...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, July 20, 2009

Day 3123: Mr Oboe versus the Deckchairs on the Titanic


Daddy Alex has already updated you on today's FLYING PIG headlines, though he DIDN'T mention the The Today Programme's interview with the man who should sort out all the confusion because he's in charge of Planning for Pandemics, or "Lord of the Pandemonium" to give him his full title. Erm…

Anyway, I'm going to tell you about the OTHER annoying BUG that's doing the rounds: Mr Balloon's apprentice chocolate button counter, Master Oboe.

Today he claims that he has a PLAN for SOUND BANKING… hmmm, Master Gideon is something that SOUNDS like BANKING? Whatever do you think THAT means?

Well, you would be RIGHT! It's a SILLY plan, which involves altering some brass nameplates and nothing of any substance.

The centrepiece is to tighten banking regulation by abolishing the banking regulator. No, bear with me… Master Gideon intends to get rid of the FSA (Financial Services Authority) and replace it with the BoE (Old Boy Network). This is the system that we had before Mr Frown was Chancellor, which successfully prevented the collapse of banks like BCCI and Barings… oh, hang on a minute…

At the moment, we have a tri-partite system of regulation: meaning everyone tries but no one does their part. With responsibility DIVIDED between the Bank of England and the FSA and the Office of Fair Trading, it's too easy for the actual DOING of regulation to fall into the gaps as no one takes responsibility.

What Mr Oboe wants to do is get rid of the FSA, take some powers away from the OFT, give some other powers to the Bank and bung the rest into a new body called the CPA. This will sweep aside the old, failed tripartite system and replace it with a new, modern, er, tripartite system… no, hang on again…

(Incidentally, that's CPA for "CONSUMER protection agency", not "CHILD protection agency", though the track record of Government Quangos with those initials is, let's say, UNCERTAIN.)

There IS a good case for saying there should be CLEAR lines of responsibility. Make the Bank of England ultimately RESPONSIBLE for the banking sector and then everyone knows where the buck stops. Assuming you CAN stop the buck before it disappears down the plug hole.

But if you want the Bank actually to ENFORCE the regulation, then they're going to need a whole load of new employees trained in inspection and investigation and where are they going to get them? Oh, look: here's a whole bunch or people recently made redundant from the only other inspector of banking in town… good golly gosh, all the same people would end up doing all the same jobs, only with a load of confusion and an expensive redundancy payment in the middle.

We listened to Mr Oboe trying to sell his pig in a poke scheme on the Andy Marrmite show… or at least we did until Daddy Alex turned it off to stop Daddy Richard's head EXPLODING!

(This was to do with Mr Oboe slightly exceeding Daddy's parameters for accepting the phrase "telling the truth", viz:

"…first of all, myself, David Cameron have come on this programme and warned consistently for months that there is a debt crisis…"

"Um, surely that was Mr Vince," interjected Daddy.

"…First of all, we have been the people who have highlighted this. We're also the people who've said the cupboard is bare…"

"No, that was Mr Vince, again," says Daddy.

"…that the country does not have limitless funds in the future. We opposed the temporary VAT cut…"

"No, no, that was definitely all Mr Vince!" repeats Daddy, going slightly purple.

"I think it's important because it is has established our credentials as people who are telling the public the truth"

"Grk! Urk! Strangulated-Growl!" says Daddy.)

Before we got to that, though, Mr Oboe had already ALARMED us with his somewhat casual attitude to what banking regulation is actually FOR.

"First of all…"

(Yes, he really DOES say "first of all" that many times. UNCHARITABLY I wonder if he can count to SECOND at all?)

"First of all, if this retail bank - a bank that's got branches in a high street taking your deposits or anyone else's - is engaging in very risky activities, very risky investment banking activities like large-scale proprietary trading or internal hedge funds, then it will have to set aside very large amounts of money as an insurance policy to protect the taxpayer."

Now, what worries me about this is how do you define "very risky activities"? And for that matter, why do you NEED to define "very" risky – shouldn't the banks be insuring their depositors against ORDINARY risks of banking?

It seems to me that the ORDINARY business of banking is to take deposits from investors and return them a rate of interest, then use that money to advance loans to other people and charge them a SLIGHTLY HIGHER rate of interest. The risks involved in this are that some of the loans go BAD because people can't always repay what they owe, if the business doesn't work out.

What is NOT the ordinary business of banks is gambling the deposits on the stock market or the 4.15 at Kempton Park or putting the lot on 26 Black.

People who WANT to put their money on 26 Black go to a CASINO. People who want to back a nag in the 4.15 go to a BOOKMAKER. And people who want to gamble on the Stock Market should go to a broker to do it and then they know what they are putting their money into and can accept the risks.

People going to a BANK want somewhere safe to put their money, with some reasonable interest on their savings.

What they DON'T want to do is discover (usually after the fact) that their high street bank went on a drunken bender down in the City of London and backed a whole super-casino's worth of options and securities and derivatives.

