Archive for the ‘Torchwood’ Category

TAKE A LESSON FROM SARAH, GWEN   2 comments

Torchwood: Miracle Day suffers from several TV tropes. One of the worst of which is killing the character of Gwen. This is the obsessive need among TV writers to write female characters as “strong” women. Please note the inverted commas.

British TV writers and actors appear incapable of presenting us with credibly strong women. A few years ago I was watching the introductory episode of yet another series of either Big Brother or The Apprentice. As each contestant/housemate was introduced, we were shown a brief video clip of them telling us about themselves and what made them special. At least half the women used the same phrase “I am a strong confident woman”, almost verbatim. We then saw over the next few weeks that their idea of “strong and confident” boiled down to being able to shout, sulk, bitch and backstab while scraping their hair back very tightly. The men did it too (apart from the hair) but none of them had been so lacking in self awareness as to introduce themselves with “I am a strong confident man.”

Be it Rose, Martha, Donna or Amy, whenever a new female companion is being introduced in Doctor Who, we’re told in the cut n paste PR blurb that she’s a strong confident woman. Or if they’ve decided to really delve into the thesaurus, she’ll be called a feisty woman which is usually  shorthand for “complete pain in the arse”. When I hear “feisty young woman”, I’m afraid I think of Bonnie Langford’s Mel and that’s not good.

The only time Doctor Who deliberately wrote a new female companion as “strong” and got it right was with Sarah. This is all the more surprising as Sarah was presented as the clear break from the helpless, gosh-I’m-so-silly, screamers making the tea who’d constituted the Doctor’s previous companions (yes, I’m looking at you, Jamie). With lesser writers and a lesser actress, we might have been in for four years of artificially shoehorned-in Women’s Lib references. But, aside from the dubious line “Doctor, kindly don’t be so patronising” in her first episode, we learned all we needed to know about how much of an independent woman she was from her clothes, her job and her self-assured manner. She was suspicious of the Doctor for a couple of episodes but, once they were friends, all was fine. Imagine if she’d turned out to be a Tegan and had spent the next four years whining for attention. It doesn’t bear thinking about. They gave us a fine actress who had a good on-screen relationship with her Doctors, wrote her decent scenes and good lines, gave her interesting things to do and and left it at that. I can still remember watching Pyramids of Mars on its first broadcast and not thinking it at all incongruous that Sarah would be a crackshot with a rifle. She was Sarah and Sarah was great so naturally she could do things like that.

Give us a likeable character, give her good scenes and good lines and we’ll assume without it being crassly signposted that she’s as good as the next man. Even when paired (or trio-ed) with the helplessly old fashioned chauvinism of Harry, Sarah never went beyond a mild exasperation with him. Of course, in those days, the writers had yet to arrive at the misconception that what was really needed was friction in the TARDIS. That we wanted the Doctor’s companions to be forever bitching at him and with each other.

The saving grace in the revived post-2005 Doctor Who is that the female companions often turn out to be well written characters. But strong? Rose perhaps. Martha definitely not unless “feisty” has recently been redefined as moping around being jealous of your fella’s blonde ex. Donna possibly but more because of her age. Amy not at all. In fact Amy comes closest to what we can usually expect to see on the rest of British TV when a character is heralded as “a strong woman”. Forever arguing, complaining and demanding explanations. When you see how Amy treats Rory for most of Series 5 (2010) of Doctor Who, do you conclude “strong confident woman” or “high maintenance, self-absorbed bitch”?

When do we ever hear adjectives as clichéd as “strong”, “independent” and “feisty” used to herald the introduction of male characters? Never, and the likes of Mickey, Jack, Rory, Ianto, Owen or a new Doctor are all the better for it. Now, I’m not blind to centuries of social history which have relegated women to walk-on roles in life and TV. I’m aware that one of the reasons why no-one thinks to trumpet or to actively portray male characters as “strong” is in part because society already tacitly ascribes such attributes to men. Or at least it used to do so. Do we have a level gender playing field in the world of TV yet? I don’t think we’ll ever know until TV writers start writing genuinely interesting female characters and stop feeling obliged to write “strong” ones in what they may imagine is a blow for feminism but is actually incredibly patronising.

