Outside the Government: Everything Changes

(59 comments)

David, you have to try this. I call it standing in the rain looking
dramatic. xoxo, John

It’s October 22nd, 2006. My Chemical Romance are at number one with “Welcome to the Black Parade,” with Scissor Sisters, Girls Aloud, P. Diddy, and Meat Loaf also charting. Since the Battle of Canary Wharf, Twitter launched, a war broke out between Israel and Lebanon, and North Korea claimed to have conducted a nuclear test. While in the week before this story, the US actually gets around to confirming that North Korea had a nuclear weapons test, and the Iraq war keeps going badly.

On television, meanwhile, Torchwood debuts with Everything Changes. That Everything Changes tacks fairly straightforwardly to the approved Joseph Campbell playbook for origin stories is perhaps unsurprising. It is, after all, how you do these things, and no matter how popular Doctor Who is as a program, it would have been borderline suicidal to launch Torchwood with an episode that relied on the assumption that everybody knew who Jack was and what Torchwood did. And so we get an episode that, for most of its runtime, is a structural mirror of Rose: girl is witness to strange goings-on, investigates, and after a couple of tries is finally initiated into the mysteries of an already familiar series premise.

Like Rose, then, the premise of Torchwood lurks in the background of the episode. Much of the audience spends much of the episode knowing more than Gwen does about the show’s premise, and being introduced to it anyway. Captain Jack and Torchwood are both known quantities. Except that they’re not. Torchwood Three seems miles away from the slick corporate excess of Torchwood One, and, perhaps more importantly, Torchwood are clearly meant to be the heroes of this show, whereas just a few months earlier they were solidly villainous.

In this regard the outsider perspective is an odd barrier, in that Gwen asks what are, for the audience, mainly the wrong questions. The audience doesn’t need Torchwood explained so much as they need the relationship between this Torchwood and the Canary Warf operation from Army of Ghosts explained, but Gwen, as a genuine neophyte, doesn’t know to ask that question. Similarly, the question really isn’t who Jack is and where he came from, nor even why he’s immortal (the answer clearly being “some bit of technobabble involving Rose’s resurrection of him), it’s “how did he get to Earth in the present day and what’s he doing running Torchwood,” both questions that Gwen, not having seen The Parting of the Ways, fails to ask.

Which is perhaps the most interesting thing about Everything Changes. Structurally, at least, it hums along at a brisk and followable pace. The Campbell-style call to adventure narrative is so shopworn that it manages to obscure the questions the audience comes to the program asking. We know so much about how this episode works and enough about Jack and Torchwood that we think we have all of its twists figured out ahead of time. Even the twist of Jack slipping retcon to Gwen is reasonably well-telegraphed - it’s the point in the narrative where the hero’s initiation is rejected and they make a failed return to normal life. About the only thing in the first portion of the episode that can be called a surprise is the explosion of blood when the Weevil attacks, and that’s not so much a narrative surprise as a cheap shock designed to flag the fact that this is post-watershed BBC Three and it can get away with things like that.

And then there’s Suzie. This twist is, of course, nicked from elsewhere - the fake lead character is a trick Joss Whedon semi-pulls in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and pulls in a different sense over the first few episodes of Angel. In essence, you include a character who is set up to be a main character in the show, and then brutally kill them off early in the show. It’s a solid trick that efficiently shouts “anything can happen in this show,” and Davies is savvy to nick it, but just as with the “blonde girl in a horror movie unexpectedly kicks ass” trick he stole from Buffy for Rose, Davies actually quietly outdoes his inspiration. There he used the scene Whedon described Buffy stemming from instead of the scene Whedon actually opened the series with (in which the blonde girl turns out to be a vampire). Here he both carries off the idea Whedon never managed (in Buffy he failed to get the character listed as a main character, whereas in Angel he takes a half-season to enact his idea) and uses it to greater effect, not as a shock about how anything can happen in this show but as a shock that reveals that the underlying assumption the audience has been making all episode - that they know the premise of the show better than Gwen does - is totally wrong.

It’s important to note that the shock isn’t actually when Suzie turns out to be evil (the triple scene of Tosh, Owen, and Suzie all taking alien tech home establishes quickly that someone’s going to be evil, and given that Suzie’s got the bit of tech the episode is actually about, it’s pretty clear who it is), but when she shoots and seemingly kills Jack, which is completely against all of the rules. But really, that entire scene amounts to the episode steadily coming unglued, with everything we as viewers thought we knew about its premise unraveling before our eyes. And so by the end of it Jack becomes a source of real anxiety - a character we don’t entirely understand anymore, working for an organization we don’t entirely trust.

It’s easy to understate how remarkable a structure this is. Anyone who comes into Torchwood with a working knowledge of Doctor Who - which must have been the lion’s share of its audience - is set up to depart the first episode knowing less about what the show is like than they did coming in. This would have been easy to have not happen - there’s not actually that much done to make Torchwood unnerving. It’s really just Jack’s newfound immortality. But because that immortality is presented as an unexpected culmination to a comparatively straightforward plot it serves to make the entire show and premise strange.

It also presents what can charitably be called some problems for the show. First among them is that its main character is designed to frustrate expectations. The sexiest rogue in the universe that we knew and loved from the last five episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s run on Doctor Who is replaced by a character we are actively kept from enjoying too much. Interestingly, John Barrowman’s performance hasn’t modulated around this yet, which serves to make it more interesting and effective. Barrowman is still playing the sexy rogue in a television series that’s actively skeptical and suspicious of his character. In an odd way this is actually more effective than the later years of Torchwood in which the “Jack is a bastard” trope has been well-enough established. This early stage of Torchwood where Jack teeters on the edge between dangerous antihero and the lovable rogue from Doctor Who are pregnant with possibility.

