Torchwood: Children of Earth

And Doctor Who did begat Torchwood…and between those two and Primeval, Saturday nights on BBC America were pretty well packed, and verily, did we praise Tivo to the heavens. While we started somewhere in the middle of the fourth season of Who – leading to a fair amount of “Well, that would probably make sense if we’d seen all the previous series” – we were lucky enough to begin Torchwood at the beginning, which certainly helped. Two series of tracking the near-immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his team followed, as they battled aliens and alien technology from their secret base, the “hub”, in the center of Cardiff [which is basically the UK version of Buffy‘s Hellmouth, where all the weird shit happens. Makes sense to me].

It took a little while for the series to find its feet and become its own master, but it got there, and in time for the five-night event which was Children of Earth, with only a couple of weeks between its broadcast in the UK and here in Arizona. Quite long enough, unfortunately, for Twitter spoilers to provide more information than I would rather have had, but such is media life in the 21st century. It’s hard to imagine anything like, say, The Sixth Sense, being so successful today – by mid-Saturday afternoon, the twist would be all over everyone’s Facebook wall. Well, those who have a Facebook, which still excludes me, I am pleased to report. If you want to ‘friend’ me, you need to do it to my face, dammit.

Anyway. Children of Earth starts with every child in the world simultaneously stopping, repeating “We are coming” for a couple of minutes, then resuming as if nothing had happened. Needless to say, this freaks out the adults, and things get worse as the incident repeats – adding first the word “back”, then “tomorrow” to the message. The Torchwood team swing into action, but it turns out that the British government know more about this than they are prepared to let on, and Torchwood’s offer of help is rudely rebuffed. And that’s “rudely” as in “we’re going to implant a bomb inside Capt. Jack, and let him blow up the hub, then terminate with extreme prejudice any survivors.” Terribly un-British, actually.

The government have received instructions from “the 456” – an entity? a group? an alien race? – on the construction of an apparatus, and are building it on the thirteenth floor of a Whitehall building. There’s also a single adult who is affected, and appears to be a survivor of a mass abduction of some kind that happened forty years ago. So, what the heck is going on? What do the 456 want? Why are Torchwood – the people best equpped to handle the crisis – apparently now targeted for execution? It makes for an effective combination of 24 and The X-Files, combining the running around and political shenanigans of the former, with the extra-terrestrial/supernatural aspects of the latter.

Holding it all together is Harkness, a man for whom the phrase, “You cannot stop Captain Jack, you can only hope to contain him,” appears to have been designed. He cannot be killed, due to an incident in a previous Doctor Who episode, which left him “a fixed point in time and space.” This kind of thing could be lethal to any tension – when death loses its sting, where’s the threat? – yet, the writers still found ways to imperil Jack, as noted above. Returning from that was an impressive feat, with our hero at one point looking more like skinless Frank out of Hellraiser. His immortality is also in contrast to the very real mortality of his team – half of which didn’t make it out of the second series and here… Well, let’s just say, I wouldn’t sell them any life insurance.

Less successful is the gay relationship between Jack and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd). While not a problem in itself (hello – Xena fan!), in the first episode in particular it seemed forced and self-conscious: “Look at us! We’re gay!” As in Xena, when the writing drifts from what makes the show successful – and this is an action/SF show, not a soap opera – it weakens things.  While likely inevitable, with both Barrowman and creator Russell T. Davies being cheerfully out of the closet. I tend to think that when you make entertainment for the public at large, it’s self-indulgent to put your own sexual preference, shared by perhaps 5% of the population, to the forefront. It’s notable that the series episodes not written by Davies are less inclined to take this approach.

