Monday, 13 July 2009

Things we noticed watching TV this week: Torchwood Special (Spoilers)

There was only really one show to watch this past week, but in between Celebrity Masterchef I manage to catch a glimpse of Torchwood: Children of Earth.

The dust has settled, opinions have been shared, and a disgrace has taken place - which I will come back to later. But as for the actual series itself, my goodness, what a great bit of British television that was! All the controversy beforehand had been about Torchwood being 'relegated' to just five episodes, stripped across one week. But because of the long wait, because of the build up, because of the switch to BBC1, in the end, it felt like a big TV event and not just another series of a popular, but not mainstream show. With viewing figures hovering around the 6 million mark all week, and even rising at one point, there can be no doubt it was a resounding success. Five hours of TV is a lot to cover in one blog post so I will just pick out a few moments of what worked, and what, in my opinion, didn't.

A stand out moment of Episode One was undoubtedly the reveal that potential new Torchwood member, Dr. Rupesh Patanjali, was actually a mole, and his betrayal led to a bomb being planted in Captain Jack's stomach. I didn't see either coming and to blow up Jack and the Hub in the first episode is setting the drama metre pretty high right from the off. We knew of course that Jack would survive, proving I think beyond any further speculation that he really, really cannot die. But what lifts Sci-Fi from the jibes it usually gets from its critics are not the crash, bang, wallop scenes. It's the quiet, character driven moments that let you know that although this is a world of aliens etc, it is also populated by real people with real emotions. Three scenes, with Jack and his daughter and grandson, Ianto with his sister and family, and Gwen and Clement, were beautifully written and made sure that the show had a sense of soul, and not just spectacle.

Episode Two was a quieter affair, necessarily so as we saw the Torchwood team reeling from the previous days events. Jack is now incarcerated and Ianto and Gwen are on the run. Admittedly, because the audience are privy to what's going on inside Thames House, and indeed what happened in 1965, we are desperate for the characters to catch up. So whilst this was still an enjoyable continuation of the story, it felt like a set up of far more drama to come. And maybe I missed something, but how did Ianto know what cell to crash into with his fork-lift truck to spirit an encased Jack away to safety?

Episode Three picked things up and started providing some answers. The aliens land and they want kids, lots of kids. I couldn't help be reminded of Independence Day with the fire bolt from the sky and the 456 even looked a bit like the other lot. Threats to destroy the world too - but that probably goes hand in hand with alien territory. But this lot are actually here to negotiate, of sorts. And so there were long scenes of Peter Capaldi talking to them, in their glass crate, trying to figure this thing out so everyone can go home happy. Sounds a bit dull, right? Wrong. I've argued for a long time that people just talking in a room, traditionally thought of as big no no in screenwriting, can be extremely dramatic and bloody tense! Just look at Twelve Angry Men, or more recently God On Trial and Endgame. And it was a similar story here. I couldn't take my eyes off it. And then came the sucker punch. It was clear Jack knew about 1965, but I for one did not expect him to have been involved with handing over twelve children to the aliens (in exchange for an anti-virus needed on Earth). It was a great character moment because suddenly, certainties that Gwen and Ianto depended on were whipped out from under them. It propelled us nicely into the penultimate day.

Everything until now has been a pre-amble for the last two episodes. Day Four kicks things up a gear with the decision of Jack and Torchwood to fight back this time, and that 10% of the world's children is too high a price to pay. Again, the most dramatic scenes take place with people talking around the table - this time the cabinet deciding how to choose the children. The tension was palpable and it worked because it was a genuine impossible dilemma. Drama works best in shades of grey. Unless the genre calls for it, characters are more effective if they are not painted with broad strokes. Nuance and subtly is the key. Torchwood was at its best when the characters faced impossible choices. Otherwise good men and women, who genuinely have the country's best interests at heart (even if we disagree with them) have to decide things no one should have to. Yes this was Sci-Fi so it involved aliens. Yes this was TV so it wasn't real. But the concepts undoubtedly have happened before and will happen again. Where it didn't work so well was when it lapsed into cliche. Would it have been more dramatic and gut wrenching if the PM had been a good man, and not a self serving back stabber? Can we finally move on from the Americans = Bad, characterisation shorthand? (Seriously give it up. Bush is gone, they voted for Obama, lets move on.)

In the episode climax, Jack and Ianto bribe their way into Thames House, it all goes pear shaped, and Ianto dies. I. Was. Shocked. Torchwood ended the last series by killing off two main characters, and now boom, another was gone... and it wasn't even the finale. I've criticized some shows for wanting us to buy into life and death scenarios, and then continually bottling it with everyone being alright in the end. This can certainly not be levelled at Torchwood. And it was Jack's fault too! They charged into Thames House with the worse plan ever. They would tell the 456 there was no deal and... that was it. This has taken some stick for being a plot failing, but I actually think it was deliberate. Jack has never been like the more cerebral Doctor. He flies by the seat of his pants and gets by on being flash, brash and ballsy. In other words everything he used to get into Thames House - and then for it to go terribly wrong. It was perfect. Now we were really in trouble. Our usual tactics weren't going to work this time. Ianto is dead. Everyone is devastated. And we have no plan.

