SF TV vs. regular TV: the case of Torchwood

Even in my youth, I didn't much care for SF movies and TV shows. This should have been a warning sign as to the course of my future career. Even sophisticated writers and readers of SF usually like things like Battlestar Galactica or Firefly.

But that doesn't mean I don't try such shows on occasion, just to keep up. A lot of people I talk to liked Torchwood, the British Dr. Who spinoff. So I decided to give it a try. And a real try, which means that the fact that I thought the first episode was terrible, and the first part of the second even worse will not keep me from watching one more, just to see if I can figure out what all the fuss is about.

But as I watched, I had a whole bunch of ideas on how I would have rewritten the show, which is both dumb (the show was popular, and clearly my changes would have made it less so), and fun (rewriting while watching ensured I actually enjoyed watching the show, and I can use my ideas somewhere else).

(Spoilers follow, for those who are reading this, haven't watched the show, and still might)

Gwen is a cop in Cardiff, Wales. She is hanging around a crime scene, where the body of the victim of a serial killer is lying out in the rain. And I do mean "hanging around". She never actually seems to be a cop, and never does a lick of work throughout the entire episode. She sees a team of young, high-status people stride in and bring the corpse back to life for two minutes. She decides to figure out who they are and what they do.

They seem to be leading her on, by leaving obvious clues.  They build a "secure" facility on the top floor of police HQ (which must have a lot of unused office space to make this possible), where they keep a homicidal alien beastie.  The security door consist of a sheet of plastic with a slit cut through it. There isn't so much as a Keep Out sign. Gwen and a workman investigate.  The workman gets his throat ripped out by the alien. Our professional cop runs away without trying to help him, and doesn't report the death to anyone. The "show Gwen a cool weird thing" facility seems to vanish completely after this.

Then she follows a car to a city plaza, where she wanders around for a while. She eventually disguises herself as a pizza delivery person and gets into the super secret headquarters, full of cool alien stuff. The leader takes her out for a beer, tells her a lot of stuff about the operation, and then gives her a drug to give her amnesia. He does explain that they weren't interrogating the dead guy because they were interested in finding the actual killer: they were just practicing their resurrection techniques.

Later, by chance, she learns what the murder weapon used in three murders looks like. This gives her some vague flashbacks, enabling her to go back to the vicinity of the secret headquarters. The murderer comes out, waves the murder weapon, confesses to everything ("monologuing", as they call it in The Incredibles), decides not the kill Gwen with the weird stabbing thing, and fumbles in her purse for a gun. Gwen stands and watches. The murderer finally pulls a big pistol out of the purse and points it at Gwen, who starts to cry.

A miracle occurs, and she is saved. Because she is so brave and clever, she is offered a job in the secret organization, Torchwood.

She starts off the next episode by making a really dumb mistake. But no one mentions the murderer, who was a friend and part of their team, or worries that they may have serious organizational problems.

OK, fine, she's a lame character, someone who needs everything explained to her so that we viewers understand it. But she is so lame that it's a wonder she could ever hold a job. Even though she makes fun of her boyfriend at one point, implying that he's the dumb one. Look at how many fingers are pointing back at you, Gwen....

But consider an alternate approach, one I genuinely think is more appealing. She is a cop, a decent cop. Some outsiders intervene in a crime scene, one she is responsible for, and the higher-ups allow it. And these outsiders do something mysterious. She's curious, but she also has a murderer to catch. She checks them out in her spare time. Her geeky boyfriend (a charming character, actually) has some information, an old colleague or someone she has arrested on occasion has more. She tracks these guys--they are overconfident, and their security isn't as good as they think.

Their organization is in deep trouble. It harbors a murderer, and the staff has been misusing the alien technology in their care.  This is great suspense-generating situation. As its stands, the writers use it all just to get Gwen into Torchwood, kind of like Tom Canty in The Prince and the Pauper using the royal seal to crack nuts.

Another murder occurs. She knows they will be there to check it out, and sets a trap for them. And she is beginning to suspect there is a connection between them and the deaths. It really is only one of them, not the group, but she figures this out only after doing them some damage and getting into serious conflict with them. Someone senior in her organization warns her off (don't they always?), because the Torchwood unit has some powerful protectors. This doesn't stop her.

Eventually, she finds the killer at the heart of Torchwood. This revelation can't just be a casual thing, as it is in the current show, with all the emotional impact of someone in another department getting laid off. A person they worked closely with and trusted turned out to be a serial killer. And they never knew, until this dumb cop showed up and started checking things out. This has to have serious emotional aftereffects.

Maybe she pressures them to bring her in. She must have ambitions, or fears, or something else that makes her accept this job, even knowing how dangerously mismanaged this organization has been.

There is a lot of sex and violence, so Torchwood is described as "adult" science fiction. Actually, "adult" should mean things like sophisticated narrative and subtle characters.

Anyway, that was how I got through the first episode.  I have a fun idea for the ending of the second episode, so I'll skim to the end to see if it's true. If not, I have another possible plot to use.

It's just light entertainment, you say? Why am I getting so hot under the collar about it? Because it's only a little harder to do it right. If science fiction aspires to be a genre of interest to adults, it will need to.