Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 8–Let’s Kill Hitler

“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell, let’s kill Hitler!”


Well, due to an appointment to celebrate my mum’s birthday, I didn’t get to see the new episode until the afternoon after it was broadcast. Cue much avoidance of every part of the internet that might have spoilered me, however unintentionally. A day’s worth of abstinence from Facebook, Twitter and even the Guardian’s TV section. It was like going back to the days before all that existed! But now, finally, I’ve caught up on this most anticipated of TV sci fi events. And the result? It’s not half bad, though really, it’s not half as good as it thinks it is.

What with that cheekily ridiculous title, it should have been pretty obvious that, against all expectations, this was not going to be one of the show’s darker, angst-ridden episodes like the one that preceded it. No haunted self-realisation on the Doctor’s part here. Just a lot of complex revelations imparted via one of the sillier plots that Steve Moffat has yet cooked up. Indeed, if there isn’t such an adjective as ‘Moffaty’ someone needs to invent it to describe the style of episodes like this. Bonkers, inspired concepts (a chameleonic robot staffed by miniaturised justice-dispensing Simon Wiesenthal-alikes). Timey-wimey complexity – so if ‘Mels’ was Amy and Rory’s best mate growing up, did she exist in their previous timeline or is this a newly written one? Heaps of self-reference – the Doctor giving River her TARDIS shaped diary, River interviewing to study archaeology at ‘Luna University’. Witty, Douglas Adams-like dialogue – “You will feel a slight tingling sensation followed by death”. Flirtation crossed with edgy danger, with classic references – “Hello Benjamin”. Oh, and lots and lots of River Song.

There’ve been a few complaints I’ve seen that, this year in particular, Doctor Who is actually morphing into a new entity called The River Song Show, in which the former main cast are relegated to supporting players. There’s perhaps some truth in that – Alex Kingston’s high-camp scenery-chewing doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to make an impression, and fanboys in particular seem annoyed that she is, basically, upstaging the hero of the show. It’s the same basic problem I have with Paul Magrs’ Doctor Who spinoff character Iris Wildthyme; she dominates the stories she’s in so much that I end up thinking she might just as well have her own show, a sort of twee Coronation Street in time and space.

But whether you like her or not – and it seems to be a Marmite “love her or loathe her” situation – River is central to the overall plot that Steve Moffat has devised, and as this episode had to resolve any number of hanging plot threads to do with her, it was right and proper that she should take centre stage here.

And so she did; that cheeky episode title turned out to be a classic bit of Moffat misdirection as Hitler barely featured in the story at all, only appearing as a sort of comic sideshow. Mind you, it’s fair to say – as Moffat has, along with David Mitchell in today’s Observer – that if you’re going to approach the character of Hitler in a show with this kind of light tone, it’s best to deal with him as a joke rather than a monster. After all, what better way could there be of declawing one of history’s worst figures than to make him the butt of cheesy humour? It’s an approach that’s always worked for Mel Brooks, and so it does here. In his brief appearance, the hapless Fuhrer gets threatened by a justice dispensing robot before being lamped in the jaw by Rory (yay, Rory!) then unceremoniously bundled into a cupboard from which we never see him emerge.

In the interim, though, he does manage to accidentally shoot ‘Mels’ triggering the regeneration that was the first twist in a number scattered throughout the episode. To be honest, though, I wasn’t entirely surprised that ‘Mels’ turned out to be River. Her sudden insertion into Amy and Rory’s backstory seemed very suspect; she was so larger than life as she screamed onto the scene in a stolen Corvette to hold a gun on the Doctor, really, who else could she have been? Not to mention the little clues dropped in the dialogue – “cut to the song…” and the glaringly obvious that ‘Mels’ just had to be short for ‘Melody’.

It’s a typical bit of Moffat cleverness that, while Amy was pining for her lost daughter, she’d actually been bringing her up – in a way – since they were both children. And that ‘Mels’ was the one who got Amy and Rory together, thereby ensuring her own existence. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan played that scene with romantic comedy cuteness that really worked, with Amy’s revelation that she’d thought Rory was gay making me laugh out loud. However, I did think that, what with the very believable concern Amy had previously shown for her daughter and her desire to bring her up in a normal, loving family, she seemed oddly unconcerned that that’s now plainly never going to happen. I would have expected, especially from Steve Moffat, some real angst about the loss of her experience of motherhood. Still, perhaps that’s yet to come in a future episode.

It could, in fact, end up as yet another thing for the Doctor to torment himself with guilt about. I said that there was no dark examination of the Doctor’s soul this week, but there was some nicely underplayed angst in the business with the TARDIS’ Voice Interface system. As it manifested itself as the Doctor himself, he winced and said, “no, someone I like”, at which point it tried to be every companion from Rose onwards: “No. Guilt. More guilt. Is there anyone in the universe I haven’t completely screwed up?” But it was lovely that it eventually shaped itself into little Amelia Pond – it was great to see Caitlin Blackwood back in the role, together with her appearance in the earlier flashbacks.

But the guilt wasn’t dwelt upon for too long; this was a very fast moving episode, cut together with the sort of ferocious pace one might expect from Michael Bay (albeit with ten times as much intelligence). And besides, we had to get back to River –she hadn’t been on screen in minutes. So off she went, knocking over Nazi soldiers with a blast of regeneration energy before roaring off on a motorbike to threaten a restaurant full of Third Reich bigwigs that she’d machine gun them if they didn’t all give her their clothes.

With this sort of material to work with, Alex Kingston ditched any sort of restraint in her performance. Next to that, John Barrowman seems a model of underplaying! I did think it was a bit of a shame that we couldn’t see more of Nina Toussaint-White as Mels, as she was every bit as much a diva – just a different one to Alex Kingston. Still, if anyone was still wondering, I’d say the regeneration finally answers the question of whether Time Lords can change ethnicity between incarnations.

Matt Smith managed to more than match her, though. He was effortlessly flirting with her even as his “own bespoke psychopath” tried determinedly to kill him in a very funny – and well-directed – scene in Hitler’s office. Later, he managed to convincingly splice dignified death struggles (convincingly enough that I half wondered whether we were somehow going to get a surprise regeneration) with well-timed comedy. His ‘Rule One’ – “Never be serious if you can avoid it” was almost a manifesto for this episode itself.

While Karen Gillan was suitably fiery, if a little more blank than usual as Amy’s robot replica (a dig at those who say she can’t act, perhaps?), the other real star of this episode had to be Arthur Darvill as Rory. While still convincingly a normal bloke, his world-weary resignation to not understanding what was going on was a comic delight. And he got to be all Indiana Jones as he chased after River on a stolen motorbike, not to mention getting to say, “Shut up, Hitler!” which is a line you don’t get to say very often in an acting career. For me though, the moment when I just wanted to hug him – and perhaps even go to bed with him – was that close up of his barely composed face as he struggled not to blurt out his love for Amy in the flashback scene. Beautifully underplayed.

With all this romcom stuff going on, though, Moffat still managed to pack in a Douglas Adams-like sci fi concept with the ‘Teselecta’ (is that how you spell it?). A shape shifting robot run by miniature people dispensing justice throughout time and space managed to be reminiscent both of Red Dwarf’s Inquisitor and that old children’s comic strip – was it in the Beezer?- in which we see glimpses of the tiny people who live inside and control the hero of the strip.