For many, many years following the INFAMOUS Wall Street Crash, America made their banks do EITHER stock market banking OR high street banking, but not BOTH. Then they stopped making the banks make that choice and then there was another massive banking crash.

I believe that this is called TESTING a theory to DESTRUCTION.

Mr Oboe appears to call it Business as Usual.

He spells it out for his chums in the City in the foreword to his plan:

"We must not allow ill-conceived or badly designed new regulations, either from home or abroad, to undermine the prospects of an internationally successful financial services industry based in London"


"We will defend the vital interests of Britain’s financial services sector in Europe."

This is not a difficult code to break: the Conservatories will not allow "ill-conceived new regulations" by opposing ALL new regulations; they will "defend vital interests" by preventing Europe from requiring banks to protect their CUSTOMERS' interests.

Finally, Mr Oboe is going to ask for a report from (i.e. pass the buck to) the Office of Fair Trading about the "effects of consolidation in the banking sector".

What he means is he's going to have to ASK someone to tell him if it's a BAD thing that we now have fewer, larger, riskier banks.

Is it very wrong of me to expect someone applying to be CHANCELLOR to understand that in a free market LESS competition IS automatically BAD?


Saturday, July 11, 2009



Crumbs! THAT was a bit of a DOWNER wasn’t it!

To avoid snuffles, I’ll just concentrate on the POSITIVE for a moment: stripping the drama across the week has returned Auntie Beeb ratings of around six MILLION viewers and actually picking up over the week – along with a high appreciation index too.

So, that’s the BBC’s top serious drama of the year so far and the leads were a gay couple and a pregnant woman. Welcome to Russell-world!

Plus… The War Games! Skip to the end, and Our Hero is stripped of his companions and goes into exile!

Sorry, I said I wasn’t doing that any more. Here’s Daddy’s final review; as always, spoiler-phobics (for Quatermass as well as Torchwood!) should wait ‘till AFTER they’ve seen the episode:
Did I mention Quatermass at all?

Our Hero uses what he’s learned about the aliens to drive them away by “stinging” them, but his grandchild dies. To really stretch the point, the series ends with Our Hero disappearing in a blaze of light.

The climax of Children of Earth isn’t quite as much of a downer as the atom-bomb-in-the-face ending of the Quatermass Conclusion, but it comes close. That’s fitting. There was no way that they could pull some happy everybody lives deus-ex-machina out of their bottoms without betraying the earlier episodes.

Now, that’s not to say that Torchwood hasn’t been know to do exactly that, so in many ways the triumph of Children of Earth is that it lived up to what Torchwood ought to have been from, er, Day One.

I’ve said before that recognising that actions have consequences has been the mark of the new series of “Doctor Who” under Russell Davies, and the marked lack of consequences has, time and again, been where Torchwood under Chris Chibnall fell short of the supposedly kiddie-oriented show.

Captain Jack does the one thing that the Prime Minister and the COBRA committee wouldn’t: he surrenders his own child.

This is blatantly contrasted with Mr Frobisher’s approach: he shoots his family and himself. Loyal Bridget Spears (a performance of quiet dignity from Susan Brown) insists to Lois that Frobisher was a good man. But he wasn’t. He doesn’t tell the truth to the media, he doesn’t try to save anybody else; he doesn’t even give his family a choice. His suicide, as is so often the case, is totally selfish.

What Jack does is still wrong, but he chooses the lesser of two evils, and he – unlike Prime Minister Brian Green – accepts that it was an evil, and that there is a price he has to pay.

(Incidentally, with Mr Green’s downfall, that’s the second time – after “Aliens of London” – that Russell has “killed” Tony Blair, and the second time he’s replaced him with a woman PM of dubious moral character.)

Equally, it feels right that the 456 are defeated by a radio frequency.

It’s the fate of all good Avengers villains to be defeated by their own weapons, and here it is the very Children of Earth that provide the “sting” for Captain Jack’s plan. It was perhaps a little convenient that the 456 provided the weapon by killing Clement. It’s churlish to demand even more development, but perhaps an explanation that his adult mind still being linked to them was an irritant, and that they squashed him like a bug – which is what appears to have happened – might have made it more clear that they didn’t even think that swatting him could have any comeback on them.

I’ve already suggested that Children of Earth deliberately begins with a “Day One” that overwrites the “Day One” of 2006. And if anything, the conclusion is even more of a rebuke to the earlier episode: a genuine “no, this is how you do it”. The motivation of the 456 is the same as the motivation of the gas-creature that arrives in “Day One”: to use humans as a drug. But Children of Earth shows that that isn’t something silly or titillating, it’s serious and horrible and grotesque.

And Torchwood even handles it better than Quatermass IV, where the aliens (perhaps) covet the young humans as “scent” or “savour”.

The 456’s response, on “Day Four” to Captain Jack was “but you’re letting children die every day; why would you mind this?” And that is exactly the sort of point that science fiction should be making.

“Day Five” challenges us to think about the consequences of the drugs trade, how it destroys the worlds of innocent, ordinary people just by the fact of it being done. Earth is some out-of-the-way backwater to the 456, the way that Columbia or Afghanistan were out of sight out of mind to us.