How rarely does TV present us with any genuinely “strong” women? I mean “strong” in an admirable way which doesn’t include “shouty ballbreaker”. Invariably what we get is women whose “strength” amounts to stamping their feet, demanding to be respected and smashing Dresden shepherdesses and other such occasional ornaments. Why? Because writers seem to regard creating “strong” women not as a contribution to the show but as a contribution to social equality.

The truly good TV writers never seem to fall into this trap and most of those appear to be in the US. Look at a show like The West Wing which has any number of genuinely strong women. But strong in the proper sense which is strong characters, not characters who behave with strength. Some of those characters have weaknesses which often cause them to make bad mistakes but because the writers have taken time to develop warm and sympathetic characters who we actually like for their own sake, we’re happy to root for them though all the hard times.

So, getting back to Doctor Who For Grown-Ups, the big victim of “strong woman sydrome” is Gwen/Eve Myles. She’s always been bigged-up as a strong female character and, to be fair, she was OK in the three previous incarnations of Torchwood. But in Torchwood: Miracle Day, her character is little better than a disaster who reminds me of that Catherine Tate comedy character who jumps and shrieks with terror at the slightest thing. It’s all very well to have her playing kick-ass Gwen blowing up helicopters as she declares “we’re Torchwood” but all those baddies in the helicopter needed to do was to shout “we’ve got your father’s milkman’s daughter-in-law as a hostage” and Gwen would throw down the shoulder mounted missile launcher in panic and run around in circles shrieking and hyperventilating as her eyes bulged larger and larger before rushing off to do something unbelievably stupid like killing her own father. This must be in part a fault of the writing but it isn’t helped by Eve Myles’ acting limitations. It must be having appeared alongside John Barrowman for so long which leads so many fans to imagine that she’s Judi Dench, Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep combined (and by comparison she is).

She’s OK with any of the routine plot stuff but, apart from the rare soliloquy, her emotional scenes are so badly written that she’s thrown back on running around, shouting very loudly and scowling at people. When she arrived at the Welsh camp and started shrieking hysterically at the soldier who wouldn’t let her pass, that was some of the poorest acting I’ve ever seen in Torchwood. And that’s saying something for a show with you-know-who as the main star. Her solution to not getting her own way? She blows the place up, thereby killing (or category one-ing) any number of people who we’re presumably not meant to care about as their names aren’t credited. The writers seem to be saying OK, so she’s a frantically panicking woman at a loss for an answer but she must be “strong” because look at the size of that explosion she’s just caused. Don’t even get me started on that scene where Gwen turns up on a motorbike and then dramatically drags the bike round in a screeching 360 degree circle to leave her facing in the same direction. It’s a bit like the characters in Merlin who for some reason, preparatory to a broadsword fight, flick their swords around to make swooshing noises. Yes, very macho and visually impressive but completely purposeless and quite likely to leave you with a sprained wrist which won’t help in the upcoming swordfight.

If yelling at the baddies to put their guns down doesn’t work, there’s always the ludicrous threats. “You’d better pray that death comes back to this planet before I’m finished with you.” Or how about meeting the elderly harmless man in the chemist shop and telling him “Go now or I will put a hole in your head.” If you want threats like that to be taken seriously, you’d better pray that the person you’re threatening has no notion of how ludicrously incompetent and emotionally insecure you are. What exactly is Gwen going to do to make good her threat? Accidentally knock out the plug of someone’s dad’s life support machine with her bum? All the Nana Visitor character has to do is reply “Oh yeah? Well I’m holding as hostage your primary school English teacher’s next door neighbour’s postman’s hamster” and she could escape while Gwen was running around in circles shrieking and hyperventilating as her eyes bulged larger and larger in panic before rushing off to nuke a pet shop.