It also served a useful exposition function, with its records of the Doctor’s life and death. So now we know that ‘The Silence’ are a religious order rather than a species, and that they’re waiting for “the silence to fall when the question is asked”. Again, it was hard not to think of Douglas Adams and the quest for ‘the Ultimate Question’, though I’d expected the robot to reveal that the question was “why?”. Thankfully, Moffat wasn’t that obvious, and that part of the arc remains “unknown”.

So, a typically clever Moffat episode packed with comedy, temporal paradoxes (“You named your daughter after… your daughter.”), flirty dialogue and some real revelations that move on the contentious story arc that’s so far dominated this year. I think a lot of people will be rather disappointed that they didn’t actually get a story about killing Hitler, although I had expected the title to be even more of a metaphysical reference than it actually was. And I know it’s carping, but I do tend to agree that River may be coming to dominate the show a bit too much; she was integral to this episode, but I’m actually hoping we get a bit of a break from her in the next few weeks. Along with, perhaps, some good standalone episodes. I enjoy following an engaging, complex plot arc as much as the next nerd, regardless of the criticism it’s drawn, but I do also think that Doctor Who can do great standalone episodes. The Doctor’s Wife was one such, but hopefully we’ll see a few more like that in the coming weeks.

Finally, an incidental detail – I love Matt Smith’s new coat! Oh dear, another one to hunt for a convincing replica of in charity shops and eBay. Thankfully, I already have a Luftwaffe jacket similar to the one River appropriated in the restaurant, though fortunately it’s post war and devoid of swastikas!

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 8

End of the Road


It’s exposition week for Torchwood! After last week’s virtually standalone episode which seemed to do little more than touch on the main plot, this week it was answer after answer in an episode which veered from occasional action through character development to mountains of infodumps. Still, at least some answers were finally forthcoming.

Chief expositor was Nana Visitor as Olivia Colasanto – as it turned out, the granddaughter of Jack’s ex Angelo, who this week was found to have lived this long by virtue of a sensible lifestyle and no immortality particularly. While it’s great to see Nana Visitor in anything, Olivia wasn’t given any kind of character as such; her function was simply to spew information as to what was happening, how it had happened, and who did it. This barrage of exposition came so thick and fast in the early part of the episode that my sleep-fogged brain had a hard time taking it all in.

Among the salient points that I did manage to discern were that Jack isn’t actually responsible for the Miracle – he just gave the rotating triangle people the idea for it, which seems like a bit of a swizz given all the hints dropped previously. And the rotating triangle people now have names – Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines. Three weird names, to be sure, and a pain to type over and over again, which may be why they’re usually referred to simply as The Families; you can almost hear the capital letters in the dialogue. Angelo wasn’t working with them, because they don’t like the gays. That’s not unusual for people in the late 20s, though it did seem incongruous that their properly contextual homophobia wasn’t matched by any equally period-accurate racism – there weren’t that many rich black people accepted so casually in society at that point. Which, if nothing else, should make them easier to track down, despite the fact that they’ve managed to wipe their names from the entire internet – perhaps with a virus similar to the one Jack used to erase all references to Torchwood.

Esther, listening in with a phone and a laptop, had the fun task of transcribing the infodump while Googling everything that came up in it. She really is turning into this show’s Chloe O’Brian, albeit without the endearing lack of social graces. Unfortunately for her, this meant that she had to endure the indignity of having a gun shoved in her face by Dennis Nedry Friedkin as Wayne Knight made a welcome return. After a succession of single episode guest shots, it’s refreshing when a character actually turns out to be more than a gimmicky cameo, and Knight’s trademark sweating panic was nicely consistent with the out-of-his-depth character we’d seen previously.

This all turned out to be due to a fantastically elaborate scheme by Rex, of all people, a man who hasn’t previously displayed much aptitude for anything beyond surly anger. Apparently his ‘careless’ phone call to express his condolences to Vera’s brother was actually part of a masterplan by which, when the time was right, he would bring Friedkin and his betrayals to book using the magic contact lenses – which begs the question of exactly when he got Gwen to give them to him and why she then seemed so surprised that he was using them. Perhaps Torchwood have lots of them, but if so that was a detail missing from the general flood of exposition. Additionally, the ones Rex was using seem to have a microphone built into them somewhere, as Wayne Knight’s distinctive voice was transmitted to the monitors watched by Jack and co, rather than the usual lipreading software/bland expressionless voice combo.

But we can forgive these little questions about detail and be thankful for the arrival of John De Lancie as CIA head honcho Allen Shapiro. De Lancie toned down the massive excesses of camp we’d come to expect from his years in Star Trek (or perhaps it just seemed that way because he was standing near John Barrowman), but this was still recognisably the guy who played Q in the same room as the woman who played Major Kira, which was kind of cool. It’s just a shame that he immediately bundled her out of the room before they’d had a chance to exchange more than about two lines. Still, Nana Visitor had spewed all the exposition required, and with no further function in the narrative, Olivia was conveniently blown up when Friedkin carried out the rotating triangle people The Families’ last instruction. They’re presumably no more dead than the guy who was blown up in part one, but their exploded state pretty much rules out any question of Visitor and Knight popping up in any future episodes.

The episode did seem a little unbalanced as this brief flurry of action and excitement was over with by about halfway through, at which point we got acres more character development as our heroes cogitated on the mountain of exposition they’d just heard. And took time to catch us all up on the well-being – or not – of their families. The trouble with this is that I don’t really care about them. A little family background for your characters goes a long way – as we saw in Children of Earth, it’s possible to give your heroes families that are only slightly involved in the action, without overloading the narrative to the extent that the thriller keeps pausing to catch us up on the soap opera.

And so it did here. While the revelation that you can ‘volunteer’ for the category 1 burning procedure (along with your children, somewhat improbably) was chilling, I really don’t particularly give two hoots about Esther’s sister, and think far too much time has been spent on her. She’s not a particularly convincing character, and she could have served the same plot functions in about a quarter of the time. Gwen’s morale-boosting chat with Rhys and her mum was nice, but really served no particular purpose other than to remind us that Wales was still there. At least Rex didn’t take time for a heartfelt chat to his dad, though given the general indulgence to script flabbiness of this kind, that was rather a surprise. As it is, if we don’t see Rex’s dad again, I’d say that scene between them in episode four was another bit of unnecessary padding that could have been cut to make this series overall as lean and fast-paced as Children of Earth was.

The soap opera part that did work, though, was a genuinely touching scene with Jack finally facing up to his former lover, trying to explain to the comatose Angelo how he felt. It was well-written dialogue – as Jane Espenson co-wrote this episode, I’d say this scene was hers – delivered surprisingly well by John Barrowman. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that he can actually be rather a fine actor. His rueful speech to Angelo also featured a fanboy-pleasing reference to Ianto Jones, which seemed also to underline that while Jack may now be several thousand years old, he’s only ever genuinely fallen for these two people. Perhaps behind all the rampant shagging, he’s a man of considerable depth after all…

But the plot kicked back to action as Angelo died. Yes, actually died – as our heroes later discovered, he had a handy bit of alien tech – probably nicked from the ruins of the Torchwood Hub – hidden under his bed, a ‘null field’ generator that neutralised what now seems conclusively to be a ‘morphic field’ used to create the Miracle. Cue Shapiro eagerly wanting to nip it off to CIA HQ for some analysis, and Jack’s now-familiar “humanity isn’t ready for this technology” speech – that part really did feel like the Torchwood of old. I’m not sure the ‘comic’ business about the null field making their conspiring inaudible really worked, mind.