It didn’t help that Ianto came over as, in many ways, irritating and clingy – quite the opposite of the kind of person, male or female, with whom you’d expect Jack to take up. Say what you like about the ambivalent Capt. James Hart – and Barrowman sucking face with Spike from Buffy was certainly one of the more memorable images of recent genre TV – you could see the attraction. Ianto basically makes the tea for Torchwood. It’s another echo of Xena, where the relationship between the heroine and Gabrielle was fundamentally wrong – not because the characters were the same sex, but purely because Gabrielle was a whiny little bitch. Ianto also stretched our credulity to the limit, when he somehow outruns the British army in a fully-laden bulldozer.

Fortunately, the rest of the script largely makes up for it. In Gwen (Eve Myles), you have perhaps the closest British TV has got to an action heroine since Joanna Lumley in The New Avengers. Flying through the air, gun in each hand…and did I mention she’s pregnant? While not a ‘classical beauty’, you can easily see why her husband is utterly-devoted to her [much as I am to Chris…]. Much credit must also go to Frobisher (Peter Capaldi), a civil servant who finds himself at the center of the storm; the decisions which he makes end up turning him into a victim, in the most bleak way imaginable.

Indeed, the show is particularly chilling in its bureaucratic plausability. When it becomes clear what the 456 want – it’s horrific, both for what they want, and the reasons why they want it – and that there’s no way out of delivering it, what results is the kind of conversation that must have happened in Nazi Germany. How do we get the Jews to the camps? How do we dispose of the bodies? Something unthinkable – not just being discussed, but reduced to its banal practicalities. The 456 may be the villains, but the politicians don’t exactly come out of this smelling like roses.

The deeper a hole a plot digs for its characters, the harder it is to climb out of it – and the hole here was bordering on the Grand Canyon-sized. The machinations required to get out did have an air of deus ex machina in their convenience – not as bad as, say, Independence Day, Signs or War of the Worlds, because there was a price which had to be paid for them, and it was not at all negligible. It may be the end of the series – the team gutted, their headquarters destroyed and their leader…well, he won’t be doing any leading for a bit, let’s just say – but if so, it’s an entirely fitting way to go out.

In the late seventies, I remember watching Quatermass on ITV, and being totally gripped, albeit as a 13-year old kid. Thirty years later, Children of Earth had almost the same impact, an impressive feat after three more decades of cynicism have gone under the bridge. It certainly ranks among the most gripping, effective short series of genre television to come out of Britain in a very long time.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Mystical Adventures Of Billy Owens

Dir: Mark McNabb
Dalton Mugridge, Christopher Fazio, Ciara O’Hanlon, Roddy Piper

It’s a surprise that it took so long for someone to produce a shameless rip-off of Harry Potter. While such things have been done in the literary world [most infamously, Russian series Tanya Grotter], even the Asylum – creators of such works as Transmorphers, I am Omega and the all-time classic, Snakes on a Train – haven’t ventured into the boy-wizard arena. It took the unlikely combination of a pro wrestling legend and, it appears, a community theatre group, for this to be realized.

I kid not. While one can understand the children not having much cinematic experience, the official website for the movie reveals that most of the adults are not exactly professionals. For example, one is a telephone engineer; another “pursued a career in human resources”; a third is a police sergeant. Rarely has a the phrase “don’t give up your day job,” applied to virtually the entire cast of a movie. Few have any other film experience listed in the IMDB, except for a couple who appeared in McNabb’s previous films Study Hell and Blind Eye.

Worth mentioning those movies because, while they weren’t very good by most objective standards, they seem like Lord of the Rings when put beside Billy Owens. This seems to show that the issue is not necessarily McNabb, so much as a script which is a babbling mess. If you took all six Potter films to date, added The Goonies, and assigned a monkey to select 70 minutes of scenes from them at random, you’d get something which would be a tower of coherence compared to this. It’s generally a rule of thumb that the more voice-over you need to explain your film, the worse your script. This probably sets an all-time record for the amount of expository monologue: it’s more like an audio-book with pictures than a ‘proper’ film.

