...a blog by Richard Flowers

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".



David Matthewman said...

Jack appeared to survive death by incineration in Journey's End, so I'll be interested to see what a bomb does to him.

Ryan said...

I thought there was a clip of a very burnt man on a table waking up in the trailer to Day 2. I assumed it was Jack.

Jennie Rigg said...

What Ryan said. I think Mr Crispy is Jack.