Torchwood and the art of the big finish
This week’s big television event was the five-part series of Torchwood across five consecutive nights. Everyone seemed to be talking about it, and the general view seems to be that it was really very good. Except that a lot of folk don’t like the finish.
Before I saw the end, I was opining that the headwriter Russell T Davies (RTD to fans) and the production team’s track record on series finales as “no better than 50-50”. That’s because over the past four years the writing and production team behind Torchwood and its parent series Doctor Who have been excellent in setting up a series finale – only to consistently drop the ball in the final minutes. It’s very frustrating for the viewers, who keep hoping that the production team doesn’t make the same mistake time and again only to see it happen.
Before tackling “Children of Earth”, let’s review the evidence for my 50-50 statement:
Dr Who – Series 1
Build-up: A surprisingly successful sharp satire on reality shows masks the real threat. After seeing one Dalek earlier in the series, their return – en masse – is unexpected and the Doctor aghast and overwhelmed.
Big finish: having written himself into a corner, RTD pulls out the most outrageous deus ex machina when companion Rose pops the hood of the TARDIS and gains superpowers. Just consider that for a moment: why did the entire race of Time Lords die in a war against the Daleks when they could just have done this themselves? What’s to stop the Doctor doing this the next time he faces overwhelming or mildly worrying enemy forces? It’s a dreadful pay-off for fans; even the ‘Big Wolf’ season-long tease proves to be a waste of space/red herring. The finale is salvaged slightly by ending on a terrific farewell scene for Christopher Ecclestone.
Result: Impossible to overlook that howling plot device under the TARDIS console.
Dr Who – Series 2
Build-up: the season’s foes have been the Cybermen, and they’re invading earth. And then in the final seconds of the penultimate episode there’s a brazen, jolting about face when suddenly the Daleks fly into shot. Fans the country over fall off their chairs and yell expletives.
Big finish: the episode loses confidence on the Dalek vs Cybermen face-off and concentrates instead on the Tyler family soap opera. At least the resolution (sucking the enemies into a parallel universe) is fairly well prefigured and set up, far less of a “with one bound he was free” resolution than season 1. And the farewell to Rose is suitably teary.
Result: Not as good as it perhaps could have been, but on the wholea success.
Dr Who – Series 3
Build-up: The terrific Derek Jacobi has been unveiled as The Master and then promptly regenerated into the deliciously deranged performance of John Simm who goes on to take over and enslave the earth and the Doctor. Everything is at stake, all appears lost.
Big finish: Oh, dear God. For my money the absolute nadir of the revived Dr Who. An even bigger deus ex machina than that of season 1, which makes literally no sense whatsoever, combined with disturbing pseudo-religious overtones (companion Martha as a prophet wandering the earth foretelling the resurrection of the Messiah with the sonic screwdriver who even wakes in a Christ-like pose, and with inexplicable superpowers). And then to rub in the disastrous spectacle even more, the whole thing is dismissed as a time paradox that never happened – the science fiction equivalent of “it was all a dream”. Is that Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower? You know an episode is truly appalling when it ends with a scene ripped straight out of the 1980s kitsch remake of Flash Gordon.
Result: Shockingly bad.
Dr Who – Series 4
Build-up: Catherine Tate had proved spectacular as companion Donna and the stories had been getting better and better. Finally the earth is stolen, the Daleks pour in – and the Doctor is exterminated and apparently about to regenerate. A nation goes berserk waiting for the final episode.
Big finish: this one is rather like Death By Chocolate, only with several dozen more lashings of chocolate added on for good measure. It’s irresistible, leaves you with an huge sugar high – and just about gets away with it all thanks to the sheer energy and goodwill of all concerned. The scene where all the Doctor’s friends join to pilot the TARDIS will put a lump in any fan’s throat, enabling us to overcome to ludicrous sight of the TARDIS ‘towing’ the earth at warp speed which makes no sense at all. And the final tragic fate of Donna adds a much needed hard edge of pathos to finish on.
Result: An overblown end-of-term party, not perfect but impossible to dislike.
Torchwood – Series 1
Build-up: a series that struggled to find its feet and had some truly awful moments (the Cyberwoman instalment has to be seen to be believed – only, don’t) finally finds a creepy ‘arc’ with a mysterious elderly man plotting something Satanically evil.
Big finish: thrown away in an utterly pointless CGI-fest of a giant devil-like creature striding over Cardiff for a few minutes before being dispatched by some forgettable technobabble. An embarrassing end for all concerned for a supposedly “adult” science fiction show, this one wouldn’t have made the Saturday morning cartoons.
