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July 10, 2009

Anglo Saxon Attitudes.

Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day Four.

"Six thousand, seven hundred units.  Deal or no deal?"

I didn’t cry.  Not this time.  This time I was shouting at the injustice of it all, as in “How dare they…” (‘they’ being the writers and production team rather than the 456) “How dare they kill Ianto?”  I swore, a lot, only pausing to hear his final lines of dialogue ‘enjoying’ the extra resonance provided by Jones’s speech from his final radio appearance, The Dead Line, about Jack remembering him, and the repeated sentiment here.  I was waiting for the last minute reprieve, the only testing speech from the 456.  Then I remembered that this wasn’t Doctor Who and realised that he was gone.  Then we unexpectedly saw the body (as if to give the viewer visual evidence). 

Ianto Then Gwen straightened his tie.  Then I cried.  If one were to look for a reason why Torchwood has gone from being a show that you love to hate to must see television (at least this week) it's that it now has the time to include the small moments, imperceptible perhaps, that collectively add to a whole picture.  Like the discussion, so beautifully acted, about putting a positive spin on the selling out of the children, which in a few short sentences crystalised the inhumanity of what was being proposed which also happened to be acted by Nick Briggs otherwise voice of the Daleks.  Johnson numbed by what she’s just heard realising that she’s out of her depth then taking orders from her former enemy.

There were dozens of similar tiny moments, something in a performance, the music, the direction easily missed by the viewer but collectively adding the kind of texture not often seen in action adventure series.  Imagine if in the 1980s JNT had decided to finally spin-off UNIT and after a couple of series of the Brig and pals getting into scrapes he then turned around and delivered something that had all the weight and waft of Edge of Darkness and brought Nigel Kneale in to write it giving him the freedom to inject his concerns.  It feels like that.  A few people on Twitter have wondered if its possible for a show to jump the shark in reverse – and on the basis of Torchwood it really is. 

The closest example I can think of for a show going from being one you love to hate to something you genuinely love is Star Trek: The Next Generation which was reviled for its first few seasons after producing some of the very worst episodes of television in that franchise (Home Soil! Up The Long Ladder! the clip show!) before pitching up at the beginning of the third season with Evolution, a complex, literate story about life's various stages that somehow even managed to turn Wesley Crusher into a likeable unit (though obviously that word has a very different resonance these days).

Regular readers will know that in the past I’ve tended to take great pleasure in yanking the wings off Torchwood even as I defend some of Doctor Who’s wildest excesses and up to about forty minutes into the episode I was sharpening my typing fingers.  Because there is no more hackneyed idea than the hero tape recording/videoing the most salacious behaviour of an otherwise publicly respected figure and threatening to make it public.  For all of its sophistication it was even the pay off at the close of the environmental legal drama Michael Clayton

Caves Then as has been so often the case in this series, smug bastards like me (slapping my own back for using the phrase ‘protection racket’ last night) received a well-deserved punch in the nose as Torchwood grand plan didn’t work and in fact, made things worse.  There’s an interesting article somewhere about how The Caves of Androzani ruined Doctor Who because it showed that the timelord can lose.  I wonder what they made of the hash job Captain Jack made of this situation on the back of the revelation about his nefarious past – for that matter was the not-we audience prepared to meet the dark Jack?

A similar rug pulling exercise happened during the inevitable conversation about how best to select the children.  Last night I predicted a lottery and sure enough that’s how it seemed Cobra were headed and then Jackie Smith, Harriet Harmon or whatever the character’s name was proposed a cull of the working classes with the ultimate kiss off line “Well, the league tables have to be useful for something”.  At that moment, the show took on a political dimension as it implied how the ruling classes still view the proletariat – an expendable drain on national resources. 

Those scenes about the cabinet table, in which even the language used to describe the children was neutralised were all to reminiscent of the Wannsee Conference were Nazi middle men Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich hashed out the Final Solution phase of the Holocaust in which human beings were reduced to numbers to be negotiated on something akin to a commodity market.  When that meeting was clinically dramatised in the tv movie Conspiracy with Stanley Tucci and Ken Branagh, the topic of conversation only present in the form of servants (I think).  Here, writer John Fay immediately cut to those in question, the children in Ianto’s family’s house, explaining in fact why we’ve kept returning to them the comic relief turning to tragedy.

Child It’s a measure of how complex this series is that I haven’t yet mentioned such things as the other view of the Torchwood of the past, so cold and professional and morally ambiguous, Eve Myles’s ability to seamlessly slip between slapstick and horror, the death of the remnant so bloody confused and alone and bloody, drawing our attention away from the events in Thames House at a vital moment only doubling our attention instead, the reveal of the Lovecraftian alien perhaps the darkest creature yet seen in the tv version of the franchise (though that probably won't stop Character Editions from releasing ten different versions of it) and Lois (so Cush) finally getting her big moment which if it had been Martha might have seemed a tad derivative of the close of The Last of the Timelords but instead through the curious casting issues gained the resonance of speaking up for the common person and put our heroes in the room.

And talking of rooms, lets finally look at that elephant shall we?  Was the death of Ianto and viral infestation of Thames House gratuitous?  To cover the second issue first, as way of creating instant panic and to show the 456 mean business it’s as good an idea as any and has the irony of the microbe taking down the human race in a reverse of The War of the Worlds; as the swine flu and sars epidemics have demonstrate, us bags of mostly water (Home Soil!) (stop that) have an innate fear of a danger that we can’t see.  As for Ianto …

On the one hand, the death of a lead character shouldn’t be that shocking and so soon (in temporal terms) after the snuffing of Owen and Tosh and Suzie before that at the shocking conclusion of Everything Changes24 or Spooks has done this often enough that it's begun to lose its dramatic power (unless the method of mortality is particularly horrific).  The reason this worked is because it was the last thing we expected because we assumed we’d seen the last of the deaths within the main cast and the pre-publicity had led us to believe that this was the new stripped down version of Torchwood going forward; Gareth’s all over the publicity and gave interviews which generally gave no indication of something amiss

From an in-universe perspective it’s dramatically brilliant.  One of the few solid elements running through the first two series was that you might well join Torchwood but you’ll never leave – you’ll die first – it’s the last job you’ll ever have. That was mentioned again during the radio plays and eluded to on earlier days and the Ianto's death simply confirms it.  Now the story focuses on Gwen who like Jack during his Fragments flashback has watched almost all of her colleagues die, but unlike her boss she can die too.  What are the implications of that?  Frankly, about the only thing that could have made this more tragic would have been if the credits had rolled silently over a shot of some coffee beans …

Tomorrow: The claw!  The claw! and the death threats start flooding into Cardiff from Jack/Ianto ‘shippers

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