It’s delivered by Hermione, sorry, I mean, Mandy. Such confusion is understandable, since Barry Hopper, er, Billy Owens, has two friends with whom he hangs out. One is a boy and largely forgettable, the other is female and a know-it-all. In other words, exactly like JK Rowling’s hero. What are the odds? The performances are exactly the level you would expect, and mainly serve to make you realize how good – or, at least, non-irritating – Daniel Radcliffe et al are in their roles. As noted, you really can’t blame them: if I’d been asked to star in a film at age 11, I’d not have been found touting my inexperience.

For the adult actors, the Potter saga has Oscar-nominees like Richard Harris, Ralph Fiennes and Maggie Smith. This has… Roddy Piper – and unlike the kids, he is old enough to know better.  We have always had a lot of time for Mr. Piper, even outside the wrestling ring. They Live is probably John Carpenter’s second-best film [behind The Thing and – Rob Dyer’s going to kill me for saying this – ahead of Halloween], and we’ve seen a number of other B-movies where he has been the finest thing about them, most recently, Ghosts of Goldfield. But he is wildly miscast as the owner of the mystical shop where Gary Kotter Billy Owens finds the magic-wand, which sets the plot in motion. It’s a role made for a veteran Brit with presence, someone like the late Peter Cushing. So what the hell is Piper doing in the part?

The most likely explanation is that he lives locally, because it seems everyone else from Sarnia, the Ontario town where this was shot, gets to appear. This is apparent from an end-credit sequence which lasts around ten minutes, listing individually and on a line of their own, each person who had the slightest thing to do with the movie, right down to the extras. Now, as a community building project, this is a cool concept and by no means a bad idea. However, that does not mean that anyone outside Sarnia gives a shit. The credits do have a positive impact, in that they shorten the running time of the actual movie significantly. This can only be a good thing.

700 words in, and I haven’t mentioned the plot. There’s a good reason for this: I am actively avoiding it. But I’ll try my bet. It’s the eleventh birthday of Larry Wotter Billy Owens, and while running away from a school bully, he ends up in the shop owned by William Thurgood (Piper). There, he finds himself strangely attracted to a wand, on which he spends his birthday cash, and discovers it indeed has magical powers. This is fortunate, since he’s the only one who can save the town of Spirit River from the dragon buried underneath the river, which the evil Mr. Mould is trying to release. He has to make his way past… mystical guardians and… a bunch of other stuff, in order to ensure that… doesn’t happen.

Yeah, not quite my finest synopsis. However, I’d rather be vague than wrong, and this storyline is so badly put-together I would be guessing if I were to be more specific. However, must say, the climactic encounter with the dragon is extremely memorable – albeit for all the wrong reasons. You remember the Windows 3.1 screen-saver with a logo bouncing off the edges of the screen? That’s how the dragon moves, and is a good approximation of the graphics quality too. Just a thought: when you are obviously incapable of delivering anything even approximating to a dragon, it might be a good idea, oh, not to put one as a key element in your script.

The child actors see the script for the first time

In its defense, some elements are not taken from Potter. They are, instead, lifted from a pre-pubescent version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Billy has to come to terms with his new found ability, while his parents live – apparently – in blissful oblivion. And, just like Buffy found unlikely allies at her school, so does Billy. As Joss Whedon showed, this could be a source of well-crafted drama, blended with action and comedy into a delicious, frothy frappe. However, as Brian McNabb shows, it can also be an incoherent lump, littered with WtF? moments that are the main source of entertainment (thankfully copious), performances less delivered than carved from the finest mahogany, and possessing production values your local panto production of Peter Pan would reject.

JK Rowling should sue. Not for any particular legal reason, just with the aim of stopping the makers from producing the threatened sequel [which, to my horror, the IMDB reports as being in post-production, and the official website says premiered last November]. The world would thank her for this, at least as much as for any of her books.

[Billy Owens is released by MTI through Artist View Entertainment on July 21st – hey, less than a week after the latest Harry Potter film came out! What are the odds… It’s in widescreen, and the black bars at the top and bottom of your television set are probably more entertaining to watch. For more information, please visit the MTI website.]