This is, of course, terribly important for Torchwood, in that it quickly gives the show more interesting things to do than faff around waiting for the Doctor to show up in it. Torchwood was only going to work if it could distinguish itself from Doctor Who, and just adding more sex isn’t sufficient. And so it has to move Jack from being a popular character on Doctor Who to being the lead character of his own show. Adding to his character so that the role he played in Doctor Who is a slightly limiting subset of the character is necessary.

What’s more interesting, however, is that it’s specifically and more to the point exclusively Jack that’s used as the source of anxiety within the show. Torchwood as an institution is largely irrelevant - Torchwood Three is presented as essentially independent of the other Torchwoods, such that the evils of Torchwood One become a matter of “well that’s not our office.” This is remarkable - the entire conspiratorial plot that wound its way through the second season of Doctor Who is almost but not completely irrelevant to the show whose name it shares.

But equally non-anxious is the matter of aliens. Indeed, one of the most surprising things about Torchwood as it’s set up is that it’s an essentially optimistic show that presumes not just a future, but a long future. To declare in 2006 that “the twenty-first century is when everything changes” is quite bold, reaching forward and encompassing the next ninety-four years in a claim that presumably reaches far further. This is, of course, all perfectly ordinary within Doctor Who, which assumes millennia of futurity for the human race. Indeed, Davies flagged this idea way back in New Earth when (in a scene that got eaten by a camera malfunction) he endorsed the idea that history is cyclical and that there’s always a human race. Jack himself is a product of this reasoning as a fifty-first century man, although this isn’t stated in Torchwood.

But in a show set in the immediately contemporary world such a future-oriented scope is uncanny. To bind the day-to-day of life in Cardiff with a future history that not only spans centuries but that identifies the day-to-day of Cardiff as a cornerstone of that history is a remarkable perspective. It’s not, of course, unreconstructed utopian optimism. The future is inexorably linked to the alien, and serves within Torchwood a similar purpose as something haunting the world. The original title of the episode, “Flotsam and Jetsam,” is telling, suggesting that the episode’s image of the future’s (and past’s) debris endlessly washing into the world is central to Torchwood as an idea.

The present moment is haunted by the discarded relics of the very future it’s tasked with bringing about. That, within Torchwood, is what the alien stands for. This is not, in other words, just Doctor Who with more sex, for the simple reason that it takes as its central premise the very thing Doctor Who actively rejects - the idea of characters who are actually bound to the arc of history. Doctor Who has always (well, except for a few years in the early 70s, about which we’ll really have to talk in more detail one of these entries) been a show about falling out of the world, but Torchwood is a show about living in the world as the arc of history extends unfathomably in every direction.

Put another way, in Doctor Who the alien is a destination - it’s what the show brings us to. Even when it stays in contemporary Earth settings, it’s about the world of strangeness and about living within that world. But Torchwood is about living adjacent to the alien. There’s no destination - just the day-to-day business of waking up in a world where strange things happen. None of the major characters in Torchwood belong to the world of death and epics except, perhaps, for Jack, whose relationship with death is best described, at this point, in terms of Facebook: it’s complicated.

But we still have, if you will, the Problem of Suzie, a character who is consumed by the epic and by death until it takes over her life and, eventually, kills her. If the job of Torchwood is understood as providing a buffer between the onrushing future and the present moment, Suzie serves as a chilling reminder of the cost of this. By placing one foot in the world of the epic, Torchwood doom themselves to eventually get pulled into it, chewed up, and spat back out. And so the long future that Torchwood assumes as part of its premise becomes a source of both wonder and anxiety injected into the day-to-day.

It is by no means perfect. Things rankle - most obviously Owen, whose casual use of sci-fi rape goes unremarked upon in a way that is absolutely awful. (I suspect the goal is to establish Owen as a particularly on-edge and dangerous person, but it’s completely miscued by dint of the fact that rape is not merely edgy, it’s horrible and wrong and makes him every bit as bad as Suzie. It’s appalling, is easily the worst thing Russell T Davies has ever written, and is in fact considerably worse than anything Moffat has ever written for Doctor Who.) More broadly, the narrative gravity asserted by its spin-off status is such that most of these ideas are, at this point, inchoate possibilities. Which is fine. There is, in fact, quite a lot of Torchwood for them to develop over; its forty-one episodes make it longer than the Peter Davison era in screentime. Not everything can possibly be set up in the first fifty minutes. What we have here is, at least, an interesting start worthy of further exploration, and a set of ideas that at least make the prospect of a Doctor Who spin-off essential. When spinning off a show whose premise allows it to do absolutely anything, that alone is a major accomplishment.

Comments

Carey 4 years, 4 months ago

"And then there’s Suzie. This twist is, of course, nicked from elsewhere - the fake lead character is a trick Joss Whedon semi-pulls in the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and pulls in a different sense over the first few episodes of Angel. In essence, you include a character who is set up to be a main character in the show, and then brutally kill them off early in the show."

To be fair to Davies, it's quite likely that he was just as influenced by the first series of [spooks] (or [MI-5] in the US) where a huge amount of publicity was headlined by the actress Lisa Faulkner (at that point the most recognisable actor in the series), only for her character to be brutally killed off in one of the most unpleasant deaths ever seen on tv (she is shoved head first into a restaurant's deep fat fryer) in the second episode.

