Thursday, February 6, 2014

Outside the Government: Torchwood: Children of Earth: Day One

The Last War in Albion will run tomorrow - scheduling snafu meant I failed to get it imaged up in time. Though frankly, this is not as dissimilar as TARDIS Eruditorum sometimes is.

It’s July 6th, 2009. Cascada is at number one with “Evacuate the Dancefloor.” Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga, La Roux, and Michael Jackson also chart, the latter with two songs, this being mainly due to him being dead. In news, since Planet of the Dead there’s been swine flu and protests in Iran over the almost certainly fraudulent reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While during the five days of this story, a coup d’etat takes place in Honduras, an earthquake takes place in China, and Al Franken is finally sworn in as a US Senator, wrapping up the 2008 elections that took place some eight months earlier. 


While on television, airing on five consecutive nights, is Torchwood: Children of Earth - the zenith of that series’ popularity, which means that it did about as well as poorly rated episodes of Doctor Who did. Nevertheless, it is something of a cultural milestone - Torchwood’s one stab at a big event. While its ratings weren’t quite as impressive as Doctor Who’s, all five episodes placed in the top twenty, and everything after the first got AI figures in the 90s. This is, in other words, hugely successful television.

To start, at least, the important thing to realize about Children of Earth is that it is very long. It’s nearly an hour longer than The War Games and five minutes longer than The Daleks’ Masterplan. Only if you are one of those very strange people who wants to count Trial of a Time Lord as a single story, or if you want to argue that Torchwood doesn’t count as Doctor Who, do you have an easy way to argue that Children of Earth is not the single longest televised story in Doctor Who’s history to date. 

This is all the more extraordinary given that it comes in an era where the narrative velocity has increased dramatically. The War Games and The Daleks’ Masterplan came from a highly serialized era of the show’s history in which things simply happened more slowly. Children of Earth, on the other hand, is medially dense piece of work that makes a habit of communicating information through all sorts of means - dialogue, acting, camera angles, sound design, et cetera. All of which is to say that there’s nothing quite like it in Doctor Who. The fact that it is intensely serialized, done as a straight shot, five episodes in five days single story gives it a narrative heft. It goes out of its way to demand to be treated as a single thing - even above and beyond most miniseries. Even the episode titles - the very simple “Day One” through “Day Five” - seem designed primarily to efface themselves, existing as parts of a whole.

This is not to say that it is not clearly constructed on an episode-by-episode basis. “Day One” is about putting pieces on the board and building to the magnificent set piece spectacular of blowing up the Hub. “Day Two” is consciously built around Jack’s absence from the narrative. “Day Four” is a false conclusion, and “Day Five” is consciously bookended around Gwen’s testament. Only “Day Three” is structured purely for its role in the whole - a pure exercise in transporting pieces from Point A to Point B. 

And yet the rapid deployment of Children of Earth and its status as a single mega-story overwhelms all of this, so much so that actually talking about it as five individual episodes seems vaguely ridiculous. Certainly attempting to do so seems to neuter it - to detract from the monolithic and awful grandeur of the series. What is striking about Children of Earth is that watching it is a truly disturbing experience - one where the end so alters the beginning that it does not even feel meaningful to talk about the beginning on its own. The entire story is designed to meticulously and calmly build to the horribly brilliant scenes of Britain’s momentary descent into totalitarian madness.

In this regard we should perhaps start with the brilliant sequence towards the end in which PC Andy watches as Johnny and the rest of the estate start fighting back against the soldiers and then joins the fight. But, more crucially and more fascinatingly, takes off the trappings of his police uniform before joining in. There’s so much that’s interesting wrapped up in this gesture. The strange relationship it suggests between Andy’s senses of duty - the idea that he (on a personal level) cannot bring himself to resist the state while also wearing its uniform - is wonderfully revealing for Andy’s character. That he respects what his uniform stands for too much to wear it while rioting speaks volumes.

But it also encapsulates one of the most fundamental themes of Children of Earth, which is the nature of the world’s systems. Children of Earth is an awful and angry parable about the world we have built and what it would take for it all to come crashing down. The answer, on the one hand, is clearly a lot - it’s not like alien invasions demanding 10% of the world’s children are what you’d call common. And yet the line between order and madness is still depicted as so thin as to vanish nearly overnight.

