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The Torchwood debate

I cannot recall any tv show that I have watched generating as much polarisation as this week's Torchwood. (Of course, I am slow at these things, and watched the later Buffy and mid-period West Wing only a couple of years after first broadcast.)

To generalise brutally, my impression is that a majority of the fanfic side of fandom was appalled, while the more literary sf side was generally fascinated, with plenty of exceptions on both sides. To summarise reaction from my f-list (a number of these posts are locked, so you'll have to take my word for it):

Like it: calapine here, pickwick here, clanwilliam here, redfiona99 here, major_clanger here, Fiona Moore, I think jinxed_wood here, more or less paratti here, parrot_knight here, ephiriel here, I think sunnytyler001 here, strange_complex here, surliminal here, lonemagpie here, nostalgia_lj here, and lilaeth here.

Don't like it: irishkate here, birdsflying here, mraaltariel here, nowrah here, irishkate (firstly) here, altariel here, ladymoonray here, and sammywol here.

Further brief comment without saying if they liked it or not: miss_s_b here and dougs here.

My own take: Count me on the fascinated side. Yes, it was derivative - particularly of the 1979 Quatermass, and the last scene being I admit more Douglas Adams (without the humour) than Acts 1:9 or E.T.. But, you know, that's genre for you; and Quatermass and the Hitch-Hiker's Guide are firmly established as major moments of British media sf, so it's entirely understandable to try to moor your show in that tradition. Anyway, much great art is derived from other sources; the question is, does it add anything, and did it work dramatically?

My subjective answers are yes and yes. What was different this time was the radical step of actually developing Jack's character. Tom Baker (most eloquently among many) has pointed out that the Doctor can never really change; there is always a reset button at the end of each story (and RTD has nibbled away at the first of those but not really the second). Jack, on the other hand, has now lost his lover, and then become a monster who sacrifices his own family, without their consent, to save the world; and now has to live with the knowledge of that action forever.

It worked dramatically for me largely because of the guest cast. Peter Capaldi as Frobisher in particular, but also Paul Copley as Clem, Nicholas Farrell as the PM (great choice of name, almost-but-not-quite Gordon Brown), Cush Jumbo as Lois, Susan Brown as Bridget, Lucy Cohu as Jack's daughter, Ian Gelder as the sinister Mr Dekker and Katy Wix and Rhodri Lewis as Ianto's sister and brother-in-law. the regulars all seemed to me at the top of their game as well (and I don't share the view that Barrowman and Lloyd can't act; they were certainly doing so on this week's show). The fact that the actors clearly bought into the world that Davies and his team created made it convincing.

Was it manipulative? Well, of course. But I felt that some of the worst characteristic excesses of New Who were dialled down a bit here so that the acting and the script could do the work - thinking particularly of Murray Gold's music, which occasionally has had to do the work of telling us how to feel when the rest of the show wasn't up to it; also Davies has got much better at the pacing of his own scripts. Tony Keen has been cruelly accurate in describing some of RTD's other work as resorting to Total Bollock Overdrive; I thought there was very little of that here.

It's a subsidiary issue, but I did like the political parts of the show as well. There was a fascinating contrast between the largely static scenes of Whitehall (be it Downing Street or Thames House) and the dynamic hustle of Cardiff. Of course in Real Life, the government would not choose Frobisher's children as the public examples, or hand out secret passwords to the new girl on her first day, or surrender quite so abjectly sovereignty to the Americans; but in Real Life they aren't in touch with green aliens who survive on poison gas either. At least we hope not.

I can't see there being any more Torchwood after this. The Hub is destroyed, Gwen presumably back with the police once she returns from maternity leave, and Jack off exploring the universe and dealing with his own demons. To reunite even Jack and Gwen (let alone Ianto) would require a reset button which is surely beyond even the powers of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat combined. But we shouldn't mourn; it was good this week, and I may be in a minority but I enjoyed the first two series as well. Sometimes it's good to go out with a bang.

