Torchica Syndrome

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.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Sunday August 02 2009at 10:08 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

18 Responses to “Torchica Syndrome”

  1. Dear Friend,

    Yes, Professional Writer, television sucks.

    It is cheesy, poorly-thought-out, dismissive of science, and it makes us stupider the more of it we watch. It throws on the most attention-grabbing ideas of the moment to suggest depth of thinking, of being Serious, but it’s a trick. It’s referring to Big Ideas without understanding them. It is the equivalent of adding msg to the dish if you have pre-packaged ingredients, not fresh, and you aren’t a master chef. The master craftsmen are, in the main, not writing for television; they are slowly starving as they write books and read rejection notices that come sandwiched in between the notices about their overdue bills.

    We members of both your audience and theirs, feel for you. In our sincere desire to see that your tender heart is not continually dashed upon the cruel cruel rocks of television’s innate dastardly badness, we request, nay, beg, that you take that remote and turn. the. television. off.

    We remain hypnotized, unfortunately, and thus will soon become too stupid to even order pizza from our armchairs, so we look to you to carry civilization forward after we are gone.

    The Audience

  2. If they botched out the ending as hard as BSG then I won’t even be able to bring myself to watch it. I’m a little curious now but perhaps I should just find a spoiler and be done with it.

    Saved me the trouble of actually sullying my brain by reading the Twilight series just to see how bad it really was.


  3. I don’t think they botched it as badly. The series is well worth watching for all the reasons PW pointed out above.

    It made me squirm at the thought of our politicians’ way of thinking. Spot on.

    It was also a complete surprise after what I’d grown to expect from Torchwood.

  4. Couldn’t agree more.

    Personally I can cope with a certain amount of bad pseudo-science in on-screen SF — it’s futile to compare Torchwood or BSG to hard, book SF: you have to compare it to Space Opera (sadly, a nearly-dead genre) where a certain amount of fudging in this area is expected, even. But you’re right that having raised the bar they failed to live up to their own … bar-raisingness.

    This is probably sacrilegious, but I would add Babylon 5 to your list. While individual episodes were clearly quite amazing TV (‘My shoes are too tight. But that does not matter because I have forgotten how to dance.’) when the massive puzzle that spanned four whole series turned out to be a boring old Moorcockian Law-v-Chaos thing, I was, erm, a bit pissed off.

  5. I agree with shadowfirebird that a certain amount of bad pseudo-science in tv SF is to be expected.

    But, and I say this with all affection, Babylon 5 included some of the worst dialog writing I have had the privilege to hear on the boob tube. Cringe-inducing. I had the chance to watch an episode a few months ago, and was reminded how embarrassing and stilted it was.

    It makes an interesting contrast to the noble uplifting themes the series was shooting for, and the determination with which under-appreciated folks bravely acted through latex and painful-looking contact lenses. The late Mr. Katsulas should get an award for working in all that gunk, and making what was basically a big lizardman believable and really engaging.

    Shadowfirebird: As to the ending, I mean, do people even remember how it ended? They blew up the station, and good triumphed over evil, or something. We laughed, we cried, we forgot it after the commercial break. Or am I not giving B-5 its due?

    What I mean is – how did you want B-5 to turn out, if, say, you got to write the ending? Isn’t the struggle against chaos a compelling enough human drama? How should “Torchwood: Children of Earth” miniseries have ended?

    (Btw, I agree SF on tv starts with intriguing ideas and usually can’t provide a strong ending, and I would totally include X-Files in that. Millenium, too. I’m not angry or surprised anymore by it, in fact, I now expect it.)

  6. It’s an interesting double-standard that the BBC will painstakingly work to make sure that none of their historical costume dramas contain any inaccuracies whatsoever, sometimes down to the shirt buttons, but when it comes to science fiction the writers will throw darts at a board with words like “neutrino” and “quantum” written on it and call it a day.

  7. @Cancerbaby: “… BBC will painstakingly work to make sure that none of their historical costume dramas contain any inaccuracies whatsoever …”

    Except it seems for the current version of Robin Hood where Maid Marion’s clothing seems to have been pulled from the C&A and M&S back catalogues.

  8. Yes, well, I was talking more about things like Cranford. Actual period dramas.

  9. Cancerbaby: when it comes to science fiction the [BBC] writers will throw darts at a board with words like “neutrino” and “quantum” written on it and call it a day.

    I feel you. It’s not just the BBC, though? “Quantum” is like “fractal” and “chronaton” or “tachyon” in that you throw a handful of them on the plotline when you mean “magic.” They explain everything and nothing at the same time.

    Har har – not to pick on old X-Files again, but in one episode, a physicist’s shadow developed this property – if you stepped in it, you disintegrated. The reason? It was … “dark matter.”

    hahahahaha …I was speechless for a moment, then I remembered, oh, yeah, this is television, so they probably wrote it with the shadow being made of “macguffin,” and when they ran out of time for re-writes, just crossed it out on the script and wrote in “dark matter.”

