Thoughts on Torchwood: CoE

children+of+earthIt’s been a week since day five of Torchwood: Children of Earth aired here in North America, and although I did mention the Save Ianto Jones campaign, I haven’t actually written about my thoughts on the miniseries.  Although I generally have positive comments about ‘Children of Earth’, it is my firm belief that it works only as a series finale.  Unfortunately, all signs seem to indicate that there will be a fourth season of the show, with creator/writer Russell T. Davies in charge and stars John Barrowman and Eve Myles returning.  Wondering why I wish this was the swan song for the Torchwood team?  Keep reading.

Upping the Stakes

What ‘Children of Earth’ did well was up the stakes for Torchwood.  In previous seasons, the show mainly focused on an ‘alien-of-the-week’ formula, similar to the old ‘freak-of-the-week’ familiar to fans of Smallville during its earliest seasons.  The show mixed humour with drama, and even the possibility of the world ending was faced with deadpan humour by the Torchwood team.

Owen: What if they can’t stop it?
Tosh: They’ll stop it.
Owen: Yeah, but if they can’t?
Ianto: Then it’s… all over.
Owen: Let’s all have sex.
Ianto: And I thought the end of the world couldn’t get any worse.

‘Children of Earth’ featured one story arc unfolding over five episodes and dealt with a much greater threat than the Torchwood team had faced before.  The problem with this was that it didn’t allow for a continued build-up of evil.  If the show is going to return how can it top this latest series?  As far as villains go, how much worse can you get than an alien race who wants to use 10% of the Earth’s children in order to get high?

American science-fiction dramas, which creator Davies has said influenced Torchwood, have used escalating evil very successfully during their multi-season runs.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title slayer begins by facing one ancient vampire, escalates to facing a pure demon, and dies facing a god, while the final season pits Buffy and her friends against the first evil itself.  Its spin-off Angel has a similar pattern of escalating evil.  During the first season the vampire with a soul takes on weekly cases, but by the series’ final year, Angel and his team face a powerful group of foes and must wrestle with the morality of working at an evil law firm that keeps demons and vampires as clients.

Torchwood: Children of Earth certainly built on the evils shown in its first two seasons but I believe it went too far too fast and did not follow a natural progression but jumped ahead to a future evolution, like in H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’.  Torchwood very quickly became a tense melodrama rather than a sometimes light-hearted drama.  This change in tone is not necessarily a bad thing, but it comes with the price of not being able to go back to simpler times.  The remaining members of the Torchwood team have been too affected by the events of ‘Children of Earth’ to go back to being who they were before, and the show has now lost the ability to play between the lighter comedic moments and serious drama.

This change particularly affects Captain Jack Harkness, a character who was so refreshing because he had elements of the common brooding heroic figure with a dark past, but was also capable of being a flirtatious rogue.  Having watched his lover die and sacrificed his grandson, it is safe to say that we will no longer see that half-brooding, half-flirting Jack Harkness who takes it on the chin, and if we do, what does that say about him?  Is he a character we want to know and who we can sympathize with, or is he a monster?

Kill ‘Em All

the original Torchwood team.

the original Torchwood team.

However, my main issue with ‘Children of Earth’ is that it has taken the ‘anyone can die’ theme to the extreme.  Certainly television characters who constantly face danger must occasionally die; if they didn’t then the viewer would never believe that their favourite characters were in any real danger, but Torchwood has gone to the opposite extreme and killed three of its main characters in the span of five episodes.  This is worsened by the fact that the show’s ensemble cast was not large, like the casts of Lost or Heroes, but only had five people to begin with.

The idea of creating a dramatic ending by killing off multiple characters has been used in many mediums, including the Harry Potter series where the final battle results in the loss of fan favourites Lupin, Tonks, and Fred Weasley.  The problem here is that it isn’t the end for Torchwood.  If ‘Children of Earth’ was not an extraordinary occurrence but a regular week in the life of the Torchwood team, do we really want to continue watching such a dark series on a weekly basis?

While I certainly appreciate the need to write-off characters and show the cost attached to working for an organization like Torchwood, I worry about a show that kills off characters so quickly and recklessly.  Doing so doesn’t give the remaining members of the Torchwood team a chance to realize their grief about Tosh and Owen, who were only briefly mentioned at the beginning of ‘Children of Earth’, before killing Ianto.  This is not drama but melodrama, a never-ending tragedy.