The other female characters are fortunate enough to be almost ignored by the writers and so get by on the strength of the relevant actresses. Thus Dr Vera comes over as an intelligent and capable character trying to do her best in an impossible situation with what abilities she has. Esther (oh dear) doesn’t spark enough interest in us to allow us to forgive her idiot incompetence. Jilly Kitzinger gets the best character as sufficient attention is paid to making her and her motivations interesting and the writers have perhaps assumed that an amoral PR agent working for a multinational pharmaceutical must already be enough of a total bitch to preclude their having to write her as “strong”.

What TV writers don’t seem to ask themselves is what is the virtue of being strong. These writers are supposed surely to be people who have some special insight into the human condition otherwise how are they in their jobs? Yet they either can’t see or deem it too much effort to see that strength of characterisation is far more important than “strong” behaviour.

The irony here of course is that, in seeking to show how “strong” their female characters are, these writers use a definition of strength which is primarily if stereotypically male – physical strength, loudness of voice, blowing things up and generally confrontational. The strongest woman I’ve ever known is my mother and she’s never killed anyone in her life, she would probably never raise her voice to a stranger even if he was pointing a gun at her, she doesn’t stand with her feet ludicrously spread wide, she would be sensible enough to wear flat shoes if running was required and the scariest threat she’s ever come out with is “tidy your room or you’re not watching Doctor Who”.

It’s just possible that it’s asking too much to expect credible characterisation from writers whose shorthand for “adult” is not mature but rather alternately shouting fuck and getting your cock out. At last Gwen can’t be accused of doing the last.

Advertisements

Posted August 29, 2011 by docwhom in Miracle Day

FALLING BETWEEN THE BONKERS AND THE GRITTY   3 comments

I think Torchwood only works in extremes. It has to be either gloriously bonkers (or ingloriously if you prefer) as in parts of the first 2 series or all intense and gritty as in Children of Earth. Let it be a fun romp or let it be intense drama but make it one or the other. Although I generally enjoyed the first episode of Miracle Day, I’m already getting the sense that it’s falling between the two stools.

Take the character of Rex, the CIA agent. His whole performance in dragging himself across the Atlantic could best be described as just wacky enough to remove any sense of tension but not wacky enough to give it the virtue of comic relief. His journey from bed to Wales seemed to be played for laughs, as if it should have been speeded up and set to a track of Benny Hill music. Yet it was comical rather than amusing and I don’t think it was intended to be. Given the tales of British preview audiences howling with laughter at the Severn Bridge gags, what does RTD ply these audiences with? Laughing gas? Illuminated signs around the theatre flashing “Piss Yourselves Laughing Now”?

There were silly little things here and there. Rex escaping from the hospital despite the efforts of a doctor in a pencil skirt and vertiginous stilettos was ridiculous. I’ve no objection to the high camp but this just came across as someone getting the tone wrong.

Things were much better in the Welsh scenes, though Eve Myles could do with turning the dial right down on the wide-eyed ham. I confess that I sniggered involuntarily (and I don’t think I was mean to) when her mobile phone in the drawer started ringing and she instantly went into wide-eyed panic mode. Even more so than at the sound of the knock on the door which was understandable.

There were some tell-tale signs of what we’ve learned of RTD’s writing style from The Writer’s Tale. If you find yourself at a plotting or timetabling impasse, grit your teeth, close your eyes, think of Wales  and chuck in any old thing. Take the retconning resolved within seconds of Esther returning to her office to find herself presented with a fat file on everything Torchwoody by a friend who had a friend in the office that had just confiscated all files on Torchwood. Helpfully removing any sense of urgent secrecy and any point to the retconning. What about Gwen’s hideaway cottage being conveniently located at the end of the Severn Bridge? I can understand the need to cut to the chase but Rex was having a phone conversation with Esther at the time, the final sentence of which began with him on the Severn Bridge and ended with him drawing up on the cliff above the cottage.

I didn’t like the helicopter crash scene at all. Not because I have any objection to big action sequences for the sake of it (this is Torchwood in America, after all) but because it felt tacked on for ratings when it could so easily have been tied right into the story. What’s the theme of this series? No-one dies. So, for the sake of a cheap line where Gwen can say “we’re Torchwood” (where we’re presumably meant to punch the air), we’re asked to ignore the completely overlooked point that the crew in that helicopter were all burning alive and would continue to burn alive because they couldn’t die. I expected that surely that scene would end with the sounds of the crew screaming in the flames – drama upon drama upon drama – but no. It ends with Jack and Gwen standing wide-legged watching the flames and grinning at each other.

