Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Torchwood: Children of Earth. A review. Kinda.

A brief return of our occasional feature "Gee watches a Science Fiction television programme and give his opinion on it. Lots of people then email him to tell him he's wrong.".

“We can be a bit more visceral, more violent, and more sexual, if we want to. Though bear in mind that it's very teenage to indulge yourself in blood and gore, and Torchwood is going to be smarter than that.”

So said Russell T. Davies. The above quote is taken from an article in SFX magazine in 2005. Davies, the executive producer and head writer for long running Sci-Fi show Doctor Who, had given an interview to SFX to help promote a new project, one he hoped would cement his reputation as one of the most powerful players in British television.

Earlier that year Doctor Who itself had been given a “reboot”. For those not familiar with the term, a reboot is when an old franchise long since sent to the doldrums is brought back, dusted off, spruced up a bit and sent forth with a modern day attitude. Sometimes this proves to be very successful, such as the absolute fun fest that was this years Star Trek movie. Other times… no… not so much… such as the recent “Bionic Woman” TV series, which lasted all of eight episodes before departing our screens forever with a whimper.

In 1989 after a 27 year run on the BBC it appeared the Doctor Who’s time had come to an end. A combination of low ratings, and the fact that new BBC programme controller Michael Grade didn’t care for the show, led to it being consigned to the trash can. It was a bitter sweet moment for long time fans of the show. The truth is that, despite glimpses here and there, Doctor Who had been struggling for a long time.

By the time the noughties had rolled around however, attitudes towards the good Doctor had changed somewhat. After a string of flops for the BBC in the field of “family entertainment”, including the God awful Spy-Fi show “Bugs”, the station had been left trailing in the ratings to long time rival ITV. The beeb desperate for something, anything, to stop the tide of viewers leaving for the competition started to shop around for new programmes.

They struggled initially however. It appeared that no matter how hard the BBC tried to pull something out of the bag they always came up short. Then in 2003 some bright spark realised that they already had the rights to an established brand name with iconic characters, and thought it might be worth pitching the idea to the higher ups in the BBC. Michael Grade, who by this point had become Chairman of the Beeb, decided to roll the dice against his better judgement and a new series of Doctor Who was given a green light. It was a brand new lease of life for the Time Lord.

But who would run the show? Well step forward had take a bow Mr. Russell T. Davies. Davies was born in Swansea in 1963 (Gee Note: Fun fact time. My cousin went to school with him. Which should mean that he’d definitely return my calls right? Well it turns out that, no, no it doesn’t. That Russell T. Davies. Just because he’s become all famous now. He thinks he so smartie) and studied English Literature in Oxford. After graduating he started to carve out a career in television, doing bits and bobs here and there. He wrote the odd children’s television programme, penning three episodes of Chucklevision and several more for hospital drama Children’s Ward. And in doing so he slowly worked his way up the television tree.

He moved in to adult drama - joining the writing teams for the soap opera Coronation Street and later the crime drama Touching Evil. And then in 1999 Russell hit the jackpot. Commissioned by Channel 4, at the time renowned for it’s contemporary and challenging content, Davies created and wrote a series called “Queer as Folk”. Dealing with the trials and tribulations of three gay men living in Manchester, it courted controversy with graphic portrayals of intercourse, as well as a storyline where a 15 year old minor has a sexual relationship with an older man. Amidst a storm of negative press reports and outcries from conservative members of the public, the show lost it’s main sponsor after only a couple of programmes.

It didn’t matter though . The programme did gangbuster numbers in the ratings, despite a late night time slot and all the poor media attention. Davies became a national celebrity in the process, and was labelled by pretty much everybody as the next big thing for British television. In America, thanks to folks like J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, and Aaron Sorkin, quality writer’s had become one of television's prized possessions. And finally the UK had one of it’s own. Russell T. Davies.

And so when trying to find the right person to helm this new Doctor Who, Davies was the obvious choice. Talented. Personable. Media friendly. Best of all, Russell T. was a self confessed Who fanboy. The BBC offered the position of lead writer for Doctor Who, as well as the sweetener of executive producer, to our Russ and he gladly accepted. It was a perfect match.

Since that very moment Doctor Who has gone from strength to strength. It has become the centrepiece of the BBC Saturday evening schedule. Some would argue it has become the centrepiece for the entire station itself. It regularly draws in high ratings, has won numerous awards, and made superstars out of actors like David Tennant and Billie Piper.

A lot of credit should go to Davies for this. He stripped away a lot of what made the previous Doctor Who such a mess, simplified the story of a lone alien looking for his place in the universe, and placed a greater focus on the human characters of the series, adding elements of soap opera style plot points such as family arguments and romance. It meant that for the first time in a long time Doctor Who was truly accessible. It was like a three ring circus. If you don’t like the elephants, you’ll like the clowns. If you don’t like the clowns, you’ll like the acrobats. Doctor Who literally had something for everyone.

There is however one criticism that can be laid squarely at Russell T. Davies’ door. And that is, ironically, for a man who obviously loves the genre he just doesn’t write Sci-Fi very well. No really, every Davies episode so far has had glaring issues, most notably the season finales. It appears that despite being able to write one hell of first chapter, Davies loses steam towards the end and inevitably it all falls apart. In the four series we’ve had so far, all four finales have been a let down. Even Davies’ mid season stand alone episodes have been more often than not marred by lame jokes, non sensical support characters, and plot holes the size of Madagascar. The harsh truth is a lot of the new Doctor’s finer moments has been the work of other writers, most notably Stephen Moffett and Paul Cornell.

Still at least Russell’s work has never come anywhere near as bad as the majority of Torchwood episodes.

Thanks to rip roaring success of Doctor Who, the BBC offered Davies the chance to create a post watershed Sci-Fi show. And so Davies came up with Torchwood, a spin off of Doctor Who starring the popular Who character Captain Jack Harkness. Harkness heads up a team of consisting of former police officer Gwen Harper, and all around dogsbody Ianto Jones. The team protect the world from extra terrestrial threats that all somehow end up landing in or around Cardiff.

Now go back to the top of this blog and read that quote again. It’s not hard to envisage Torchwood as some kind of “grownup Doctor Who”. A programme with all the good bits of Who but without the silliness put in there just for the kids. Except that’s not really the case. I might get in to trouble with Naveed over this but the truth is Torchwood is unbelievably daft.

For a start all the main characters are, apparently, bi-sexual. No really, they all end up bedding each other at some point. If that’s not bad enough then the aliens themselves aren’t much better. In only the second episode the crew’s major threat was an extra terrestrial gas that, um, well infected this poor lass, forcing her to boink people to death. It’s all very juvenile.

Still it’s not RTD’s fault, as the majority of the two season’s of Torchwood have so far been written by Chris Chibnall, a man to whom the word “subtlety” is seemingly a outdated concept in today’s 24/7 world.

However Torchwood has done fairly well in the ratings - leading to it’s promotion from cable channel BBC 3 all the way to the terrestrial channel BBC 1 for it’s third series. Probably thinking that little green men running around gang banging everything in sight wasn’t quite suitable for their main channel, the beeb has tweaked the format a wee bit. Rather than a 20 episode “monster of the week” season we now get a five episode mini-series to played over the course of one week. Most importantly, Chibnall has been replaced by the man who started it all - Russell T. Davies.

This is one of Russell’s final swan songs as Doctor Who head honcho - as at the end of this year he hands the reigns over to Stephen Moffett. So it’s fascinating to see what, if anything, he can do with Torchwood.

The first episode of the new series entitled “Children of The Earth” aired last night.

It rocked.

I mean really really rocked.

I want to say more, but I realise some of the readers of this blog are overseas and as such it hasn’t aired there yet. And so rather than do a full blown review and spoil everything I’ve decided to post the notes I made while watching the show last night.

Hope they make some sort of sense.

2 minutes to go - You know the trailer for this is actually quite good. But it is Torchwood. And RTD. Hopes not high.

1m34s - Well it's 1965 apparently. And we know this because everyone is wearing a woolly hat. Something to do with a bus full of kids walking towards a white light. Why? God knows. But some very dramatic violin music makes me think they're not going to someone's birthday party. Unless of course it's Michael Jackson’s birthday party. Which would explain the nervous look on kid's face actually.

2m33s - Why is everyone orange? I mean I know this is the first proper Torchwood in HD but come on man. This is Wales. No one gets a tan like that unless they happen to live next door to a nuclear reactor.

4m34s - Somehow, after a brief interaction with a guy who looks a bit like Mario, Gwen's suddenly quite likeable. Either that or this Buck's Fizz is a lot stronger than I thought.

6m48s - Nice interplay between Jack, Ianto, and a new hospital doctor guy who I think might be the next Torchwood recruit. Jack and Ianto somehow manage to be hysterical by trying to convince the doctor they are the concerned neighbours of a patient without really doing anything funny. That's pretty damn good acting. Whisper it quietly but this has been quite delightful so far.

10m34s - Hmmm. Torchwood has gone the way of Lost by asking a series of intriguing questions at the outset. Why are all these Chinese men dying for no reason? Why are children around the world coming to a full stop? Where have I seen the guy playing the Home office minister before?

14m59s - So the doctor is a new Torchwood recruit - good - there's something about him I like.

17m44s - Children have stopped again. Oooooh now there's a pretty beefy brass section playing in the background. Can't be good.

18m49s - That reminds me. I need to check the batteries on the fire alarm.

19m19s - Wow. A really freaky of chant of "We are coming" broken up in to "We... We... We... We are... We are... We are... We are coming... We are coming" which produces some major goose bumps. And then, completely ruined by a bloody stupid reaction shot from Gwen. "OH MY GOD". Dammit. For a brief moment there you had it.

26m36s - Seriously what the hell's happened to this programme? I've just had my heart strings pulled by two government officials I've never seen before. One asks the other "Do you have children?" and the other replies "Too busy working. (Pause) Turns out to be a God send". In that one exchange those two characters become fully three dimensional. Brilliant writing. Brilliantly executed.

32m05s - Gwen continues to be likeable. A lot of talk so far about Jack and Ianto being a couple which is probably going somewhere. Oh and the British Government are eeeeevil. This is whipping by.

42m57s - Paul Copley, an actor who turns up in so many programmes playing character parts that he's one of those guys people go "Oh it's him!" and never know his name has made an appearance as a mental patient. And he's fantastic. In a nice sit down with Gwen he manages to be sweet and lovely while also making you think he's crazy enough to snap her neck at any moment. Great stuff.

49m33s - Turns out the doctor isn't a new Torchwood recruit. Good. I, er, never liked him anyway.

53m52s - Gwen's happy. Everyone else is freaking out.

57m47s - And there we go. No sex for the sake of it. No swearing for the sake of it. No unnecessary gore. Completely enjoyable. I'm confused. Is this Torchwood?

I cannot wait to see where this goes. Of course it will more than likely lead to disappointment. It is Russell T. Davies after all.

But you have to admit, he CAN write one hell of a first chapter.

I’ll hopefully be back at the end of the week with some thoughts on the series as a whole. I’ll see you then.

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