26 October 2006

How Cod Rot

I've been meaning for a while to do a full-scale media update here, giving my opinions on Ada or Ardor (which I finally finished), Children of Men (which B. and I went to see a couple of weeks ago), The Netherlands National Circus (who we took goddaughter E. to see the other weekend), Robin Hood (which, after three episodes, I've now seen as much of as I'll ever need to, thanks), and the like.

But I've got stuff to write. Specifically, this novel proposal I'm working on, and an article on Philip K. Dick (obviously) for Movement magazine. So it'll have to wait, or if we're unlucky possibly never happen.

I can't, though, let the first two episodes of the first ever Doctor Who spinoff series in T.V. form go past without some form of comment. Those of you who frequent the same mailing lists as me may have seen this in part already -- and those of you who, through digital disenfranchisement, haven't yet seen the episodes in question may wish to avert your eyes for fear of spoilers -- but...

For the first two episodes of a new SF series, I thought Torchwood was pretty damn good. Not up to the standard of Ultraviolet -- which to me has become the quality bar which all telefantasy, British or otherwise, should aim to match [1] -- but pretty damn good nonetheless.

I enjoyed the way that the early structure of the first episode, Everything Changes, closely echoed that of Rose before heading off in its own quite different direction after the halfway mark. I also enjoyed they way Captain Jack's words to Gwen in the second episode, Day One, echoed the Doctor's to Rose in that same episode -- except that Jack tells Gwen to go home and live her normal life in parallel with working at Torchwood. It was a nice way of establishing the similarities and differences from the parent programme.

The direct Who continuity, on the other hand -- references to recent alien invasions and to the Cybermen, and indeed the guest appearance of the Doctor's missing hand -- seemed annoyingly superfluous (and, as Andrew suggests, rather out of place). I'm assuming at this stage, from the coy references to "the right kind of Doctor" and the like, that Torchwood itself, rather than the parent series, won't see any direct payoff to these elements. This seems to be shortchanging Torchwood, which really needs to develop as its own entity.

Russell Davies' writing on Everything Changes was good, better than Chris Chibnall's on Day One (unfortunate, given that Chibnall seems to have written four episodes of the season and RTD just the one). There were some sharp dialogue and good jokes in both, though. The degree of horror is a big improvement on the sanitised kiddie-violence seen in New Who. I also welcome the shagging (not least because the character involved in most of it was rather cute), but feel that this element needs to become less self-consciously adult in order not to seem adolescent.

I also greatly enjoyed the twist at the end of the first episode -- coming out of nowhere but making perfect sense, as all the best twists do. I was less happy that it wrote out one of the supposed regular characters -- not just because it leaves the cast down one attractive woman, but also because I found her more interesting than any of the others except Jack [2].

I had a problem with Gwen in particular. The character's a waterfall -- nice to look at, but awfully wet. Eve Myles puts in the same performance as she did for Gwyneth the psychic maid in The Unquiet Dead, which doesn't work -- Gwen needs to be a lot more hard-edged (and it's difficult enough as it is to manage that in a lilting Welsh accent). As a viewpoint character she's going to need an awful lot of slapping into shape.

Toshiko, who first appeared (as a medic, at least purportedly -- now the character's a computer genius for no obvious reason) in Aliens of London, has yet to be as interesting as she was in those five minutes. Owen is obnoxious (and a borderline-rapist, but that's causing all kinds of "discussion" on various fansites and I don't want to go there), which is at least interesting, but the character has yet to do anything to layer that characteristic into three-dimensionality. Ianto is a little baffling -- the character seems to be written as Alfred to Jack's Batman, but the actor isn't playing him that way. The pterodactyl's great, though.

I wasn't keen on the suggestion that none of these people apart from Gwen have lives outside work -- it makes them much less interesting at a stroke. Given that we've already seen that what Owen and Suzie get up to outside Torchwood is as interesting as what happens within it, I'm hoping that this is going to be gradually exposed as a polite fiction (although that would make nonsense of Day One's already rather feeble "humanising the alien-hunters" theme).

Jack himself is, as ever, very very cool. I liked the way the first episode was themed around resurrection, and that his experiences in that area are shown to have changed him. (It may be awkward later on to have a hero who can't die, mind you, but that's superhero fiction for you.)

That said... I'm not so keen on the Angelic broody angst he was displaying. It's possibly true that "gung-ho omnisexual action hero" isn't a three-dimensional enough concept for a central character rather than a hero's foil... but I'd rather see him still acting gung-ho with hidden depths of despair (as per Christopher Eccleston's Doctor) than simply becoming more subdued, as he appears to have done. The whole appeal of the character is that he's larger than life, and his newfound status as a magical vessel of life should enhance that (as it did, rather halfheartedly, when he snogged the alien-sex-parasite-girl). I'd like to see more of that going on as the series progresses.

Overall... yes, it's very derivative, never more so than during the aerial shots of Jack brooding on rooftops while in the background Cardiff does its sporting best to look like Los Angeles. I did enjoy it massively, though... and if it follows the trajectories of a good many first seasons of telefantasy shows, it could end up being rather excellent. Watch this space [3].


[1] I'm told that there are personal reasons why Joe Ahearne, Ultraviolet's writer-director, has never written or directed Doctor Who (or indeed Torchwood) after directing several of the best episodes of Season One. I can't help wishing that the show-runners would sort them out, whatever they are, because he's surely needed.

[2] Come to think of it, this was one of the elements which recalled Ultraviolet rather strongly, along with the more obvious "policeperson becomes involved with supernatural covert ops group" plotline. If a late episode doesn't involve Jack being forced to revive Suzie with the technology he himself has interdicted, I shall be very surprised.

[3] Or rather, watch Parrinium Mines, where I'm crossposting this and where any further reviews of Torchwood probably ought to go.

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