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September 15, 2007

  • Truth and Consequences
  • I don’t think I have been more angered by 45 minutes of television in the past twelve months than when I watched the Torchwood episode “Cyberwoman”. The plot, in case you missed it, involves Ianto Jones, the logistics coordinator-stroke-tea boy for the super-secret-security organization known as Torchwood. It turns out he’s secretly smuggled his girlfriend into the base—only his girlfriend is now a partially converted Cyberman from Doctor Who. He wants to cure her somehow, only a cure is impossible and she turns out to be the lethal killing machine everyone else in Torchwood—and the viewer—knew she would turn out to be. By the time they kill the girlfriend, two other innocent people are dead, and the cybernised girlfriend nearly succeeded in recreating the cyber race on earth. Along the way, Ianto holds a gun to the head of Captain Jack Harkness, the head of Torchwood, and pretty much disobeys every order he’s given while staying in denial that what he’s doing is somehow going to work.

    Even so, until this point, the episode in question has been just a undemanding science fiction romp, heavy on gore, that was about as dramatically interesting as an early level of Doom (in its favour, it had a pterodactyl in it). But then something happens that infuriated me: Ianto gets off scott-free. The assessment of Captain Jack and Gwen Cooper, seems to be ‘Well, he was in love. That he lost his girlfriend is punishment enough.’

    Let’s recap: two people die as a result of Ianto keeping a Weapon of Mass Destruction in the basement of Torchwood and he doesn’t get disciplined or fired or arrested.

    I work for a youth service organization. It’s written in my employment handbook that it’s a firing offense to bring alcohol on the premises, much less offer it to youth. And yet, Ianto can keep a WMD in the basement, cause the deaths of two people, hold a gun to his boss’ head and risk destroying the planet and that’s okay because he was in love. Worse, Ianto doesn’t even seem bothered his actions led to the death of others.

    I shouldn’t be surprised by this. No one ever takes responsibility for anything in Torchwood. That’s a core premise of the series.

    This was established in the very first episode as the Torchwood team trample through a gruesome crime scene—not, as it turns out, to help investigate the crime but to test out a nifty alien device that can resurrect the dead for three minutes. (It turns out one of the team is actually committing the murders in order to test it out.) The point is made: these people are above the law, above morality, above everything.

    Which is a shame as, frankly, they suck at what they do. Again and again, throughout the series, characters do what the hell they like, creating terrible messes for the sake of their hubris and then never suffer any consequences. It’s a bad joke in the final episode when the team’s ladies man Owen (only in Cardiff would men who look like Austropithocenes be considered sexy) opens the space-time rift under the city because he wants to get back a lost lover and causes untold catastrophes ranging from the return of the bubonic plague to fractures in very fabric of time and he gets told ‘There are consequences to what you do’…but still doesn’t get fired. No, he gets fired later on for disagreeing with Captain Jack (it doesn’t last).

    No one seems immune to this. The team’s newbie, Gwen Cooper, cheats on her boyfriend (with Owen, of course) and finally admits to it. Only, it turns out, she’s drugged her boyfriend so he’ll forget the admission ever happened because she needed to know if he’d forgive her. On the one hand you have to sympathize that if you had access to alien tech that would enable you to have do-overs on difficult moments you might take advantage on it, on the other hand, the scene is frustrating because it’s yet another example of the characters in Torchwood avoiding responsibility.

    In the initial descriptions to come out for Torchwood, they talk about how they wanted to do a more ‘adult’ take on the Doctor Who universe. It’s not really. It’s just Doctor Who with more gore and sex and without the compelling lead characters. If anything I find it more childish. In Doctor Who, the series format is the excuse to get away from dealing with consequences: the Doctor and Rose are off in the TARDIS to another adventure by the end of an episode (even then, Russell T Davies had the Doctor confront the results of his actions on several occasions, particularly during the first series). Torchwood, on the other hand is set in the same location with the same characters every week. The consequences of their actions should effect what they do in subsequent episodes.

    This is certainly the case in Battlestar Galactica. The third series of what must be one of the best dramas on television is all about the consequences. The season opens with the rag-tag space fleet survivors now living on a planet occupied by the enemy Cylons. This leads to an interesting reversal that was quite daring for American television: the heroes are the insurgents, fighting against a vast hegemony. Eventually, the colonists are liberated and we return to the usual format of the last survivors of humanity out in the stars searching for earth.

    You would think, like Torchwood every week, the reset switch is pulled. But it isn’t. The show may be ‘back to start’ in terms of its premise, but in every other respect it isn’t. The shadow of what took place during the Cylon occupation and how it plays out for the colonists on Galactica now has lead to some of the most compelling drama this year.

    Almost the exact opposite of Torchwood’s “Cyberwoman” is Battlestar Galactica’s “Collaborators”. Set just after the liberation from the Cylon occupation, a secret tribunal begins to try collaborators with the Cylons, dispensing swift and rough justice. The tribunal is on the one hand made up of people like Colonel Tigh, who killed his wife when it was discovered she aided the Cylons (albeit to save Tigh, who was being tortured by them) and is enacting his righteous anger and self-loathing grief. Others, like Chief Petty Officer Tyrol finds himself increasing tormented as he realizes how grey the area he’s treading really is (one collaborator he executed set free Tyrol’s wife just as she was to go to the firing squad). It all comes to a head when Gaeta, who was the number-two man in the occupation’s human government is set to be executed, only at the last minute to be discovered to be the insurgents’ chief source. By this point, the President of the Twelve Colonies, Laura Roslin has caught wind of what’s going on and puts a swift stop to the tribunal and institutes a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to find some way to help people through the experience. It’s a nice example of how the makers of Galactica are informed by real events (this time taken from Post-Apartheid South Africa). At the end, the characters are still haunted by the choices they made during the occupation, but very slowly they’re moving closer together.

    It’s grim stuff, to be sure. But what makes Galactica so great is, at its core, it’s about the last survivors of humanity as they struggle to live with the choices they make—choices that are political, religious (another whole article could be written about how Galactica has one of the most compelling examinations of religion on television) and personal.

    We see this play out throughout the series: Adama struggles with the knowledge that he abandoned his son to a depressive mother and the possibility that his actions years ago might have precipitated the Cylon war. Starbuck and Apollo have an affair and then have to try and put their own marriages back together afterward. In a disturbing episode, Adama and President Roslin interrogate Baltar, who betrayed the humans to the Cylons and then became President during the occupation, and we learn the extent of the denial that undergirds Baltar’s life.

    In the world of Battlestar Galactica, the characters are achingly fallable. The universe they live in is one that has no fixed compass in terms of ethics and characters can make bad choices and they suffer for those choices through alienation, loss of power and guilt and personal suffering. But they learn from it as well. And you can see most of them struggling in their own way to prove that humanity is worthy of surviving.

    That’s not easy. Often Battlestar Galactica raises more questions than it does answers, particularly when seen through the prism of current events. But then Battlestar Galactica is an adult series about adults struggling to make the right choices. Torchwood, on the other hand, is an adolescent series about adolescents pretending to be adults. The difference is that simple and that profound.

    Originally published in Movement, the magazine of the British SCM

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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