Torchwood: Casualties, Context, and the Future of Genre Television
Editor’s Note: This article was written as a collaboration between Kristen McHugh and Stephanie Wooten. We apologize for the length but we hope you enjoy the read and can provide your thoughts on this matter as well. Kristen did an amazing job putting together our hodge-podge of ideas so at the very least it deserves a read because of Kristen’s awesome writing skills. Thanks!
Warning: If you’ve never seen Torchwood or been on the internet with Torchwood fans. . . you know the drill.
Let’s begin at the beginning: Stephanie and I came to Torchwood in different ways. I came into it from the BBC America premiere, as an avid Whovian. Stephanie stumbled into the TW: CoE panel at SDCC 2008, already familiar with Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who, but not aware of how much darker its spin-off was, or would become.
No, this is not another rant about Ianto. Well, it is a little bit. Creators have the right to determine what happens and what’s at stake in their universes. Taking the whims of fandom into account is a recipe for disaster and can shred the creative vision faster than a piranha shreds a steak.
And yet. . . creating successful television for the long-term necessitates knowing your audience, persuading them to invest in each season and getting them to tell their friends. If you’ve got a finite story to tell, then you know how long you’re hoping they invest. If you haven’t got a set endpoint for the narrative, the trick is keeping it both fresh and familiar.
Russell T. Davies would be right if he said that Torchwood: Children of Earth was the most successful series of TW to date. He’d also be guilty of profound disingenuousness if he ascribed that purely to the TW: CoE narrative. The format helped to keep the audience hooked. It’s a lot easier to keep an audience interested for five straight days than it is to keep them coming back each week over three months. There’s data on all TW series to date, but – check out one of only TWO negative reviews: Ginia Bellafante apparently JUST HATES GEEKY THINGS. Here’s also a link to nielsen data.
To give CoE credit: it was brilliant storytelling. Tightly-paced, relentlessly tense narrative full of moral complexity and a lot of living in shades of grey, rather than black and white. That doesn’t mean Davies didn’t break his fanbase, and I know a number of people who won’t be back for Miracle Day.
Much has been made of the Jack/Ianto fangirls/shippers and how they represent the, “Broken (fan)base,” of Torchwood. The thing is, while they’ve been the most vocal, they’re not alone in being broken. Some of us just have slightly different rationales for why investing in Miracle Day seems risky.
This is what Stephanie and I decided to hash out: Why did we feel betrayed by Russell T. Davies? What could have been done differently to keep from alienating fans? Should it have been done differently?
Via twitter, email and text, we’ve given a lot of thought to this. What we’ve concluded is pretty simple: Davies keeps killing off the people we’re supposed to be invested in, but never lets us mourn. This is a bad practice in a period of downturn in the fortunes of genre programming in general. Outside of Syfy, (which has axed BSG/Caprica/SGA) there’s not a lot of sci-fi & fantasy genre programming on the air at the moment. Yes, we have Supernatural, Fringe, True Blood, & Game of Thrones (not counting the few remaining SyFy original programs) but when one considers the large number of television stations and countless hours of programming, it seems to be a pretty small number in comparison to the number of criminal procedurals and/or reality shows. Only a few genre-related pilots were picked up by the networks. Outside of premium or dedicated cable channels, Doctor Who is the only consistently performing or growing show in the genre category. As geeks, we’d like to see more quality genre programming and we’d like it to last more than a few episodes.
Returning to TW, yes, people die in real life. Yes, characters die in fiction. However, there is something to be said for acknowledging that a character not only means something to the people in-universe, but to the audience. RTD hasn’t given his audience that chance as seems clear in multiple interviews.
Stephanie and I both have two huge sticking points, beyond Davies’ tendency to gloss over the value of the audience when speaking to the press.
1. In-universe grief is where?
2. When the only way to raise the stakes is killing characters, how hard are you really trying?
There are times when a senseless death that comes out of nowhere works in a narrative. Joss Whedon is a master of this. Joyce Summers’ (Kristine Sutherland) death led to one of the most powerful examinations of mortality in a universe where death and risk was a constant. “The Body” is starkly powerful, and I (Kristen) have had a similar experience in real life. That episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer devastated me. Just as it devastated the characters and the audience.
Mini-spoiler alert: If you have not seen Serenity or later seasons of Buffy, skip the next paragraph.
Tara Maclay’s (Amber Benson) death is another example of BtVS dealing with the aftermath of a senseless and unintended death. The metaphor may not have been perfectly executed but Willow’s extreme anger at the world over the loss of a loved one is a common reaction to death (see: Xander punching the wall in “The Body”). Hoban “Wash” Washburne’s (Alan Tudyk) death in Serenity further illustrates that it is entirely possible to kill a beloved character for absolutely no reason and have it work.
