Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Torchwood’

Now, as anyone who’s been following along will know, I stopped writing (and, for the most part, caring) about what I suppose we must call current Doctor Who about two years ago. Who knows, once Moffat finally clears off (only another fifteen months to go!), I may be minded to reconsider, but honestly I doubt it. But that’s a discussion for another time. Now, and not strictly covered by the no-Moffatt-Who embargo, we have the new spin-off to consider.

I don’t want to kick things off with more of a downer than is strictly necessary, but I have to say I was slightly astounded to hear they were even doing another new spin-off. The glory days of the late 2000s are a long time ago, are they not, and the parent show itself is not quite in an all-conquering imperial phase at the moment (or maybe I’m just biased). The fact that the new show is premiering on a network that isn’t actually a network isn’t a good sign either.

Or perhaps I’m getting it backwards and the very fact that BBC3 doesn’t have its own network any more (sacrificed by the corporation as part of its ongoing holding action against the hellhounds of the privately-controlled Tory media) may be exactly why the ‘channel’ ordered the show: the Who fanbase is guaranteed to deliver a big audience, by online standards, and raise their profile accordingly.

Either way, here we are: Class, created by Patrick Ness. Should I be watching this show? Well, it’s a YA piece of SF aimed at people who actually like current Doctor Who, so I’m guessing probably not. Much has been made of the fact that Class has had its premiere ten years to the day after the first episode of Torchwood was first shown, but – at first glance, anyway – the two programmes have little in common beyond the universe in which they occur (always a fairly fragmented entity, and – is this my bias again? – particularly now).

class1

Torchwood, of course, was about a secret quasi-governmental organisation charged with investigating otherworldly phenomena in Cardiff, ‘made for adults’ as they insisted at the time. Class is about the travails of a bunch of London teenagers as they deal with alien menaces, not for kids, but definitely aimed at young adults. Quite different, of course.

Except… well, look at it this way. As was fairly clear at the time, Torchwood was basically an attempt to transpose the style and feel of Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a British context, which was why the members of the secret government team never really acted like secret government team members, and why that strange atmosphere of forced jollity prevailed a lot of the time.

Class, it goes without saying, is attempting the same trick, only playing it much safer: the American show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings has been retooled as a British show about a high school at the epicentre of weird unearthly happenings. There is the kid who is not all they seem, the member of staff who protects them and likewise has a hidden agenda, the popular kid, the geeky kid, the quiet-but-strong kid, and so on. Even some of the specific story beats in the first episode were very familiar.

(Although it does occur to me that Buffy finished well over ten years ago now and a lot of the audience for the new show may not be aware of it, so Class may not get called out for being a blatant knock-off as loudly as I thought would be the case.)

In short, with both Torchwood and Class we’re talking about two shows fishing from the same quite distinctive pond, both ticking all the necessary diversity boxes, both featuring gratuitous profanity, both with an unexpected level of gore, and both with a format built around people keeping an eye on a mysterious space-time rift.

Personally I find first-season Torchwood to be up there with early Next Gen in the painful-to-watch stakes, so I was pleasantly surprised when the first episode of Class turned out to be a rather less gruelling proposition: it looks much slicker, with effects that get the job done, and some of the jokes were genuinely funny. I was rather taken with Miss Quill the psychopathic teacher, and none of the rest of the characters were that annoying. The setting-up-the-plotlines stuff wasn’t especially laborious to watch, either.

In short, the first episode was solid, though I must confess I was looking at my watch waiting for Peter Capaldi to come on. (Interesting that there’s been a change of approach at the BBC – the rule was that the Doctor would never appear in Torchwood, as it might lure small children into watching an inappropriately ‘adult’ (when talking about Torchwood‘s first two seasons, the inverted commas are obligatory) programme, but here he was in a show where somebody shouted ‘****’ at one point.

As things went on, though, it seemed more and more and more apparent to me that this was a programme with very little in the way of its own distinct identity – there’s nothing about it that made me go ‘Hmm, this is strikingly original’, and so many ideas, gags and plot beats that were blatantly lifted from the same tiny handful of sources (Doctor Who itself, Buffy) that I lost count.

I mean, it’s fairly watchable, probably because it’s derived (and I do mean derived) from series which most of the time were quality productions, but… well, look, there’s even a moment where the characters discuss how similar their situation is to the format of Buffy. The intention is probably to be knowingly meta and self-aware about the whole thing (the same is probably true of the gag about the Bechdel test, something else which I haven’t quite got my head round), but I think that doing jokes about how derivative your programme is doesn’t actually excuse the fact that you’re making a very derivative programme in the first place. But perhaps I am too harsh.