But as you say, the bigger twist with Suzy is having her as the villain: which makes me believe that the comparative morality of the other characters is deliberate. Had Davies continued in the role as head writer, I imagine that this would have been dealt with more, er, artfully. But instead it's made with too heavy a hand.

Having said that, anecdotal I know, but my experience was that Torchwood was more well liked amongst the 18-30 something audience than Doctor Who, which this series was specifically designed for, seeing as that was the part of the audience that seemed o have least interest in watching the parent show.

For all fandom's complaints about Torchwood, it cannot ever be deemed a failure: it's first series started on BBC3 (with a repeat on BBC2), it's second premiered on BBC2 (with a repeat on it's former channel); it's third series premiered on BBC1; and fourth (and so far final) series premiered on US cable channel STARZ. I find it hard pressed to think of any other tv series that has had that kind of life, possibly ever.

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Ewa Woowa 4 years, 4 months ago

"...home secretary David Blunkett ordered that prisoners be machine gunned in a 2002 riot."

I have to take issue with this. This is a claim made by one man with a grudge against Blunkett (Narey) with no proof or secondary substantiation... That is not journalism and that is not the standard I'd expect from this blog...

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

Canary Wharf, with an h, as in a place to unload ships.

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mengu 4 years, 4 months ago

It's almost sad that the readership of this blog is so much less concerned with the RTD vs Moffat fight than some parts of fandom. Almost. But not really.

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T. Hartwell 4 years, 4 months ago

I'd presume the 'lead character twist' would initially stem from Pyscho, being the earliest and most notorious example of that kind of shock that I can think of.

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ferret 4 years, 4 months ago

It's hard to be concerned when RTD and Moffat are not the ones actually doing the fighting - it's just a bunch of child-like people who ironically identify themselves as fans.

I was going to say there is no more a fight than there was between JNT and RTD, but then JNT died a year before Doctor Who was recommissioned - I wonder what JNT would have have said about these early years of Nu-Who?

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prandeamus 4 years, 4 months ago

"and just adding more sex isn’t sufficient"

Nor, I would add, necessary. I remember feeling, as watched episodes 1 and 2 back to back on BBC3, that RTD had written a reasonable pilot episode.

Oh no, just because it's adult doesn't mean it's about sex. Blah blah blah. Then, watching "Day One" it's about some sex drug alien thing. It was as if RTD told the other writers not to be naughty while he was out and they promptly ignored it. Crass, pointless, dross.

According to wikipedia there's an (uncited) RTD quote "when we're launching a new adult science fiction drama, it's kind of inevitable you're going to do the sex monster". It felt to me more like "when launching a new adult show, let's put the sex in as soon as possible because it's easier than being intelligent..."

I tried for a few episodes of Torchwood after that, but it really didn't work for me. Cyberwoman I can handle, Small Worlds I spent the entire time thinking "WTF?" and after watching Countrycide I just felt ... this was a grubby, tawdry misconceived train wreck. I didn't return until Children of Earth which was much better. But, sadly, when Miracle Day came on I just had no enthusiasm.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

It's the old question of whether it was a critical failure or a ratings failure. Eastenders is far more successful than Torchwood ever was, and yet it is unlikely that Easties has ever been lauded as a critical success.

Personally my experience with Torchwood was uncannily similar to when I first saw Twin Peaks. I was blown away by the first episode and told everyone to watch it, only to be profoundly disappointed and embarrassed by the second.

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Lewis Christian 4 years, 4 months ago

What's also perhaps interesting, is the sheer amount of "Who-ness" over such a short period of time:

Torchwood S1 runs from 22 October 2006 to 1 January 2007.

Between "Combat" (a Christmas Eve episode!) and "Captain Jack Harkness", we get "The Runaway Bride". And on the same day as the double-banked Torchwood finale (1st Jan), we also get SJA's pilot episode, "Invasion of the Bane".

So, between 24th December 2006 and 1st January 2007, that's 3 Torchwood episodes, 1 Who episode, and another spin-off pilot episode. Not bad going for a show which is still, for all intents are purposes, still quite new.

(Agreed with Russell, though, that "Rose Tyler: Earth Defence" would've been a spin-off too far.)

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Scott 4 years, 4 months ago

Like I said in an earlier post, from what I can remember of Torchwood (and admittedly I dropped out of it fairly early on, so I freely admit this might be a not-entirely accurate observation), Torchwood to some degree seemed to go a bit too far in the other direction to how Philip describes "Totally Doctor Who" (albeit from the sound of things being much better), in that it was a bit cynically 'adult'. It threw in things like the sex alien and all the gore because it was basically showing off how 'adult' it was and, well, those are the sort of things that adults want.

Too much of the time, it seemed to have adult stuff but not really mature stuff.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

Is Torchwood One solidly villanous? All the villainous bits are told, not shown. There is an established plot role in Doctor Who of the basically decent group of people who fail to listen to the Doctor's warnings until it's too late. They fall squarely into that. Hartman says she wants to bring back the Empire, and most viewers of Doctor Who will vaguely be aware that's not the sort of thing we approve of in this television program. But she doesn't actually try to take over any foreign countries on screen. And likewise, she tells the Doctor she's taken him prisoner and he can't leave. But since she's giving him a tour of the place and that's what he wants, on screen she's less obstructive than e.g. the crew of the sand miner in Robots of Death or many other bases under siege. And her final scene in which she betrays the cybermen might be intended as an ironic comment - she was effectively a cyberman already - but it comes over as her devotion to her ideals give her sufficient willpower to save the day.
Davies may have meant them as solidly villainous. But that's not what we see on screen.