And so to the excruciating final episode. Having discovered the previous day that the aliens do not harm the children, but rather feed off them to produce a drug like euphoria, this episode contained the strongest anti-drug message since Zammo just said no! But in yet another heart wrenching and beautifully written (and shot) scene, Peter Capaldi is ordered to hand over his children to show the government isn't playing favourites, but knowing their fate, decides to kill his family before turning the gun on himself. This is prime time BBC1! It's a massive show of support for Russell T and his team and a genuine show of risk taking. But just when I thought the series couldn't get any more heart wrenching comes the devastating realisation that the only way for Jack to save the world (who after failing with his usual methods, is now thinking things through Doctor like) is by sacrificing his own grandson. It was an agonising scene to watch but emotionally powerful throughout. I must admit, and maybe this is just me, but I didn't entirely get how it all worked. It was something to do with frequencies but I'm not actually sure how, or if, the alien race was vanquished? Lying in bed last night (I watched Eps 4 & 5 yesterday) other questions popped into my brain. They're actually pretty much the same ones on Dan's blog so I won't repeat them here. But it's clear that not everything worked or was tied up at the end.

However overall it was a fantastic series, a fantastic experiment almost, and because of the figures it got one likely to be repeated. I for one would definitely tune in. Another aspect that I really love about it is that The Doctor Who universe is so well formed, that the audience already has certain expectations. This can lead to awkward moments like the early explanation that Martha Jones is on her honeymoon (er, she probably woulda cut it short in the face of the apocalypse) to the cool video message Gwen leaves in Episode 5. Although I knew full well that David Tennant would not be appearing, after the cataclysmic events of Day 4, and the seeming no way out situation, I found myself genuinely wondering whether The Doctor would appear. Maybe they had kept that one brilliant secret from us? Of course I knew he wouldn't, but if not him then who? I wonder if this came up in the writing room because low and behold, there was Gwen, pre-empting the audience and wondering exactly the same thing. How clever is that? How brilliant and how well do you know your story world to do something like that.

And then things all got a bit distasteful. Apparently a few people didn't agree with some of the plot decisions of Torchwood: Children of Earth. Shock horror. Apparently an even fewer number of people took this to mean they could abuse writer James Moran on his blog, twitter, email etc. I believe in free speech. What writer doesn't? I've spoken about that before on this blog and only a couple of weeks ago discussed the decorum I try to use when commenting on current TV shows. But I also believe free speech is not a concept to hide behind when all you actually want to do is abuse.

My profile has risen over the last few months. First because of the award and then because this blog was linked to the BBC Writersroom website. People new to screenwriting have emailed me asking for advice, and where I've been able to, I have gladly given it. One such piece of advice is to read blogs by other writers. Screenwriting books are of varied use and quality - and expensive in these tough times. But blogs are free and you get real time, up to date info, tips and advice. One of those blogs would had to have been James'. He is surely the busiest, working blogger in this country. But now, unfortunately, he has decided to take a step back.

And I don't blame him. James is a bigger man than me cos if it had been me, I would've deleted every single one of the comments that I deemed to be aggressive, insulting, abusive and not interested in any form of constructive criticism or debate. So thank you - those of you who were responsible for this - for removing (in its current form) a valuable resource for up and coming British screenwriters. I would say please stop by here instead. But I'd rather you didn't.


Shane Knight said...

It's a sad day. It almost makes me want to stick with my 'Everyday' job and give up on my dream.

Now, I've not read whats been said and I've skipped most of what Jez has written has I'm a Torchwood virgin and once I've completed all 7 seasons of 'The Shield' I'm moving over to TW from Episode one.

I can only imagine what been said and I don't like it one little bit. People really do mistake kindness for weakness and a few bad eggs have ruined it for everyone.

Here was a guy who was frank, open and funny and made you feel apart of something and now he's shutting himself off from us all. I only hope he doesn't lock himself in his vacuumed sealed screening room peeing into milk bottles.

Jez Freedman said...

I think we can all second that

Lisa said...

Torchwood was a revelation - truly gripping, terrifying viewing. It rolled the gamut of emotions and just wrung me dry. Brilliant, awesome and a real event.

As for the other stuff - horrible, nasty, mindless. I know people heavily invest emotionally in some programmes but, please!! James Moran is one of the good guys - someone that will (did) take the time to help those who were on the first rungs. It makes me sad but I totally understand his decision and respect him for it.

The Torchwood production team took bold steps. We should all be so brave. Life isn't cosy. Life isn't twee. Life can be brutal, short and shitty. For some. ...

I raise my hat to those involved and I hope that when the dust settles James will gradually find it in his heart to come back to those that appreciate his talents.


davidmelkevik said...

I thought Children of Earth was great TV. The last episode was one of the most wonderfully, dark pieces of entertainment ever to grace the box - "The hit", genius.

Therefore what has happened since is pretty sickening.

James' blog has always been an inspiration and an education. Not only is the bloke kind enough to discuss writing for Spooks, Dr Who, etc. but he then happily goes and spills the beans on how we can achieve the same level of success.

Now because James has been forced to "step back", we've been deprived of a fantastic source of knowledge but more importantly he no longer feels free to express himself simply because he created a terrific piece of telly.