Thu, Jun
7
2007

U.N.I.T. versus Torchwood

The cottonwoods are blooming where I live. I wouldn’t normally care, but this year it made me take my car into the carwash toot sweet, as they say. A tree next to the driveway where I park has been pruned, and as a result my car has been covered with sticky sap for the past month or so. This is a minor problem that’s fixed with a squeegee, but when I saw those fluffy pieces of cottonwood floating through the air, I realized I needed to get my Hyundai Elantra clean before it was transformed into a Honda Rabbit.

I was looking forward to doing a reading at Booked! tomorrow alongside author Edo Van Belkom, but unfortunately it’s been cancelled at the last minute. The organizers apologized profusely. Apparently, a class that had signed up for the session pulled out, giving organizers no time to find replacement bodies for the seats, so no reading, which is quite a disappointment. But I guess that’s just the way life goes.

I’m still coming into Toronto for BookExpo, though, and looking forward to that. I’ll be signing on Monday at the Dundurn booth at 3:00 p.m.; not 10:30 a.m. as previously reported. And hopefully this will be all the changes I have to contend with. Erin is also signing for Wolsak and Wynn on the Sunday at 1:00 p.m., so if you’re in town that day, this is your chance to get a signed copy of The Mongoose Diaries.

I’m just back from the television interview Erin and I did with Rogers Community Channel. It was a fun eight minutes, and the set-up of the interview was an interesting case of hurry up and wait. The presenter, Mark Paine had also read some of the books and was able to ask some interesting questions based on it, although the interview focused on how we could both maintain a writing life with a toddler in tow.

The segment will air on the community program Daytime as part of their summer rotation starting this July, which means that between July to mid-September, it will be shown multiple times, which is an added bonus.

And now, onto the main article.


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U.N.I.T. versus Torchwood

Images courtesy the Doctor Who Image Archive, save for the Torchwood image, which is courtesy the BBC.

According to reports, the CBC will be showing the Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood later this summer, or possibly this fall. These thirteen episodes are set in Cardiff, starring John Bowerman as Captain Jack Harkness. (Doctor Who, incidentally, returns for its third season this month, possibly starting with the Christmas special The Runaway Bride on Monday, June 11 at 8 p.m. [there are some conflicting reports], but certainly with the opener of Smith and Jones on Monday, June 18, so mark your calendars)

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I’ve had an opportunity to see most of the Torchwood episodes, along with the pilot of the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures, and it is interesting how the two series approach their audience. Doctor Who is clearly the unifying family show, here. While the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures appeals to the younger half of the viewership, the producers of Torchwood clearly expect parents to put their kids to bed before tuning in. For all the links Torchwood makes to Doctor Who, it’s more adult in its content and approach — feeling, at times, like a run of CSI: Cardiff (indeed, the pilot episode makes that precise joke).

Unlike the Sarah Jane Adventures, which is based on a character that Doctor Who fans have known and loved for decades, Russell T. Davies only had a season and a bit to establish the Torchwood concept. Torchwood is an extra-governmental organization (set up by Queen Victoria) to watch out for, respond to and, ultimately, benefit from any alien incursion on Earth. It is, in many ways, a quintessentially human operation: exuberant and full of initiative, with more than a touch of ruthlessness. And it’s interesting, because the path it treads has been followed by another Doctor Who fictional organization.

In 1969, the producers of Doctor Who contemplated a major format change. With the advent of a new lead actor, a switch from black and white to colour transmission, and a new production schedule, the decision was made to “exile” the Doctor to present-day Earth. This decision was probably taken for budgetary reasons, although it had the side benefit of making the alien threats the Doctor faced more relevant to the audience. As third Doctor, Jon Pertwee, noted, monsters on alien planets were one thing, but “there was nothing so frightening as coming home and finding a Yeti sitting on your lavatory in Tooting Bec.”

Truth to tell, though, the writers groaned at the restrictions the new format placed on them, as it limited them to two types of stories: science gone bad, and alien invasion. But I’m getting off topic. With the change in format of having the Doctor stuck on Earth, and with the threats coming to him rather than him going to the threats, the producers decided to look into the question of how the human race would react if it faced a new alien invasion every four-to-six weeks.

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In 1968, in the middle of the second Doctor’s tenure, the producers wrote a story called The Web of Fear, which introduced a character named Colonel Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. The character was played by Nicholas Courtney, who would go on to have the distinction of appearing alongside all seven actors to play the Doctor on the original BBC series. The story featured London swamped by the forces of an alien intelligence, and while the Doctor and the local resistance was able to fight the threat off, the lesson appeared to stick with Lethbridge-Stewart. A year later, the producers commissioned a story entitled The Invasion, which was explicitly a pilot for the proposed new formula. Here, the Cybermen make a full-on assault on Earth, and Earth has to respond with a concerted multi-national effort to thwart the attack (with the Doctor’s help, of course).

At this point, Lethbridge-Stewart heads the British branch of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, or UNIT for short. UNIT’s job is to keep an eye out for and thwart any alien incursion that come Earth’s way, and they’re kept pretty busy. No sooner than when the Doctor returns as Jon Pertwee (in 1970) then plastic mannequins burst out of store windows and start shooting London commuters. The Doctor, in need of a home, finds his friend Lethbridge-Stewart (now a Brigadier) in need of an expert on aliens. The Doctor takes on the role of UNIT’s chief scientific advisor; an arrangement that lasts for seven whole seasons before the Doctor is given back his ability to travel off Earth, and leaves UNIT behind for the last time. During this period, a casual atmosphere grew up around the show, sometimes referred to as “the UNIT family”. The Doctor and the Brigadier might bicker, but they remain loyal friends. The Doctor has a fatherly relationship with his ditzy companion Jo Grant. Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton round out the regular cast. It’s all very comfortable and familiar.

UNIT is a product of socialist Britain, although it shares that seventies British conceit of stiff-upper-lip, toodle-pip and all that. UNIT can only exist in a world that embraces multinationalism, wherein the sovereignty of nations is secondary to the world government. There is no question who responds to a threat from outside the globe — it’s not the U.S. Army, or the British, it’s UNIT. They provide armed security for international conferences, and seem to be above the fray when the global superpowers like Russia and China prepare to go to war. UNIT’s interests are humanity’s interest, and its morality is rarely questioned. It is the nanny state personified.

Even in the revival. the power of the United Nations in fiction exceeds its power in fact. The major plot point of Aliens of London and World War Three is that aliens have orchestrated what appears to be an attack to convince the United Nations to allow Britain to unlock its nuclear arsenal, as a ruse to rain down atomic destruction on the world. Well, today, it’s impossibly optimistic to conceive of any of the nuclear powers giving up their launch codes to anybody within spitting distance of the United Nations.

But since UNIT’s heyday in the 1970s, other shows have come along showing present day governments dealing with alien incursions, chief among these being The X-Files. This show gathered in and popularized the conspiracy genre. The alien incursions were now the focus of a considerable government cover-up. The government’s actions were no longer unquestioned. Governments were messy; catching innocent people in the gears. People like Fox Mulder become the heroes for trying to bring the truth to light, regardless of the chaos the truth would surely bring. Governments would stoop to anything in order to protect their secrets, including making use of recovered alien technology to create super weapons.

And it is into this realm that Torchwood falls.

Throughout the second season of the revived Doctor Who, the show’s writers built up a new threat for the Doctor and company in the form of Torchwood, an organization so shadowy that even UNIT (which itself was supposedly an international secret) barely knows about it. Even though UNIT probably had to be involved in messy cover-ups to keep knowledge of Earth’s many alien invasions to a minimum, Torchwood is clearly played to be more sinister. It was set up by Queen Victoria, specifically to further British interests (which later expanded to cover humanity’s interests, though probably British interests and humanity interests are seen to be synonymous by the leadership). It spends most of its time scavenging alien technology in order to push the human race into the future, perhaps faster than it ought to go. Torchwood doesn’t answer to the United Nations. It doesn’t even seem to answer to the British government anymore (dear God, are you telling me that they report directly to the Queen?). Its sole mandate seems to be to respond to alien threats, neutralize them, and then salvage what they can to advance human technology.

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It is interesting comparing and contrasting UNIT and Torchwood. Both are very much products of their time,

In my opinion, the final revelation of Torchwood’s place within humanity (reviewed here) was a bust, with Torchwood’s arrogance quickly humbled by a Cyberman invasion, but producer Russell T. Davies still got a second kick at the can, creating the spin-off series around Torchwood, and wrapping it around star John Barrowman (who broke onto our screens as Captain Jack Harkness during the first season of the revived Doctor Who). Captain Jack Harkness leads a crew of less than a half dozen as Torchwood 4 (Cardiff branch). The series is introduced through the eyes of Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff police detective who sees too much, and gets co-opted by Captain Jack to be a part of the team. Although her police skills come in useful, she is disturbed by the unofficial aspect of Torchwood, how it doesn’t seem all that interested in helping out the police. Fortunately Captain Jack being Captain Jack, the Torchwood Cardiff team do often manage to save the day.

But one wonders why Russell T. Davies decided to reinvent the wheel, here. Imagine how much more emotional impact we could have had if it was UNIT that the Doctor found himself at odds with. And the development is not without precedent. While UNIT was a comfortable family in the early 1970s, there were moments when the Doctor’s interests and UNIT’s interests diverged, such as when the Doctor sought an accord between the human race and the Earth reptilian Silurians, only to have his hopes dashed when Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart ordered the bombing of the Silurians’ hibernation bases. UNIT may have welcomed the Doctor’s help, in contrast to Torchwood’s setup as an organization whose mandate included keeping an eye on the Doctor, but UNIT, through the Brigadier, was never afraid to tell the Doctor to stuff his lofty ideals, and that they were for humanity first.

I have heard that part of the reason of Russell T. Davies’ reluctance to use UNIT for anything other than cameo appearances is the United Nations itself, which contacted the BBC recently and told the organization the U.N. was a registered trademark, and they should seek permission to use its initials first. That’s unfortunate. Torchwood has Captain Jack Harkness at the helm, and all of the potential plots that arise from a group of overeager humans tampering with forces they know little about. What it doesn’t have is the longstanding connection to the Doctor Who series that UNIT would have had. It’s another X-Files department; another CSI, but with aliens.

Whatever the case, Russell T. Davies still has his spinoff, and will make of it what he will. We’ll just have to wait and see how it all turns out.


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