At the center of this is the depiction of the government, and at the center of that is one of Children of Earth’s main characters, John Frobisher. Indeed, it is not strictly speaking inaccurate to say that John Frobisher is both the villain and protagonist of Children of Earth. He does, after all, have what is in many ways the most complete character arc as events spiral utterly and devastatingly out of his control, and his murder/suicide of his family provides “Day Five”’s most shocking and dramatic moment. But, of course, he’s also very much the guy trying to kill the main characters.

This dualism causes the odd situation whereby the central villain is defined by his very smallness. Capaldi, as we’ve noted, was at this time most famous for playing Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. On one level, of course, Frobisher is an adjacent character - a government functionary. A member of the civil service, in this case - “the cockroaches of government,” as Dekker puts it - and thus, unlike Tucker, actively and consciously outside the structure of elected officials, but in this case the difference is not that Tucker is aggressively partisan while Frobisher isn’t. Rather, it’s that Tucker is a superhuman character built out of big gestures and dramatics, whereas Frobisher is consciously designed as a small and deferential man. 

It’s a phenomenal performance by Capaldi, who plays the character in such a way that there is almost no resemblance between the two roles. Frobisher is meek and awkward. The first scene where he meets with the Prime Minister where we see him in silent closeup, pointedly not even making eye contact with the Prime Minister as he sits, leaning forward in his chair, on edge and looking awkward, just waiting as the PM reads. He is a man who can’t even demonstrate any boldness in ordering a death, simply silently, without words, handing a folder to his secretary and looking up at her nervously, as if afraid she’ll argue, and who fidgets nervously with a pen afterwards.

This is, of course, the entire point of the character - that he is a small and ordinary man who does horrible things out of the most banal reasons imaginable: because they are his job. And ultimately he is chewed up and spat out by the very system he served, the victim of the logic he protected. He is the banality of evil incarnate. It is the sort of villain that Robert Holmes always rendered as the subject of angry comedy transplanted into a realm where he is deadly, horrifically serious. It is, in short, an effort to portray the world Robert Holmes railed against directly, instead of through the soothing lenses of comedy and exaggeration.

This marks, in many ways, the most cruelly vicious trick that Torchwood ever plays. After two seasons of exploring the abutments of eccentric and magical spaces with the ordinary world, Torchwood turns around and abuts a cruelly, horribly real space against a magical one. We get what is, in the end, a fairly standard alien invasion plot, complete with ludicrous baroqueness, and then we get an aggressively accurate depiction of humanity in response to it. And, pointedly, it is humanity that is shown to be monstrous and awful. The worst thing in Children of Earth is specifically and consciously the consequences of the ordinary human reaction to the 456. For all that Frobisher is a small and pathetic man, he’s responsible for some of the most awful things that we have seen in the entire history of Doctor Who.


And yet he is, in the end, only moderately awful compared to the system in which he resides. Of Capaldi’s many impressive performances, the look of disgust on his face when the Prime Minister asks if anyone objects to the plan to just kill all the students from the lowest 10% on the school league tables and gets total silence. [continued]

20 comments:

  1. But, more crucially and more fascinatingly, takes off the trappings of his police uniform before joining in. There’s so much that’s interesting wrapped up in this gesture. The strange relationship it suggests between Andy’s senses of duty - the idea that he (on a personal level) cannot bring himself to resist the state while also wearing its uniform - is wonderfully revealing for Andy’s character. That he respects what his uniform stands for too much to wear it while rioting speaks volumes.

    During the Occupy protests, there was a fairly infamous picture of a senior police official caught right in the middle of throwing a punch at an unarmed protester. The look in his eyes is murderous rage. I remember a discussion about that incident, and someone who was sympathetic to The Man was insisting that the picture was biased and we couldn't see that maybe the person he was punching had thrown a brick at him and how did we know he wasn't in fear for his life and isn't it perfectly understandable and human that in a tense situation someone like that might get all worked up.

    And the thing that occurred to me at the time was this: maybe the officer did feel threatened. Maybe he was frightened. Maybe his reaction was perfectly human and natural and understandable under the circumstances. But he was wearing a police uniform. That uniform gave him certain legal rights that the rest of us do not have. He can detain people against their will. Legally compell them to obey certain orders. Confiscate their property. Under certain circumstances, take their lives. And the deal we made with him, as a society, is that in exchange for the legal authority to do those things, he will use those powers in the execution of his duty and not fly into a murderous rage even under provocation. And if, under provocation he wishes to fly into such a rage, that may be entirely understandable and natural and human, but he's not keeping up his end of the deal, and if he isn't going to keep up his end of the deal, nothing else on earth gives him the right to use the powers granted to a police officer.