Recently there have been comparisons between Davies and Buffy creator Joss Whedon, both of whom have no problem killing lead characters.  The difference for me is that Whedon doesn’t lightly kill a character for the sake of dramatic effect then seek to replace them.  Tara’s devastating death was not only the catapult for Willow turning to dark magic, but continued to be mentioned through Willow’s guilt over beginning a new relationship, her receiving messages, apparently from Tara, in the episode “Conversations with Dead People”, and a visit to her grave.   Although Willow did begin a new relationship, Tara was always remembered.  I worry that Tosh, Owen, and Ianto, will not be remembered in the same way and this takes away the meaning their deaths may have had.

Unfortunately Davies has made his attitude towards his characters clear.  In an interview with EW’s Michael Ausiello, Davies has this to say about continuing the show after killing half the cast:

I will just sit down and invent new stories and characters. That’s what I’ve spent my entire life doing. It’s not difficult at all. I could write the first 10 scenes in an episode right now.

The flippancy with which Davies claims he will just sit down and invent new characters is problematic.  To kill characters for a reason after a story arc is one thing, but to kill them for the sake of melodrama when their stories are unfinished is another.  Tosh, Owen, and Ianto were characters who the audience had come to care for over the course of two thirteen-episode seasons.  Since Davies has not introduced any new potential characters, except perhaps office assistant Lois Habiba, will he be killing off team members shortly after they are introduced?  Do viewers want to sit down and bother investing in the story and new characters if Davies is just going to kill them four episodes later?

Death of the Coffee Boy

The death of Ianto Jones

The death of Ianto Jones

Although I am a fan of the Ianto Jones character, it is not the fact that he died, rather than Gwen Cooper or Rhys, that bothers me but the way in which he died.  Although Ianto’s death was clearly conceived to be a great dramatic moment, all I kept thinking was how poorly plotted it was.  Senseless deaths happen in real life, so moments like Tara, shot by a stray bullet meant for Buffy, or even Kutner on House m.d., committing suicide seemingly out of the blue, I understand.  I also understand making a final stand against a great evil, which accounts for the deaths of Anya and many a potential slayer in the seventh season of Buffy, or the other Torchwood deaths of Tosh and Owen in “Exit Wounds”.  What irks me are deaths that the writers clearly mean to be purposeful but that the viewer sees as absolutely preventable.

I always found Charlie’s death on Lost to be a prime example of this, although some people have since explained that the hanger door he closed could only be locked from the inside and that was why he couldn’t save himself.  I do still think that since this obviously confused many people, and for me cheapened his heroic death, the writers should have articulated it better.

I find Ianto’s death to be problematic for much the same reason; it was entirely preventable if the characters had stopped to think at all.  This was death for the purpose of melodrama.  Why else would Jack, the man who tried to convince Gwen not to go along with Captain John Hart because it was dangerous and she might get hurt, take the all too mortal Ianto along with him to essentially peeve the aliens by telling them you’re not going to obey their commands?  There was no reason for Ianto to be there, except to die a horrible death in Jack’s arms.

Davies’ response, that someone had to die because “The threat to the world was just so great it simply would have been unlikely if everyone had survived,” indicates that there was no purpose to Ianto’s death except that he seemed to think someone should die.  What Davies doesn’t get is that someone did die, a child at that, not to mention the others involved in the 1965 deal with the 456.  Did their deaths mean less because they were not main characters?  Perhaps they haven’t provoked the fan response that Ianto’s demise did but I hardly think no one was sacrificed.  I doubt audiences were unaffected watching John Frobisher kill his wife and two daughters, and finally himself, because he couldn’t stand to watch them suffer the fate of the original eleven children.

The Ego Has Landed

Russell T. Davies

Russell T. Davies

Clearly I disagree with Davies’ decisions, particularly his idea that someone has to die in order to create drama or make danger believable.  There are other ways to create drama and killing characters does not make something good.  Certainly the 456 were fuel for nightmares, but despite all the insistence that Torchwood is “darker”, “sexier” and an “adult show”, episodes of Doctor Who have created better drama and been scarier, including “Blink”, which will ensure that, regardless of your age, you never look at a statue in the same way ever again.

What annoys me even more than the moments of sloppy writing towards the end of ‘Children of Earth’, is Davies himself.  I remember first being introduced to the man’s writing through a thought-provoking TV movie “The Second Coming”, and then of course through the new Doctor Who.  Certainly he’s a capable writer who has written some great episodes, such as “Turn Left” and “Midnight”.  Yet there are other great writers in the world.  Personally I love novelist George R.R. Martin, comic and television writer Brian K. Vaughan, Dead Like Me creator Bryan Fuller, Joss Whedon, and fellow Doctor Who scribes Paul Cornell and Stephen Moffat.  So I am a fan of Russell T. Davies’ writing, but not of his ego.  I am even impressed by the way he has been treating his fans.