Anyway, I expect I will stick with it: there’s not exactly a huge quantity of UK-made SF or fantasy around at the moment, though thinking about it Humans is back soon (even though I kind of lost patience with that near the end of the first series). In short – the makers of Class have some very clever, inventive and groundbreaking ideas. Which they have pinched from a show nearly 20 years old.

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.

tw3

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 »

In the past I have occasionally written about the political attitudes to be seen at work in the storytelling and concepts of Doctor Who (sometimes only to be seen if you screw your eyes up tight and put your head on one side, but even so). However, it occurs to me that there is fruitful territory for investigation if one looks at the actual political mechanics of Who-world, especially in its version of contemporary (or recent-history) Earth. Which politicians and other public figures do Who-world and our own reality share? What are the differences, and can we tease out some kind of story behind them?

The Doctor’s own credentials as a Republican or a Monarchist have never been articulated in detail, but given he’s happy to hob-nob with the royalty both of Earth and other planets (he is, after all, a Lord) it seems unlikely he is dogmatic about this sort of thing. In terms of the Earth royalty he encounters, Who-world and real-world history seem to agree in every respect –  his encounters with Rick One, Liz One and Two, and Vicky are all at the points in time when one would roughly expect them to occur.

(Although, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, there’s a mild point of conflict when it comes to Battlefield, which alludes to the possibility of a reigning male monarch despite being set prior to the ‘present day’ of the more recent UNIT stories – at which time, specifically in Voyage of the Damned, Liz Two is still depicted as being on the throne.)

Well, this fidelity to fact is not entirely surprising if you think about it – politicians and other figures come and go on a fairly regular basis, but the Royal Family are pretty much a fixture. It’s in the storytellers’ interest that the fictional world and the real world be as similar as possible, just to maximise viewer engagement. A fictional prime minister requires much less suspension of disbelief than a fictional monarch.

Of course, there are also things like libel laws to consider, which largely prevent the show from using contemporary figures as characters. Possibly as a result of this, the general principle is that the show tends to stick closer to real-world fact in matters of history than it does when dealing with the present day – the most obvious example of this being the appearance of Winston Churchill as a character in Victory of the Daleks. Churchill is such a mythologised figure now that it’s easy to forget he was still alive when Doctor Who started broadcasting, at which time using him as a character on the show would probably have been unthinkable.

Despite being fairly heavily embedded in the side of the British establishment from the mid-60s on, the Doctor’s dealings with the political class for much of this time tended to be with junior figures – principal private secretaries, and suchlike. These are the sorts of figures regularly appearing in stories like Doctor Who and the Silurians (Masters, decent but doomed), Inferno (Gold, amiable but ineffective), The Claws of Axos (Chinn, pompous and inescapable), and The Sea Devils (Walker, grotesque and incompetent). The civil servant is a nuisance-figure in many of the third Doctor’s stories, and it’s only towards the end of his run that we meet a contemporary politician who’s an actual threat – Charles Grover, Minister with Special Powers, is one of the leaders of the Golden Age group in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Naturally, the BBC wanting to stay neutral, we never learn which party Grover belongs to, or indeed much about his policies beyond his being environmentally-conscious.

It's all the bloody government's fault I expect.

It’s all the bloody government’s fault I expect.

Only very occasionally do we get an idea of who’s really at the top of British society during these stories. The first occasion is during The Green Death, when such is the clout of Global Chemicals that they are able to have the Brigadier slapped down by the Prime Minister himself – whose face we don’t see, but who’s addressed by a colleague as ‘Jeremy’.

Now, whether you think The Green Death is set in 1973, 1979, or 1984, the fact remains that the UK has never had a Prime Minister called Jeremy! It seems a safe bet that the production team were suggesting, not necessarily seriously, that Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would get into  Number Ten. In the real world, Thorpe never made it: persistent rumours of a sex scandal, a dead Great Dane and an alleged conspiracy to commit murder all combined to end his career. In Who-world things may have gone differently.

Nevertheless, not that long after The Green Death, the mysterious ‘Jeremy’ is definitely out of office (unless there have been some fairly remarkable surgical developments) as when the Prime Minister phones up the Brigadier in the final episode of Terror of the Zygons, he respectfully answers ‘Ma’am.’ You could argue that at this point (whenever it is – 1975, 1980, or 1986) Who-world and real-world politics are back in sync and the Brig is talking to Maggie Thatcher, but there’s no reason why he can’t be talking to Shirley Williams, Barbara Castle or someone completely fictional.