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    1. Contrast this with Nolan's last Batman film - the scene where the policeman lovingly puts on his uniform to do battle with the Occupy scum...

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    2. Nicely put. Thank you.

      When leaving a demo my wife and children witnessed a police officer being terrifyingly aggressive towards a father with a younger child who were just waiting for the bus - so much so that another policeman (who was obviously shocked by this) got in between them and forced his colleague to back off. So, thank you to that officer who was acting to protect members of the public, rather than allowing himself to see anyone who opposes the status quo as worse than criminal, deserving neither respect nor basic human rights. Ross, your analysis gives me a better handle on why this feels so much more wrong than a similar altercation between members of the general public.

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    3. And the deal we made with him, as a society, is that in exchange for the legal authority to do those things, he will use those powers in the execution of his duty

      I'm generally sympathetic to your remarks, except that:

      a) We never made this deal.

      b) We shouldn't make this deal.

      c) We couldn't make this deal.

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  2. Can anyone else see Katie Hopkins at that table, gladly offering up suggestions of which undesirable children to hand over to the 456?

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    1. dm, your observation is probably going to be lost on non-UK readers but yes. Yes I can.

      Hopkins is the flip side of the 'only obeying orders' fascist. She supplies the rhetoric which might inform those orders all the while under the guise of providing diverting 'controversial views' on daytime TV. The US has Shock Jocks and the Tea Party, we get Katie Hopkins. Her sneeringly personal top-down class war should be a sign, along with Michael Gove's cynical dismantling of the Education system through brow beating teachers with stats and over assesment and the Con Dem coalition's destruction of the NHS that the multi-cultural classless society we were sold in the late nineties and early 2000s has been well and truly exposed as the pop culture veneer it always was. l'd love to see the Capaldi era Doctor Who tackle that.

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    2. "We'll take the Sharmaines, the Chardonnays, the Tylers, the underperformers and the kids with parents on benefits. Let's face it, you're afraid to say it but you know it's true- they're just holding us back. The 456 is doing us a favour, thank god someone is at last standing up for Hard Working Britons!"

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  3. Did Phil deliberately omit the expenses scandal from his roundup of the news? Because that filled the media for weeks. And Torchwood benefitted from that piece of timing. Russell Davies said over the week Torchwood was broadcast that he'd thought he depiction of the political classes was over the top and then the news of the expenses scandal broke and he decided they really were that corrupt.
    That said, I think the expenses scandal was far more important as a media event than as an actual example of wrongdoing. I'd far rather have a political class that pushed the boundaries of their expenses and actually paid benefits to people with disabilities, than a political class that was completely scrupulous in the little things and grossly heartless in its treatment of people in need.

    One of the awful things about the expenses scandal is that the Telegraph managed to spin it in such a way that the Tories, who were really the worst offenders (e.g. one of them claimed a new duckpond on expenses), managed to benefit from the mood of disillusion with the political classes.

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    1. The Tories may have had the most colourful abuses, but I don't think you can reasonably say they were the worst offenders. Of the eight parliamentarians convicted of fraud as a result of the expenses scandal, six were Labour MPs and two were Conservative peers.

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    2. Unfortunately for us Tories, it ended the careers of some of our MPs. I remember at the time feeling like the Daily Telegraph had betrayed the party I loved and which I thought they supported.

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    3. I can't tell if this comment is serious or not...

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    4. The fallout from the expenses scandal is still going on; it was only last year that the MPs were complaining about the new procedures that were in place to prevent it happening again.

      Amazingly, their outrage that the system (according to them) automatically distrusts their claims and assumes they're guilty of fraud until they prove their innocence does not appear to have affected policy in any broadly similarly areas...

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    5. Roughly a third of British adults support the Conservative party. You're bound to bump into the odd one now and again.

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  4. In related news... how appropriate it is that Ben Wheatley, acclaimed director and soon-to-be-director of two of Doctor Who's Series 8 episodes, gets to do what we here would probably call the non-panto adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise.

    As above, so below. :-D

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  5. [continued]

    Excellent, a massive post split into five parts!

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  6. So, no outrage or accusations of misogyny against Davies for Gwen's pregnancy?

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    1. Perhaps it's because it's juxtaposed with Jack's "pregnancy"?

      A hitchhiker, indeed.

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    2. Oh, and of course Gwen has to be told about her pregnancy by a man, who grabs her against her will.

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  7. I'll just say the obvious - Capaldi is stunning in this.

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