Writing about Torchwood made me think of a conversation I had with a colleague about the show. She is your classic role-playing nerd, computer geek and all round otaku. When I mentioned – somewhat breathlessly – to her that I had watched 5 episodes of amazing Torchwoody goodness, she immediately launched into a tirade on how the first 3 episodes were great and then it turned shit[1].  She then revealed that she had watched all 3 seasons, and gave a blistering critique of the homophobia in the show. I checked with a friend, and it turns out the show’s writer is gay. So homophobia, probably not so much[2]. Now, I didn’t get a hint of this and aside from one small section of episode 4 which I thought was a bit kooky, I thought the last 2 episodes of this arc held together very well and, even if not satisfying everyone’s definition of perfect, could hardly be called shit.

I also recently had a big argument with a friend about the Lord of the Rings Movies[3], and was reminded (just coincidentally) of an old role-player in Australia who was so hell-bent on believing that these movies wrecked the books that he was 100% sure that Gandalf said “Run you fools!” in the movie, i.e. that his famous phrase had been corrupted “for the sheeple”. I had to force him to watch the movie to point out to him that he was wrong.

And I realised – I think nerds have a quite antagonistic relationship with their cinematic and literary idols, in which we are happy to lap up their good work but are really critical of  even the smallest failings, failings of course which occur in a very complex and difficult medium beset by forces beyond the creator’s control [i.e. producers]. I think nerds go out of their way to find fault with their idols, with the creators of new work, and with re-imaginings of old work. I think this is part of the grognard movement – which seems to hold that, the more people D&D tries to attract, the worse it must become – and is also linked to a strong tendency to reject any work which attempts to popularise any aspect of our sub-culture, and any creative figure who wants to be approved of by the mainstream.

I think this is the product of years of being abused by the cool kids, and in many of us it has led to a “Nerdier than thou” attitude which refuses to allow for the kind of compromises which any artist or creative person has to make to get their work liked by more than 3 guys in a room (who aren’t going to pay anyway, because they can use bittorrent). We’re like the Metallica fans who didn’t like the Black album because we found this band first, don’t you know, and who are all these middle class 14 year old girls who like that song and how dare Metallica try to become popular? It’s okay for us to sell out and get a windows certification so we can keep working [4], but how dare Joss Whedon consider doing the same!!? He’s the standard bearer for our paaaaiiin…[5]

… and as a consequence I think quite often nerds criticise otherwise good works, which may not have been perfect but deserve some respect anyway. And this leads to an attitude of refusing to share our life’s interests with people who don’t “get” something as plainly “obvious” as rolling 4d6 for strength, keep the best 3. Which just keeps us separated from the rest of the world, wondering why they don’t want to understand the fat kids who’re sneering at them…

fn1: Which, can I mention, is a really common English thing – you mention to your interlocutor that you like something and, even though they may never have even met you before, they immediately launch in with “what you like is shit”. I have had this sooooo many times since I came to London and it is sooooo thoroughly offensive.

fn2: yes yes, I know, gay people can be latent homophobes, but I prefer to have solid evidence of this before I make such accusations, because they’re really mean-spirited.

fn3: I will be coming back to this, because the claim they spoilt the books really gives me the shits

fn4: I haven’t done this, btw, but I would if I had to

fn5: which, incidentally, shows pretty clearly how our relationship with our idols is coloured by this history of social rejection – why should we even care if our feelings and worldview have a standard bearer? Except that when we were kids our weird and somewhat off-kilter interests were sneered at…

On the recommendation of a friend I watched this 5 episode arc of Torchwood, and I was stunned by its brilliance. Torchwood is some kind of Dr. Who spin-off, which means that by rights I should hate it (I’m not a big fan of the good Doctor). It is about a UFO investigation unit based in Cardiff – yes, Cardiff – consisting of 2 humans and some kind of god straight out of the UFO universe, Dr. Jack Harkness, who wears a really badly clashing and naff combination of military overcoats and chinos, and can’t be killed by any means. This is a weird combination of people. Also Jack is in some kind of gay relationship with another investigator of undisclosed name (which could be Yantov but is impossible to understand in the show). So I suppose it’s an X-Files/Dr. Who/6′ Under kind of crossover show, made in England.

Hardly an auspicious beginning.

However, the series was brilliant in the best tradition of brilliant British TV – that is, dialogue, acting and tense pace sufficient to kill any costuming or special effects flaws. The premise is contact with an alien race who do some very bad things to kiddies, and a subsequently increasingly nasty series of increasingly immoral decisions that various people have to make, mostly in the best interests of everyone but themselves. It takes the kind of parlour-room, drunken moral debates we all had when we were 12 – would you kill 1 to save a thousand? and other assorted blandness – to a stunning and brilliant conclusion, in which you can’t fault anyone for putting aside their conscience, but everyone comes out looking very very bad. The final scenes involve breaking so many of the kind of taboo images that TV thrives on that one has to be satisfied. And best of all, the whole thing is carried off without even the slightest hint of a skerrick of a whiff of even the smallest implication that the taboos are being broken just in order to shock, or that the moral decisions involved are just university debating school stuff. By the beginning of the 4th episode I really felt like I was caught up in a life-and-death, future-of-the-race kind of moral decision, not a cheap university debate about whether I would rather kill the dog or the baby.

This of course is the essence of good science fiction, and so rarely done on tv or film – to try and use the speculative elements of the genre to create the kind of moral and intellectual positions which are not believable in normal fiction. And Torchwood does it at its best.

The plot is also blessedly free of inconsistencies or mistakes. There were a few things I thought could maybe have been done faintly better (I won’t list them here due to their intense spoileriness), but in discussion with others who have viewed the show I haven’t been able to conclude that they were very crucial or very obvious mistakes, so they’re probably just a matter of personal preference. And it is a rare series of tv episodes where everything just slots together in a complex and multi-layered story. Well done, Torchwood.

Also, finally, I thought the gay lead was done very well. It wasn’t until the show was over that I really even stopped to think about whether or not it had been done well, because it just fitted in. Sure, the gay thing was presented as unusual and surprising by family members who didn’t know, but it was presented to the viewer – treated like a privileged friend and ally of the lead characters, of course – it was presented as completely normal. This also is very rare in television.

I heartily recommend this show – 5 hours of gripping tv from beginning to end.