Revisiting Torchwood: balancing darkness and light

Andrew's weekly Torchwood look-back mulls Torchwood's balance of adult material, darkness, and light...

This feature contains Torchwood spoilers.

We all know that darker stories are superior. That’s why, whenever sequels happen, the director and cast all promise that it’s going to be ‘darker, and more psychological’ than the previous film. This is obviously good. It’s all complex and stuff, and we’re all intelligent chin-stroking types who want layers and cleverness and morally dubious shenanigans. 

This is why The Dark Knight Rises is better than The Avengers, and Battlestar Galactica is better than Doctor Who, and Torchwood is better than The Sarah Jane Adventures. These are facts. You will definitely never find anyone disputing these anywhere. 

What this ultimately means for most films is that there is a scene where one character will say to the lead: ‘But what about you? What have you become?’ before walking off and leaving the lead to look slightly agitated. Then they’ll go out and accidentally kick a cat to death, or drown a child in knives, and realise they’ve gone all wrong. 

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Brilliant, we think, this is instantly better than something featuring jokes and smiling and primary colours. Often ‘dark’ is a synonym for ‘clever’, which is often a synonym for ‘pretentious’. Most people would enjoy a straightforward tale told well than one with aspirations of grandeur told badly. 

Torchwood is an adult sci-fi/fantasy/whatever show which demonstrates perfectly the reasons that being all dark and adult isn’t necessarily better than being light and child-friendly. The difference, at the end of the day, is how much blood and swearing turn up. The Sarah Jane Adventures managed to deal with disturbing and weighty subjects without a Weevil tearing anyone’s throat out. You can have devastating moments without necessitating a fifteen certificate. 

The key is never trying to force a show to be something else. Early Torchwood and relaunched Doctor Who both got it wrong at times when establishing tone. The former was something entirely new, which made it harder still. Combined with its initially eratic tone and presentation, it’s not that surprising that it’s regarded as sillier than later series. 

Content is not the same as presentation, however. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films are, beneath the screwball visage, still packed with their fair share of misery and bleakness. It’s not hard to pick out dark undercurrents in Doctor Who. Certainly many gripes about content stem from a story’s style of conveyance, and no-one was entirely sure how to convey the events of Sex Gas Nobbing Monster (or Day One, if you’re pedantic) in a way that worked consistently. After this, the production team noticed the bits in that episode that worked best were the bits that focussed on a character’s isolation and misery. 

Torchwood started getting better at combining content with presentation in its second series, and nailed it completely in Children of Earth. The latter was a lot more subtle with its evocative and sympathetic moments. Almost no-one gave a speech about how inherently brilliant people are, and in Torchwood­-universe these speeches ring slightly hollow anyway. Gwen, in Doctor Who, would be a far less flawed character, but in Torchwood she becomes the thing she was bought in to stop happening. Jack often saves the day by doing something inhuman. The intrinsically right thing to do, it is not done, contradicting any optimistic ideals conveyed. 

This approach works far better than mucky thrustings and shows that contain Sexual Swear Words. It assumes the audience can work this out, for starters. That’s always good. It involves characters with good and bad sides to them, and most of the darkness in the show stems from people in rooms talking to each other, saying horrible things. You may have noticed these are things you can find in children’s shows. If the writing is good you can convey these things in dayglo kinetic CGI fests like The Avengers

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There are some important factors to consider here that would explain why adult content is not necessarily dark: 

1. People like synthesised violence.

2. You can’t show realistic swearing on television.

3. Rhys’ bottom. 

The first is demonstrably true for all ages. When distanced from the emotional impact of violence (hello endless red shirts) there is some shock and awe to be had from action, and an emotional jolt if it happens to someone you care about. Blood isn’t important – hence the Joker’s pencil trick – it’s the context it’s presented in. Pencil via nostril into brain equalling death is quite violent, but you try telling a nine-year old that it wasn’t awesome. See also: professional wrestling. It’s quite possible for violence to be packaged and marketed at children in a way that nobody really questions. Again, it’s all about context. 

Austin Powers contains a famous joke about the family and friends of various ill-fated henchmen, and most characters like this exist purely to die. We look forward to James Bond brutally dispatching them (and delivering a one-liner that is somehow nastier than putting a man in a shark tank out of his misery by dropping a toaster into it). Torchwood does its best to put them into some sort of relationship with another character. Even the much-derided Day One achieves this admirably. There are consequences besides having your brain mashed open, basically. 

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Swearing, on the other hand, isn’t that dark. It is pretty funny though. However, it is rare that you see realistic swearing, because in TV world it would just seem too much. The Den of Geek subeditors, for example, will have gone through this article and removed all the various ‘cocks’, ‘bumfaces’ and ‘pissflaps’ that occur every other word. 

And finally, Rhys’ bottom. It definitely isn’t dark. Sex is an awkward thing to get right, because it’s so easy to veer into the ridiculous when trying to be all dark and edgy about it. The relationships between the leads in series one are well conceived, but because of various problems (characterisation, dialogue, the fact that there’s no way the stopwatch’s warranty wouldn’t be voided) they just seem a bit over-the-top. Contrast this with a scene in Children of Earth while Jack and Ianto try to get rid of Rhys so they can have sex, with its underplaying of lines and punchline involving beans. There are plenty of nice little moments like this in that series, which provide more than a diversion from the oncoming storms. It’s more impressive when you manage to get something that is funny and dark, such as Dredd or any scene with Gaius Balthar in Battlestar Galactica, and this is something that Torchwood doesn’t get applauded for enough. 

Contrast. Characters. Balance. Dynamics. There’s nothing so pitch-black as the darkness that comes after the light. The reason series two and Children of Earth work well is that they balance the comedy with the drama. Captain John, for example, segues from one to the other seamlessly so that you don’t even notice until he’s shot Owen (although I suspect a portion of the audience might have cheered at this point). When it gets it right Torchwood can move from a romp to a thriller effortlessly, putting its arm around you and telling you everything’s going to be fine while surreptitiously slipping a note in your pocket reading ‘Everything is not going to be fine’. 

The thing about darkness is its strangely elusive qualities. It often lacks substance, or comes from the style rather than content. Sometimes the presentation is askew and the content is shallow. Getting both right is harder than it looks. Ultimately what people take from the subtext is subjective, so it’s hardly surprising to find people concentrating on getting the presentation right, as that appears to be more than half the battle. 

Read more of Andrew’s Revisiting Torchwood articles, here.

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