That aside, there were some fine elements to it all. The Bill Pullman scenes were the best of all. His creepy interview with the governor’s aide brought to mind some of the best of the tone and mood of Children of Earth and I was hopeful that this augured well for the rest of the episode. Kai Owen as Rhys, Tom Price as Sergeant Andy and Gwen’s parents brought a welcome sense of reality to the whole story by dint of not overacting at all.

Those elements were few and far between unfortunately and I always find myself coming back to the root of what stops me taking Torchwood seriously, John Barrowman. I like the guy a lot but the unspoken truth is that he cannot act (ooh look, I just spoke it). That’s not necessarily a handicap because the weird thing about John Barrowman/Captain Jack is that he’s terrible in Torchwood but wonderful in Doctor Who. In Series One (2005) of New Who he was one of the best things around and made a great trio in the TARDIS with Rose and the Doctor. Then along came Torchwood and I thought: ooh I don’t like Captain Jack as much as I thought I would. Then along came Utopia and I thought that JB and the character were on top form again. Make him a supporting character in a show which revolves around the far bigger character of the Doctor and his cheeky wisecracking conman works fine. But put him in a show which has to revolve around him and where he’s required to be grim and morose and he’s just not got the acting ability to carry it off. I cannot take seriously all those silent close-ups on his face while he’s doing intense and moody because he doesn’t have the face for it. It’s too smoothly matinee idol and doesn’t carry a vast range of expressions. There are also signs that they intend to continue to use his silhouette in his long coat as an iconic image in this series. It was used when Esther first met him in the archive and there was a shot of him at the end of a corridor in the series trailer. That worked well in something like School Reunion where Sarah is backing away from the TARDIS and the camera shows the shape of the Doctor standing behind her, all long coat and spread legs. Why does anyone ever stand like that, by the way? It’s not a natural way to stand unless perhaps you’re on the deck of a ship in a storm. It just screams: I’m standing like this in the hope of making an impression. Anyway, to get back to the point, that worked in School Reunion because you knew that inside that coat was David Tennant who can do the moody silent close-ups in his sleep and has the acting chops to make you go eeeeeek in anticipation of what’s to come.

The strongest and most promising part of the whole show looks to be the most original – the reversal of the rules of death. Fingers crossed that it turns out to have a decent resolution. Jacks’ immortality was always a problem in earlier series of Torchwood. Unless it was handled in an original way such as Jack’s burial alive or the attempts of the baddies to kill him in Children of Earth, it was always a tension dampener knowing that he was never going to die. I worry that, if the reversal of his immortality is going to turn out to be critical to the plot of Miracle Day, they won’t be able to avoid explaining how he came to be immortal which will take Torchwood out of reality and into fairy tales.

I did approve of RTD keeping some things almost wholly in the dark. Like the much promised amusing misunderstandings between Wales and America which he skillfully excised almost completely from this opening episode. Always keep them wanting more. However, if the few snippets which slipped through are anything to go by, then we’re in for a comedy treat. What’s a road bridge doing in this country? (chortles growing louder). Wait a minute, it’s also a toll bridge, what craziness is this? (guffaws coming thick and fast by now) Bridges? Tolls? Wales is insane! (I fell off the sofa in helpless laughter at this point).

I hope that this was just an unsettled introductory episode and am hoping for great things in the rest of the series. But that’s a hope based on Children of Earth rather than any confidence in this opener. Nor did the long Coming Soon in This Series trailer which the BBC stuck on the end of tonight’s episode fill me with hope. It had to be the blandest promise of thrills to come I’ve ever seen. Repeated shots of doctors pointing out that no-one is dying. Brief random snatches of meaningless dialogue. And thank you so much, BBC, for telling us pretty much what Oswald Daynes’ character ends up doing. That’s so much more satisfying than waiting to see it revealed through a developing drama.

Posted July 15, 2011 by docwhom in Miracle Day, Torchwood