So that part of the plot climaxed with Rex and Esther helping Jack to nick the vital bit of the null field generator, during which Jack was unfortunately shot, and now seems incapable of helping out. It was a curiously static episode in terms of setting, with basically only two locations – our heroes spent the entire time in Angelo’s luxurious mansion, but to enliven the proceedings they were intercut with what Oswald and Jilly were getting up to in, basically, a hotel room and a corridor.

Mind you, it was good to see Oswald and Jilly again after two episodes away. I’ve become inexplicably fond of Bill Pullman’s totally non-naturalistic, oddly mannered performance as Oswald, and he was in fine form this week, his delivery peppered with strangely placed pauses and veering from stuttering unconfidence to sudden outbursts of psychotic rage. It’s still not clear what function in the overall narrative Oswald has – unless it’s as a kind of moral barometer by which to judge everybody else’s actions – but if we have to have unnecessary padding and character moments, at least Oswald and Jilly’s are entertaining.

It was a kind of black comedy as Oswald tried rather improbably to reform himself into a normal human being by means of hiring a prostitute just for her ‘company’, and it was like watching a classic farce waiting for the inevitable moment when that was all going to end in tears. But the comedy went out the window as Oswald finally turned on Jilly, and actually gave her what looked like a really nasty punch in the mouth. It was a bleakly convincing bit of violence that served to underline how truly nasty Oswald is, but also to reinforce Jilly’s ‘ruthless bitch’ persona. She’s not one to be crossed easily, and her ranting threats to Oswald as he walked off had the convincing ring of Piers Morgan threatening someone with a long lens.

Not that she seems likely to make good on her threats though – the not entirely unexpected reappearance of the mysterious, hunky young guy from the Families took her off at a tangent by offering her a job and shooting that nice young CIA agent who was pretending to be her intern. And while our heroes are – sort of – back in the CIA’s good graces, it was hardly a surprise to discover that Friedkin wasn’t The Families’ only CIA mole. With 24 a clear influence on parts of this, that was exactly the kind of ‘twist’ we’d become familiar with after eight increasingly improbable years of following Jack Bauer around.

So, another episode that very much encapsulated Miracle Day’s strengths and weaknesses – some good character development, a bit of action, masses and masses of exposition, but none of it particularly well balanced out, either within the episode or the story overall. Nana Visitor seemed rather wasted as a non-character whose only function was to deliver concentrated information, but John De Lancie was on fine form as Shapiro. And the Oswald/Jilly storyline is still entertaining, but its payoff to the main narrative had better be good to justify so much time having been spent on it over the series as a whole. The conspiracy stuff got a nice real world beat as we discovered that The Families were responsible for the economic collapse of 2008, along with the information that, in Miracle Day world, Greece and Ireland are about to default on their national debts and send the global economy into freefall. Mind you, with current events, this seemed uncomfortably close to reality.

Only two more episodes to go, which may be a relief to some and a shame to others. I’m finding it hard to have strong feelings either way though – this is a generally entertaining and intriguing show, but its script flabbiness and uneven structure have made it far from compulsive viewing. Fortunately, though, tonight sees the return of a show I genuinely do love, even if it is currently causing a similar love/hate reaction among fanboys. Yes, Doctor Who is back tonight! Which means much more writing on this blog as I try to keep up with reviewing that and Torchwood each week. Stay tuned…

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 7

Immortal Sins

With Jane Espenson back on scripting duties this week, we get a bit of an oddity. Clearly the information passed on in this episode is vital to the overall storyline. Equally clearly, this is a beautifully written little story, which puts Captain Jack front and centre for the first time this season, really. Yet given its place in the overall narrative arc, and the way it effectively ‘pauses’ the storyline, it still kinda looks like filler to me.

After my comments last week about missing Oswald and Jilly, I was rather surprised that this week’s episode actually narrowed down the cast even further. Rex and Esther get a bit of business at the end of the ep, cleverly working out that Gwen’s acting under duress (well, more by luck than judgement), and staking out the rotating triangle people’s hostage handover site. But other than that, this episode is really only about three people – in the present, Jack and Gwen, and in the past, Jack and his newly introduced ex, Angelo Colasanto.

It’s all about character development rather than progression of the Miracle storyline – though there are some vital clues here – but Espenson excels at this kind of thing, so it’s actually quite an affecting look at all three characters. The present day part of the story may have been very frustrating for viewers eager to move the plot along, consisting as it did of nothing more than a long drive to an unspecified location. But along the way, we got some great deconstruction of Jack and Gwen’s characters and relationship over the years.

Gwen’s guilty exultance in the mad and dangerous world of Torchwood was enlarged on, as was her increasing concern that this lifestyle is totally incompatible with having a family. She also overturned some of Jack’s – and the viewers’ – assumptions about her relationship with him. They may have chemistry, but it’s in the past where her family’s concerned. And she’s totally willing to hand Jack over if it means saving her family, despite, as a former police officer, presumably being aware that kidnappers are notoriously untrue to their words. Jack, for his part, gave back as good as he got with his affirmation of just how much he loves living – despite the fact that he’s been zipped through time often enough now to have experienced most of human history twice over.

And as they drove, we got a bit of cat and mouse as Jack tried to persuade Gwen to untie him, by promising to use his Vortex Manipulator (named for the first time this series, I think) to trace her family. Gwen wasn’t persuaded for more than a minute, though the question of whether he was telling the truth was left ambiguous for the viewer. The rotating triangle people chipped in with their judgement – “he always lies”. As Gwen comments, “whoever they are, they know you well”. And indeed, looking back on it, doesn’t that sound exactly like the sort of comment you’d expect from an embittered ex?

And it seems that it may be exactly that. We got our first real clues as to the identities of the rotating triangle people this week. As Deep Space Nine’s Major Kira (well, Nana Visitor – I’m sure she’s trying to avoid typecasting) turned up to collect Jack, she let slip that even Rex’s somewhat dubious marksmanship (really, how did he miss that bloke?) wouldn’t change things. Jack was going to want to meet the man at the top, because he was the man that Jack used to top! (Sorry, bad gay sex joke)

And so onto the part that took up most of the episode, with the Gwen/Jack car chat being little more than a framing story. Basically, we were looking at one long, extended flashback about a Torchwood mission Jack undertook in 1920s New York – and how he fell in love while he was there.

Given Jack’s propensity to flirt with, and shag, anything that moves, it seemed a little out of character for him to fall so heavily for one guy. Particularly when he was presumably out of time and should be returning to our present day. Actually, the script was rather vague on what he was doing there and how it fit into his established personal continuity. We know that the Vortex Manipulator can enable the wearer to travel in time, so did he just make a quick jaunt to the past to sort out the Trickster Brigade’s history meddling? Or was this one of the several times he was catapulted into the past and had to get back to the 21st century the long way?