“Day Five” isn’t quite as strong as the two preceding episodes; taken as a whole, the outstanding moments of Children of Earth are clearly Frobisher’s twisty-turny negotiations with the 456 on “Day Three” and the abject moral failure at the COBRA committee on “Day Four”. “Day Five” slightly pushes itself too far by opening with Gwen’s version of Rose Tyler’s “this is how I died” speech from Bad Wolf Bay; this isn’t how the World ends; outside of a council estate in Wales, Civilisation doesn’t visibly totter, and that slightly makes Gwen look a little overwrought.

And, as Alex remarks, all that “he turns away in shame” is the most blatant “The Doctor is god” since, oooh, 1989.

Don’t get me wrong, the way that the civilians took on the soldiers to protect their children – and thank goodness PC Andy finally picked which side he was on! – was an outstanding moment of hope: that was the real face of humanity, willing to fight for what was right. But it was also a bit like the Auton Invasion of One Shopping Centre in “Rose”; it made the scale of events small instead of global.

And one really cheap shot – the digital duplication of the children at the army base collection point was a bit obvious.

Children of Earth has been Torchwood’s finest (five) hours. This is what it always could have been, and always should have been. It’s not a British X-Files, there’s none of that shilly-shallying about whether the aliens are real, and Captain Jack never denies that he wants to snog his Scully.

This is Quatermass V. There is no higher praise.

Next Time…?Is this the end of Torchwood? It’s certainly very much put together that way, and perhaps appropriately as Russell is marking the ending of his association with the parent series too. And yet, the bigwigs at the BBC wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t look at ratings success. Torchwood Children of Earth pulled in comparable ratings to hit weeknight series such as “Spooks” and “Hustle” and quite a bit better than the channel’s first attempt at “stripping” a series across a week “Criminal Justice”, and it did it in the traditional ratings Death Zone of July.

So, where would you go from here? The Hub’s destroyed, the team split up, Jack is gone… and yet, Agent Johnson and her team are left at the end in charge of a secret base with access, thanks to Jack, to the old Torchwood software. And super-temp Lois Habiba got to read all of those secret Government background files. And way, way back in “Everything Changes”, our Russell seeded another mystery that’s never been examined.

A new alien menace. Agent Johnston or Lois or both arrive on Gwen’s door and recruit her to find the lost institute. Series Four: “Torchwood IV”.

You know you want to.


Friday, July 10, 2009



The War Games part four. At this point it doesn't seem as funny or as relevant to be playing "spot the plot coincidences" any more.

Instead, remember this:
There are some corners of this universe that have bred the most terrible things, things that stand against everything we believe in. They must be fought.

Not the 456. Although, we must fight them; obviously we must. But they're just a bunch of inhuman gangsters with a protection racket. No, I mean the quisling politicians who might accede to them.

How short is the step from league tables to gas chambers?

The centrepiece of "Day Four", arguably of the whole Children of Earth series, features the Prime Minister of Britain and the "COBRA" emergency committee discussing how they are going to surrender over three-hundred thousand children to suffer a horrible living death enslaved to the alien 456.

Just think what it says about the standing of our politicians that this is credible.

No one at that Cabinet table says the thing that ought to be said: this demand, this threat from these 456 is a declaration of war. So we give them a war. We tell the World about these abhorrent creatures and their ghastly demands. We execute their ambassador and we take the fight to them any way that we can, and if we can't and we die then we die fighting.

I know, I realise it's only a television drama, a bit of sci-fi fluff to most people, and I realise that it's set up to allow Lois to suddenly come into her own and make that speech as "a voter" an "everyman" and for Torchwood to put action to the words and be the ones to stand and fight and die.

But this is something true. This is how it happens that we can find our country at war with Iraq or colluding in torture, when decisions are taken like this by these… people… whose arrogant belief is that they know what is good for us.

Mr Yates (bless Nick Briggs but in this company he's really out of his acting league) even goes to suggest that, with overpopulation and immigration being hot-button topics, they can spin this as a good thing.

"Lord knows, 'spin' is all we've got."

That could be the epitaph of the New Labour project, assuming it's not just buried at a crossroads in an unmarked grave with a stake through its heart.

The Prime Minister, Mr Green (Nicholas Farrell), keeps up the pretence of pained, heroic self-sacrifice, bearing the burden even as it pains him to make the "tough decisions" to let someone else pay the price. I wonder who that reminds me of? Perhaps he's even pretending to himself, with his line of "no one in this room is a willing collaborator". Oh, yes you are Brian, yes you are.

It's Deborah Finlay, though, outstanding in the small and for obvious reasons repellent role as Denise, who perfectly captures the two-faced self-interest disguised as self-righteousness of those archest of New Labourites, the Harriets, the Margarets and the Hazels, the ones who can always justify the most odious of policies with a straight face, and yet still feel that they deserve to be treated that little bit better.

I'm sure it's a question that hasn't troubled the consciences of the Labour Party yet, but what do you do when there aren't enough asylum seekers to blame?

You pick the children from the bottom ten percent of the school's league tables, apparently. Yes, that's right, you stick it to the kids that you've already failed.

Even Mr Frobisher – and can someone just give Peter Capaldi the Bafta now, please? – even he has the good taste to look nauseated by what they've just agreed to.

And it's futile, too, when the British Government has no way on Earth of persuading to go along with this vile scheme the other one-hundred-and-ninety-one members of the United Nations, all of whom are already furious at us for covering up our earlier dealings with the 456.

Almost, that's all I want to say, it's too much to say more.

But I can't not mention how "Day Four" ends.

So, the COBRA scenes took up the middle third of the episode: before them was the expected revelations of what happened in 1965 – given what we'd already seen, no real surprises there, although the link between the 456 and a flu pandemic (prescient shades of Swine Flu, given how long ago this was filmed) was foreshadowing for the 456's weapons later – and after came Torchwood's counter-attack, and it's failure, and the price.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Jack, who can't die, understands the price of war less well than Ianto who can die. And does.

It was a good plan, and the execution is brilliantly choreographed, as Torchwood make the Government and the military dance to their tune. Agent Johnson and her people are supposed to be good at their jobs, but did they not start to think that something might be up when Ianto began to address them directly, knowing that they were tracing the call. Because I'm not a top military assassin but I guessed that Torchwood wanted Johnson to know where "Hub 2" was.

The flowing, sweeping almost languid shots had a sense of inevitability about them as they sept us to the climax.

The music too, descending choral voices in a minor key, was beautiful and tragic, and reminiscent of similar music in John Woo's Mission Impossible II, which also features a countdown to viral apocalypse.

It was a good plan. But the 456 are blackmailers, and they are careful and they are prepared. And, unlike the usual movie villain, the 456 didn't threaten and bluster. They just declared war and used their weapon. Death, just like that.

But the 456 fear us.

They won't tell us their real name, have refused to reveal where they are from, remain hidden in their poisonous mist and lie and dissemble to keep the people of Earth from knowing them. And they are right to fear us. Once revealed for what they are, a gang of cosmic paedophiles, human fury would be unbounded and retribution without limits.

They've seen "The War Games" too. They know, they know that we are the worst monsters of them all.

Next Time… Time's up. It's the End of the World. Day Five.


Thursday, July 09, 2009



In part THREE of the War Games, we learn more about the aliens behind the abductions when their impressive spokesbeing turns up and… gasp… has a sinister connection to a secret in Our Hero's past…

Meanwhile, we WOULD be watching TV's "The Wire", a story about phone-tapping, criminal conspiracies, corrupt politicians and favours for gangsters… but when Mr Roger Stavro Moredick's gang are hacking mobile phones and organising hush money with Mr Balloon providing the payoff for Soldier Coulson, "the Wire" seems somewhat REDUNDANT.

Beyond belief, above the police, out of control… who do they think they are, TORCHWOOD???
"Day Three" is halfway through this mini-series and appropriately it is exactly halfway through the episode that the "456's" ambassador beams down into his specially prepared tank.

By default this makes for a "game of two halves" episode, and the second half is much the more powerful. Before then we get a certain amount of setting up, as Torchwood pull themselves back together re-establishing their operations, drawing Lois further into their plans and rescuing Clem McDonald from police custody. It's like "Mission: Impossible" with a side order of "Hustle" and just a dash of "What Not to Wear".

In fairness, Mr Frobisher – and here it emerges that he is the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office – is also making preparations, and – to throw in a dollop of "Spooks" to the mix – we see his agents close in on Captain Jack's daughter by tracing the phone she's using and – more "Spooks – get some evil CCTV use to spot her. That's actually quite clever, because she borrows someone else's phone to make the call, knowing it will be traced, which is classic tradecraft, but they are smarter still which gets her caught.

Notice how Frobisher sends his hard-faced Agent Johnson to do his dirty work while later in the episode Jack goes in person when he seeks to make a contrasting implied threat to Frobisher's family. This contrast is developed further and Frobisher says it explicitly when in one of the episode's finest moments, he calls Jack's bluff: "You're a better man than I am."

It's a towering, yet impressively delicate performance by Peter Capaldi – a long, long way from his grotesque Malcolm Tucker of "The Thick of It"/"In the Loop" – as Frobisher is clearly doing things he knows to be terrible, and yet it's because he's caught by duty and fear and shame, rather than because he's a cackling villain. This complex web of motivations is the real difference between grown up drama and the stuff that Torchwood has been doing for the last two seasons.

In marked contrast, though, the character of Lois Habiba seems actively to be becoming less interesting as the series goes on. Lois here becomes literally Torchwood's eyes on "Floor 13" (honestly, do evil Government conspiracies™ do this sort of thing deliberately?). But I'm afraid she remains a very one-dimensional character, and they seem to be closing off opportunities for her to reveal some secret background to explain her unexpectedly useful behaviour on "Day Two". It's a great shame, after going to such trouble on "Day One" to flesh out Torchwood's central cast, to apparently be introducing a new cardboard cut-out for the team.

On the other hand, Gwen's ruthlessness in recruiting Lois adds a new dimension to former PC Cooper.

Eve Myles, it has to be said, suddenly seems to have come up to the mark in the acting stakes, with none of her usual unfortunate hooting or tweeness. Here she manages to convince us that this is a Gwen Cooper who has evolved, become a superhero in working hours while still staying true to the very human Gwen who married Rhys, who first joined Torchwood in "Everything Changes".

You can measure it by the two different mini-missions that Gwen performs in the first half of this episode. Her hardness in pressing Lois into service contrasts with the way she uses her (genuine) humanity to connect to PC Andy so that she can get Clem out of lockup and her (again unfeigned) concern is what persuades him to come with her.

Paul Copley as Clem, abduction survivor – we keep referring to him as "Egg's Dad" thanks to a memorable guest star turn in "This Life", but he was also remarkable in the Big Finish audio adventure "Spare Parts" – here does that difficult trick of being sympathetic and deeply creepy, with his twitches, talking to himself and above all smelling of everything. And there's the massively Russell Davies moment of him suddenly accusingly snapping out at Ianto calling him "the queer". It might be, perhaps, a self-rebuke for the "you're so gay" line given to Rose in "Aliens of London", similarly putting a shockingly un-PC line into a sympathetic character's mouth, because here he has Ianto angrily defend himself from the prejudice.

It also adds an edge of doubt when he turns his accusations on Jack at the end. Making it more powerful (even though it has to be said it's pretty obvious by now) when Jack admits that the accusation is true.

This, to return to the contrasts being drawn between Jack and Frobisher, is another difference: Frobisher's instinct is to cover up; Jack's is to confess.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first half hour is, perhaps necessarily after the level to which the tension was raised over the last two days, a pause to relax, gather strength and see Torchwood getting back on the front foot and doing what they do, doing it successfully.

And then, at the halfway point, all the children stop and point to the sky. The arrival is drawn out as long as possible, going twice around the world in news reports – hooray for Lachelle Carl again – and the pillar of fire descending in almost slow motion, rewinding all of that tension, until at last:

"We. Are. Here".

The 456 ambassador is impressively realised: horrifying and unsettling – sold brilliantly by (again) Capaldi's visceral reactions to it – capturing that essential Quatermass "unearthly" quality.

And never mind the Children of Earth, these are, once more, very much the Children of Quatermass: the thrashing, writhing, thing-living-in-tank alien coming directly from "Quatermass II"; while the alien ambassador, communicating from behind a glass window by means of a machine, is out of "The Ambassador's of Death", itself an offspring of "The Quatermass Experiment".

Concealed in its toxic mist, half-seen claw-like appendages flailing… hang on, you don't think it's a Macra, do you?

Its drawn out, I-don't-really-understand-English method of speaking served its alienness and drew up the tension as though it somehow freakishly learned to speak by watching the announcements of the voting results on reality TV shows. "I'm a 456 ambassador, get me out of here!"

Those huge pauses, loaded with Frank'n'furter antici… … … …pation, also allowed us to jump in with what we expected it to say. And I have to admit, I kept getting it wrong.

Mr Frobisher would make some dubious, slimy suggestion and I expected the 456 to go all Vorlon on us with an emphatic: "No!" And instead, it proved to be as dodgy as a duck house on expenses, each time going along with the designs of Perfidious Albion.

There's also the brilliant sucker-punch of first relaxing your expectations when the 456 agree to the request that they no longer use the children for communications, only for them to then demand children as a gift.

One tiny, tiny change I'd have made would have been in the demand for ten percent. I'd have delivered it slightly differently, for another sucker-punch, and also tied it to Captain Jack's confession that they gave the 456 twelve children in 1965.

Frobisher: "How many?"

456 voice: "Twelve… twelve… twelve… percent."

(Mind you, Harriet Jones might say that that's cheap, when the Sycorax demanded half the planet's population as slaves or a third would die.)

The second half of "Day Three" is a tour-de-force, gripping you with a fear of something genuinely uncanny, the uncertainty that comes from having no idea at all what the capabilities or limitations of the 456 actually are, and the certain knowledge that no one, not human, not alien, not Captain Jack himself, no one can be trusted.

This is Earth's First Contact. And it's going very badly wrong.

Next Time…The Truth is Out There… or, more specifically, the Truth is back in 1965. Time for Captain Jack to come clean. Day Four.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009



In Episode Two of "The War Games", the armed forces of British Governmentry try to SHOOT our hero before there's an ESCAPE in an ambulance and a RESCUE from a military prison. The alien villains behind it all haven't shown up yet, though.

On the other fluffy foot, I wonder what's happening in Torchwood?
"Day Two", by John Fay, was a terrific, fast-paced, action-packed roller-coaster ride with a particularly pounding, persistent musical beat that keeps driving the tension, all as a way of keeping any more of the plot from happening until Russell gets back to write "Day Three"…

Even more than "Day One", this felt like Torchwood, the Movie.

Blowing the Hub to bits – and was it wrong of me to be imagining the Grand Moff wandering around Upper Boat saying "I've got some plans for a bigger TARDIS set… this'll have to go!"? – destroying the Hub was a very "movie" thing to do. Think blowing up the Enterprise in at least two Star Trek movies. It ups the stakes, leaving our team without their safe place, in a way that a weekly serial, with the need to return to those standing sets for economic as well as continuity reason, cannot afford to.

The movie it most resembles, with its near-fetishising of guns and leather, laser-sights and night filming (yes, ironic after all that daylight in "Day One"), is, of course, "The Terminator", the classic chase movie. Or "Terminator 2: Judgement Day", particularly if you think of Jack putting himself back together like an exceptionally icky T1000.

And like a movie, it didn't quite have the "television-drama" complexity of "Day One"; with all of Russell's plots having neatly tied together at the end, there were fewer strands here to open back up.

To be fair, the chase-movie doesn't allow for many plot strands, the tension derives from there being so few options open to the protagonists, and you ramp it up further by not cutting away to other people.

So we were mainly reduced to Gwen's thread and Ianto's thread, with Lois Habiba's subplot folding into Gwen's story while Paul Copley, after a terrific performance in "Day One" as Tim/Clem, being woefully underused here, left to do nothing but wander around and do the "we are coming tomorrow" chant.

What we do have is more of the deliciously creepy Mr Dekker, almost literally salivating over the poison-gas chamber that he has prepared for the arrival of the "456's". He seems to be taking an unnatural delight in the discomfort of Mr Frobisher, and in dropping hints that he knows more about what is going on than is strictly-speaking – in light of assassination squads being sent out to dispose of people like Captain Jack who do know what's going on – good for him. He's like Torchwood's very own Cigarette Smoking Man, except instead of laid-back authority, he just oozes sleaze.

Meanwhile, Lois rather more than proved her worth. In fact, pulling a whole sheaf of deus-ex-machina out of her hat ass (this is Torchwood), she's been just a bit too efficient – it's her second day and she's organised a successful conspiracy against the Government. Let's just say that I hope she turns out to have something a bit more… substantial in her background, like maybe being a UNIT infiltrator, to justify this. I mean it's all very well being a concerned citizen, but have the Home Office never heard of staff screening?

And of course, Gwen takes one look and offers her a job with Torchwood… after that worked out so successfully with Dr Patenjali yesterday.

Having said that, the "family moment" between Gwen and Rhys, while fleeing for their lives atop a sack of potatoes, was rather charming, and Rhys's subsequent attempts to be gallant, usually in the face of all sense, were a lovely leavening of what could have been too, too grim an episode.

There was more nice family development for Mr Jones, too. Interesting to see them play with resentment about his father. Also, Alex points out the reversal of expectations as it's the "nice" sister who gets all resentful about Ianto dragging them into his mess, while it's the "bastard" brother-in-law who says "he's family, we have to help him".

Now, I don't want to pick holes but… Ianto proudly declares that with the right software you can track any car… and then drives off in his sister's auto. You know, the one that was parked outside the house that the Government agents were watching, and which they've almost certainly noticed has gone missing by now. So no chance of him being tracked then.

I'd have thought that an extra line of dialogue – "Tosh wrote the only known counter-programme" – could have cleared it all up, but Alex suggests instead that Ianto realises his danger and ditches his sister's car before hotwiring an identical model, on the grounds it's the last thing they'd expect… a theory apparently borne out by the car's number-plate allegedly changing from a "P"-reg to an "X"-reg somewhere between Wales and the quarry!

But there's a bigger, overall problem, which is one that Torchwood (the series) has had all along; it's just that when the Government is able to throw huge teams of black-ops agents at them it draws attention to it: if Torchwood is a Government organisation, if they are as well funded as Gwen's girlish enthusiasm over her pay cheques on "Day One" would indicate, then why don't they have their own teams of grunts? The tension would have been raised even further, the peril to Gwen and Ianto emphasised more, and the Government agents made to look less like the world's gayest ninjas (sorry, that's "Being Human" slipping through), if a bunch of Torchwood support staff had been quickly murdered in the opening minutes.

But really that comes back to what I said, when discussing "Day One", about Torchwood's main flaw: Torchwood ought to be the baddies. I suspect it stems from Russell falling in love with his creation; it's all too easy for a writer to do that. But the whole series would make a lot more sense if Captain Jack had taken over an abandoned Torchwood base and he was always on the lookout for the real Torchwood turning up to reclaim their own. Which, of course, it what we would then be seeing in "Children of Earth".

And speaking of the series set-up, the Hub being blown to bits does pose an interesting longer-term question, namely: what will they do for a base should there be a fourth series? It might be a bit boring for the Government to forgive and forget and rebuild the Hub for them… so, might they not instead go off in search of the mysteriously-disappeared Torchwood 4, last heard of in Russell's pilot: "Everything Changes" (though possibly alluded to in the Government primer on Torchwood read by Lois, which refers to properties bought by Queen Victoria personally)?

Finally, we can't go without mentioning the gratuitous nudity. Four years after his bare ass was cut from "Bad Wolf", John Barrowman finally gets his wish and gets naked on BBC1. His full-frontal, on security camera, is only slightly obscured by the discretely placed "X" of a serial number. When it comes to the end of the episode we the viewers get his excellent bottom and it's Torchwood who get an eyeful of his "Face of Boe". Charmingly, Gwen has a peek, then looks away then looks all shy, while Ianto has this big soppy-puppy that's-all-mine grin on his face.

Mind you, you have to wonder what happened to all the "bits" that Agent Johnson and her ninjas didn't find… and if there aren't a whole orgy of Jack Harknessess merrily coming back to life in the ruins of the hub.

Next Time…There's a fire in the sky. They're here! Day Three.
After "Torchwood" we ahem my Daddies watched Mr Charlie Brooker's new series "Telly Addicts". Made by Endemol, purveyors of fine television… and Big Bother… these are the people who make Mr Charlie's OTHER television programmes like Screenwipe, Newswipe and Wetwipe, er… More than anything this looked like the evil masters of Endemol had said to Mr Charlie: "Right, Brooker, you sold us your soul and we made your scathing review shows. Now it's payback time, and you are going to host a cheap-as-chips celebrity panel game show so that we can make our money back." And Mr Charlie had said "oww, oh bum. All right." And then gone and done his usual ranty-hilarious shtick anyway. Hooray!


Tuesday, July 07, 2009



Ooh, episode-a-day excitement from those nice Doctor Who people! Yes, our copy of "The War Games" has arrived!

Meanwhile, for those of you allowed to stay up after the watershed (shhh, don't tell Daddy!) there was also the surprisingly successful risqué fantasy-drama of… Krod Mandoon…

Oh, all right; Torchwood is back. And this time it's GOOD!
Once upon a time, Russell Davies, aka Russilon, founder of modern Time Lord society, wrote the pilot episode for Torchwood, "Everything Changes". The next episode is "Day One". Now, so long as you remember to stick with Rusty's "Day One" and not Chibbers'…

I mean this in the best possible way but this doesn't even look like Torchwood. For a start, most of it is in daylight, a simple switch reflected in the opening title card being stark white with "Torchwood" in black, contrasting with the series usual red on black. Likewise, there are none of those helicopter shots of Cardiff streets at night trying moodily to look like blood vessels; instead we get London streets from above but in the day. What it looks like, in fact, is a motion picture. (See again the opening credits where, like a lot of TV series that "go to movie", they've dropped the whole title sequence lark and roll the credits over the opening scenes.)

So, it's 1965 and a busload of children are dropped off somewhere in Wales-doubling-as-Scotland to be met by a very X-Files light in the sky. It seems that the British Government is doing a dodgy deal with aliens (again!) and, based on their general anxiety to cover it up that we see in the rest of the episode, probably double-crossing them. And it would seem that Captain Jack is involved in this dirty dealing – the order to kill him is part of the cover up, and it's because his name is in the "456" file, not because he's in Torchwood.

In fact, if there's a problem here, it's that Torchwood – the agents of the Crown with a mission to defend the Empire; not Captain Jack's little rogue band – ought to be the baddies. Peter Capaldi as sinister civil servant Mr Frobisher (nods to shape-shifting whifferdil companion of the sixth Doctor) deserves to be the new head of the organisation, with his connections to Thames House (where the "Spooks" of MI5 are based) and his briefings from UNIT and his men-in-black agents with their hard-faced-woman leader. He even gets to brief the (new) Prime Minister, so he's probably of Permanent Secretary rank – maybe not the actual Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, but possibly someone like the Head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, but with responsibility for extra-terrestrial affairs.

The Prime Minister, by the way, appears to be something of a moral coward, a Pontius Pilate, wanting to appear to keep his hands clean, but given that his predecessor, a Mr Harry Saxon you may remember, went on world-wide television and assassinated the (admittedly annoying) President of America, you can perhaps have a little sympathy for his desire to have nothing to do with this.

Frobisher (not the penguin) also gets a new secretary, Lois Habiba, who is screamingly going out of her way to look suspicious: loitering over the coffees, making good use of the user name and password that she should never have been given. She's almost certainly going to get that Torchwood job now that Dr Rupesh "he's a bit pretty" Patenjali has shown his true colours and of course been paid the wages of sin. The clever thing, of course, is that while you might guess that she's the goodie-looking-like-a-baddie and Rupesh is the baddie-looking-like-a-goodie – and by the time the "blank sheet" order went out, we probably did guess it was going to Rupesh, though the abruptness of the gunshot, when it came was still a made-you-jump shock – but what this distracts you from is thinking about Mr Frobisher's allegiances.

Capalidi does a marvellous banality of evil turn, because initially you are sympathetic to him: he's a family man and his children are as affected as everyone else's. He's concerned for them, thinks about cutting corners for them, to take them out of school, and he's clearly a decent guy. Apart from the being evil.

Family is a recurring Russell theme, of course. "Queer as Folk", "Mine all Mine", Rose Tyler, obviously – his route into humanising his characters is to develop their families and how those families interact. So here, he gives each of our Torchwood trio a family too. It's interesting to see how Jack and Ianto here reflect each other – they both stay away from their families, they both try to use money to buy some forgiveness for this, they both go to their families here for the implicit ulterior motive of finding a child to try and solve the mystery, rather than for the child's own sake.

The show, it should be said, still seems a little awkward about how to deal with Ianto and Jack's relationship, but it's not impossible that it's written that way, because Ianto and Jack are awkward about how to deal with their relationship.

Alex points out that, like family, pregnancy is another Russell trope, pointing out "The Grand", "Century Falls", Russell's Doctor Who New Adventure "Damaged Goods" and "Queer as Folk" again. We wonder, with the aliens affecting children, whether Gwen's newly-discovered pregnancy will play into this in some way. It's also deeply sinister, invasive almost, to be told in that way, through something so intimate as a stranger smelling you, smelling you. Although, of course, more crudely it is also a McGuffin to have Jack get scanned into revealing the implanted bomb so that Gwen and Ianto don't get turned to raspberry jam before Day Two!

We suspect that it was Ben Aaronovich who once speculated about whether the Doctor would be able to regenerate if you spread the bits out over a big enough field. Not really something you can actually do on a kid's tea-time show, so it's possible that Russell is taking the opportunity of the… well, I hesitate to say adult, though this version is much closer to grown up drama that Torchwood has yet been… taking the opportunity to test that theory to destruction. It's nice that Mr Frobisher's government team have taken the time to think about how to kill the unkillable man. It's not going to work, of course… Rose brought him back from death by Dalek, supposedly the deadliest force in the universe. So some high explosive is hardly going to do the trick is it?

Overall, this was brilliant, a taut and twisty thriller, that opens without wasting any time straight into the mystery of the frozen children as Gwen just sees them in passing, but then takes you off along multiple plots – the abortive recruitment of Dr Rupesh, whatever is going on with Lois in Mr Frobisher's office, Gwen's tracing of Tim/Clem and Jack and Ianto's family reunions – which all dovetail perfectly at the end, as it turns out they're all one plot after all.

The use of children is a large part of the success, in a very Doctor Who way, turning the everyday into something sinister and strange, and at the same time playing on the natural human urge to protect a child in danger. There's a lot of cleverness in the unravelling of the clues as well – for example, all the children in the world speaking in English, it's a wink to the Doctor Who convention that aliens always speak Englsih, and yet it's a great big guilty arrow pointing at us too. Similarly, when Rhys works out that the timing of the events is linked to British children being outside, that too is a clue, but it also cleverly provides us with another Doctor Who staple, the countdown, as we can now anticipate the next time the children will be taken.

I've already remarked upon the "X-Files" like opening, but you cannot help noticing that it goes deeper than that, when you have Government complicity in a conspiracy that involves aliens and the abduction of children. The only surprise is that abduction-survivor Clem McDonald, aka Timothy, doesn't communicate with the CIA through his fillings

Another possible theme that is developing, though, is Nigel Kneale's Quatermass IV, sometimes called "The Quatermass Conclusion". Doctor Who, over the years, has paid homage/shamelessly ripped off (according to taste) each of the first three 1950's Quatermas serials: "Ambassadors of Death" and "The Seeds of Doom" both owe a debt to different aspects of "The Quatermass Experiment"; "Spearhead from Space" has more than a little in common with "Quatermass II"; and most blatantly of all, "The Daemons" and "Quatermass and the Pit". But, perhaps because it was made by ITV, perhaps because it's just too distopic and misanthropic and just plain pessimistic, to date no Doctor Who team has approached the 1970s incarnation.

Quick summary: it's a near-future where society has broken down, and young people are either members of violent gangs or wandering "Planet People" hippies. The Planet People are "called" to gather at ancient stone circles, expecting to be taken to a new world, where instead they get blasted to dust by some vast and unknowable alien power.

Children of Earth clearly shares the "alien power" communicating through "young people", and – judging by the trailers – the blast of fire from above.

What it doesn't have, in spite of the un-romanticised view of youth as painted by the hilarious theft of the Mystery Machine, is the "kids today" sense of alienation between the generations that is as much a mark of Kneale's work as "family" or "pregnancy" is for Russell. Nor, apart from one boys "it was great" reaction, is there the idea that the young people believe the aliens to be benign and are very much mistaken. If anything, it is possible that Children of Earth will have exactly the opposite reveal at the conclusion.

We'll have to see how things develop from here… and that's not something you often hear me say about Torchwood.

If you missed it, iPlayer it tonight at 8pm and then watch part 2 at 9.

Next time…Was it me or was that cleverly constructed not to have Captain Jack appear… like they've really blown him to smithereens. The mystery turns into a chase as we move into "Day Two".