Outside of sci-fi & fantasy genre programming, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing provides numerous examples of why in-universe grief matters. The episodes, “18th and Potomac” and “Two Cathedrals”, used a shocking death and the ensuing grief as a catalyst for Martin Sheen’s Jeb Bartlett. When actor John Spencer passed away unexpectedly during production of the final season, the writers chose to mirror his death in the narrative. They also brought back a number of actors who had worked with Spencer as Leo McGarry for “Requiem”, depicting the funeral and wake. It gave the cast closure, and gave the audience closure as well.
In the first series, we got two deaths for a single member of the Torchwood team, “Everything Changes” and “They Keep Killing Suzie”. Suzie Costello (Indira Varma,) may not have been very nice at that point, but being a member of TW3 seems to do that to people. In the second series, we got two deaths for another single member of the team, and an unnecessary death for a second member.
Burn Gorman and Naoko Mori had taken thinly-drawn characters and made them live and breathe over two series. While the individual episodes of Torchwood that built largely on the premise of alien-of-the-week may not have worked 100%, the team dynamics did. When Owen Harper took a bullet for Martha Jones, it was shocking. When Captain Jack Harkness resurrected him, it was frightening, had consequences and allowed Gorman a chance to redeem the often-callous and snarky Dr. Harper. Things started to get sticky in “Exit Wounds”. While Owen’s final death had an element of heroism to it, the death of Mori’s Toshiko Sato showed Davies’ willingness to kill a character without it being necessary. The episode included a brief scene of clearing away personal effects, certainly nothing to demonstrate that there would be a lasting impact on the survivors. In the Doctor Who S4 finale, Gwen and Ianto, (Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd,) referenced Owen and Tosh, but that was that. Anyone starting to watch Torchwood from Children of Earth would barely know there had ever been anyone but Gwen, Ianto and Jack in Torchwood 3.
Davies says that Ianto’s death was meant to damage Jack enough to allow him to choose to sacrifice his own grandson. That makes no sense. Jack Harkness is a 51st century guy, a con man with more than enough moral and sexual flexibility to make him a candidate for the 51st century equivalent of Cirque Du Soleil. He’s also immortal. He’s done terrible things in the service of Torchwood, and been buried alive (and therefore died time and again,) for a couple of thousand years. He spent an entire year being tortured and murdered by the Master on the Valiant, and has not only sacrificed children to the 456, but we’ve already seen him willing to sacrifice a child (albeit a willing one,) in “Small Worlds”. Captain Jack Harkness may be a charmer, he may be trying to do what’s right given the circumstances and he may be saving humanity from aliens, but he’s not a nice guy.
The rationalization that this death was needed to take Jack to a very dark, morally questionable place is one thing. To say that, yet have our next encounter with Jack be in a bar, where the Doctor’s parting gift before regenerating is to hook him up with Russell Tovey’s Midshipman Alonzo Frame, beggars belief.
Jack loved Ianto so much that when he died, sacrificing his own flesh and blood to save the earth didn’t even make him blink, but in a short period of time he’s picking up boys in bars with a grin and an innuendo?
I think Stephanie and I probably made the exact same face when we saw that scene.
What we both find terrifying about the prospect of Torchwood: Miracle Day, is that we’ll have another bloodbath that serves no purpose. The storyline and cast look fantastic and there is an embarrassment of riches in the writers’ room, including BtVS/Dollhouse/BSG/Caprica alum Jane Espenson, and yet. . .
Will it be worth investing in TW again? Miracle Day seems to be a bit of a reboot for the Starz/US audience. No knowledge of prior series required. Will all of Torchwood 3’s past be erased? If Jack is having hot sex with a new character, will the fandom rejoice at having an out/proud/sexual hero onscreen or will fandom continue to flinch at the lack of acknowledgment of Ianto’s death?
Those questions remain, and hopefully we’ll start getting answers tonight when TW:MD (Friday, July 8th 10pm) airs. We’re both hoping that we won’t be burned again by RTD’s quest for spectacular ratings at the expense of building a fanbase. The reason for that hope, goes far beyond Torchwood.
Genre programming is an endangered species. While more and more “reality-based” programs are marginalizing scripted television, the willingness to gamble on high-quality, adult-oriented genre productions is tenuous and fragile at best. Davies has an eye for talent, the ability to take difficult moral questions and take the audience along a very bumpy road where we’re forced to ask ourselves what we would do, and ensure we know that we wouldn’t do any better than Jack or Gwen or. . . Davies makes the shades of grey that real life is lived in, crystal clear. That’s the kind of storytelling I want to see more of. Killing characters we’re supposed to care about in order to provide moral cover for a character is cutting corners in a way that’s beneath the level of storytelling he’s capable of. Alienating your audience and deriding the investment you’ve asked of them is beneath any creator.
If Torchwood: Miracle Day can bring back the pre-CoE fanbase and expand it, maybe networks and producers will start giving us more science fiction, fantasy, and horror programming that isn’t sloppy and patronizing.
That would be the real miracle.
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