Look! It Moves #7 By Adi Tantimedh – Agit-Prop Torchwood

Posted by July 13, 2009 Comment

Bleeding Cool reviewed Torchwood: Children of Earth on Friday.

torchwood1I was pleasantly surprised by TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH. While I was expecting another mawkish season full of crying, badly-thought-out and derivative ideas, I was surprised by the ruthless conviction with which Russell T. Davies turned the whole show inside-out, dumping everything that was naff about the previous two seasons, took the safety wheels off the story and pushed the adult, political Science Fiction brief of the show to where it should always have been. So this is what TORCHWOOD is like with Davies in full control and not preoccupied with keeping DOCTOR WHO sailing smoothly.

I agree with Rich’s review of CHILDREN OF EARTH, and his bringing up other political dramas got me to thinking about the tradition of social drama in British television. It’s the one thing that distinguishes British TV from American TV, and is worth reiterating.

This is not a discussion on whether it was good or not, or how crappy or good the acting is, but the wider context the show is set in.

The key scene of CHILDREN OF EARTH occurs in Part 4, where the Prime Minister and his cabinet coldly and callously discuss how to select the undesirable and unwanted parts of the community for chattle for the “greater good”, but are really looking out for their own skins. There’s an unbridled anger in Davies writing as the politicos talked about quotas and league tables, playing football with unknowing lives. Considering this was filmed months before the current scandals plaguing the present British Cabinet, this shows Davies has had his ear firmly to the ground, his finger on the pulse of the British public at large. Those who complained that the scene was all talk and lacking subtle are missing the point – governments do determine the course of civilian lives in talks behind locked doors. This is not subtext. It is explicit. That is the nature of political drama and agit-prop writing, to provoke anger and disgust in the audience, not grim irony or quiet acknowledgement. This is ham-fistedness that is entirely intentional. ‘Agit-prop’ is, after all, short for ‘Agitation Propaganda’, a theatrical tradition established by the likes of Bertolt Brecht.

Many people seem to have forgotten that Russell T. Davies was not always the runner of DOCTOR WHO and its spin-offs. He has been in the TV business for over twenty years now, having written his fair share of shows in nearly every genre staple of British Television: children’s series (DARK SEASON, CENTURY FALLS), period dramas (HOUSE OF ELLIOT, THE GRAND), police procedurals (TOUCHING EVIL), and creating his own original shows that put his name on the map (QUEER AS FOLK, BOB AND ROSE, MINE ALL MINE, SECOND COMING). He is fully engaged with both the politics of the industry and the traditions of British dramatic writing. This means he is no stranger to the long history of social drama that has been part of British Television since it began.

British Television has always had a faction of overtly political leftist writers concerned with dramas about social justice, and this theme is often inherent even in the genre shows they worked on. This is a consequence of both the rise of the Welfare State after the Second World War, the improved educational system, and the emergence of Angry Young Men dramatists like John Osbourne. Writing for the theatre and then television became a common career path for many writers, and local community theatres and workshops all over Britain also gave many writers their initial training. Unlike America, Britain did not have dedicated screenwriting programs in universities until the1980s. You can trace the rise of many notable TV and film writers from workshops, arts labs and training schemes at the BBC. It is probably for this reason that there are very few notable right-wing political TV writers in Britain. Being on the right means being on the side of those in power and on the side of Power in general. Being on the left means being wary of those in power. That’s the main thrust of the British Left and the writers. The call for social justice in British TV writing has always been much more intense than in US writing, with the former possessing a more overt political point of view than American shows. The list of dramatists who wrote for British Television since the 1960s is long: Dennis Potter, David Rudkin, David Hare, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Jimmy McGovern have all written influential shows that became part of cultural history. Shows like BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF, GBH, OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH became social records, time capsules, editorials, lamentations.

The nature of British political drama isn’t always overly earnest. There’s a sense of irony and dark humour that permeates them, and many writers have also been able to explore ideas and themes in genre shows rather than just realist dramas. Government corruption and conspiracy has been a persistent theme in classic series like EDGE OF DARKNESS, A VERY BRITISH COUP, STATE OF PLAY. Jimmy McGovern has used CRACKER to tackle various issues between dramas about the Hillsborough Disaster, and his current series THE STREET about the trials and tribulations of the residents of one neightbourhood. Even Paul Abbot’s hit comedy drama series SHAMELESS has a strong social agenda in its portrayal of a dirt-poor, semi-criminal family that has to constantly game the system in order to put food on the table. I could go on listing other series like Howard Brenton’s oddball, paranoid DEAD HEAD to keep illustrating my point. These shows have more than just escapism in mind. They marry the expectations of escapist genre fare and sometimes even subvert those expectations: the heroes don’t always win, the state might defeat or even kill them, the endings might be downbeat, the evil of the government and Big Business might be exposed, but not always defeated… so what are you going to do about it? That is the question they always pose.

As a result of over over 30 years of British Drama, Davies and many British writers who grew up since the 1950s were brought up to believe that scripted drama can make a difference, that television can change how people see the world, thanks to the BBC’s brief to educate and inform as well as entertain. This influence isn’t just on TV writers but on the majority of British comics writers as well. Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and writers in the generation after like Warren Ellis all acknowledge the lasting influence of British TV drama on their own writing. What defines Davies and his fellow writers is their ease in merging political themes with pop culture genres like Science Fiction and Fantasy, something previous generations looked down on, since the puritanical factions of the Left tended to see pop culture as bourgeois and selling out. These writers are more comfortable with using pop culture because it is native to them. They grew up with it and it’s not alien. You can see the tradition at play in comics like V FOR VENDETTA and even THE INVISIBLES, in Delano and Ennis’ runs on HELLBLAZER, to name a few.

Every two years or so, a new British political drama turns up that takes everyone by surprise. Usually, the show is pre-hyped as the Year’s Big Political Drama, such as STATE OF PLAY, the last series to have that kind of impact and prestige. Nobody expected the next one would be this new series of TORCHWOOD. Davies has taken the genre of Science Fiction and the by-now expected conventions of TORCHWOOD and used them in the service of a very adult message calling for holding the government accountable and even mass rebellion. At a time when British Television is in danger of drowning in crappy reality shows, market share, ratings wars and celebrity talk shows about nothing, it’s bracing that CHILDREN OF EARTH should be the one show to remind us that scripted drama can actually be about something, and TORCHWOOD has finally become a proper adult Science Fiction show.

TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH premieres on BBC America on July 20th and will run for every night that week.

Agitating away at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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(Last Updated July 13, 2009 3:57 am )