I recently watched the new season of Torchwood: “Children of Earth”, a five-hour single-thread miniseries, as opposed to the more numerous standalone eps of previous years. I’ve never been a huge Torchwood fan. Creator Russ Davies notoriously refered to it as “Doctor Who for grown-ups”, but it wasn’t, not really; it was just Doctor Who with a lot of implicit gay sex. And while, yes, it was nice to see the whole gay/bi/interspecies thing played not only as perfectly cool but as essentially unremarkable, that didn’t make up for the generally lame, technobabbly sf elements so reminiscent of shows from Who to Voyager. Thanks for the gender tune-up, Russ: next, think you could maybe hire someone with at least a rudimentary knowledge of science?
So I started watching this new season with low expectations, but nothing better to do. And the bastards hit me in the gut with what might be the most nihilistic, creepy, and adult vision of first-contact I’ve ever seen on series television. They did it by focusing not on science, but on politics. For four and a half hours they had me wondering if I’d found my new Galactica.
And then in that final half hour, they proved that I had. By totally fucking up the ending.
First the good stuff (listed, for those who’ve yet to see the show, in a nice white font that can only be read via text selection): A genuinely creepy, alien first-contact experience, almost reminiscent of John Wyndham. Endless realpolitick jockeying behind-the-scenes; hapless civil servants forced to the front lines because none of the actual ministers want to be held responsible if things go south. An arrogant US presence that shoves to the front of the line and takes over not because the Brits are pussies, but because the Brits realize that in acting without ratification, the US will make a most convenient scapegoat when the dust settles. And finally, when the nature of the alien demand is fully understood— they want ten percent of Earth’s child population as a “gift”— the speed with which the backroom dealing goes from outraged refusal to haggling to, inevitably, an understanding that the children of everyone sitting around this table will be “exempt”. From there it’s just a small step to deciding how the “gifts” will be selected from the rest of the population: “And if we can’t identify the lowest-achieving ten percent of this country’s children, then what are the School-League Tables for?” This is powerful stuff, and there are no easy answers. Give Davies that much: the people who die, stay dead, and some of those deaths are downright pointless (I mean that in a good way). He doesn’t use idiotic technobabble to shoehorn a happy ending onto the proceedings.
But he does use technobabble— senseless, absurd, out-of-the-blue technobabble. It would be an unremarkable resolution to any episode of latter-day Star Trek— hell, it would be an unremarkable resolution to any ep from previous seasons of Torchwood— but when you’ve spent four and a half hours raising the bar, par-for-the-course becomes outright betrayal. And all that technophilic gibberish is used to justify an end game that makes the series finale of Enterprise look strong. Really? The aliens are advanced enough to flit around the universe on beams of light, to hack the brains of billions of children to make them chant their mantras on command, and they’re vulnerable to that? What is this, fucking Signs? Why don’t you just reverse the polarity while you’re at it?
Maybe Signs isn’t the best example. Because there’s this other show out there that also raised the bar, and expectations with it. A show that led me along for four glorious years, gladly overlooking the wobbly bits, because they were so obviously, so lovingly building a mystery— doling out clues, letting us glimpse bits of the jigsaw— only to spit in our faces at the end and tell us the mystery didn’t even matter because it was “all about the characters”. As though you can have plot or people, but not both. As though narrative rigor is somehow the enemy of good drama.
I sense a pattern: 95% front-loaded genius, blown in the final stretch. Genius, in both cases, at least partly because the writers invested adult character development into a genre notoriously wanting for it. Blown— in both cases— because they forgot that adult characters were necessary but not sufficient. Blown because they didn’t care about narrative logic.
Fellow mammals, I hereby coin the term Torchica Syndrome.
You may reasonably point out that two case studies doesn’t comprise a “pattern”. You can’t even derive a standard deviation without at least N=3. So if you pushed me, I’d add X-Files to the list. But Carter didn’t wait for the very end to fuck up. He got started on that years early.
Besides, as an old buddy of mine is fond of pointing out, the best regressions are always drawn between two points.