From this point on, the Doctor spends less time in Britain, and when he’s there he spends much less time dealing with civil servants and other bureaucrats (although he seems to enjoy the company of Sir Colin Thackeray of the WEB in The Seeds of Doom). This is a trend which continues, on-screen at least, until the end of the original run. Time-Flight indicates that the Doctor’s dealings with the British government happen under the auspices of something called Department C-19, run by a Sir John Sudbury in 1981, but we learn nothing more about it. Is this the section of the Ministry of Defence which liaises with the United Nations where matters involved UNIT? Could it (a tantalising thought) be the official designation of Torchwood at this point in history? It is never expanded upon.

The 1989 stage play The Ultimate Adventure deserves a mention for its opening scene, in which the TARDIS is summoned to Downing Street and the Doctor given a mission by Thatcher to preserve world peace. This was broad stuff, played at least partly for laughs (Colin Baker attempted to slip a few topical jokes in when he took over the show) – but it was fun.

At some point before Who-world’s 2007, its politics and ours definitely had one point in common – in Rise of the Cybermen Mickey suggests a parallel world might be a place ‘where Tony Blair was never elected’, indicating he was Prime Minister in Who-world for at least a while. Quite when this was is never made clear, and the late 2000s in general proved to be an even more challenging time to be a senior politician in the UK than they did in real life.

The years of turmoil start in 2006, with the Slitheen attempt to infiltrate the UK government by impersonating (obese) minor members of the establishment (in Aliens of London). For these people to rise to the top, the then-current Prime Minister had to be removed, which he duly was. The PM’s corpse tumbles out of a cupboard on-screen – apparently a Tony Blair lookalike was considered, but the man on screen is visibly someone else (maybe Blair looked different in Who-world).

For the remainder of 2006 the Prime Minister is apparently Harriet Jones, a sitting MP under the previous incumbent. Jones is depicted as a rather Thatcherite figure once she actually becomes PM – there is a veiled reference to the General Belgrano controversy in The Christmas Invasion – but not an actively malicious one. Given that he previously predicted she would be in office for a considerable period, and oversee something of a new Golden Age (Charles Grover would have approved), it seems perhaps a little harsh of the Doctor to topple her government and drive her out of office: possibly even hypocritical, given his own lack of remorse when it comes to blowing up alien craft. It was almost certainly unwise, given what follows.

Yes, you know who she is.

Yes, you know who she is.

Exactly who it is that immediately follows Harriet Jones as Prime Minister in 2007 and part of 2008 is never really made clear – at this point Blair may have had his moment – but their government seems to have been an unpopular one. Towards the end of the year a new grouping led by the eerily charismatic Harry Saxon is enjoying a healthy poll lead, as reported in Victor Kennedy’s newspaper in Love and Monsters. There may be an election producing a hung parliament towards the end of the year, as by Christmas 2007 Saxon is in a position of authority over the armed forces, ordering them to open fire on the Racnoss ship over London in The Runaway Bride. The logical deduction is that Saxon is Minister of Defence in a coalition government – it was probably at this point that he worked with UNIT to design the Valiant carrier.

Saxon becomes Prime Minister in his own right following another election at some point in 2008. Following the not very thinly veiled ‘massive weapons of destruction’ and September 11th gags in World War Three, the Saxon-as-PM storyline is another piece of broad satire from Rusty Davies, as an implicit parallel is drawn between Saxon (who is, of course, the Master, the show’s quintessential supervillain) and Tony Blair. ‘We didn’t really know what his policies were… we just liked him,’ Martha says in The Sound of Drums, trying to explain the Master’s electoral popularity, and echoing criticisms of Blair’s own supposed ‘all style no substance’ appeal. This seems to me to be just more apparently-satirical comfort food, as Blair had become a deeply unpopular figure by the time these episodes were broadcast (almost in the same week he left the office of Prime Minister himself). Likening Blair to the Master is not particularly fair to either of them, surely.

It’s interesting, by the way, that one of the celebrities endorsing Saxon as Prime Minister is a real-world politician, the cat-loving non-dancer Anne Widdecombe, who was a sitting Tory MP at the time the episodes were broadcast. Are we to conclude that Widdecombe is amongst the MPs who abandoned their former loyalties to join the ‘Saxon party’? Was Anne herself really in the picture about what she was appearing to do?

