveal of the cause of the Miracle – not only had the bad guys got their hands on Jack’s immortal blood, they had also (breathtakingly conveniently) discovered the location of another plot device which allowed them to… well, switch off death. What the hell was this thing and what was it doing there? No idea, but the writers seemed to think that a few Doctor Who continuity references would paper over the gap quite adequately. Think again, guys.

Even in terms of its own logic this didn’t hang together. We were invited to conclude that the Big Plot Device had extrapolated Jack’s particular power from his blood and projected it onto the rest of the world. Except that the Miracle was quite clearly different from Jack’s ability: he doesn’t age (which everyone else continued to do even while immortal) and he has astounding powers of, erm, regeneration (which nobody displayed). As I say, we have entered the Plot Contrivance Zone.

So the final revelations of Miracle Day were rather disappointing (and I for one will be astonished if these in-universe history-making events and their consequences get referred to at all in Doctor Who). That said, there was a lot of incidental entertainment to be had along the way. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that it’s time for Torchwood to go back to a genuine story-of-week format (rather than the awkward half-way house so much of this series seemed to occupy).

This in itself is possibly something of a moot question, with the tumbling UK ratings for this series and Rusty’s evident itchiness of the feet surely casting very big doubts as to whether another run even happens at all. If the word came down tomorrow that a new run was in the works, I would be politely but mildly (and, above all else, cautiously) interested. If, on the other hand, the news was that that was it, that Torchwood was now officially and finally utterly defunct, I think I would go ‘hmmm, oh well, it was nice while it lasted’ and not feel particularly moved to lament its passing.

To be honest the only reason I can think of for definitely wanting to see the show carry on is that stopping it now will only seem like a vindication to the Coffee Nutters for whom every move away from its inferior initial iterations was a mistake and a betrayal. Maybe it’s time to swallow hard and walk away and leave them to it. A bit of a shame, because while Torchwood at its shocking worst could one of the most cringeworthy things on TV, when it was good it was a credit to its origins.

Read Full Post »

‘Dear Mr So-Called TV Executive,

I am writing to complain about the fact you killed off Vera in episode five of Miracle Day. She was my favourite character! She was so funny and brave and I wanted her and Rex to be happy together.

My friends and I have set up a shrine to her outside a kiln in California and until you bring her back we are going to send you a big box of prescription pain killers every month (as that was her job on the series). Torchwood is dead for me now and will stay that way until Vera makes her triumphant return.


Angry Former Torchwood fan

Hmmm. As I write we’re half-way through the UK broadcast of Miracle Day and yet I haven’t said anything about it here yet. This is obviously an oversight which I feel obliged to fix – not just because this is still (putatively) a Who-world show, but also because it seems to me to be a genuinely interesting and accomplished piece of SF drama.

They don't stand around posing like this in the show so why does it seem compulsory for the publicity photos? Sigh.

For those who have not been keeping up – well, you’re leaving it a bit late, but never mind. Some unexplained agency has wrought a peculiar change upon the entire human race, removing our ability to die. It may sound strange to describe immortality in this way, but one of the things the show makes clear is that our current society is really a death-dependent one in all sorts of ways. As the series goes on we see hospitals filled to overflowing, severe strains on infrastructure, and gloomy predictions as to the long-term viability of civilisation as we know it.

Plopped into the middle of all this (and somehow connected to it, though everyone seems to have forgotten about that for the time being) are the redoubtable members of team Torchwood – randy old Captain Jack, dedicated old Mary-Sue Gwen, and a couple of new American guys.

For yes, Torchwood has properly gone international, with the bulk of this series being shot in the States. One of the big surprises for me was how little this seemed to have affected the show, but a little thought revealed to me why this should be. One of the things about… how should we refer to it? Old Torchwood? Original Torchwood? Welsh Torchwood? Well, you know what I mean… one of the things about it, that made such an excruciating programme to watch occasionally, was the way it so often tried to ape the style of glossy big-budget American genre series on all sorts of levels but with no thought as to whether this was a good idea for a clearly low-budget programme set in Cardiff.