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prandeamus 4 years, 4 months ago

I googled the RTD quote and found this

"When we're launching a new adult science fiction drama it's kind of inevitable you're going to do the sex monster. Right from the start I said there would be something that got down and dirty. That's Chris Chibnall, that's what he came up with, a sex gas orgasm eating monster, how could you not watch that, what a brilliant bit of telly."

http://www.tv.com/shows/torchwood-declassified/bad-day-at-the-office-962500/

Assuming that's an accurate transcription, I weep.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

The production circumstances of Torchwood are a fascinating story I'm looking forward to see being covered. My hypothesis going in is that RTD and the other producers for Torchwood: Miracle Day badly misjudged the strategy for capturing an audience on American TV with its very different character from British TV. The progression in its first three seasons was clear. Good ratings on BBC3 gets a second series commissioned and it goes to BBC2. The second series does similarly well in ratings and the third commissioned series is a piece of major special event TV on BBC1.

"Ok!" says Davies. "I've moved to Los Angeles with my hot reputation from my UK career; let's do it again!" So he gets Miracle Day commissioned at a smaller cable network first, the goal to capture successively larger audiences as future series are made. But all those BBCs the first three series ran on are different channels owned by the same company. Starz's parent company isn't another television station, but a corporate conglomerate.

And there is almost no original programming on Starz. Nobody really considers Starz a channel to sit down and watch, because for the most part, it's a generic "superstation" that plays movies, sports, and other people's programming. Miracle Day was the most high-profile piece of television Starz has yet made, and they show little interest in the AMC or FX model of producing a few flagship shows that are of high quality, popular with critics and young audiences who get most their tv by streaming and illegally downloading. I don't think Davies realized that signing with Starz was a promotional dead end.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

Also, in the UK, if you pay your licence fee, you get all the BBC channels. Starz is a cable channel (and a lot of people in the USA don't have cable), and it's a mediocre cable channel that isn't necessarily included in a customer's bundle. And if it is, it's never promoted very prominently. One of the biggest shows in Britain tried to move to the USA, and it got stuck in a television ghetto.

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Jesse 4 years, 4 months ago

I suspect the goal is to establish Owen as a particularly on-edge and dangerous person

I remember seeing this as one of several signs that Torchwood was a corrupt institution filled with morally shady people. One thing that interested me about the show, as I entered it, was the fact that I didn't feel I was expected to like the main characters.

Also: I'm pretty sure you meant to describe Jack as the "sexiest" rogue, not "sexist." (That would be Owen, I guess.)

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Froborr 4 years, 4 months ago

Things rankle - most obviously Owen, whose casual use of sci-fi rape goes unremarked upon in a way that is absolutely awful. (I suspect the goal is to establish Owen as a particularly on-edge and dangerous person, but it’s completely miscued by dint of the fact that rape is not merely edgy, it’s horrible and wrong and makes him every bit as bad as Suzie. It’s appalling, is easily the worst thing Russell T Davies has ever written, and is in fact considerably worse than anything Moffat has ever written for Doctor Who.)

And this gets to the reason I found Season Two unwatchable after bravely and barely slogging my way through Season One. Season One established thoroughly that, with the possible exception of Ianto, every single character in this show was a thoroughly reprehensible human being about whom I cared not in the slightest. Season Two expected me to feel sorry for the rapist.

I've never watched "Children of Earth," which supposedly is actually good? But the season and a half I watched of Torchwood was bitter, cynical, and misanthropic, a joyless slog through horrible people fighting monsters because... that's what you do with monsters, I guess? Which I could handle if the plots were clever enough or if it were making some kind of interesting point... but they're not and it's not. It's just generic, pointless monster-of-the-week by people who seemed to have mistaken darkness, cynicism, and sex for maturity.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 4 months ago

One moment I really appreciated in this episode was when the young man is briefly brought back from the dead, and he cries "There's nothing! Oh my God, there's nothing!" It's very rare for a sci-fi show to be properly atheistic, and this is a moment of properly adult horror: kids aren't yet concerned about their own mortality.

Of course, the show went on to completely cock up this aspect too, but hey ho. It was good while it lasted.

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Triturus 4 years, 4 months ago

The sex alien episode was the first and last Torchwood episode I watched. Just... awful. Awful. Couldn't bring myself to watch it ever again.

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Bennett 4 years, 4 months ago

Froborr - "I've never watched "Children of Earth," which supposedly is actually good?"

Children of Earth has its moments - but most of these come when it's pretending to be a political thriller instead of ... you know ... Torchwood.

It's good, but in a watch-it-once-and-be-done-with-it kind of way. The only thing that would convince me to see it again would be an edit that only includes the scenes featuring Peter Capaldi.

I should mention, though, that it is still just as bitter, cynical and misanthropic.

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elvwood 4 years, 4 months ago

I was optimistic about the show after watching Everything Changes, though I was wary about the gore content (I'm not a fan of blood and guts). Day One, however, put me right off it. I still watched every episode (except Adrift, which I missed because they moved it and I was away for a fortnight so didn't see the change to program the PVR accordingly) because I'm a bit of a completist; but I haven't gone back to rewatch any of them except Small Worlds, Random Shoes, From Out of the Rain and Children of Earth.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

For my brother and I, Torchwood continued to be "Doctor Who with sex and crying" until Children of Earth. Which was absolutely the pinnacle of Torchwood and Captain Jack. Of course, we'll get to the problems and successes of Torchwood as time rolls on.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

"If it's alien, it's ours!" Is a fairly heinous ideal. The idea that just because it's landed on Earth it becomes the property of the British Empire is strictly villainous within the lens of Doctor Who. They have a lust for knowledge, not for it's own sake, not to celebrate the wonder of the Universe, but to militarize and make war. These are the people who shot down the Sycorax. They put a New-Labour corporate sheen on it, but they are still the same thugs.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

I disagree. I love Children of Earth and think it holds up very well. It shows what happens when you make compromises and fight aliens with those morally reprehensible methods. I think it's brilliant. I think it's Captain Jack's finest appearance.

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Dave 4 years, 4 months ago

I dunno, I was pretty terrified of the idea of oblivion as a kid. I mean, I still am, but I remember that if I thought about it too much I'd get the physical sensation of fear. Couldn't have been more than 10.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

Fair enough.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

That is a fairly heinous ideal. But it's told not shown; it's an informed attribute. It would only take a slight change of shading in the dialogue to get Warehouse 13. It's not as if we see them doing anything outright evil, such as using alien pheromones as a date rape drug.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

We saw them blow up a retreating foe. We've seen them performing experiments heedless of the possible dangers. Also being told something is still meaningful. This is stated as a straightforward and core principal by the woman in charge. If she's willing to state it so completely bluntly, then I think we can take her at her word.

Furthermore one of Davies tricks is to tell not show, and sometimes that is completely viable. We don't have time in the season finale of Doctor Who to get all the way into Torchwood's villainy. There are more important things at play.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

Children of Earth is Torchwood for people who don't like Torchwood.

All things being equal I prefer sweet and hopeful to bitter and cynical, and Children of Men is certainly the latter. Still, it's effective bitter and cynical television. Whereas most of the episodes from the first two series of Torchwood were not effective.

That said, Captain Jack's finest appearance is The Doctor Dances. Moffat is the only person who can write him.

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Alan 4 years, 4 months ago

Torchwood wasn't exactly privy to the details of why the Sycorax ship appeared to be leaving (it could easily have been with the intent to "nuke'em from orbit" as far as anyone not in the Doctor's immediate presence knew). Furthermore, they were directed to fire on the ship by the Prime Minister of Great Britain who did so after being told by the Doctor that the Sycorax would otherwise go out into the universe and tell every other potential invader that Earth's sole defense was a dilettante Time Lord who shows up at the last minute in a bathrobe to save the day through some contrived means. Granted, that wasn't the message Ten sought to convey but it was obviously the message Harriet Jones received and Ten would have known that if he weren't tragically oblivious to the effect of his personality on other people.

I'd love to talk to RTD and ask him whether he thought "Children of Earth" vindicated Harriet Jones, since it was basically the nightmare scenario of what would happen when aliens invade while the Doctor is off taking a nap.

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Alan 4 years, 4 months ago

The only moment where I found Owen remotely likeable was in "Adam" where his entire personality had been remolded by the MotW. In every other episode I found him mildly repellant at best.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

What I enjoyed about Torchwood when it first started was this combination of very bleak subject matter with an action aesthetic and a wickedly dark and offensive sense of humour. I saw all that promise in Everything Changes: an episode where we at first think we know everything because we've been watching the Torchwood setup on Doctor Who. Then we get to Cardiff and discover that it's actually incredibly weird.

I think the problem with the show was that a lot of the writers just weren't talented enough to combine the weirdness, terror, darkness, and humour smoothly in a single story simultaneously with revealing character moments. (Flashes of trauma from the Saward era again). Come to think of it, Chibnall in this period reminds me quite a bit of Eric Saward. He had much more experience writing film and television than Saward when the latter started on Doctor Who. But their scripts suffer from the same flaws: simple plots, a dearth of character work, a reliance on action for plot progression and resolution. There was also an over-reliance of scenes where Jack would stand on a building overlooking Cardiff while a very expensive helicopter shot showed how brooding and deep he was, which got excessive and unintentionally funny.

This is why Torchwood didn't really hold my attention again until Children of Earth hit. They couldn't keep all their plates spinning. It's probably unreasonable to expect this, but after Everything Changes, my hope was that at least the majority of the episodes would be able to keep these in dynamic tension. Instead, the bulk of the episodes in season one became too much of an action show. Too much post-watershed Mind of Evil; not enough post-watershed Claws of Axos; definitely not enough post-watershed Ghost Light, which would have been a wonderful direction to pursue.

Well, we all live lives of regret.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

Those season one Torchwood episodes that lived up to their potential: Everything Changes, some moments of Ghost Machine, Small Worlds, They Keep Killing Suzie, and Random Shoes (despite its sentimentality).

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

The fact they're willing to blow a retreating ship out of the sky goes a long way to establishing their character. They aren't under the authority of the Prime Minister. She isn't even cleared to know about them. That doesn't fly except as them covering their own asses. Getting a politician to take the fall for them is not something you want in a secret service. The fact it was Harriet Jones' call is not relevant as to the moral fiber of Torchwood. What is relevant is their actions.

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Kyle 4 years, 4 months ago

Torchwood, specifically this episode, was actually my introduction to Doctor Who universe. Don't get me wrong, I knew about Doctor Who (I lived in Europe as a kid in the 90's and attended a school that was mostly populated with the British children of expats), but I had never actually seen it and had no way to watch it, nor did I really care about watching it because I didn't know a whole lot about it.

But then I heard of this science fiction show that not only had a gay (well, pansexual) main character (which is still a huge deal today, because I can't think of any other sci-fi show that has an LGBT main character), but one of the main characters was also Sarah (Naoko Mori) from Absolutely Fabulous (aka my favorite TV show).

