The Monster Of Torchwood


Due to work and social commitments getting in the way, it was this afternoon before I could sit and watch the final episode of Children Of Earth. It has been a weekend without Twitter, and with due care and attention taken to news feeds and newspaper reviews.

As Torchwood began with Gwen Cooper, it is only fitting that we should too. She has made the very point of this season very, very clear indeed.

“There’s one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world. Except sometimes he doesn’t. All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know, why not? But I don’t need to ask anymore, I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet, and turn away in shame.”

Torchwood has always been a monster show, regardless of it’s reputation as a gore-driven shagfest. At it’s worst, it fell victim to the monster-of-the-week syndrome that did for much better shows. Cybergirls, sex vampires and giant bugs are not the building blocks of what I would call an adult SF show. That, thankfully, is no longer the case. The show has shed it’s fan-service baggage and grown up, and it’s done something more.

Children Of Earth redefined the image of a monster. Although the 456 are indeed horrible (even more so for never being seen clearly, something thrashing and tentacled half-glimpsed through toxic fog) the true monsters of the piece were much, much closer to home. The satire of a world government prepared to capitulate so completely to a global threat as to give away it’s children was broad, sure, but in the past couple of months we have started to see just what excesses our elected officials are capable of, and how a perfectly reasonable starting argument can quickly spiral so utterly out of control that the resulting explosion can leave us all with shrapnel wounds.

The timing was almost too perfect. RTD must have been jumping for joy at the synchronicity of it all.

(Unlike poor old Charlie Stross, who has seen his last couple of story ideas rapidly overtaken by real-world events. You can see why people claim that science fiction is dead.)

But there’s something else that Gwen says in that speech, and that’s the crux of the series, and in a way Russell Davies’ whole stint in the Whoniverse.

Let’s talk about Jack Harkness. In many ways, he is as powerful as the guy in the blue box. Ageless. Immortal. Indestructable. Killed on average once an episode during Children Of Earth. It’s not surprising that John Barrowman has his resurrection gasp down so well. He’s had lots of practice.

I see Captain Jack as the true monster of Torchwood. He has lived too long, and seen too much to be the hero that we’re supposed to see. Jack Harkness is no longer human, and is not subject to human morals or impulses. Sure, he can feel love, and respond to it. But he does so in a way that does not make us see anything but his utter self-absorbtion.

Take, for example, the assault on the 456 that let to Ianto’s death (I’m sorry, if that sentence is a spoiler then WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN?) was typical Big Torchwood Rescue, with the difference that oops, this time the speeches and posturing didn’t work. And witness the reaction when Jack realises that he’s screwed up and put his boyfriend in the line of fire. The response to the chiding of the 456:

“You said you would fight.”

“I take it back. I take it all back. But not him.”

Not the response of a hero, of a man who moments before had said “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Or check out the way he will willingly sacrifice his own grandson, with barely a tear. Without a word to his daughter. Without more than a feeble attempt to argue the point, or to see if someone else could be found. There’s regret there, but no genuine sense of grief.

At the end of the show, the man the planet needs more than anyone, the man with the most experience in the extra-terrestrial, disappears. Quite literally, beams aboard an ore freighter somewhere in the Oort Cloud and leaves behind the devastation he admitted was partially his fault. Rather than finding some kind of penance in helping to rebuild a world that is surely teetering on the brink of revolution (you’re telling me that the world-wide abduction of millions of children by their governments could be hushed up? Really?) he makes a CGI exit, leaving everyone to fend for themselves.

Just like his friend, the Doctor.

RTD has frequently alluded to the way the Gallifreyan will appear, play a part, then leave everyone else to clear up after him. Characters as diametrically opposed to each other as The Master and Sarah Jane Smith know and understand that if there is one thing the Doctor does not do – or even understand – it’s commitment.

Jack Harkness would appear to be of the same mind. Perhaps this is one of the things that happens when you become immortal. The ability to distance oneself from horror and despair in time, in space, in emotion.

Certainly, they are both used to leaving a swathe of corpses in their wake. Jack even goes so far as to list the casualties. Watch “Fragments”, the History of Torchwood episode that seems to have been placed in the middle of an climactic end-of-season run purely to make the point that being around the immortal is dangerous, if not fatal. He’s seen a lot of people die in his time. The knowledge that you will outlive everyone you will ever know has to do some funny things to your head.

The message is simple. Don’t trust the non-human. They will fuck with you, and leave you just when you need them the most.

Which leads to the question – where next? There’s been plenty of speculation that this is the end of Torchwood. That’s nonsense. Children Of Earth was the highest rated show of the week, pulling in audiences of 5.5 million without taking into account recordings and iPlayer viewings. That figure will rocket. The BBC will not ignore numbers like that.

And there are plenty of loose ends that could be pulled into some really interesting storytelling. Leave the space opera to the Doctor. I want to see Torchwood deal with a planet that can no longer ignore the fact that it is not alone. I want to see a Cardiff-based Alien Nation. I want to see Torchwood do The Wire.

Because let’s face it. The Hub is gone. What’s containing the Rift now? I want to see people like Gwen and Rhys, Lois and yes, even the eminently slappable Agent Johnson have to deal with a flood of exter-threats pouring out of that crack in the real without the intervention of the all-knowing supersexgod that cannot die. I want the threat to humanity dealt with by humans. I want to see the whole thing blown wide open. Weevils in the streets. No retcons. Screw Torchwood as the worst-kept secret in Cardiff.

I want Torchwood and U.N.I.T to become S.H.I.E.L.D. They’ve already got the helicarrier. They are the last, best hope against a cruel universe that sees us as a juicy resource. Dinner or drugs, fuel or fuck-buddies. Us against them. A world at war, and the frontline on Cardiff Bay.

And I only want Harkness back on the understanding that he is not, repeat not to be trusted. Him, or the other guy. Anyone that changes their appearance that often has got something to hide.

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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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