In a previous entry I detailed the current campaign to save Ianto Jones.  I don’t have any hope whatsoever that it will be successful in reviving the character, and that’s a shame, but regardless it is a labour of love for fans who miss a character and should not be so easily dismissed.  More importantly, the fans of Ianto and actor Gareth David Lloyd have currently donated 4500 pounds to charity.  So when I read interviews with Davies where he tells fans who didn’t like ‘Children of Earth’ to “go watch Supernatural, because those boys are beautiful. And don’t tell me they’re brothers.  Not in my mind.” I get angry.  To put down the very fans who have kept you on the air for three years and to dismiss Ianto as nothing more than a pretty face, or his relationship with Jack as simply eye candy, is a low blow in my mind.

He has also said, regarding the backlash, “It’s not particularly a backlash. What’s actually happening is, well, nothing really to be honest. It’s a few people posting online and getting fans upset.”  Yet the 4500 pounds were hardly raised by a few people, and www.saveiantojones.com has received 59,165 hits.  Davies has also mocked those sending coffee to the BBC, claiming only 9 packets have been received although tallies indicate a number in the hundreds, and called upset fans “nine hysterical women.”

I agree that a writer can’t always pander to fan reaction.  Sometimes characters will be killed regardless of how much audience members enjoyed them, and they will stay dead.  What I have a problem with is the way that Davies has been treating a group of fans who have done nothing more than show their love for a character and raise money for a charity that will benefit children!  Surely there is a polite and respectful way to tell fans that although you appreciate their support over the years and understand their love for Ianto, he will unfortunately not be coming back, but you are touched by their efforts to raise money for charity in the character’s name.

Lessons Learned

New head writer Moffat.

New head writer Moffat.

I don’t have a great desire to watch another season of Torchwood, although I am confident that there will be one given the ratings ‘Children of Earth’ received.  To be honest, I am far more interested in seeing how new head writer Stephen Moffat handles Doctor Who with eleventh doctor Matt Smith and companion Amy Pond.  What I do hope is that he has learned from Davies both what to do and, more importantly, what not to do with the characters he has inherited.  Hopefully he has learned that an avoidable death is not heroic but melodramatic, no matter how much rising music plays in the background, and that characters can be written out and drama occur without killing the entire cast.  But the lesson I hope Moffat has learned from his predecessor most of all is how to talk respectfully to fans, because belittling them or forbidding them to disagree with you is clearly not the way.

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4 Responses to Thoughts on Torchwood: CoE

  1. Angela says:

    Well I’m hoping this is it for Torchwood too. Where they have taken this show, is not where I want to go. I miss the campiness and fun that was often found in the first 2 series. Stuff that was sorely lacking in COE.
    And I don’t know if it’s a given that it will be renewed, JB is going to H’wood for meetings so we’ll see I guess.

  2. Chelsea says:

    Hi Angela, thanks for commenting. I absolutely agree that much of the humour was gone.

    I believe Davies said that season four rested mostly on ratings for CoE and since it performed so well, it looked like season four was unofficially a go.

    I did just see the news about JB in the running for a role on Desperate Housewives and I think that could delay a fourth season of Torchwood but I doubt it will entirely derail it. In interviews JB seems to have said about Torchwood that “as long as they want to do it, I’m there”. He has managed to juggle projects in the past and if Torchwood decides to continue with shortened seasons it will be easier to schedule him in. But you’re right, anything could happen and maybe he’ll take off in America or land a major role on U.S. television. I’m not a big DH fan but I think he’d fit in well on Wisteria lane for awhile, so hopefully he gets the role.

  3. Thenk you for a reasoned and considered look at Torchwood, past, present and future. I came late to the party, starting with COE and loved what I saw. Mostly. And I do understand why characters have to die, to move the story forward. I didn’t see Ianto’s death as moving the story along at all. In fact, particularly after hearing and reading RTD’s comments, it is my belief he simply killed Ianto because he could. It took away from the death of Stephen at his grandfather Jack’s hand. A bad mistake for a writer. That scene would’ve had much more impact if Ianto’s death hadn’t preceded it. The death, other than Ianto’s, that affected me the most was actually Frobisher’s murder-suicide. That was fine writing. It almost makes me wonder who else was writing some of the scenes.

    • Chelsea says:

      Thank you for your comment Lizabeth. I absolutely agree that it did take away from the impact Stephen’s death should have had, and likewise I was greatly affected by the Frobisher scene. I hope you have the chance to go back and watch the first two seasons of Torchwood (particularly two) and enjoy them, I’m also glad to hear that it’s not just older fans, but newer fans too, who found the writing to be disappointing at times in what was otherwise a great season.

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