So I came into "Everything Changes" not knowing anything about the Doctor Who mythos, with no idea that Torchwood was at one time sinister, or what Jack was doing with that weird hand in a jar, or why he was able to die and then come back to life. And for the most part, I enjoyed it. Sure, there were stupid episodes (I'm talking about the sex gas episode, of course, but also that random finale), but for the most part I enjoyed the first season - "Greeks Bearing Gifts" and "Captain Jack Harkness" and "They Keep Killing Suzie" were some of my favorites. The show was not quite as enjoyable on rewatch, but it does hold a special place in my heart for getting me into Doctor Who in the first place. (For the record, after finishing season 1 of Torchwood, the next thing I watched was the pilot episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, then Martha's season of Doctor Who, then seasons 1 and 2 in order). I didn't find season two of Torchwood as entertaining, mostly because of the fact that they killed off Goddess Toshiko, but there were some great episodes - the one with Toshiko and the soldier comes to mind, as well as the one with Owen and the girl on top of the roof when you think they're both going to kill themselves.

I didn't have a huge problem with Children of Earth - there were some truly terrifying parts, specifically the government sitting around deciding who to sacrifice, but Miracle Day was a mess. Esther (and Rex, to a lesser extent) was a great character, but the show over all was overly long, way too cynical, and it suffered from not introducing the villains until the last episode.

Torchwood definitely had some problems, but I still enjoyed it. I think it helped to come into it as a newcomer - after I watched all of the spin offs, it became my least favorite of the three shows, even though it's the only one I've seen all of the episodes of.

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Jesse 4 years, 4 months ago

I've never watched "Children of Earth," which supposedly is actually good?

Yes -- it and "Captain Jack Harkness" are the only Torchwood episodes I ever recommend to people.

In fairness, I gave up on the show during season two, and while I eventually watched Children of Earth on hearing it was worth a look I never went back to watch the episodes I missed. So for all I know there's a gem hidden in there somewhere.

After the horror that was Miracle Day, I'm not sure I can be persuaded to come back yet again should the program ever return.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

It's clear from The Christmas Invasion that we're supposed to agree that shooting down the Sycorax ship is wrong. I think we're also supposed to believe that it's not as morally wrong as the Doctor says it is. Harriet Jones is not otherwise presented as someone who would make an outright villainous decision. So if it's not villainous for her to want to shoot the ship down, it can't be villainous of Torchwood to shoot the ship down.

There are certainly times when telling is better than showing. But there are reasons why show not tell is the more general maxim.

Phil says in the West Wing episode that it doesn't matter that viewers follow what's said in the dialogue so long as they understand how the characters are reacting to what's said. Just as well for modern Doctor Who since between actors, director, and the score, no writer should count on the audience actually hearing any given line. And I don't think anyone who didn't catch Hartman's actual words, but merely went on the feel of the scene, would gather that Hartman is supposed to be a straight villain. The Doctor doesn't react as he would to a straight villain. Up to this point, whenever Davies has wanted us to think someone is a straight villain he's rammed the point home with a siege engine.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 4 months ago

Yay, Torchwood! I've been really looking forward to this because I'm not very familiar with the series, having only seen some of Children of Earth because BBC America was playing it and I left it on when my friends were over and we found ourselves engrossed; and "Everything Changes", which I watched that night. The description of the second episode has kept me from seriously pursuing it for a couple years.

That said, I had been generally aware of it as the "Captain Jack and associated adult content" spin-off of Doctor Who, and I knew about Jack and Ianto and Gwen and Rhys, and all the major deaths. So I knew about Jack's invincibility and Suzi's, and I never really absorbed or bought into the fact that you were supposed to believe she was a member of the main cast. I did, however, see the Whedon influence when watching Buffy and Angel. (Is Angel perhaps an influence, at least in the sense of it being a "more adult spin-off"?)

When watching "Everything Changes", I did notice how it paralleled the typical companion introduction story, at least from the new series. But because I hadn't watched this in the appropriate order with Doctor Who, I completely missed how out-of-sync it is regarding Torchwood and Jack. Thanks for that. It's interesting.

Oh, and the ridiculously spurting blood from the Weevil is rather unsettling to someone who is used to watching American post-watershed shows, which are still relatively censored.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 4 months ago

For the record, the Wikipedia quote is sourced to the Declassified episode; the ref is just placed at the end of the appropriate section (before it switches to things that are referenced by the episode's DVD commentary).

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 4 months ago

Hey, I wonder if we're going to cover the almost-made American version of Torchwood? Aside from following the tiresome footsteps of remaking British shows when American audiences are perfectly capable of watching them, supposedly Fox passed on the series because they were uncomfortable with Jack being omnisexual.

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Adam Riggio 4 years, 4 months ago

I remember following all the Torchwood press as they were rolling it out, and Suzie was always treated clearly as a lead character in all the press materials. I think she was even billed above Tosh and Ianto, but my memory can't be sure. I was open-mouth shocked and impressed when she was basically killed off. It was some of the best audience manipulation I had ever seen, and I was considerably impressed.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 4 months ago

Yeah...that kind of thing is what is lost when watching something as it did not air. I'd never seen promotional material with Suzie. RTD was really good at being in touch with the public, but that effect is lost when looking at things from a future perspective (see: The End of Time).

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BerserkRL 4 years, 4 months ago

I think Owen was my favourite Torchwood character. Not as a person but as a character. The casting certainly helped; apparently the original plan was to cast a hunk.

