Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Torchwood Should Learn from Game of Thrones

I may be the only human on this earth who doesn’t love George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.  It's too wordy, throws in too many Dramatic Chipmunk twists and turns, too many red herrings, and is just not my style, writing-wise.  That said, I like the story and the characters, and I loved the HBO series adaptation.  Unfortunately, I didn't realize the impact watching Game of Thrones would have on my other genre viewing.

Minor spoilers for Torchwood and Game of Thrones after the jump.

In a discussion on io9 recently, I said that when you're watching Game of Thrones, you're not just seeing a good budget. You're seeing genre material being taken with utmost seriousness in every part of the production. They’ve cast the finest actors the budget allows, they’ve built the most realistic sets they can, recruited the best genre writers, and employed the highest quality production values. Game of Thrones is what genre material looks like when you treat it like it's not genre material. The last episode, in particular, where you see what is arguably the first piece of true magic that cannot be explained away as happenstance or coincidence, was beautifully done.  The last scene was epic in every way, from the acting to the visuals to the CGI.  Perfection.

Game of Thrones isn't the only premium cable genre content this year, however.  Let's talk Torchwood

I love me some Torchwood, a spin-off of the ever-popular Doctor Who.  It's not just my big love of Captain Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), it's the love of the idea that drives the show.  There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy - and often the most malevolent of those things will be addressed by The Doctor (an alien who loves humans and feels duty-bound to preserve time lines thereby getting rather out of sorts if someone messes with us outside the course of normal history).  And yet, the Doctor has to triage.  He's just one man (sort of) and he can only do so much.  The rest of the time, humans need to be able to defend themselves, and that's where the Torchwood Institute comes in.

Unlike the fairly light-hearted Doctor Who, Torchwood is dark and dangerous. In three short seasons, we saw four team members die in various terrible ways – one in the very first episode. That’s four main characters in three years, people. Tell me what show does that? It drives home the very real danger of trying to police the alien and the unknown. Joining the Torchwood team means a fast, exciting life and a quick (often terrible) death at a young age. All those times in other sci-fi shows where the main characters have MCI in seemingly unbeatable odds? Torchwood makes up for that by delivering hot death when hot death is due.

Season four of Torchwood just started on Starz, and it’s a slow burn.  Episode one was pretty good, it was the expected and necessary “getting the team back together” starter episode.  Episode two… Well.  It was problematic for me.  (Here’s a great recap from Charlie Jane Anders on io9.) I was with them through the entire episode right up until the ending.  Great acting from the leads, great sets, good production values. And then disaster struck – well, at least for me.  We got a very hokey scene of a girl with a broken neck walking around with her head on backward.  Wait, what?

In Game of Thrones when the White Walkers re-animated the corpses in Castle Black (or maybe they were just White Walkers that looked like corpses), that was scary as hell.  It was a terrifying scene and not hokey in the least.  The effects were good, the attack was vicious, and it let you know that shit had gotten real.  All that rearranging chairs they’re doing down in King’s Landing?  Well, it means nothing compared to what’s coming down from the North.  That scene was violence and brutality with a purpose.  When Torchwood cut to Evil Sierra with her head on backward, it was clumsy and foolish and did nothing to advance the story.  The effect was cheap and meant to shock - and really, if her neck was broken, I imagine her head hanging at a disturbing angle, not twisted 180 degrees.

The difference was all about the use of the power of the visual in terms of storytelling.  In Game of Thrones, when they show you something like the White Walkers, it adds urgency and another layer to the story.  In Torchwood, it’s more likely to be a Dramatic Chipmunk moment.  I know that Russel T. Davies loves those meant-to-be-shocking-but-come-off-slightly-silly moments, and so do some fans.  Sometimes, those moments even work, but mostly they elicit a groan. After the utter seriousness, and the purposefulness, of imagery in Game of Thrones, I’ve got no time for gimmicks.  If you’re going for gritty realism, don’t shlock it up with extraneous, poor quality effects meant only to shock.  You can’t have it both ways.  I want to take you seriously, Torchwood.  Help a girl out.

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  1. Agreed! I was pulled right of the ep to Meryl Streep in "Death Becomes Her". Oy.

  2. I know, right? That's exactly what I thought, too. It was almost a physical jolt for me. I was so invested and then, pow! that visual was really a shock - and not in the way they were going for.

    Also, Gwen's "Welcome to Torchwood" thing is played out. I hollered, "Welcome to ERF!"

    Yeah, I'm a total geek.