It was actually continuity geek heaven this week, as Jack explicitly mentioned the Doctor, placing the show firmly in the Doctor Who universe just as Gwen did with her video message in Children of Earth. He also explained his immortality as being due to having become “a fixed point in space time”, which must have left a few fanboy geeks scratching their heads – if this is the first time he’s had to live through Earth history, after Rose resurrected him and deposited him in the past, he can’t have known that, as he only found out when Doctor Ten explained it to him later. Of course, if he used the Vortex Manipulator to travel there from some more recent point, that might explain it. Except, didn’t Doctor Ten deactivate the Vortex Manipulator’s time travel capacity just after explaining the “fixed point” thing to Jack? Neither really makes sense, and I suspect Russell doesn’t want us dwelling on that at too much length…

Continuity confusion aside, this was really the first episode this series that filled in Jack’s back story and explained important matters like his immortality. This seems an oddly long time to wait to foreground and explain, basically, the series’ main character – especially for new viewers. Although, it’s equally possible that new viewers might have found Jack’s mysterious nature more enthralling without early explanations.

Either way, this was Jack’s episode, and the story of his romance with Italian immigrant Angelo Colasanto was very sweetly written and played. It didn’t hurt that Daniele Favilli, the Italian actor playing Angelo, was rather easy on the eye – and due to yet another round of gratuitous sex, we got to see pretty much all of him. Actually, I’m being a little unfair – the sex scene wasn’t gratuitous, but integral to the building story of Jack and Angelo’s relationship. And it was actually quite a good sex scene. If only Daniele Favilli had been with someone rather sexier than John Barrowman, it might even have qualified as great soft porn!

As Jack has seemingly gone totally gay this year (perhaps the concept of omni-sexuality was deemed too controversial for US audiences to cope with), we got a pretty good depiction of how it must have been to be gay in 1927, both in Italy and New York. There was also a still relevant examination of how difficult it is for a religious gay man to reconcile his nature with his faith, as Angelo came to grips with the idea that his sexuality could include love along with sex.

In fact, the episode showed a great grasp of time and place in many aspects. If memory serves, Jack has been to Ellis Island before, but this time we actually saw a vivid depiction of how it may have been to be an immigrant waiting, sweaty-palmed, to find out if US authorities would let you enter and stay in the country of your dreams. And that country was shown not to be so dreamy as Angelo got used to it – with Prohibition in full swing, we saw a priest bootlegging and had a guest appearance from legendary (real) mobster Sal Maranzano.

Indeed, Angelo’s dreams were shattered in a particularly cruel way. As a naïve innocent, he’d finally found love with a man who wanted to show him a wider world of miracles, to take him on as a Doctor-style ‘companion’ as well as a lover. And then after his very first alien encounter, with an icky brain parasite thing, he finds his lover shot in the head, gets sent to Sing Sing for a year and emerges to find that his lover isn’t dead – and therefore must be the Devil. Boy, that guy has some really bad luck.

It was a genuinely shocking scene when we what we thought was going to be more rumpy pumpy turned into a stab fest as Angelo tried to ‘kill’ what he thought must be a devil from Hell. And that progressed into a truly nightmarish sequence of the Brooklyn locals ‘killing’ Jack over and over again, in some pretty brutal ways. It was basically the sort of thing the Master threatened to do in Last of the Time Lords, but was never actually shown. This time, we saw every wince-inducing moment of it – along with Angelo, whose horrified expression suggested he’d worked out that Jack wasn’t the Devil after all.

While all this was going on, we got our first real glimpse at the rotating triangle people – or at least their antecedents. And it looks like they really are people, not aliens – three anonymous looking business types wearing perfectly normal late 20s clothing. But when the three of them clasped hands to cement their partnership, it made an unmistakeable triangle shape.


Jack, semi-conscious, heard them talk of paying $10,000 to own ‘it’. Note, not ‘him’, ‘it’. Either this was yet another example of how low people can stoop, treating another human as an object, or they meant something more significant, some ‘property’ which they’d obtained from Jack. It was also highlighted that an old lady took a vial of Jack’s blood – although whether being a fixed point in spacetime is contagious is questionable.

Nevertheless, it looks like at least one person worked it out quickly enough. Angelo didn’t seem connected to the rotating triangle people in 1928, but if he’s still alive now that would put him at over 100 years old. Not impossible, but so much easier if you can’t die. Next week will presumably give us a clearer view…

So, a curious one. This was, by any standards, a pretty decent standalone episode, with some excellent writing and characterisation and a really evocative sense of period. And yet it barely moved the storyline along one iota. This, if anything, is the real problem I’ve had with Torchwood this year; it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serial or an anthology show. This is a good episode – but it doesn’t seem to belong at this point in the story. For a properly crafted multi-episode narrative, the plotlines here might have been better threaded throughout all the episodes up to this point, rather than pausing the story proper to fill us in in an admittedly well-crafted load of backstory. That would have sacrificed a fine standalone episode, but given a far better balanced serial.

Still, despite my problems with the story structure, I’m finding each episode entertaining enough to hold my interest (though to judge by some rather venomous internet threads I may be in a minority). It’s still no classic, but there’s some interesting stuff here – Jack’s repeated ‘killings’ show yet another aspect of how low humanity can stoop, and there’s some surprisingly mature musings about sexuality, love and family. Next week though, let’s get the actual story moving along again. Please?

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 6

The Middle Men


It’s a tighter, more focused episode for Torchwood this week, once again in the scripting hands of X Files veteran John Shiban. Having revealed the new world order’s Holocaust re-enactment plans last week, the team turn this week to action and how best to deal with the new death camps. The only other story strand this time is Jack’s continuing investigation of Phicorp, which means that there’s no room for Oswald Danes or Jilly Kitzinger this week.

But it’s fair to say that there’s enough going on here for that to have little effect; indeed, my other half Barry didn’t even notice their absence, only asking some while after watching if we’d seen Oswald or Jilly this week.

As some consolation for the absence of everyone’s favourite child murderer and PR shark, however, we did get another of those rather good one episode guest shots. This week it was Ernie Hudson, exhibiting considerably more charisma than he did as ‘the forgotten Ghostbuster’ Winston Zeddmore (Winston does actually get the last line in Ghostbusters, yet no one mentions him in the same breath as Venkman, Spengler and Stantz). Hudson was convincingly commanding (and a little sleazy) as adulterous Phicorp chief Stuart Owens; the part effectively required him to appear in only two scenes, but he made an impression.

As did Jack’s sting operation on him, achieved by opening the eyes of his starstruck mistress and secretary Janet. John Barrowman was at his campest here; as he used his insider knowledge of Stuart and Janet’s affair to suss what drink Janet would like in her glass, he offered her the option of getting back at her duplicitous lover, “or we could sit here all night drinking appletinis and discussing men”. Later, he once again displayed his coat’s uncanny ability to woo cute service staff, suggesting to a camp young coat check boy that, “maybe the three of us should get together… you, me and the coat”. Damn. I’ve got two military greatcoats, but I have to say, they’ve never been helpful in the way that Jack’s seems to be. Perhaps he’s sprayed it with alien pheromones…

Fortunately he wasn’t wearing it when he crossed to Stuart and Mrs Owens’ table to put his plan into action – perhaps the coat check boy was sniffing it in the cloakroom. Ably dispatching Mrs Owens in short order by dropping her husband right in it with news of his affair, Jack got to sit down and have a good old chinwag with the bloke who he thought, logically enough, could give him all the answers. But John Shiban used to write for The X Files, and he knows the tricks – you only provide answers if they’re going to lead to more questions. Thankfully Miracle Day only has a ten episode run; after nine seasons’ worth of this in The X Files, it had grown more than a little tiresome.