Edited to add: For more reactions see here.

Comments

( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
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purplecthulhu
Jul. 11th, 2009 07:44 am (UTC)
You can add me to the liked side as well, with some extensive commenting going on here:

http://stevegreen.livejournal.com/319191.html
sunnytyler001
Jul. 11th, 2009 07:54 am (UTC)
I thought it was a brilliant series. But way too dark.
purplecthulhu
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:09 am (UTC)
More data points...

You can add aeshna_uk to the pro fanficers.

Meanwhile, another dichotomy - it seems Civil Servants don't like it (couchspudprotem, lil_shepherd). It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on how this would all work in governmental and intergovernmental circles, as well as on the ground with the military.
nwhyte
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:15 am (UTC)
Oh well, that second point is easy. The government, the internationals and the military are all far too well-informed and operationally efficient for it to be a credible representation of Real Life. (With the odd equally improbable glitch, like Bridget giving her password to Lois, or letting Jack and Ianto walk into Thames House). But, y'know, it's fiction after all.
(no subject) - parrot_knight - Jul. 11th, 2009 11:15 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surliminal - Jul. 11th, 2009 10:13 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sammywol - Jul. 11th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surliminal - Jul. 11th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bohemiancoast - Jul. 18th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - purplecthulhu - Jul. 19th, 2009 08:08 am (UTC) - Expand
ephiriel
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:16 am (UTC)
It really did polarise things - the folk who didn't like really f'ing hated it.
I was almost nervous posting that I liked it 'cause of the reaction but decided it was my LJ so I could.
Mind you for those that hated it - they still went back every night even if it was just to confirm that they are right to hate it - they are still counted in its ratings of 5.9 million.
nwhyte
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:24 am (UTC)
they are still counted in its ratings of 5.9 million.

Whereas you and I are not, due to us not living in the UK!

I am struck by the sharpness of the division among fandom on this, and part of the point of my post was to try and take some of the steam out of it by looking at reactions a bit more scientifically, using the random and representative (!) sample that is my friends list.
birdsflying
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC)
My main problem is, and this is the more I think about it, that what CoE was was a (mostly) well written (although, somewhat overreliant on the lead character is motivated by People In Refridgerators mode of angst generation), fairly well acted (and yes, the guest cast were A+)...dystopian political thriller that the Torchwood characters accidentally wandered into.

Also it is Yet Another Dead Queer character (brave queer stands up for something and dies, at least.) which is a personal bugbear of mine. And was also tawdry in that as much as I like Jack and Ianto together, I think that the death of Ianto was written to be yet another refridgerator, rather than something that was actually meaningful.

The whole thing has an underlying feeling of 'burn it to the ground and salt the ruins, I'm taking my toys and going home' - I can't see what is left for a season 4 that has actual viewers, rather than just tv critics ooohing over how "dark" and "edgy" it is.

I guess, for me, it was a bit like watching a Carebear movie where the final act was Surprise! Apocalypse Now.
altariel
Jul. 11th, 2009 09:17 am (UTC)
a bit like watching a Carebear movie where the final act was Surprise! Apocalypse Now.

Hah! Yes!
(no subject) - redfiona99 - Jul. 11th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - birdsflying - Jul. 11th, 2009 01:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - redfiona99 - Jul. 11th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - irishkate - Jul. 11th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
getawaywithit
Jul. 11th, 2009 08:41 am (UTC)
I liked it, but I'm not convinced that it's the end. AIUI, that final scene was written so it could be an ending for the series, but I can't see the BBC wanting to give up on a series that not only gets big ratings in July but critical acclaim as well.

However, I think that any return will be in the form of specials like this rather than ongoing series, not least for the fact it's hard to see them going back to 'oh no, the Weevil's escaped'-type stories. Using Torchwood as a Quatermass for the 21st Century works well, especially as this series has helped to map out the darker territory that it can explore and its parent can't.

A future series could feature Gwen in charge of rebuilding the organisation as the last operative from its current incarnation left standing, and then that new Torchwood being drawn into some other crisis. That way would make it easier to re-introduce Jack as the much more morally ambiguous character he was on his first appearance, as someone who could be helping or hindering Gwen's new team.
somedaybitch
Jul. 12th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
yes, this.
altariel
Jul. 11th, 2009 09:16 am (UTC)
I wouldn't say I was appalled, more... bored, in the end, really. Seen it all before. I love RTD's work on Doctor Who, which despite its excesses is shot through with a delight that nonetheless doesn't compromise on emotional truth. This missed it by miles, despite some terrific performances.
irishkate
Jul. 11th, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
yes, exactly
surliminal
Jul. 11th, 2009 10:10 am (UTC)
I thought the writing in the political meetings was a quantum leap better than anything we've seen on TW before. wondering which writer was mainly responsible for those.. the palpable sense of horror. Much more effective than monsters. Though again the barely visible poison gas tank was also excellent (tho v Quatermass).
bookzombie
Jul. 11th, 2009 10:41 am (UTC)
I did have the words 'Huffity, Puffity, Ringstone Round' going through my head at a couple of points (I mentioned the similarities to the 70s Quatermass to Pennski, who hasn't seen it)

Overall liked it though.
doyle_sb4
Jul. 11th, 2009 11:39 am (UTC)
On my flist and comms I'm on it seems to be polarised between "best thing on TV ever" and "I HATE THEM FOR WHAT THEY DID TO IANTO".

Since I fall between those two groups - I thought it was good but not great since it had serious problems with plotting, especially the 456's credibility as a threat - I feel all alone in fandom...

I think you've got nostalgia_lj in the wrong group, BTW, her reaction post's very positive.
nwhyte
Jul. 11th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
On your last point - yes, you're quite right!!!! Have edited.
(no subject) - sammywol - Jul. 11th, 2009 04:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
nickbarnes
Jul. 11th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
You could add me to the positive side. I enjoyed it very much, although most of my comments seem to be snarky.
sammywol
Jul. 11th, 2009 04:18 pm (UTC)
I thought the actors did an amazing job! I can't think of a week performance, except possibly Lois. I just did not feel that the plot was all that well thought out behind it. In the end I just felt jerked around, with all this emotional, heart-string tearing stuff happening but nothing solid underneath it. There were holes in the plot at every turn and blatantly manipulative plot devicium too (i.e. Ianto is a character with no human connection. We must sympathize with him therefore ersatz human connections and backstory must be filed in with a shovel; same with Jack's instant family).

Taking several deep breaths about the fanfic versus literary SF comment which I am sure you did not intend for anyone to find either insulting or dismissive.
sammywol
Jul. 11th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC)
'weak performance' even!
(no subject) - nwhyte - Jul. 11th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surliminal - Jul. 11th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - surliminal - Jul. 11th, 2009 10:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sammywol - Jul. 12th, 2009 10:47 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - irishkate - Jul. 17th, 2009 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Jul. 19th, 2009 10:45 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - nwhyte - Jul. 19th, 2009 10:45 am (UTC) - Expand
sashajwolf
Jul. 11th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I liked it a lot (if "like" is the right word for such thoroughly uncomfortable viewing, but I appreciate being made uncomfortable in exactly that way, IYSWIM). I'm mostly on the fanfic side of things, too - I read it rather than writing it, and I've read plenty of literary SF as well, but I came to that via ST:TOS fandom.
ladymoonray
Jul. 11th, 2009 09:12 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid you've got me in the wrong camp. This explains why.
jinxed_wood
Jul. 12th, 2009 01:34 am (UTC)
I think jinxed_wood

That's me, ambiguous to the end :-P

I did like it. I thought it was excellent telly; something I never thought I'd say about Torchwood!
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