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with... oh I can't be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

One of the most dangerous beings in the universe, with… oh I can’t be bothered. Finish it yourselves.

Widdecombe does not appear to be in the Saxon cabinet, which briefly appears in The Sound of Drums before the Master murders them all with nerve gas. It is a necessary quirk of maintaining a fictional universe closely based on our own that the near-complete slaughter of the government (not long after the death of a previous PM and the demolition of the seat of government) has no apparent effect on the everyday lives of people in the street. Things certainly seem to be back to normal by the Doctor’s next visit to the present day in Partners in Crime – some tongue-in-cheek dialogue about the sheer unlikelihood of the events of the previous episodes (the PM killing the American President then vanishing without a trace) was cut from the episode on the grounds it took lantern-hanging a shade too far.

Normally one would have expected a protracted period of political instability to follow not just the death or disappearance of the entire cabinet but also (one would assume) the total collapse of the party elected to power – one can’t really imagine the Saxon Party continuing in the Master’s absence, for all that he clearly still has followers in positions of influence.

Nevertheless, by late 2009 normal service appears to have been restored, with the sitting Prime Minister during Torchwood: Children of Earth being a Brian Green (more subtlety from Rusty: Brian Green as opposed to Gordon Brown), whose party is, as usual, left indeterminate. Five different Prime Ministers in the space of three years is, obviously, unprecedented in British history; the conclusion of Children of Earth offers us the prospect of a sixth, with Green’s premiership looking threatened.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

A rare example of a recent cabinet meeting in Who-world not concluding in violent death.

The same story reveals that Torchwood Three, at least, liaises with the Home Office. Given that Harriet Jones, while Prime Minister, indicates that she isn’t supposed to be aware the institute exists, there are some curious indications as to how the UK establishment operates in Who-world – although, following the events of Doomsday, it would hardly be surprising if Torchwood One, at least, found itself dragged out into the public view – or at least the awareness of the elected government.

The whole area of contemporary politics is one of those which the series has pulled back from since the installation of Steven Moffat as showrunner. An early draft of The Power of Three featured another new Prime Minister in office in 2014, this one openly hostile to the Doctor (presumably due to the effect he and his associates have had on the political establishment over recent years), but this element proved unpopular with the  production office and was dropped.

The series’ dealings with the politics of other nations have been much more limited, particularly during the original run. The same principles hold true, however – the President in 1969 during Day of the Moon is, as you would expect, Richard Nixon, for example.

When the plot of The Sound of Drums requires the Master to murder the President of the USA, however, the programme opts to wheel on a wholly fictional character rather than a nudgy-winky version of George W Bush. That said, the gentleman in question introduces himself as ‘Arthur Coleman Winters, President-Elect of the United States’ – the fact he is specifically President-Elect appears to be an attempt to suggest that Winters is actually Bush’s successor, but yet to be sworn in.

Either the American political cycle in Who-world is very different from ours, or this means that The Sound of Drums takes place very late in 2008, following that year’s election. There’s nothing essentially wrong with this idea, but it does mean that Torchwood series 2 now mostly takes place in 2009, making an already busy year in Who-world even more frenetic.

Presumably the gentleman who is the President of the USA by the end of 2009, and who addresses the world with his scheme to save the global economy (given the popularity of The West Wing with the makers of the current show, he may well have a secret plan to fight inflation), is the person originally elected as Winter’s Vice-President, promoted into the top job upon his assassination. Nevertheless, he is Barack Obama, who has obviously had a very different career in Who-world.

This is another example of the show’s world seeming superficially identical to our own but being rather different once you dig into the detail of it – something which is virtually a necessity given this is a fantasy show with a real-world basis. It’s unlikely to change for as long as the show remains in production, and watching the makers continue to walk the political tightrope will no doubt retain its odd fascination.

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.

yours

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 »

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.

Read Full Post »

If the complete history of Doctor Who is written – something which I sincerely doubt will ever happen – then the astonishing renaissance of the series’ fortunes in the middle 2000s will surely receive much attention. The programme went from being an ex-TV series (albeit one with a strong grasp on the public’s affection), continuing in at least three different media (each the subject of its own fierce cult following), to something vibrant and focussed and vastly successful in the mainstream. And this seemed to happen virtually overnight.

While some commentators at the time praised Russell T Davies for his bold new 21st Century take on the series, as time has gone by it’s become clear that Davies’s real genius was not how much he changed but how much he didn’t. Davies’s prominent inclusion of minority sexual politics and incorporation of a wider supporting cast (the ‘soap opera’ element which is so widely reviled) are relatively small potatoes compared to the fact that the revived programme basically has the same format, the same values, and takes place in the same continuity as the original.