So Jack’s meeting with Stuart, played as a kind of conspiracy version of My Dinner with Andre, led us to the knowledge that he was “just the middle man”. So Phicorp are only a part of the rotating triangle people’s plan, and it’s much bigger than that. Stuart knew nothing of the “specific geography” mentioned by ‘the Gentleman’ in Episode 4, but he was earlier seen to send a Phicorp operative to investigate some mysterious land purchases in Shanghai. Said operative duly wandered around whichever part of LA they’d dressed up with neon to resemble Shanghai, before peering through a fence and seeing something that apparently motivated him to jump off a very high building in some kind of trance. He seemed to be an early adopter of a new trend known as the ’45 Club’ – people jumping from 45th floors in the attempt to get themselves as nearly dead as is currently possible.

Stuart passed this information on to Jack, along with confirming that this had been in the works for a very long time, “at least since 1990”, and dropping hints about something called “the blessing”. As it seems unlikely that the Catholic Church are behind it all, who knows what this could mean? Certainly not Jack, who decided the best approach to finding out would be to Google it.

With the investigation and exposition falling to Jack again this week, the rest of the team filled us in with some actual action. Rex and Esther were still trapped in the San Pedro overflow camp, under lockdown in the aftermath of Vera’s ‘murder’. And Gwen and Rhys were still trying to get Gwen’s dad out of the Welsh facility before they had to do so in an urn.

With the Holocaust analogy presented so starkly in last week’s episode, comparatively little time was spent dwelling on it this week. We did get an impassioned, and rather well-written, exchange between Gwen and Dr Patel, a medical functionary at the camp portrayed by Hollyoaks’ Lena Kaur. Dr Patel (presumably no coincidence that she was non-white) was yet another ‘middle man’, her “just following orders” philosophy deliberately reminiscent of the defences at the Nuremberg trials. A wordless exchange between Gwen and an obviously conscience-stricken cleaning lady helping her escape was a nice touch, their looks conveying far more of the staff’s moral dilemmas and courage in resistance than any amount of dialogue.

Meanwhile in California, Rex was similarly moved by righteous anger, though Mekhi Phifer’s conveyance of this was rather more overplayed than Eve Myles. Staring into his little camera, he angrily disavowed his loyalty to the CIA in favour of Torchwood – finally. Unfortunately for him, he fell foul of the increasingly skittish Colin Maloney (Marc Vann again superbly loathsome this week). Colin completes the triumvirate of ‘middle men’ to which the episode title refers, and he got a really nasty bit of business in which he decided to downgrade Rex to Category 1 by means of sticking a pen in his still open chest wound – a sequence that actually made me wince.

Luckily for Rex, the redoubtable Esther was on hand to rescue him by killing Colin as much as she could. Which turned out not to be enough, as he re-enacted every Friday the 13th movie’s cliché of grabbing her ankle in a shock moment to reveal that he wasn’t as ‘dead’ as he looked. He hadn’t counted on his aide shooting him though – Fred Koehler did well as little Ralph finally found some balls. Nice move shooting your own boss (and perhaps boyfriend – anyone else get that vibe from the two of them?).

Gwen and Rhys had slightly less trouble escaping from, and somewhat improbably actually blowing up, the Welsh camp. Nevertheless, it made for a cool action movie image as Gwen zoomed away from the exploding hangars on a motorbike, and Rhys charged the gate in an army truck that the sentries seemed unfathomably unable to shoot at with any accuracy. A bit of honest action was a nice counterpoint to all the exposition and moral angst, though it did feel that the tone was veering wildly from ‘dark examination of humanity’s depths’ to ‘let’s blow shit up’.

Finally returning to LA – do these people never get jet lag? – Gwen was somewhat disturbed that this week’s cliffhanger involved the rotating triangle people having hacked into the magic contact lenses to inform her that they had captured her entire family, and if she wanted to see them again, she’d have to bring them Jack.

So Jack’s still instrumental in all this, and as yet we don’t know how. We don’t even know yet (it’s episode 6, remember) whether the rotating triangle people are aliens or some dark conspiracy of humans – though it’s worth remembering the exchange in episode 2 about this involving “no technology on Earth”. Also, we’ve refreshingly seen no more gratuitous sex since episode 3, though I wonder how long that can last. Next week, perhaps more answers. Or more shagging. But hopefully, a definite return for Oswald and Jilly – I would miss them if they were absent for two episodes in a row.

The game of social dysfunction

After a second night of – relative – calm, it looks as if, thankfully, the orgy of rioting, looting and destruction that has swept England since last Saturday is finally over. In the aftermath of England worst civil disobedience in generations, it’s time to look for answers. Or to play the blame game – a game that, in fact, pundits and the public have been playing since Tottenham started burning last weekend. A lack of complete information has never been any barrier to humanity’s ability to jump to conclusions where events like this are concerned, even more so for those of us that live in the country that was collectively terrified for four nights.

So who is getting the blame? After all, there’s always “some bastard who is presumably responsible”, isn’t there? Blame, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and accordingly everyone’s view of the responsibility for events is being filtered through the prism of their own politics, views and prejudices. Thus the left blamed the right, for having caused so much social deprivation with their emphasis on capitalism, big business, public spending cuts and an ever widening social divide. The right blamed the left, for decades of indiscipline, political correctness, excessive tolerance and an ‘entitlement culture’ based on benefit receipt that was easier than working. Oh, and the EDL, with predictable stupidity, blamed the blacks.

The consumer culture was responsible, in which aggressive advertising and corporate hype raised to an almost religious fervour the desirability of trendy materialistic items to those who increasingly couldn’t afford them. The spoiled nature of today’s youth, brought up on a welfare state to believe they were entitled to something for nothing, was responsible. A lack of proper parenting was responsible. The moral corruption of the nation’s leaders was responsible. Police racism was responsible. The failing economy, widening the divide between an increasing army of poor and a shrinking minority of ultra-rich, was responsible. A lack of discipline in schools was responsible. Rap music, with its glorification of sexism, homophobia, drugs and illegally obtained material items, was responsible. Twitter was responsible. Facebook was responsible. And so ad infinitum, each seeking to boil down an incredibly disparate set of circumstances that happened to come together to cause chaos into one nice, simple soundbite, so that we can do something easy and say, “there, we’ve sorted that, it’ll never happen again”.

“Criminality, pure and simple,” was the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated, scolding refrain. The former Eton prefect was presumably forgetting his own teenage trouble with cannabis and later well-documented hooliganism with Oxford University’s toffs-only drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Criminality it was, pure and simple it certainly was not. The truth is, you can’t boil this down to one nice, simple explanation where those you don’t like get the blame. I think there are elements of all the causes listed above that have contributed, and that most people, left and right, have a point to make and some responsibility to be shouldered.

Of course, the information is still incomplete, and it may never be possible to provide proper explanations, but using the events to justify your own political prejudices is never a good idea. Particularly if you’re the EDL. In the emergency session of Parliament called yesterday, David Cameron sought, predictably, to shift the blame onto “the last government” who by his reckoning appear to have been responsible for every social ill from the sacking of Rome to the First World War. Ed Milliband, equally predictably, pointed out that it had happened during a Conservative-led government, and their savage social injustice must have caused it. Neither seemed willing to look too deep into the causes, and with good reason – beneath the usual tired rhetoric, both had a point. What we’ve seen over the last week is the huge simmering melting pot of this country’s social problems finally boiling over, and it’s been a long time coming. Or to put it another way, in the Buckaroo game of England’s social dysfunction, successive governments have piled on more and more bedrolls and crates, and the current one has just had the misfortune of putting on the last stick of dynamite that finally makes the mule kick.

So how did we get from a peaceful protest over a dubious police killing to jaw dropping footage of England’s greatest cities in flames as though the Luftwaffe had made a return visit in search of trainers and plasma TVs? Racism definitely played its part, though even that isn’t as simple as many would like to claim. There are definitely some very dubious circumstances surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday (can it be only a week ago? It seems like a lifetime). From the, as usual, limited information available, it looks like the Met reacted with totally disproportionate force, and shot a man who wasn’t offering the kind of threat that would justify this. But equally, it’s been shown that Duggan did have a gun – it was a blank-firing pistol that had been adapted to fire live rounds. The problem being that he hadn’t actually used it – it was the police that did all the shooting. Duggan, at least on the face of it, was no angel. But shooting him in the head may have been overreacting.

Some, initially, took this as evidence that the inherent racism in the Met condemned by the 1981 Scarman Report was still very much around. And they very possibly have a point, though it’s always a mistake to paint every policeman with the same colours (so to speak). There are numerous accounts of the police’s tendency to stop and search young black men far, far more frequently than any other ethnic group, even at the expense of going after other, non-black criminals who are more obviously doing wrong – my friend Chris Lancaster, a teacher in Hackney, has attested to this point with firsthand tales. But is this still the “jungle bunny, darkie, send them back to their own country” racism of the 70s and 80s, or are we looking at something more complex?

England may be far more racially sensitive than it was in those dark days, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached any golden age of equal treatment and opportunity for all ethnicities. As a general rule, criminals have always tended to come from the poorer sections of society. Also as a general rule, even now, most of the country’s black youth have also been locked into the poorer sections of society – particularly in London, where the descendants of the Caribbean immigrants of the 50s have never managed to escape the poverty trap no matter how hard their parents worked. So it’s not hard to see the flawed chain of ‘logic’ that could lead even a non-white supremacist policeman to be prejudiced. Criminals are poor. Black youths are poor. Therefore black youths must be criminals.

But there’s an even bigger racial issue here than any kind of prejudice inherent in the police, which is the question of WHY social class can be defined by race. In a land where racism apparently has been made so much less of a problem, why are there still some races unable to escape the poverty trap? Actual racists, of whom there are still a depressing amount, would say that it’s because of black culture, entitlement, rap music, etc. Even more depressingly, they may have a point – the culture of many young black men in poor backgrounds has shaped itself into something wilfully antisocial. Obviously that’s not true of all, but enough to be noticeable, particularly for the mainstream media who focus on this minority at the expense of the rest of the black community. But that misses the point that an antisocial culture has developed because of injustice, prejudice and poverty, which in turn reinforces those things in a depressing zero sum game. It’s easy to blame rap music for causing social ills, but remember that rap music was spawned by those very social ills in the first place, and has nihilistically drifted away from its original message of political outrage and injustice to resignedly boasting, glorifying women with big butts and telling us how many guns and expensive things the rappers own. But if you see your ancestors working hard and still living in poverty, and your only hope of financial advancement is crime, it’s easy to see how that can be tempting.

None of which excuses or justifies such behaviour of course, and it’s equally true to say that plenty of people from such a background study hard, work hard, and are fine members of society. And equally, there are still plenty of honourable people in the black community who have a justifiable sense of outrage at the position they STILL find themselves in purely because of their race. Of course, the racists take this as proof of their obvious superiority – if blacks are as good as us, they argue, there wouldn’t be such a disproportionately high number of black people in poverty. This, quite frankly, is bollocks. The reason there are so many black people among England’s poor is, quite simply, that there are still racists. It’s clear that not enough has been done to address the problem of integrating Britain’s varied ethnicities. A ‘quota’ system of positive discrimination in employment is not the answer – how patronising is it to know you’ve got a job purely on the basis of your race rather than your ability? The answer, surely, is in education, in bringing all people up to respect each other as equal – not just in the classroom, but everywhere in society. Many good people are still struggling to achieve just that. But plainly it’s not working, and new racists are being brought up to hate all the time. Look at the average age of an EDL member – we’re mostly talking under 30. If young people are still being taught by those around them that some races are more equal than others, there’s plainly still a very big problem.

So it was hardly surprising that, when a group of perfectly well-intentioned people accompanied Mark Duggan’s family to Tottenham police station on Saturday to demand some answers and were met with indifference and contempt, something bad was going to happen. And something bad did, as – reportedly – a teenage girl was pushed to the ground by a policeman, for reasons that are still unclear. Angry, people started throwing things. And lo and behold, another race riot was born on the streets of London, not so far from where similar riots had spring up in the 80s.

And at that point, it’s fair to say it really was a race riot – those same issues that sparked the 80s riots had, with a depressing inevitability, flared into violence again. Depressed, but not entirely surprised, I only watched the news with half an eye that night – it was a familiar narrative, and I had the nihilistic view that again, nothing would change.

But I was wrong. Things did change – for the worse. With any riot, there’s always an extra momentum built up by mob mentality, and by those who opportunistically latch onto it for their own ends – to cause trouble, to start a fight, and always, to steal things and break things. So it was that Saturday, but the scale was unprecedented. As the night wore on, it became clear that, however it had started, this was about more than Mark Duggan and police racism now. It had become rioting, destruction and looting for its own sake, with no point to make whatsoever. Shops were looted, cars and buildings set on fire, and any message that might have been given was entirely lost.

As night followed night, it became clear that this was now ALL about the looting, the fighting and the destruction. It was like the end of Quatermass and the Pit, with apparently ordinary people drawn mindlessly into the wanton indulgence of theft and vandalism. The communities being ransacked were their own backyards – they were, to use a phrase I first heard in a Stephen King novel, “shitting where they eat”.

At this point, any easy analysis of the causes was impossible. The film and CCTV footage, and the news photos, showed a much more disparate group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity than anyone had expected. Of course, people see what they want to see – to racists, 90% of them were black, to liberals, 90% of them were socially deprived, to conservatives, 90% of them were from broken homes and living on benefits. As we’re seeing now that the mindwarping amount of them arrested is beginning to filter through the courts, it’s not that straightforward.