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BerserkRL 4 years, 4 months ago

One mistake of sequencing, I thought, was to show the implicitly pro-afterlife "Random Shoes" immediately after the implicitly anti-afterlife "They Keep Killing Suzie." It's too jarring; they should have had a couple of episodes in between.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 4 months ago

Hell, even Moffat pointed that out recently in his Nerd HQ appearance:

"But, then again, I think the great thing about, uh, Doctor Who's, I think, "I don't want to go", and then he's pratting around, complaining about his chin a moment later. And if I'd been Bernard Cribbins in that little, that thing, I'd be saying, "Doctor, I'm actually going to die, you're gonna get a bit younger and stupider hair, okay? Between the two of us, you can let me out, and you can get a refit, all right? Ya selfish bastard." "

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Ununnilium 4 years, 4 months ago

Yeah, as an eight-year-old, the idea of oblivion was really thoroughly chilling, one of the things I could be kept up at night thinking about.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 4 months ago

The casting certainly helped: Burn Gorman is a seriously good actor, and manages to make a pretty repellent charater interesting.

Try as I might, I can't see what the problem is with seeing Owen using the magic alien attracto-spray. He's a cunt. Of course he's going to do that.

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Callum Leemkuil 4 years, 4 months ago

I personally thought the best episode of season 1 (and possibly the whole show) by a long shot was "Small Worlds" (which actually got me into Sapphire and Steel, which as you know is great), and that overall season 2 hung together better than season 1. Children of Earth I felt started really really well but ended badly.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

What comes over most about Torchwood One (at least for me) is smugness and hubris. They have an unshakeable faith in the fact that they are right in their beliefs. Unfortunately they take little responsibility for their actions, which sets them up for their big fall later on. In a funny way this almost parallels the "hubris and arrogance" arc the whole series allegedly has for the Doctor and Rose. Doomsday therefore ends with two misguided "people" (the Doctor and Torchwood) getting their comeuppance.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

I've watched all of Torchwood, and over the years I've tried to analyze what is wrong with it. Because there is a lot wrong with it. Some stories just work, and others just don't, but the series as a whole...has a "wrongness" about it. I think for me it's down to the fact that the characters are so flawed. Too flawed than is normal for a TV series. We have our standard characters in TV - the damaged detective, the tart with a heart, the unsufferable jobsworth, the list is endless - and most ensemble casts are made up of an assortment of types who somehow work together. In most drama a character's flaws enable the drama, either by creating plot conflict that other characters have to solve (and thereby teaching the flawed character a valuable lesson), or by resolving an already extant plot (and thereby showing that some flaws can be beneficial). A perfect example of this is Mr Spock's half-human aspect, which at different times has hampered him and allowed him to save the day.

But the Torchwood characters are all damaged, far more so than is usual in an effective ensemble cast. At first we think we understand the team: Jack's the "Captain Kirk-ish" boss, Owen the brilliant but misogynistic Doctor, Tosh the brilliant but mousey scientist. Suzie and Tosh are driven by their desire for knowledge, while Owen is driven by his desire for pleasure. Ianto is basically the only decent character, and Gwen arrives as the Conscience of the group. So far so good. But as the series unfolds Jack becomes petulant and unlikeable, Gwen has a guilty affair with Owen, Suzie is paranoid beyond belief, and even Ianto betrays us with his guilty Cyberwoman secret.

The whole cast effectively lets us down, and none of them every really redeems themselves, at least not in the way that feels right. Every time one of them appears to make a selfless act, the show throws it back in our faces. Owen saves Tosh and Jack by opening the Rift, but Jack refuses to acknowledge it and never says thanks. Owen himself appears to get his just desserts when the glove brings him back undead, but this doesn't cause any kind of character reassessment on his part. Instead he just becomes more miserable, but with his misogynist teeth effectively pulled.

Torchwood's lesson appears to be that working here will corrupt you and ruin you, and you will eventually die unthanked, unloved, and unremembered...and nobody is strong enough to resist this fate. Not even an immortal man who really should know better.

"Children of Earth" is possibly Torchwood's finest hour (well, 5 hours) because it plays far more like how we expected Torchwood to be and wasn't. The 456 are unambiguously villainous, the UK government is unambiguously complicit, and the 3 remaining Torchwood members are unambiguously Good. Now imagine the first two series played the same way. In fact imagine the other extreme as the episode "Adam". If Torchwood had been pitched somewhere between the two, I think it would have worked far better.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

I think Davies is on record as saying that Angel was the model they were thinking about as they did it. I think it was a risky model to follow: Angel often achieved brilliance but never quite settled down into something consistently successful.

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Jesse 4 years, 4 months ago

The 456 are unambiguously villainous, the UK government is unambiguously complicit, and the 3 remaining Torchwood members are unambiguously Good.

I would not say the ending of that miniseries was unambiguously good. The fact that Jack has to make an ambiguously good decision is part of the point, isn't it?

To your larger point: The fact that the characters were all so damaged was part of what I initially liked about the series. Doctor Who loves to play with the idea that the Doctor is bad for the people he encounters, but as Phil has pointed out the show can't embrace that idea without destroying its premise. Torchwood looked like a chance to really explore the concept without flinching. I think that's a great idea for a show. I just didn't think the writing was good enough to execute the concept properly.

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

While Harriet Jones might not make an outright villainous choice, she can make one that is morally bankrupt. And that makes no bearing on Torchwood because they do not answer to her. Harriet Jones is not even cleared to know they exist. They do what she wants because then they don't have to accept responsibility for their actions. The architect of England's golden age...a patsy for an Imperialist dingbat.