Tellingly, it’s the series of the Seventies that the makers of the most recent seasons seem to have taken as their template – and an era which, incidentally, was unafraid to include surprising political themes of its own, and had a larger regular cast than at any other time in the original run. When 21st century Who pays a homage to the old show, it’s most commonly to an episode first broadcast in the Seventies.

However, in one area the revived programme is strikingly different from the pattern that had evolved in the original series by that point. As I’ve argued in the earlier parts of this series, by the Seventies the stories Doctor Who told revolved around villainous antagonists, with monsters a key but secondary feature of the programme. One thing you can’t say about the Russell T Davies years is that they are particularly abundant in villains.

Instead there are many stories where the antagonists are basically just monsters – sometimes with a spokesperson, such as the Gelth, or with basic personalities of their own, such as the Slitheen. The BBC stipulated that the new series contain as many monsters as possible, but it seems they had no such requirements in terms of villainous characters. There are still villains, but in smaller numbers than for years.

Davies has spoken of his uneasiness when it comes to the inclusion of out-and-out, wholly malevolent villains in his scripts, feeling it to be simplistic and unsatisfying to a modern audience. When villains do appear, the story is careful to give them a plausible motivation – usually financial, in the case of the Eccleston season’s bad guys. Particularly interesting in this context is the episode Boom Town, which (in addition to being cheap to make) exists solely to explore the motivation of a pre-existing villain and the ethics of the Doctor’s relationship with her. In the end Margaret Slitheen never quite gains the audience’s sympathy, and the episode is more about the light it sheds on the Doctor’s character (he’s unequivocally in favour of the death penalty, which I personally find startling), but it’s still a thoughtful piece almost inconceivable in the original run of the show.

As the crowd shrieked, Margaret Slitheen proceeded to take it all off.

Given this relative paucity of villains, there’s a new trend towards a type of story where the circumstance in which the Doctor finds himself is an antagonist of sorts (said circumstance usually involving some kind of monster, admittedly). Thus the nature of time is largely responsible for the (somewhat incomprehensible) predicament central to Father’s Day, while technology running out of control causes the problems of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace.

As the series goes on more traditional villains do start to appear more regularly, some more successful than others. Mr Finch is arguably the revived show’s first power-hungry megalomaniac, but his success is mostly a matter of performance, not writing. From the same season, Lumic is basically just a karaoke version of a certain rather better known wheelchair-bound creator. Later on, though, the Doctor has such effective foils as Professor Lazarus and Son-of-Mine (even if Lazarus spends much of his time as a CGI scorpion and Son-of-Mine likes to keep his family around him).

One key element of the new series, which manages to be essentially new and wholly backward-looking at the same time – a neat trick – is its attitude to recurring monsters. It’s interesting to jump a time-track and consider how the new series would have developed had the BBC been unable to secure the use of the Daleks, as seemed likely until mid-2004. Davies has already admitted that in this event the Eccleston series would probably have concluded with Cybermen besieging the Game Station, but beyond the issue of individual stories, there is the fact that the return of a different classic enemy was a core element of all the seasons the writer oversaw.

This is possibly a result of the way each season is now conceived, with an overall plot building to a dramatic finale. Every such finale to date has featured a returning opponent – on four occasions out of five, the Daleks have been central – and it’s starting to look as if, in the case of the really big name monsters, they are being used not as a shorthand for evil but as a shorthand for significance.

Overall, the big name enemies have been revived successfully. As time goes by the Daleks possibly suffer from overexposure and the demands of the ongoing storyline, but at least none of their stories are actually boring. The Cybermen probably come off worst of the big three, with a shiny new look not really compensating for their origin and nature being fundamentally reconceived, and their generally being pushed into the background of their stories by other monsters and villains. On the other hand, the Sontarans are spectacularly updated in a way which opens up exciting new areas for them, while still being wholly faithful to their original stories. (Admittedly, much of this is undermined by the events of The Poison Sky, wherein it is revealed that the Sontarans’ reputation as the greatest warriors in the universe appears to be founded on them taking on enemies who can’t shoot back.)