A breakdown of the demographics involved is not yet forthcoming, so I’m guilty of speculation myself here. But of those looters who’ve already gone through the courts, we’re seeing that plenty of them actually had jobs, in some cases quite well-paid ones. So they weren’t all on benefits. Plenty of them were in higher education – so they weren’t all stupid. Plenty of them were women – so they weren’t all men. Plenty of them were white – so it wasn’t all about racism. And while a very high proportion were teenage or younger, there were plenty of people in their 30s and even their 40s, so it wasn’t a failure exclusively confined to a new ‘feral’ generation.

So what caused such a disparate bunch to turn into the terrifying mobs of roving thieves we saw over the last week? With so many different kinds of people involved, it was obviously more than one thing. The trouble is that all the causes feed into each other, so identifying motives – or solutions – is not easy.

“It’s the madness of a consumer society, where we’re all told to buy things we can’t afford,” cried many liberals, myself included. That this had a part to play was obvious; in the words of one teenage girl interviewed on the news, they wanted “some free stuff”. And after all, the main activity of the disorder was theft. More than ever, we live in a society where we’re defined as people by the things we own. You’re in a lower social class if you don’t have the right brand of trainers, or the very latest model of iPhone. Equally obviously, these things are getting harder and harder for ordinary people to afford, even as they’re artificially made more desirable by advertising and social pressure. “Tear it all down!” cried a communist friend of mine, clearly failing to appreciate that Karl Marx would hardly have been proud of a proletariat whose sole motive was the acquisition of material things.

“It’s the recession and the Coalition cuts,” we also cried. There’s an aspect of that too, for some. Whatever you think about the Coalition’s economic policies, it’s undeniable that the social divide between rich and poor is wider than ever before. The diminishing tiny group of the wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, while the increasingly populous poor get poorer. All this in the middle of a global recession in which those perceived to have caused it – the investment banks – have been bailed out by taxpayer’s money and continue to pay themselves conspicuously obscene bonuses while governments, held to ransom by threats of corporate relocation, can do nothing but look on impotently. “We’re just taking stuff back from the rich,” commented one looter as she walked away carrying her pointless new hoard. As cries of political rage go, it was pretty inarticulate, and smacked of excuse-making at that, but it summed up the increasing anger the population are rightly feeling about the increasingly divisive economic inequality the world over.

“It’s the voice of the voiceless,” was another cry I heard as a justification for this being the only kind of revolutionary expression an inarticulate ill-educated underclass could manage. That’s as may be, but they were hardly sticking it to their oppressors; Chipping Norton and the West End went unmolested. In fact, the looters’ targets were depressingly unambitious. I mean, JD Sports? Footlocker? Miss Selfridge? As consumers, their looting choices were decidedly low-rent. That may have just been down to opportunism; Armani and Gucci don’t have too many outlets in Hackney. Still, it’s telling that the REALLY exclusive stuff wasn’t hunted for – these were the dream things of decidedly ordinary people, and even these for many were out of their reach.

But not for all. As has been pointed out, many of those doing the robbing already had some of the things they were nicking. Some, like the teenage girl whose parents own a mansion, could clearly have afforded to but them anyway. So why would people want to loot things that they already had, didn’t need, or could afford to buy? The right wingers would have us believe that it’s because of a spoiled “entitlement culture” where the Welfare State has given the population the impression that they can get something for nothing, and this was a logical extension. And you know what? I think they had a point. But only the beginnings of one. We DO live in a culture where we expect to be able to get “free stuff” without having to work for it. State benefits have to shoulder some of the blame for that; even in the 90s, when I was on benefits, I found that there were occasions when it was better for me financially to stay on benefits than get a job. Not that this is any reason for the Welfare State to be dismantled, as the right wing would immediately insist. The benefit system is certainly ripe for overhaul, though whether the current government’s plan for it will work is questionable. But that’s only part of the “entitlement culture”. After all, if benefits payments are higher than potential wages, isn’t there also a problem with the wages? For years, employees rights have been eroded to such an extent, and corporate privileges extended by so much, that wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2003. I’d say the private sector has something to answer for in making joblessness a more attractive state than working for a pittance to enrich a minority.

If Labour have given the country a too-generous benefit system though, that’s as nothing compared to the economic dreams the Conservatives fostered in the 80s. Thatcher’s dream of a classless society where everyone gets rich (except the poor, who don’t matter) led to decades of easy credit possessions. Credit which, in the middle of a financial crisis, is no longer available. Why, people may be asking, could our parents get free stuff and we can’t? Oh wait, there’s an easier way…

Not to mention (and this is admittedly being filtered through MY prejudices) the inane “celebrity” culture that’s arisen over the last decade or so. How many young people, asked what they’d like to be, will these days simply say, “a celebrity”? Fame used to be earned by talent, hard work, and yes, sometimes luck. Now a lifetime of glitzy parties, appearances in Heat magazine and a line of workout DVDs is perceived to be guaranteed simply by dint of appearing on TV shows that require an unpaid public simply to turn up and gurn onscreen for a few minutes a week. Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al have fostered this culture, and we are, in part, reaping the rewards of it. If young people’s biggest dream is to be accorded the trappings of fame without doing anything to deserve it, these have surely played their part. When young girls say that their dearest aspiration is to be a footballer’s wife, that’s a dispiriting state for future generations to be in. Fame without work has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to understand how people might think they can get – and deserve – something for nothing.

“They’re taking away my EMA,” one looter stated, “so this is, like, me getting stuff back.” A decreasing amount of educational opportunities, whether real or perceived, is undoubtedly stoking the fire of social unrest, particularly in poorer areas. Having said that, this was a claim it was hard to take seriously in a lot of cases. It later transpired that many of those looting were already in Higher Education. And it was noticeable that, if the looters were so concerned about their education, they conspicuously left Waterstone’s untouched.

Nevertheless, to some the Educational Maintenance Allowance, innovation though it is, has been a genuine lifeline. Some criticise it as, effectively, paying to keep kids in education and therefore off the unemployment register. But for some, it does enable them to go to college without having to support their family with a part time job. Its loss has been felt in many communities; but I still think in these cases that it’s been more a factor in the erosion of morale than an actual contributor. Books seem to hold far less attraction for the looters than Nikes.

“These people have no community spirit!” was the clarion call of many conservatives. And they’re right there, too. When people are destroying, looting, and burning down the places where they live, when lack of concern for your fellow human beings leads to robbing an injured man’s backpack under the guise of helping him, it’s clear that large swathes of the looters had absolutely no investment in their community, or indeed humanity in general. I doubt this applies to everyone who was out there, but it’s true of a hell of a lot of them. How we get people like that to accept the idea that “no man is an island” is a knotty problem, particularly when everywhere they turn, they see so-called ‘pillars of the community’ acting out of selfish self-interest. It’s hard to have much faith in a community when you see that community’s elected representatives defrauding those who pay their wages to get themselves a new duckpond. Or a moat. Or even a flatscreen TV like those that proved so popular to the looters. And when those selfsame representatives, and their enforcers in the police, have been caught out accepting favours, hospitality and money from a vast media empire intent on making more money out of invading the privacy of grieving families, that’s hardly likely to foster a sense of community either.

