Yesterday, through the fog of jet-lag, I watched two programmes: TORCHWOOD and THE AMAZING MRS PRITCHARD. On the surface, I should like Torchwood a lot more than Mrs Pritchard; I’ve always been a bit of a sci-fi geek, I’ve written a film (CAUSE AND EFFECT) which on paper sounds fairly similar, and UK drama series (BBC drama in particular) is usually appalling.
Unfortunately the reverse is true. Torchwood was awful, just dreadful; The Amazing Mrs Pritchard was fantastic.
Now, there are some production issues here. Torchwood looks and sounds cheap. It’s shiny with really basic special effects and I’m not interested in any of the characters. Mrs Pritchard looks great, doesn’t have to worry about special effects and I’ve always had a soft spot for Jane Horrocks; but the main difference for me was in the writing.
Torchwood’s episode was called ‘Ghost Machine’. It was about a machine which allowed the bearer to see an image from the past. Right there is the first problem: apart from mild curiosity about history, so what? Gwen uses the device first and sees a little boy. She’s scared, I’m not. I know it’s an image from the past, I know that because the boy’s wearing WWII clothing and the episode is called ‘Ghost Machine’. The ghost can’t see her and she can’t interact with him. She then instantly finds the boy as an old man, so we know nothing bad happened to him and the ‘ghost’ is literally just an old image.
So what we have is a device which lets you see, without interacting, an image from the past. A high-tech TV, of sorts.
Everyone gripped? Do you want to know what happens next?
No? Why not?
I think the problem is the lack of questions. When something is well written, like Mrs Pritchard, you find yourself constantly asking questions: what happens next? How will they get out of that? I wonder if he/she is the one who…? And so on. With Torchwood, the only question I was asking was: I wonder what else is on?
Soap operas have this down to a fine art. Every scene leaves you with a question, even if you (like me) dislike the shows intensely, it leaves you wondering what the answer is. In a competitive medium like TV where the amount of alternatives is staggering, this question/answer formula is really important: you need to stop people turning over. In a movie (at least in the cinema) you have a captive audience; but the same questions need to be present. If the audience isn’t asking questions, they aren’t engaging, they’re passively watching meaningless images.
There were a lot of other writing issues with Torchwood (like long winded, boring speeches; or science explained at a pre-school level) but the main issue for me is the lack of questions. I want to be gripped by TV, I want to be asking ‘what happens next?’ Unfortunately, with Torchwood, I just don’t care.