Terrifying Television (non-Halloween episodes)

October 31, 2009

If you’ve already exhausted your collection of Halloween episodes, or plan to take advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday to pack in more television, there are a number of options. A marathon of any genre-themed show, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, or Supernatural, could make for a spooky Saturday, but if you’re looking for a variety of choices, here are a few of my favourite non-Halloween-themed hours of terrifying television.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush

hushSince it originally aired, I’ve included this fourth season episode in my annual Halloween marathon. The largely dialogue-free hour features the creepy gentlemen, who glide above the ground in tuxedos and politely applaud each other’s efforts to remove human hearts. The episode combines humour with drama and danger, and as fans of the show are aware, “Hush” is also the first appearance of Wiccan Tara, who would become a recurring character. It’s one of the best episodes of an above average show and also one of the scariest… perfect for Halloween!

Supernatural, “Monster Movie”

monster movieAlthough it isn’t the actual Halloween set episode of the season, this ode to monster movies is filmed entirely in black & white and provides a lighter hour perfect for any Halloween marathon. In a more comedic turn, the Winchesters take on an odd case involving the classic silver screen monsters, including the one and only Dracula. The humour comes from the juxtaposition of details from the 1940’s movies and the contemporary, which results in a memorable moment where Dracula flees on a moped.

Jekyll

jekyllI’m cheating a little here because Jekyll is not one hour of television, but a six hour BBC miniseries. However, I couldn’t write about monsters without mentioning this delightful take on the The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde set in the present day. I’m often skeptical of anything updating a period piece, but the creators have described this as a sequel, rather than an adaptation of the novella by Stevenson. This version of the story utilizes modern technology to cleverly continue Stevenson’s tale, and James Nesbitt is wonderful as Dr. Tom Jackman and his alter-ego. Jekyll was also written and executive produced by the brilliant Doctor Who scribe Stephen Moffat. I can’t wait to see what Moffat will do with his contemporary take on Sherlock Holmes, which he is adapting with Mark Gatiss.

Doctor Who, “Blink”

sally sparrowSpeaking of Stephen Moffat, there’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who, “Blink”. It’s extremely well-written, and even though the episode is “Doctor-lite” (referring to episodes where the Doctor and his companion have very little screen time to allow two episodes to be filmed simultaneously), it has a likable protagonist in Sally Sparrow. The episode is truly terrifying, especially if, like this TV enthusiast, you watched it with a group of friends at 3:00AM in an otherwise empty house. Trust me when I say that you will never look at a statue the same way ever again!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Conversations With Dead People”

conversationsIn my second Buffy pick, four completely separate stories are told, all of them occurring on one night. While on patrol, Buffy encounters an old classmate who has been turned into a vampire, while Dawn spends the night home alone, believing that her mother is trying to communicate with her. Meanwhile, Willow receives a message in the library, and Spike picks up a woman in a bar. The episode has its spooky moments but also some great humour and is one of the best from Buffy‘s final season. The dead and undead theme makes it a great choice for Halloween night.

Supernatural, “Bloody Mary”

bloody maryAlthough I was close to sticking the one with the clowns on this list, purely because clowns are truly terrifying, this early episode is a great choice for Halloween. What Supernatural does so well is make urban legends real and few legends are more well known than ‘Bloody Mary’. If “Blink” makes you think twice about statues, then “Bloody Mary” will make you wary of mirrors!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Buffy vs. Dracula”

buffy vs“Buffy vs. Dracula” is a new edition to my annual Buffy marathon. The slayer was bound to face off against the greatest vampire of all time at some point and although this isn’t one of my favourite episodes of the show, it doesn’t disappoint. In it Xander becomes Dracula’s manservant, while even Buffy seems to fall under The Dark Prince’s thrall. What could be more ideal for Halloween than our favourite slayer meeting Count Dracula? I really can’t think of a thing.

 

Happy Halloween Everyone!


Thoughts on Torchwood: CoE

August 2, 2009

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.