Here Tell don't Show is much better. The episode has more important things going on than Torchwood. Specifically Rose being separated from the Doctor. While it might have been more satisfying to get a huge in depth exploration of the destructive and exploitative activities Torchwood undertakes, we need expediency here to keep the episode moving.

Hartman is villainous, but she's a small minded tyrant. While she is capable of evil, she's very much in the vein of a Robert Holmes villain. She's in over her head. A corporate CEO playing with the walls between reality. She's not Davros, she's someone who's pettiness of scope causes almost incalculable harm and does not really care. In a serial without Cybermen or the Daleks she'd take center stage. With them she just doesn't have the narrative room and is therefore consumed by the Cybermen.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

I agree that there could be a Doctor Who story in which Torchwood One were the villains. However, as you say Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday is about daleks and cybermen and the Doctor losing Rose. And so Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday is not that Doctor Who story. It's not even that Hartman doesn't have narrative room to be the central villain. She's pushed out of the villain role altogether. If you replaced Torchwood One with more morally sympathetic characters you'd get exactly the same plot and almost exactly the same emotional beats. In fact, the emotional beats work better if you see Hartman as someone with a tragic flaw.

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Spacewarp 4 years, 4 months ago

You can have extremely damaged characters, but you have to have some relatively good ones to balance it out. Like a D&D troupe, for every Chaotic fighter you need a Paladin for contrast. Each brings out the best (narratively speaking) in the other. The first ever Torchwood story promised us that balance, at least in Gwen and Jack (who we had a right to expect decent behaviour of, if we knew him from Doctor Who). But it pretty much becomes clear that Jack has hardly any moral compass left, while Gwen's is easily swayed by Owen's magnetic personality (see what I did there?).

Jack's decision to sacrifice his own Grandchild wasn't that ambiguous. It was no decision at all. Faced with the choice between one child and millions, Kirk, Picard, and even the Doctor would have made the same decision. It was the right decision. It was only the presence of his daughter (the boy's mother) that made it a harrowing decision...but it wasn't a wrong one.

All through Children of Earth the Torchwood team behaved exemplarily, with none of the self-serving bitchiness we'd seen in the preceding seasons. They may have made the wrong decisions at times, but they made them for all the right reasons. In short they behaved like heroes.

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David Anderson 4 years, 4 months ago

Jack is doing the wrong thing in the flashback. (To be honest, it's hard to see how that can be reconciled with the Jack we see in Doctor Who from Season Three onwards.) But yes, modern Jack is doing the right thing, although I'd argue that kind of decision ought to be harrowing even if you grant it's no decision at all.

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Ross 4 years, 4 months ago

Jack's decision to sacrifice his own Grandchild wasn't that ambiguous. It was no decision at all. Faced with the choice between one child and millions, Kirk, Picard, and even the Doctor would have made the same decision. It was the right decision. It was only the presence of his daughter (the boy's mother) that made it a harrowing decision...but it wasn't a wrong one.

The Doctor wouldn't. The Doctor would have pulled something out of his ass to save the day without sacrificing anyone. It's the law of the Doctor's narrative universe and it's the promise of his name.

(I mean, frankly, so would Kirk and Picard, because it's the law of their narrative universes just as much as it's the law of The Doctor's narrative universe. But it's not specifically a character trait for them the way it is for The Doctor.)


(This, vis a vis Star Trek, annoyed the hell out of me in that one late-TNG episode. Deanna takes the command officer's exam, and she keeps failing the not-the-Kobyashi-Maru test because she keeps trying to find a way to save the ship without sacrificing Geordi, and the point of the test is to see if you're willing to order one of your crew to their death for the greater good. Which is fine, except that literally every time a comparable scenario comes up in the actual-reality of the show, they find another way and don't send a regular to their death. Outside of the simulation, the narrative laws of the universe mean you would NEVER send Geordi to his death. The closest might be that you'd order him not to go to his death, and he'd disobey orders and go anway, nobly sacrificing himself. And even then, it'd only be in a movie, possibly a season finale, not just some random episode.)

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 4 months ago

No you wouldn't. That's not how stories are put together. If you had a more morally together set of characters you'd have a completely different feel to it. YMMV on looking at her as flawed, but I personally can't stand her imperialist tripe.

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cardboardrobot 4 years, 4 months ago

In reply to Adam, who said, "Miracle Day was the most high-profile piece of television Starz has yet made, and they show little interest in the AMC or FX model of producing a few flagship shows that are of high quality, popular with critics and young audiences...."

To be fair, Starz has actually shown quite a bit of interest in following HBO and Showtime by developing a few flagship shows. It's just that they're terrible at it.

Their next attempt at a big series is Ronald D. Moore's adaptation of the Outlander/Cross Stitch novels.

Also, I would argue Miracle Day is not most high-profile thing that Starz has made so far. That would be Spartacus, which lasted three seasons. It didn't exactly get blockbuster ratings, but it did better than anything else on Starz -- admittedly not saying much -- and got critical acclaim. It was from former Buffy writer Steven S. DeKnight and producers Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi. I've only seen the first six episodes but it's much better than you would expect, and starts getting really interesting a few episodes in.

One of the biggest problems is that Starz is a third-rate premium movie channel at best. It costs something like an extra $15 a month just for the Starz package and that's nobody's first choice over HBO or Showtime.

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Andy 4 years ago

Almost sad, are you kidding? Apart from Philip's excellent writing, I come here partly to get away from silly RTD v Moffat infighting. It's pathetic, tiresome and entirely unnecessary.

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