When the Master makes his inevitable return it is very much in line with the way the character was presented in other media in the missing years – most obviously in the way Davies attempts to give him at least some kind of coherent motivation. Prior attempts had varied from the dubiously personal – embittered, after the Doctor mucked up one of his experiments (Flashback, in DWM) – to the somewhat clichéd – corrupted by his own desire for power, that he might do more to improve the universe (The Dark Path novel) – to the broodingly cosmic – the youthful Master was betrayed by the youthful Doctor and forced to become a disciple of Death incarnate (the Big Finish audio Master) – possibly that should be ‘broodingly cosmic and slightly convoluted’.

As usual, Davies opts to paint with a broad brush and has the Master as a general-purpose nutter, driven insane by his exposure to the Time Vortex as a boy. Fan metaphysicists can have a lot of fun trying to work out, given that ‘the drums’ plaguing the character were retroactively placed there via time travel at a point quite late in his life, whether this origin still holds true for the character in the older stories. It’s a moot point, anyway. I would argue that the success of the character upon his initial return is at least as much due to the performers involved as to the script – while Utopia is one of the best episodes the revived series has produced, and The Sound of Drums has its moments, Last of the Time Lords is a bit creaky in all sorts of places. Davies makes up for all this when he revives the character in The End of Time – I would argue that the presentation of the Master here is the most satisfying element of the story, as the character has a depth and presence almost never previously seen. The climactic sequence of the Doctor and the Master, each unable to see the other be killed, uniting to repel the Time Lords is a summation of both characters and their relationship that has seldom been equalled at any point in the series.

One more reason to use a digital watch…

Beyond the big names, the revived series has also shown a willingness to revive other successful monsters – and even unsuccessful ones on occasion. Davies has said that the decision to launch the series with the Autons was based solely on their appropriateness for that particular story, but – in addition to increasing the sense of the series returning to its Seventies roots – it also reaffirms the programme’s commitment to its history. The return of the Macra smacks of ‘oh well, why not?’ Return visits by the Ood and Cassandra are in the classic tradition of successful opponents making a swift reappearance (although the Ood are rapidly building up an impressive list of appearances which shows no sign of stopping).

The presence of the revived show’s spin-offs presents some odd new avenues for monsters to recur in: the Cyberwoman episode of Torchwood isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds, while the Slitheen have carved out a rather successful niche for themselves as the ‘house monsters’ on The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Other aliens have crossed over between Torchwood and SJA without appearing in the parent show.) What we’ve yet to see is a classic series enemy returning directly to one of the spin-offs, though we’ve come close: the Trickster – a regular villain on SJA, and mentioned in Turn Left – is suspiciously similar in agenda and dialogue to the Black Guardian, while Mandragora  was all set to return directly to SJA until the script demanded too many divergences from the original concept.

This is a little disappointing for old-school fans, but at least it proves that the programme-makers are putting the stories first, rather than simply wheeling out old enemies for nostalgia value (the recent episode The Lodger was for some time going to be a sequel to Meglos). New show-runner Steven Moffat has always been ambivalent at best when it comes to discussing the return of old enemies, mainly due to the fact this usually involved revisiting old ground.

That said, the most recent season has stuck quite closely to the formula established by the Davies era, with an overarching narrative and returns from classic enemies and successful recent creations. (It’s exceedingly doubtful that things will continue in this vein: the first season after a major change of personnel has never been very indicative of what will follow.) Moffat continues to be a little villain-averse: The Beast Below revolves around a basic misunderstanding between human and alien, and while The Pandorica Opens presents a pleasing panoply of old enemies working in concert, all but the Daleks are banished from the concluding episode of the story.

Interestingly, the latest revamps of both the Daleks and the Silurians have been unpopular, both being a little too iconoclastic for the tastes of many fans. And while the Silurian two-parter is virtually a smaller-scale remake of the original story, Victory of the Daleks really just appears to be an exercise in housekeeping, rebooting the Daleks back to being a ubiquitous and ongoing menace as they were in the mid-Seventies.

The production team were infuriated when yet another Dalek redesign proved unpopular.

How soon the next appearance of the Daleks will be is another matter. It has been announced that the 2011 series will feature no returning monsters or villains whatsoever – the first time this has happened since 1978, and only the fourth time in the history of the series it has been done. (That said, the presence in the trailer for the upcoming series features yet another Ood, suggesting the definitions of what constitutes a monster have been surreptitiously rewritten.)

One shouldn’t get too hung up on things like this, as it seems likely that reappearances by classic foes will continue to be part of the fabric of the series, just as the kind of stories the series tells are utterly dependent on monsters and villains to work. New enemies and old are part of the grammar of the series – in a very real sense they are necessary evils.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »