Sunday, 15 September 2013

Torchwood: Children Of Mirth

By Shannon Lush

This particular entry will be delving into (it’s fair to admit, obsessing over), Torchwood, the ill-fated spinoff series of Doctor Who. Before I ascend too far up the ladder of vitriol, reigning down buckets of Whovian spittle all the way, a few admissions…

First, I never particularly liked anything to do with this series.  When the project was revealed, I felt the concept of a secretive, alien-fighting’ band of government agents was served quite well by UNIT and any newly-created group of like-minded characters were nothing more than watered-down versions. For over thirty years in Doctor Who and just as long within spinoff media, it was well established that UNIT were the world’s foremost defenders from the threat of alien incursion. If any organization was deserving of a televised spinoff from Doctor Who, it is UNIT. Indeed, Big Finish Audio has created excellent spin-off adventures featuring established and new characters. One such adventure even provided David Tennant his first Doctor Who credit, years before he gulped a cup of tea and discovered his fighting hand.

Second, the main cast of characters and the actors who portray(ed) them are, quite frankly, boring. This assertion may well land me in Whovian hell, but having sampled my share now of what many people consider the “best that Torchwood has to offer” episodes that fans of the series rank up there with the best of Doctor Who, I feel qualified to make that statement.  Despite his matinee-idol looks and his dreamy eye colour, John Barrowman is a bad actor. Sorry. Wooden in style and with a gait that lends itself more to mimicking a window shop dummy (perhaps he’s an Auton..?), Barrowman is just not a good actor. He has a mild flair for comedy, evidenced in both his appearances within Doctor Who and Torchwood, but like Matt Smith he is extremely limited in his acting range and completely out of his depth when dialogue calls for anything other than a gratuitous butt-cheek flash. Sorry.  The truth hurts.

Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness character, used sparingly but to good effect in his appearances in Doctor Who, initially showed promise, brave and resourceful, with more than a touch of mystery and capable of great charm, Jack’s dashing good looks and attire in his initial appearances evoked a WW2 recruiting poster-version of reality; he was an old-fashioned hero, square jawed and quick with his wits as well as fists. That he was resurrected by Rose (and the BBC) to go on to serve as the series lead in the Doctor Who spinoff series cheered the heart of many, including myself. Then I actually saw the series…but more on that later.

Eve Myles is a capable actress and provided a memorable guest star in the Doctor Who episode ‘The Unquiet Dead’, and honestly, it’s not so much her acting I dislike as her character in Torchwood. She is by turns selfish, self-absorbed, with a penchant, (found also in the worst excesses of many Russell T Davies characters and stories), for chattering inanely over nonsensical topics instead of focusing on the world-shattering and serious matters that unfold around her. Though this tendency is not limited to her character (it can be found on display in abundance with the Tenth Doctor), it is quite distracting and highly annoying. How are viewers supposed to suspend their disbelief and buy into the seriousness of the alien threat of the week if the characters themselves aren’t?

The rest of the cast is equally terrible and pedantic. Colourless and morose (two terms that also could describe the series itself), they neither stand out nor particularly do anything of worth, besides fret about their bi/straight/same-sex relationships. Indeed Torchwood is less a Doctor Who spinoff series it seems than a cynical ‘Dating Game’-style reality show. Now, before you sharpen the pitchforks and prepare to storm the castle, allow me to discuss my objections to the inter-personal relationships on display on what, after all, is a drama series with characters that supply their own drama. Firstly, it’s no secret that Russell T Davies, creator and executive producer of Torchwood, is gay. That fact alone has never once detracted nor enhanced his standing as a Doctor Who executive producer nor as a writer in my eyes; many Whovians have bemoaned his supposed ‘gay agenda’, but by and large and with rare exception, I personally have never felt the man’s sexual orientation to be relevant to discussing his work within or without Doctor Who. He certainly is not the first gay male to produce Doctor Who. Long-time Whovians will note that John Nathan-Turner, the longest-serving producer in Doctor Who history was also gay.

Thus it is not that Davies is gay and thus naturally, writes characters that are or could be likewise. He writes what he knows, just as a straight man or woman writer would. While it was initially quite a shock to witness the subtle (and quickly by turns not-so-subtle) references and depictions to gay culture and attitudes in Doctor Who under Davies’ run, I have to say it was a pleasant shock. For the venerable old series Doctor Who to finally be allowed to openly display this behaviour, which I’m sure John Nathan-Turner himself would surely have wished to do at least twenty years ago and couldn’t, is indicative of not only the strides the series has taken but those that human society has taken. After all science fiction at its best holds up a mirror to the society that produces it and explores themes that those societies struggle with. Doctor Who under Davies had grown up and I was proud to be a fan of such a progressive series.

However, while Davies took his opportunities, and rightly so, to introduce these elements into Doctor Who, it was clear from his public comments that putting these elements on display in a televised forum were and are important to him. Doctor Who perhaps was not the best forum to continue to introduce these story elements and character lifestyle choices, given its nature, first and foremost as a family drama series. Not everyone is as progressive and liberal-minded as the average Whovian after all. Therefore, when his producer days had come to an end on Doctor Who and it was eventually announced he would produce a spinoff series called Torchwood, I was both pleased for the existence of another series set within the Whoniverse as well as for Davies, who now had a blank canvass on which to convey the messages that were important to him.

The inclusion of the character of Captain Jack as the series lead was intriguing, yet made complete sense. After all he was a popular reoccurring character and as already noted, in his appearances in Doctor Who, he was noble, heroic and had learned at the foot of The Doctor himself. On paper, it seemed to be a fantastic idea, to quote the Ninth Doctor. The reality however, is something completely different.  At this point I’ll detail some strong objections that I’m sure will cause most readers to shout ‘but you clearly haven’t watched enough to judge’! I’ll note that my Torchwood viewing is limited to the following: the first five (5) episodes of the first season…the entire five  (5) episode run of the ‘Children Of Earth’ season/miniseries…every guest appearance by any Torchwood member within Doctor Who itself. There. That’s all of it.

Now then, remember all those moments that Davies inserted into Doctor Who that, while genuinely praiseworthy for his progressive stance, nevertheless could be questioned by fans and the public alike as being out of place in a family drama series (and again, I personally had no issues with them, but a quick Google search of ‘RTD gay agenda Doctor Who’ will reveal a great mass of haters out there who ‘did’)? In Torchwood, Davies delights in being able to write content he wants to write and has the freedom to detail whatever agenda he wishes, and good on him for that. But, uhm…what the hell happened to Captain Jack? The one from Doctor Who? The one with the twinkle in his eye, quick with a smile and above all else, heroic?

In Torchwood, Jack Harkness isn’t Jack Harkness. Instead, he’s a win-at-all-cost, skeletons-in-the-closet mystery man. Now again, before you accuse me of ‘not having watched enough’ I watched over ten full hours of television featuring this character outside of his appearances within Doctor Who. Whomever this heartless monster of a man ‘is’, he isn’t Captain Jack. In ‘Children Of Earth’ he not only is compelled to assist in the outright abduction and mutilation of dozens of children, but he inexplicably sacrifices his own grandson in order to clumsily stop a supposed alien ‘invasion’ by the same beings (who not ‘once’ in 5 full hours ever demonstrate any threat to humanity whatsoever other than an ability to paralyze children…in the old days, the Brigadier would have stopped these clowns before lunch with the Third Doctor without much effort…but I digress).

It almost appears as if….no, it can’t be….could Russell T Davies have drastically re-written this character to be nothing more than a Doctor clone? Let’s see…’I’ve lived a long time, I’ve done some horrible things’ (a quote from Jack, but that could easily have been said by the Doctor, and virtually has been on numerous occasions). Travels in time and space. Wears extravagant clothing. Utilizes sonic devices and alien gadgets. Routinely yells at aliens, asserting his dominance and does the whole ‘you’ll be sorry, do you even KNOW who the hell you are messing with, buster??’ routine. Yep, it’s Doctor Jack, I presume.

It’s quite possibly too much to suggest that, having completely stripped Jack Harkness of anything that made him unique as a character and instead replaced it with ersatz Doctor qualities; Davies went one step further and cranked up the melodrama inherent in the character being, for all intents and purposes, bi-sexual. There are copious long and lovingly rendered scenes of Jack open-mouth kissing other characters, namely that Ianto guy whose character’s death seemed to disturb people far more than a fictional character’s death ought to. Is it far too crude to suggest that Davies has his own personal Doctor Who clone…that routinely drops his pants and participates in activity that the ‘real’ Doctor never would? That Jack Harkness is, plain and simply a gay Doctor Who? Perhaps it’s too much to suggest.

…except I’m doing it anyway.

That observation aside, let’s move on to the broad sweeping themes inherent in Torchwood. Once viewers are subjected to the obligatory gay sexual innuendo, usually accompanied by scenes depicting sexual acts that have ‘zero’ to do with any actual plot or character development, there has been in my observations of this series, yet another agenda above and beyond the alleged ‘gay agenda’ that so many people accuse Davies of possessing: he has an atheist agenda. One that is quite simply, frustrating in the extreme.

The moment that caused me as a viewer to completely disengage from Torchwood early on and not bother to revisit the series until recently, at Steve Lake’s incessant prodding, I screened ‘Children Of Earth’, came in an episode of the first season in which the ragtag group begin utilizing a device that temporarily raises the recent dead back to life. A running gag which was to my mind a very cynical and black humour gag concerned the length of time in which a target person is brought back to ‘life’. According to the interplay between the main characters, it was fast becoming a source of irritation that they were unable to properly glean much knowledge concerning a person’s final moments, including who killed them, as the device was limited to only a minute or two of restoring a person before they died again. This was a morbid and downbeat story element to be sure, but I pressed on.
Wearily and bitterly complaining all the while, the team resurrects a particular person who promptly shouts words to the effect of ‘oh God, there’s NOTHING!’ referring to the lack of an afterlife. This one moment caused me such despair that I disgustedly turned the damn episode off and as I said hadn’t bothered with the series until recently. Not since the series ‘Homicide’ had I witnessed such cavalier treatment of the nature of death and such dismissal of dignity of dead bodies. At least within ‘Homicide’, a series concerning the day-to-day lives of homicide detectives, the point is repeatedly stressed that their approach to the dead is a response to the stresses of the job. What’s the excuse in Torchwood?

I’m not particularly religious, nor am I particularly spiritual, but this touched a nerve. Davies and company on the writing staff of Torchwood had already portioned off a piece of the Whoniverse and populated it with drab, dismal characters going about their days in a bleak TV series with more than its share of depressing and dank moments. Fine. Davies and company insisted on replacing good, solid plots and stories with shock-value gay sex scenes, copious nudity for no particular reason and characters more interested in quipping about phallic objects than actually investigating alien menaces. Fine. But to simply smack viewers in the head with this atheist agenda? A bit much.

Least you think this is an isolated incident, look no further than ‘Children of Earth’. Early on, there’s a scene in which a Doctor, an actual medical one not a Timelord, attempts to join the team. Gwen Cooper elects to speak to him and ascertain not only his motives but his mindset. Turns out this Doctor’s early medical career involved him rather specializing in cases of suicide. Apparently the idea of the existence of alien life as it has been frequently showcased to the world population in Torchwood, Sarah Jane Adventures, and Doctor Who itself, has caused a shift in the Catholic perception and worldview. The Doctor relates a story in which he recently dealt with a woman who killed herself and left a note explaining her actions. He says the knowledge of aliens existing caused the woman, and millions like her it seems, to feel as if their lives are meaningless, and they are simply no more than a small dot in the universe. The woman said in her note; “science won.”

There’s not one word to describe the absurdity of not only this scene but of the entire notion of this ridiculous, one-dimensional story element, there’s about a half a dozen. First, even as a lapsed Catholic, I’m here to tell you, Catholicism doesn’t just fall apart because there could be alien life in the vast cosmos. If anything, and this belief system has actually been voiced by senior Vatican officials, it would confirm the spectacular length and breadth of God’s abilities to create life. Second, would someone please inform Mr. Davies that one of the world’s largest observatories charged with studying for alien life, is run BY the Vatican? It’s in Arizona, it’s staffed by both Catholic and lay scientists and it’s been around for well over twenty five years.

So in one scene, Davies unequivocally has a character state there is no afterlife and he ought to know, he was just brought back from the dead after all. Second, in Davies’ slice of the Whoniverse, just because humanity may be starting to understand there’s aliens out there, those whacky Christians just can’t handle it and are willing to commit another sin (suicide), because, and honestly this is the dumbest line of dialogue ever and demonstrates a complete and utter failure to understand basic Catholic beliefs; ”Science won.”

Doctor Who has existed for fifty years, and the Whoniverse has been expanded on by a tremendous variety of individuals in a large form of media. Everyone from former stand-up comedians (Terry Nation) to former monks (Tom Baker) to former lawyers (Colin Baker) have contributed to it, all adding their own unique perspectives from a variety of personal backgrounds. The Doctor has fought and befriended demons and devils as well as angels. He’s gone into other dimensions. If you read the New Adventures novels, he’s even fought an alien race called the Hoothi on a planet called Heaven. If you read the Target novelizations of select regeneration stories (particularly those by Terrance Dicks), you’ll discover that the regeneration process in the Doctor’s opinion is a death of sorts and becoming a new man is, perhaps, a re-birth. There are Christian parallels to be drawn in some of the Doctor Who concepts for sure. Especially that scene in the TV Movie where the Master, for all intents and purposes, crucifies the Doctor and the scene post-regeneration where the Doctor is shrouded in a white robe and acting like a resurrected Jesus.

The point is Doctor Who is a story about a heroic time traveler and up to now, anything to do with him, in any form of spinoff media has confined itself to telling stories of a similar vein. Whether or not the authors or producers of episodes or stories themselves believe in an afterlife or have a spiritual bend or else are outright atheistic in their belief system never filtered into the product simply because there’s no place for it. Doctor Who isn’t about coming down on one side or the other of such a debate any more than it would come down negatively or on the positive about capital punishment (and in the select instances in the past when that particular topic for example has arisen, the Doctor has been depicted as alternatively supporting it, then several stories later denouncing it) Whether by accident or design, politically charged or ‘hot button issues’ have been presented on both sides and by and large avoided altogether, given that Doctor Who is not and should not be about presenting one side of any such debate. It should merely introduce the suggestion of debate. As I said above, shine a mirror, by all means. Not a fun house mirror, distorted to only present one angle, one viewpoint.

Torchwood is a series in which Davies and/or his writing staff simply and foolishly present one side of a very contentious and emotional issue, in this case the existence of an afterlife. To do so itself is short-sighted, to compound this by also seeming to mock and belittle the belief systems of a large majority of the viewing audience (or so it would appear to be the case, as surely I’m far from the only offended one to have watched this series, there’s at last count several billion like minded people on this planet) is almost beyond belief. This adherence to one viewpoint, in this case atheism, is one of the greatest failings of this series, one of a great many.

Steve Lake, in his rebuttal to this assertion of mine regarding the “atheist agenda” on display, suggested I was missing the point. That in fact, the stories merely “introduced the debate” or “caused viewers to question” which, were it true would be fine. As I’ve said several times already, science fiction at its best serves to dress up current issues in little green men from Mars clothing to make them more palatable to the mass audiences. Except, anyone who honestly reads the scripted dialogue or watches the scenes I’ve highlighted can plainly see they are all close-ended statements, not meant to suggest or entertain debate. There’s hardly any question that a character saying “there’s no God, no afterlife, there’s NOTHING” doesn’t mean “maybe not.”

I suppose I’m angry over all this chiefly because it’s a betrayal of what Doctor Who is supposed to MEAN. Again, heroic stories that entertain as well as educate and inspire, coupled with explorations of current and topical issues.  All Torchwood seems to be about is a bi-sexual Doctor clone, who does terrible things when he’s not making out with his co-stars or prancing around half-naked, partnered with a team of emotionally damaged individuals who sprout foolish sexual innuendo in the face of serious death every episode. Death that flies in the face of Judeo-Christian beliefs for no good reason other than Davies wants it to.

In closing I’m going to be somewhat nasty here and I really don’t care. I’m glad Torchwood is cancelled. Steve calls it’s a “hiatus”, but given that that word was applied to Doctor Who itself and it cost the series well over fifteen years of being away from TV screens, I’m feeling pretty good about the fact that Torchwood is quite unlikely to be resurrected like that poor fellow was. As a slice of the Whoniverse, it was embarrassingly poorly acted, it was dour and dismal and told stories that at best were laced with farce and at worst were capable of turning a person off of the whole thing for many a year.

Torchwood is a cynical and moody alternative to the bright and spirited Doctor Who. For his fifty years of insisting upon the scientific method, the Doctor somehow was able to balance solid stories that entertained and certainly did not insult their own audience (well…let’s just not talk about the entirety of season 24 and leave it at that, shall we?). Whatever Davies was hoping to accomplish with Torchwood, all he succeeded in doing is creating a series that is uncomfortably grim and the complete opposite of the positive messages and hopeful nature of its parent series. Perhaps that was the point, I don’t know. All I do know is that Russell T Davies is to be applauded now and forever for his work on Doctor Who, I honestly disliked the “would you mind not farting” line far more than I ever would any supposed ‘gay agenda’ he allegedly had as producer. If Torchwood represents his ideal Doctor Who unfettered by network censors or the limitations of appealing to a family drama demographic, then good on him for that too.

But at the end of the day, the only thing Torchwood is going to be remembered for is a spinoff series that failed so spectacularly it was first put on life support as a co-production, then populated with actors from the Star Trek franchise in a vain attempt to get some fresh eyes to watch it (and provide the cast with actors who actually know how to act), then finally, to sleep a long sleep. It probably won’t be back. It’s probably dead.

And you know what? According to Davies, dead is dead. So there.


  1. Thanks for voicing my opinion very well. I am not catholic or even religious and certainly having no problem with gays but I was just watching a Torchwood episode where a female doctor says "I used to be catholic but I got better". Why purposely insult someone for their beliefs? Does that mean the writers think it's okay to insult gays for their beliefs" Maybe a line like "I used to be gay but I got better". What's good for the goose so to speak.

    1. Thank you for your response, it's nice to know that others feel as I do regarding this issue. I appreciate you taking the time to read and respond - Shannon