Result: Just when it looked like Torchwood was getting form, it crashes and burns again. Frustrating
Torchwood – Series 2
Build-up: a much-improved second series climaxes with the return of Captain Jack’s long-lost, presumed-dead brother. Unfortunately the character seems to be played by a plank of wood.
Big finish: long-lost brother is out for revenge. From the start you suspect that one of the Torchwood team is going to die in the process – but it’s not who you think. And it’s not just one. A genuinely shocking final episode that connects on a real emotional level as well.
Result: still rather flawed, but a strong finish this time around.
I’d charitably describe that as 50-50. You have one outright disaster and two serious disappointments, against three that are successes even if not quite as good as you actually hoped and expected given the build-up.
That’s why I approached the final episode of the latest Torchwood mini-series with some trepidation even knowing how good the first episodes had been. Which side of the 50-50 division would it fall?
Torchwood – Children of Earth [Spoilers]
This mini series had already notched up some impressive moments: the total destruction of Torchwood’s base at the end of Day 1 was a real shocker; the team on the run, 24-style; Peter Capaldi superb as the buttoned-down, haunted civil servant; the brilliantly tense and iconic negotiation scenes between Capaldi and the aliens, the 456; the slow unfolding of the conspiracies; revelations about Captain Jack; a great “jail break’ scene involving a fork lift and a block of concrete.
Torchwood really did seem to benefit from a Quatermass-esque mini series format, allowing it time to open out one story to epic lengths and deliver genuine intelligence, class and depth. Much of the drama wasn’t about shootings, explosions, actions and science fiction but about the real human drama of a group of people sitting around a conference room table making impossible decisions – genuine grown-up, adult drama and not the puerile “adult SciFi” the series started off with two years ago with sex and naughty words.
And yet for all that, I waited with bated breath to see whether they would fumble the ball on the touchline again. 50-50, right?
Well for my money they pulled it off and this solidly weights the 50-50 balance towards the positive column. There was no deus ex machina for once (the resolution was clearly signposted throughout, especially with the death of Clem, and was clearly logical within the set-up of the story), the human drama was excellent, and the pacing was just about right almost to the very end rather than being the usual mad rush that leaves half a dozen plot strands undone in the process. A particularly nice touch was the actual dreadful secret of why the 456 wanted the children – a more dreadful reveal than expected. Shame the child-symbiont we saw in the mist was a blatant reuse of the distinctively odd-looking Toclafane props from “Last of the Time Lords” though.
Of course, there are a few quibbles. The pointless, lazy recycling of the contact-lenses-recording-everything plot at the end of day 5, for one. Then there was the Prime Minister ordering Frobisher’s children to be added to the aliens’ collection: while it made for a suitable if rather pat ending to that character’s storyline, the idea that the PM would think that the loss of an obscure civil servant’s family would in anyway persuade press and public that the government had suffered too was absurd and a misunderstanding of basic political and media reality. Why not get the children of a few ministers who weren’t party to the COBRA discussions? And let’s leave aside the impossibility of the government organising a nationwide round-up of children on this scale in a matter of hours, when we all know that they’d be lucky to get something half-arsed moving in a couple of months.
And the ending of episode/day 4 annoyed me. That seemed like a knee-jerk “oh, it’s time to kill another of the main cast” moments for no particular reason. And to add insult to injury, Ianto’s then forgotten to the horror of Captain Jack having to make the decision to sacrifice his own grandchild to save the world. This moment seemed rather nasty and not a little exploitative, but to be honest it’s actually also very much in line with the overriding theme of people having to make dreadful, impossible decisions, and their characters being measured by their choices at such critical times. The final contrast between the PM and and his cohorts set to brazen it out, and Captain Jack finding his actions impossible to live with and literally fleeing the world to get away from the ghosts of his deeds, was nicely set-out and played.
It’s impossible not to think that this really is the end of Torchwood as a series. The cast is essentially out of commission: either dead, retired (to motherhood) or out of this world, Torchwood has no future. Which is a shame, especially after all the work that’s gone into raising the series to prime time BBC1 status with such striking results and strong ratings. I suppose they could resurrect it, but it would feel cheap to do so after this, and so it seems this is the end of the BBC’s only grown-up science fiction show just when it had finally found a heart and a brain to call its own.
So, final result: Torchwood – Series 3 delivers stronger than almost any of RTD’s other big finishes. But a shame it really does seem to be an unremittingly downbeat ending with no hope of a future.