Much of the criticism I’ve seen of Miracle Day has come from fans of the old show (more specifically, as you could’ve guessed, people still in mourning over Coffee Boy) complaining that it’s become too Americanised. Too Americanised? It was always an Americanised series! The real difference is that it now has the setting and resources to be as American as it wants without that seeming incongruous or forced.

That said, Miracle Day is much more like Children of Earth than the first two series – and indeed as Miracle Day has gone on it’s developed a very cynical, almost despairing tone much like the later episodes of the third series. I’m curious to see how dark they can go, to be honest. On the whole so far the writing and performances have been very strong, although there have been a few instances where the premise of the series doesn’t gibe with routine plotting, leading to some awkward workarounds (the old saw of ‘someone is shot dead before he can reveal vital information’ clearly can’t be used in Miracle Day so it’s clumsily retooled as ‘someone is shot in the larynx…’).

And there have also been some of those old school moments of utter embarrassing cheesiness that long-term Torchwood viewers will be all too familiar with. ‘Gwen Cooper, fighting for Earth with a gun in one hand and a baby in the other!’ That’s the sort of proclamation Rusty Davies likes to make, and it’s okay as a capsule description of the character, but putting it actually on screen (as happened in the first episode)? It’s fine as an idea but in reality it just looks ridiculous.

Fair dos, though, I must confess that Rusty’s take on the last couple of series of Torchwood has been rather more to my taste than his later work on Doctor Who. This may be because Torchwood appears to have a license to be angry and political in a way that the parent show doesn’t. There have been times during Miracle Day when it seems like Rusty and the rest of the writing team have been working their way down a tick list of people and things they’ve got grief with – American foreign policy, big pharmaceutical companies, the Christian right (there’s probably quite a nice discussion to be had about who the Mare Winningham character – the one who, er, experienced such crushing disappointment – is based on), the private health care system. Luckily our political prejudices seem to mesh – others may have more of a problem with this aspect of the show.

One disappointing but predictable element of the new show is that Starz seem quite keen to distance it from, ahem, any other programmes currently in production. I always enjoyed the little cross-references between the Upper Boat series, but so far in Miracle Day there’s been – I think – one mention of UNIT and a ‘bigger on the inside than the outside’ gag and that’s all. The nature of current Doctor Who – which seems to have an ever-more-tenuous grip on reality – means I really doubt we’ll get the bit where Amy pops home and her mum in passing says ‘You’ll never guess what happened to Mrs Angelo from across the way, she caught very bad flu so they stuck her in an oven…’ As I say, a shame but not really surprising.

With the series only halfway through I now have the exciting opportunity to do some speculating as to how it’s going to continue. Is it really the case that the miracle has been enacted by a big corporation solely to maximise profits by necessitating the privatisation of death? Nothing so far really suggests otherwise, with the exception of the fact that old enemies of Jack’s are involved. The fact that Jack’s own immortality has been rescinded for the duration of the series initially made me wonder if the whole thing wasn’t directed against him personally, but as usual I was way off the mark there. The fact remains (geeky meltdown detector starts to bleep ominously) that Jack’s immortality was bestowed upon him through the focussed power of the time vortex itself, which you would think meant that it would take something equally spectacular to turn it off even temporarily. That would necessitate an odd tonal shift for the end of Miracle Day, which hasn’t even hinted at alien or otherworldly involvement so far. No doubt it will all be explained – right now I have no idea who sent the ‘Torchwood’ email that kickstarted the whole plot, but I’m looking forward to discovering who it was.

There are very few TV programmes that consistently improve series-on-series, certainly not past their second season. And yet Torchwood is shaping to be just such a show. In terms of actual SF storytelling it may prove to be Rusty Davies’ greatest achievement.

* title may be changed to ‘Death Takes A Vacation’ if our American co-production deal goes through.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »