Monday, October 30, 2006

Torch The Script Instead

I caught the rerurns of the BBC’s Dr Who spin-off Torchwood last week. I’d have written about it earlier, but it took this long to recover the will to live.

Let’s not beat around the bush here: Torchwood is terrible. It shamelessly apes other, better series, while utterly failing to understand why they’re better. It’s the cargo cult approach to screen writing.

For those that had the sense to avoid this series in the first place, the basic set-up is this: a super-secret organisation is waging a secret war against invading aliens. Again.

The series opener used the time-honoured device of an ordinary PC investigating a murder who finds herself drawn into a secret world. Hey, as clichés go, this one’s got a lot going for it. It allows the true nature of the world to unfold naturally as the character probes deeper. The trouble is that would require a degree of deftness completely absent from the script. Instead, the cop manages to track down Torchwood thanks solely to coincidence and an absurd breach of security, after which the head of the team turns into Basil Exposition. Subtle.

You might think that the head of a secret organisation revealing all to someone who’s literally just walked in off the street would be kind of unusual, but fortunately he gives her a Men In Black-style mind wipe and she’s back to square one. Except, of course, there’s another coincidence, and another case of moronicity by one of the team, and so, via a series of absurd events, our cop finds herself filling a vacancy on the team.

Actually, all things considered, the team is just one big vacancy. Dr Who escapee Captain Jack is both team leader and the only halfway interesting character, but as for the rest, well, Team Member One is a cheeky chappie loveable cockney, Team Member Two is a women called Toshiko, who’s coldly logical and brilliant with computers. Team Member Three is the fixer, complete with flash suit and outrageously Welsh accent. Call it a hunch, but I’m thinking in the near-future we’ll be seeing a black dude with a great sense of rhythm.

OK, stereotypes can serve as a kind of shortcut for character development. The trouble is that there’s nothing else to the characters other than the stereotype. It’s stated straight up that none of the team members are involved in any kind of relationships. Ditto, they have no back stories at all. Come to think of it, they’re not so much characters as self-propelled plot devices.

Of course, the opening episode is always hard, but once all the set up is out the way, the series can get into the groove, right ? Oops no. Episode two was more of the same, with improbable coincidences, lousy security and members of the elite team behaving like morons. True, there was a kind of sub-CSI quality to the middle bit, but not enough to rescue the show.

The closest we got to originality in episode two was the plot, with the Earth being invaded by an alien that possessed the body of a young girl and fed off sex energy. And when I say ‘original’, I mean that in the sense of ‘used previously by at least 2500 pr)no movies’. But that’s the other thing about ‘Torchwood’. It’s adult, see. All of which means the plots and dialogue are juvenile, but they use naughty words and refer to S*X a lot.

Two minutes into the opener, the F-bomb was dropped, while the script is full of references to many and varied forms of you-know-what. The trouble is that what with the naughty word, the obsession with 5-E-8 and an oh-so-daring jibe at religion in the opener, the end result is just plain juvenile, like a bunch of teenagers trying to shock the squares.

It’s interesting to compare “Torchwood’ with the gold standard for the ‘small team waging a secret war’ genre. The big idea behind Buffy was that high school was literally hell. The battles with demons served as metaphors for life in general. In short, the series had something to say. Torchwood has no central theme and nothing worth saying. Dull characters wander through situations filched from far better shows never once encountering a worthwhile point.

In it’s own way, Torchwood is something of an achievement. Here’s a genre where almost anything goes, with a whole universe of possibilities, yet somehow the BBC has managed to produce something so utterly, utterly predictable.

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