Children of Earth: the final verdict, part 1: why Torchwood sucks

I finished watching Children of Earth, and I want to write about how good it is.  But before I can do that properly, I need to write about how gut-wrenchingly horrible the first two series of Torchwood were.

On one hand, a juvenile program about a bunch of overgrown children who run around chasing ghosts and obsessing about trivia; on the other hand, Scooby Doo. Thank you, thank you, we're here all week, don't forget to tip your waitress!

Torchwood, as everyone knows, is a spin-off from Doctor Who, which is arguably the single best thing on British television, and almost certainly the most passionately loved by its fans.  Back in the Olden Days, Doctor Who was unabashedly a kids’ show, hence otherwise indefensible elements such as the tin dog.  With the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who, returning after a sixteen-year absence from TV, a conscious decision was made to suit it for both kids and adults, mostly to very good effect.  There are places, sure, where adults would be inclined to think that proceedings had got a bit silly in order to appeal to kids (the farting Slitheen spring to mind); and other places where most kids would have trouble following all the ins and outs (Blink being a fine example).  But on the whole, every episode has plenty for both groups to like, and it’s one of Who‘s greatest achievements that it really can appeal to anyone from age five upwards.  It may be the only real “family viewing” in existence.

New Who was so very popular that the BBC quickly began exploring the possibility of spin-offs.  One of them, The Sarah Jane Adventures, was extremely successful, and differentiated itself from the parent series by aiming squarely at the younger audience that Old Who had primarily appealed to.  Liz Sladen did a fine job as a heroine both motherly and adventurous, thoughtful and brave, and her death earlier this year was much lamented.  (I am looking forward to seeing the last six episodes, filmed before Sladen’s death, when they air in October.)

But there is a problem with other spin-offs.  How to distinguish them from the original?  Rose Tyler was a very popular companion, and a spin-off was mooted that would cover her adventures on Parallel Earth — Rose Tyler: Earth Defence.  But that never got off the ground, and although it’s not really been explained why not, my feeling is that such a series would just have felt like Doctor Who without the Doctor.  And since the Doctor is the source of about 87.3% of the awesomeness of Who, that would be a losing proposition from the start.  (Also, the whole point of Rose was her ambiguous, alien relationship with the Doctor.)

So what could be done to make other spin-offs work as distinct programs?

The Torchwood solution was to go the opposite way from The Sarah Jane Adventures: instead of aiming for the kids among Who‘s fans, it would aim at the adults.  It would be an adult program dealing with more serious and darker themes, in a deeper and more mature way than the parent program could do.

That is a description of a truly awesome TV program.

Unfortunately, Torchwood isn’t it.

It turned out that Russell T. Davies‘ idea of “adult” meant that the characters would say bad words; his idea of “more serious themes” meant that there would be a lot of snogging and shagging; and his idea of “mature” was that Every. Single. Character would be sexually incontinent, constitutionally incapable of honesty or faithfulness or the slightest emotional maturity, and — oh, yes — bisexual.  Apparently, the Torchwood Institute has a bye on the regulations regarding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation: they only hire bi people.

I don’t know whether you picked this up, but what I just wrote included the observation that the notion of “maturity” as expressed in Torchwood actively excludes any actual emotional maturity — the ability to deal with problems rationally, for example, or to handle conflicts without throwing a tantrum, or to reconcile opposing points of view without melting down.  In Torchwoodland, these abilities are not “mature”.  They can’t be, since they don’t involve Swearing, Snogging and Shagging, the Three S’s that every Torchwood episode has to include.  Throw in Selfishness, or rather Self-obsession, and you have Four S’s.

So this was Torchwood, through series 1 and 2 — a program that was as mature as a thirteen- or maybe fourteen-year-old boy, a program that left me truly worried that anyone could attain an adult age while still being quite so shallow and, well, childish.

I am not using the word “childish” here merely as an insult, but a dispassionate description.  In every important respect, the Torchwood characters behave like children:

  • When they see something they want, they take it without thinking about the consequences; when they think of something they want to do, they do it without thinking about the consequences.
  • When things don’t go their way, they get angry rather than finding ways to cope with the disappointment or work towards a solution.
  • When people disagree, they shout at each other rather than making any effort at rationally picking apart the point of disagreement.
  • When a mysterious artifact is found, someone always plays with it, not bothering to figure out what it is or what it does or what the consequences might be.

I am the father of three sons (ages 13, 11 and 8), and these are exactly the behaviour patterns that Fiona and I have spent the last decade helping them to outgrow.  They are, for that matter, the behaviour patterns that nursery-school teachers work to help four- and five-year-olds to outgrow.  I can only assume that the nursery schools in Fictional Cardiff twenty years ago were really, really bad.

What makes Torchwood even worse is that the characters, as well as behaving like children, live in a child’s world where they are insulated from all the consequences of their bad choices.  However abjectly they fail to act like even adequately competent or decent human beings, let along the front line in our battle against the Alien Menace, nothing bad happens to them.  Again and again in Torchwood, people get shot.  Shot with, you know, guns, which kill people.  And again and again, they shrug it off — often sprinting merrily around a matter of moments after being shot.  It’s paintball with special effects.  When someone finally does have the decency to be fatally shot in the middle of Series 2, it takes that person seven episodes to finally, decently, die.

Russia's greatest love machine. It was a shame how he carried on.

All of this is exemplified particularly well in the last episode of Series 1, the absolutely abject End Of Days.  This is the episode, you will recall, in which most of the characters decide it would be a good idea to open the rift that will tear the universe apart, because it might — for example — let Owen see a woman again who he once fancied.  Needless to say, everyone shouts at everyone else; after a while, to my cry of “Yes, finally!”, Ianto shoots Owen.  But, sure enough, something as trifling as being shot is not going to slow Owen down and he opens the rift anyway.  Of course he does.  Owen is always getting shot and walking away.  You know how some people, whenever they’re at a party, will do a favourite bit of coin magic?  Owen is like that, but his trick is to get shot with no ill effects.  So of course the rift opens, and out comes — I swear this is true — a Giant Monster, straight out of a 1970s Japanese Monster Movie, only with less convincing special effects.  And it has a superpower, which is that everyone who sees it dies.  Except that Captain Jack doesn’t, because he rolled 18 for Constitution, and can’t be permanently killed — a Special Power that comes in handy surprisingly often.  (You know what Chekhov said: if there’s an Invulnerability Superpower hanging on the wall in Act 1, then Captain Jack has to be killed over and over again in Act 3.)  So, needless to say, this causes Godzilla The Giant Monster to vanish in a puff of logic and all is well.  I seem to recall that Owen has mild chest pains for a couple of days.

Ugh.  You know, it hurt me to type that synopsis of End of Days.  It gave me a brain-hurt.  I had hoped never to think of that episode again.

And by the way: Captain Jack is the Worst. Hero. Ever.  Of all the Doctor Who characters to build a spin-off on, they picked the one who is literally incapable of any dramatic tension, due to that little can’t-be-killed thing.  And John Barrowman can’t act, he just can’t do it.  He always looks like he’s in pantomime.  I keep expecting him to shout “Oh no it isn’t!” or “He’s behind you!”  The greater the emotion of the moment, the more obviously he’s not up to conveying it — he hams, he gurns, he bulges his eyeballs, but the one thing he doesn’t do is act.  I will admit that he is pretty; a lot like Matt LeBlanc, in fact.  Like LeBlanc, he doesn’t act; in part because, like Joey, his character is fundamentally shallow.

In fact, spinning Torchwood off from Doctor Who and building it around Barrowman’s Captain Jack is about as dumb as spinning off a sitcom from Friends and building it around LeBlanc’s Joey Tribbiani.

Har.  See what I did there?

Well, anyway.  These are some of the reasons that watching the first two series of Torchwood was a punishment.  While the characters in, say, Buffy are fundamentally likeable, I would cross the street to avoid having to meet any of the Torchwood principals.

Tune in text time to find out why, despite all this, Children of Earth rocked!

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7 responses to “Children of Earth: the final verdict, part 1: why Torchwood sucks

  1. ”Back in the Olden Days, Doctor Who was unabashedly a kids’ show, hence otherwise indefensible elements such as the tin dog.”

    It’s true that, even when I was a kid, I felt patronised by the tin dog.

    On the other hand, I think you may be underestimating how much of a family show it was originally. The very first line-up replicated the age structure of a family (two parents, grandparent, child) even if only two of them were actually related. I suspect TV shows had to do something like that in those by-gone days. With so few channels they had to offer something to each age band, there had to be a general consensus in the living room for a show to be watched

    As you say, the new show has maintained the ‘family spectrum’ thing really well in an era when this is much more unusual. However, the fact that this has bifurcated with the two spin-offs, that there’s now “one for the kids and one for the grown-ups”, and that the one for grown-ups is so pitifully un-grown-up… to me, that says better things about their era than ours.

    (At least that’s what I felt after the first series of ’Torchwood.’ For my thoughts on it more recently, click here.)

  2. Spaceman Spiff

    Have you watched any of the new Torchwood “Miracle Day” series? Other than some gratuitous sex scenes, I’ve been enjoying it. I agree that the “Children of Earth” series was excellent, and the first few series were pretty bad. Still, gotta like the Cap’n Jack… :-)

  3. I’ve not seen any of Miracle Day yet; but I have read a few good things about it, and that together with my very positive impression of Children of Earth means that I will be giving it a fair try at some point. Not right now, though: before I do that, I need to (A) finish writing about CoE and (B) re-watch and review A Good Man Goes to War (finally!).

  4. Bertie Wooster

    Hello again! I couldn’t help but notice that amazing pic from the Series 2 finale… Might I ask what you thought of David Tennant’s performance in “Doomsday” ?

  5. In hindsight, I think that Doomsday was the emotional climax of Tennant’s run as the Doctor, and that both subsequent seasons — despite some superb individual episodes — were basically an extended coda. Davies never found a way to build a bond that mattered between the Doctor and Martha, or Donna, the way he had with Rose. And Tennant’s performance in Doomsday is just about perfect (despite flaws elsewhere in the episode). So, yeah, his high-point for me.

  6. Pingback: Children of Earth: the final verdict, part 2: how Torchwood stopped sucking | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  7. Pingback: Doctor Who, series 7 — all five episodes reviewed | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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