It’s an interesting time to be a Torchwood fan. First of all, you have to be able to watch the show past that Cyberwoman episode. Which means you have to spend some time defending the show from the people who couldn’t watch past that episode. You also have to find some way to talk about how you’re glad that the show found a way to put a gay relationship in the foreground of a sci-fi action drama without sounding like an obsessive shipper who only watches the show as fodder for slash-fic stories.
Which all made the meltdown over the third series, broadcast over five nights as a mini-series, so interesting. Given it’s biggest audience and biggest venue yet, the show performed very well and attracted critical acclaim.
And fans raged.
As for the praise, it was well deserved. “Children of Earth” was a fantastically plotted, amazingly acted television event. A frequent point of criticism for the series is that, while it aspires to mature story-telling and was presented as a more “adult” take on Doctor Who, producers and writers seemed to think that all you needed to make a sci-fi series mature was add in lots of swearing, violence and sex. It’s a partly valid complaint, and the unevenness of the first season is testament to that. But by the second series most of the tonal problems had worked themselves out and the show was able to balance a sophistication in story and character with a self-deprecating sense of humor. That frequently focused on sex. This third series continued that evolution even more, and it’s probably telling that shortening the series to one story told over multiple episodes allowed for a more carefully crafted and thoughtful approach to the series than the need to get out thirteen weeks worth of episodes out the door.
The regular cast do a remarkable job, with Gareth David-Lloyd in particular turning in a excellent performance, and Eve Myles stepping up and showing us a Gwen that wasn’t quite always there in previous seasons but comes to the fore remarkably as well. The supporting cast, particularly Peter Capaldi as ill-fated civil servant John Frobisher, do excellent jobs as well. It’s a terribly well-acted show, and writers Russell T. Davies, James Moran and John Fay should be congratulated for giving such meaty roles for strong actors. If there is a fault to be found with the show, it’s in the rather laggy pacing, particularly in “Day Five”, which frequently felt like a thirty-minute story padded out to sixty.
There are some nice nods to the wider universe the show appears in as well, with Gwen making a fairly convincing case as to why, in certain times of deep crisis, the Doctor doesn’t appear on Earth. It’s a telling indictment, since for those who have been watching the new series of Doctor Who, a significant part of the problem faced here can be traced back to the Doctor upsetting history by removing Harriet Jones from power. And, of course, even if it is slightly selfish praise, it is nice to see a big, mainstream, action sci-fi show headlined by an openly gay man that places one of its heroic leads in a same-sex relationship.
And now, for those of you wishing to avoid spoilers, don’t read past the uncomfortable looking gentleman…
And so, if the show is so good, why did the fans rage? Well, to be fair, only a small subset of fans raged. To be specific, the fan entitlement and the “shipper” crowds were enormously upset that LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS in the fourth hour of the show, Ianto Jones dies in a failed attempt to stop the aliens, known only as the 456, from taking 10% of the Earth’s children as a kind of tithe. It’s a heart-wrenching moment, and it’s beautifully acted. Story and plot wise, it’s crucial. It emphasizes in a very real and personal way the stakes of the danger everyone is facing. Ten percent is just a statistic. That Ianto, a character who has grown to occupy an essential place in the show and amass a considerable fan following, can be casually disposed of, as an afterthought, by the 456, brings home how severe a menace they really are.
But now the people who were only watching the show to watch two men make out or to find inspiration for their racy slash stories felt like they were kicked in the face. Because they mistook their enjoyment of the show for ownership of the show. This is a fairly common problem with fans who become overly emotionally invested in their entertainments, but it bears repeating: being upset because Ianto dies is a perfectly acceptable response; not caring to watch a potential fourth series of Torchwood without Ianto in it is a bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face, but it’s not an unreasonable response; planning to pelt Russell T. Davies at Comic-Con with coffee bags (yes people online have talked about doing this) and accusing him of being a homophobe (yes again) is utterly insane.
The reaction also displays another common failure of many fans online: an inability to “read” media. You see it all the time with comic book fans who mourn the death of a character. Death in comics is meaningless. Utterly. It can always be undone and it happens so frequently as to have no impact. Let’s look at the character of Ianto and the nature of Torchwood for a minute. It’s emphasized, many times, that Torchwood employees tend to die young. Hell, they killed Owen and Suzie twice. That’s a strike against him. Ianto is a secondary character in an action show. Secondary characters are always expendable. They’re created to be killed. That’s a second strike. To top it off, Ianto is a secondary character in a relationship with a lead character. Let’s face it, he’s had a big bullseye on him for quite some time. It was painfully apparent that eventually someone would take that shot. And I’m glad that it was Ianto’s creator, Russell T. Davies, who took it (though John Fay wrote the actual episode). It’s a needed reminded that, while an audience can and should have an emotional connection with a fictional character, they are in the end only playthings of their creators, to do with as they wish.
And, let’s be honest here. Ianto died on a science-fiction program…that deals with time-travel and parallel worlds. The first episode of series four could open with the Cardiff Rift opening and the Ianto of Pete’s World stepping through to stop the new menace. It’s the easiest thing in the world for a writer to bring him back, should they choose to.
I’d also like to spend some time discussing the banality of the the 456 and what they want children for. It’s the kind of jaw-dropping revelation that makes for fantastic television. It’s both shocking, genuinely, and rather bold. And utterly, utterly banal and petty. It drives home the theme of the series as a whole, one that is frequently visited on both Torchwood and Doctor Who, that as scary as the universe is, it’s humans, more often than not, that are the real monsters. The villains of the piece aren’t the 456. They’re merely taking advantage of a situation. The villains are the world’s governments and militaries, who are willing to sacrifice their children, lie to their citizens about why, over something ultimately stupid and trivial, in one of the better handled Iraq War metaphors to come along. That it takes an equally monstrous act to solve the problem keeps us in this morally defunct universe, as even good people must do terrible things for what they can only hope are the right reasons.