    Probably a toss-up between “dark matter” and “quantum discontinuity.”

  10. I was at peace until you mentioned BSG again. Why’d you have to go and do that? That feckin’ show. Months and months and months of my life I’ll never get back !!

    I never did watch torchwood. I dunno why. I am prone to judging books by their cover and Tv serials by… erm… their title. “Torchwood” just sounded goofy. Dunno why. I thought it was a teenage soap, actually.

    If only ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (how profound-sounding!) had actually been named ‘Galaxy Goop’ or something equally lame, we should’ve all been better for it.

  11. I’ve come to believe that writers for television and film don’t really understand Plot. They know how to write a good scene, but they care little about whether the scene has any connection to the preceding scene or to the following one. This is how you get things like Planet of the Apes (remember that?), where the final scene is “schocking” and “makes you think” but is completely meaningless in light of the rest of the film.

  12. I would have liked B5 to have uncovered a mystery worth waiting four seasons for, rather than something that had been hacked to death in the sixties in fantasy novels.

    I would have liked Children of Earth to have had an ending that didn’t change the character of Captain Jack, didn’t contradict what he said in the previous episode, and that wasn’t a cop-out in the last five minutes.

  13. “What I mean is – how did you want B-5 to turn out, if, say, you got to write the ending? Isn’t the struggle against chaos a compelling enough human drama? How should “Torchwood: Children of Earth” miniseries have ended?”

    Really, any series that has the human race dominating any portion of space is gonna be primarily fantasy so why even care about science? From DUNE to STAR WARS, we’re talking about adventure stories, and they’ll adhere closely to the unrealistic expectations of the genre. STAR TREK and DOCTOR WHO aren’t going to be scientifically realistic anymore than XENA, HERCULES or LORD OF THE RINGS were historically accurate.

    Personally, I’d like to see something like Larry Niven’s DRACO TAVERN, HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE or even Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR where Earth and its people are pretty much provincial bumpkins not even worth being conquered by the truly powerful races in the galaxy.

    Actually, a story about low level humans conscripted to serve in some Intergalactic Empire’s colonial wars might be interesting. Like M.A.S.H. or Hal Ashby’s THE LAST DETAIL set in space.

  14. That’s pretty much the scenario that B5 proceeded from: the “Old Ones” so vastly powerful and ancient in their Wisdom that we were as bugs beneath their boots. Which is what made it so irritating when Sheridan wagged his finger at them and lectured about noninterference. And especially irritating when the Old Ones actually listened and slunk away, chastened.

    As for how I would’ve liked “Children of Earth” to end, why, that’s simple: the aliens get what they want, because they are smarter and stronger and infinitely more advanced than we. And we just have to live with it.


  16. Since I’m not strong in science myself, I never know if I’m right to scorn a plot point that seems wildly improbable. I don’t mind bad science in TV and movies if the thing doesn’t take itself seriously. THE FIFTH ELEMENT is pure escapist fluff, and I love to watch it, but there is no real attempt at science.

    But the ending of Torchwood bothered me and I wasn’t sure why until I read your comments. This is serious stuff; Jack ends up bereft of those who loved him and whom he loved. And yet it doesn’t take the science seriously enough to come up with something better as a way to defeat these powerful aliens than something that vaguely sounded like psychic humming.

    I think I’m on to something! INDEPENDENCE DAY bothered me even though if was pretty fluffy, too. and I think it’s because they killed off the First Lady. It’s like they weren’t willing to be fluff, but they wanted a pass on the “humans sneaking onto the mother ship to plant a computer virus” ploy.


    p.s. great to meet you on the Cross-Genre Hard SF panel, BTW.

  17. “As for how I would’ve liked “Children of Earth” to end, why, that’s simple: the aliens get what they want, because they are smarter and stronger and infinitely more advanced than we. And we just have to live with it.”

    Now that would have been refreshing. At least it would have been for those of us who aren’t afraid to look at reality when we watch TV. Most want to ‘escape’ when they turn on the TV. Survivor, American Idol, Big Brother– that’s what reality on TV has come to mean.

    I think the aliens should have asked for the top 10% of Earth’s children to boot. Let the PTB’s really have to suffer.

    Sorry to be late weighing in here but well shit happens…

  18. Or if we need a happy ending, how about finding a way to synthesize this chemical that is so “good”? Or somehow keeping the children from producing the chemical, so the aliens won’t want them anymore? Ah, but then no last second excitement.

    And did it bother anybody else that Torchwood did not actually demonstrate any sort of expertise with aliens?

    All things considered though, I don’t think this was nearly as big a disappointment as BSG.