“These looters have no fear of the consequences because the police have been stripped of all power to act!” Another one that is, in some ways, true. The perception fostered since the 70s by movies like Dirty Harry (which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the behaviour of its title character rather than glorify it) is that the police’s hands are so tied by the ‘human rights’ of criminals that the criminals can act with total impunity. In some ways, this isn’t far from the truth; but the police themselves have to shoulder some of the blame here. I hasten to add at this point that the vast majority of police officers are decent people who actually want to fairly preserve law and order. However, the decades of scandals in which the British police have been embroiled by an admittedly diminishing proportion of their number have left them trepidatious of taking any direct action for fear of reprisals from the public. Even now, there are still problems with this. The death of Ian Tomlinson last year, and the public outcry over the outrageous kettling of student protestors, have left senior police officers fearful to take bold action when faced with these situations. Not to mention the fact that the Met in particular is currently leaderless after its two most senior officers had to resign over their roles in the phone hacking scandal.

“What are they going to do anyway?” snorted one looter. “Put me in prison? They’re full! Give me an ASBO?” And he was right. It’s hard to see how Big Dave can honour his press conference promises of cramming the 1500 and rising looters already arrested into a prison system that’s already creaking at the seams. ASBOs, an asinine Labour invention, have done nothing to curb people’s contempt for the punitive system either. How have we ended up with so many criminals that an impressively large prison system isn’t big enough for them? Well, there is the well-known fact that the prison system does little in the way of rehabilitation; for a first-timer, a spell in jail with some hardened criminals will just result in him or her being released as a better-skilled criminal. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t go to prison – but equally something must be done to reform a system where, when they come out, they’re more likely than not to simply go back to crime, get caught, and go back in.

To briefly bang a drum I’ve banged before, if you want to do something about the number of criminals, you might want to look at reforming the drug prohibition laws. How much crime, including that on sinkhole estates like Hackney’s Pembury, is built on the backbone of drug dealing? How much untaxed profit is floating about that the government could use to reduce the deficit? And all because, since 1971, we’ve followed the head in the sand approach of the US in saying that it’s somehow the state’s business to regulate what people put in their bodies for recreation. Pretty much all drug-related crime stems from the fact that drugs are illegal; if they were available for properly regulated sale, anyone who wanted to use them could do so without having to harm anyone but themselves.

I’m not saying that recreational intoxication is in any way a desirable state for people; but the rest of us don’t seem to have a problem with getting pissed every weekend, which is at least as physically harmful and antisocial. Legalise drugs and properly regulate their sale according to the health harms they pose, and you’d free up an inordinate amount of prison space, government money and police time – not to mention breaking the back of organised crime by removing its most profitable endeavour. And how many teenage ‘gangstas’ would idolise drug dealers if the drug dealer was just the bloke in Boots? Since people are getting and using the drugs anyway, a rational debate on this subject is long overdue. Sadly, however reasonable politicians may seem on this subject while in opposition, once in power none of them dare risk opening the political Pandora’s box of the subject. But now more than ever, it would be a debate worth having.

“Where were the parents?” was another cry. “They’re all from broken homes, with no male role model and a mother having more and more kids to sponge off the State!” This is a tough one. A stable home environment may well be better for children, though it’s hard to tell yet how many of the looting youngsters were from single parent families. But to espouse that any family which doesn’t include a parent of either sex is a dangerous path – not just from a gay perspective, but because it reinforces the already pernicious idea that single mothers are some kind of blight on society. Well, I’m the product of a single mother household, as are many of my friends, gay and straight, and I like to think most of us turned out all right – certainly none of us were out looting.

But it is true to say that there’s a real problem with some children having as little respect for their parents as they do for their teachers. Traditionally, teenagers especially have always rebelled against authority figures; the police being, in fact, the biggest target here. And the conservatives may have something in saying that it’s hard to respect and obey an authority figure who demonstrably has no power over you. Should parents, teachers, police officers and the like be allowed to give kids a thick ear if they’re misbehaving? The liberal in me says no, but it’s hard to deny that when these things were allowed, the young did have more respect for authority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because I hate the idea of getting more right wing as I get older. But it’s increasingly seeming to me that authority figures with their hands so tied end up having no authority at all. At the very least, I think perhaps a debate on what kind of consequences can ethically be meted out to give youth some kind of discipline is in order. A rational, evidence-based one though, rather than a reactionary, knee-jerk, Daily Mail/Mary Whitehouse approach.

If this seems like a very, very long laundry list of problems, well, that’s because these are the little plastic pieces overloading the Buckaroo game that is England’s social fabric. Note, NOT the UK – Scotland, which has many of the same problems, saw no such unrest, and in fact neither did quite a few parts England. There was no looting in Newcastle, or Truro, both of which are subject to so many of these issues. One of the other questions we need to ask is why these particular parts of England and not others? Despite Big Dave’s reticence, I genuinely think the biggest waves of social disorder in decades deserve a proper, considered inquiry.

That inquiry will need to take everything listed above into account, and properly weigh up the evidence and statistics when they are finally available. Basically, what I’ve just done is try and list almost very major social dysfunction in the country – no small task, and for that reason I haven’t even got started on the topics of what we do now; how we clear up and how we stop this from happening again. Another post will follow on that later, with, hopefully more concrete information to back it up. For now though, it’s fair to say that the terror that’s gripped us all for the last week has been down to an overloaded combination of all of this.

However, if it can be boiled down to one, singular issue, it is this. Stripped of ethical, legal, political and emotional considerations, human civilisation is based on one very fragile social contract. Probably its best known summation is from Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In other words, purely pragmatically, we condemn murder because we don’t want to be murdered. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from. And for the better part of the last week, that social contract was held in limbo by enough of the English population to paralyse the country. If that contract is now back on, it’s in no small part due to the fact that we were reminded of it on the news in an admirably dignified appeal by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the Birmingham chaos. He’d lost his son, he told us. If nobody else wanted to lose theirs, they should calm down and go home. And for a wonder, they did. Now we need to ask some very searching questions.

To catch a wolf, you don’t unleash a tiger

While the racial issues that sparked the recent chaos seemed to be largely forgotten after the first night in the fury of looting and destruction, there were disturbing signs last night that a racial dimension may be rearing its head again. Prejudice and bigotry are undoubtedly part of the causes of this disorder, and it’s on all sides – looters, police and now the self-appointed vigilante mobs set up to defend their communities.

Vigilantism is a very understandable response to the situation. After three nights of seeing buildings and property destroyed or stolen with seemingly little intervention from a strained police force, it was an obvious response from communities desperate not to see a repeat of what was now filling the rolling news channels. On Tuesday, we saw groups of locals for the first time taking to the streets in defence of their homes and businesses, as a large group of Turkish shopowners massed in Dalston to hold off the looters.


Similar groups in Stoke Newington and Haringey’s Green Lanes managed to hold off the looters there with, it seems, no excessive force or violence the likes of which the looters themselves displayed.

Police concerns about vigilantism aside, this did the job, and if nothing else was a perfect example of Call-Me-Dave’s Big Society at work. Last night though, other districts of London followed suit, and some more worrying elements began to creep in.

The most noticed in the national press were in Enfield and Eltham, and to a lesser extent Millwall. These are not areas renowned for their racial tolerance historically – Eltham was the site of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and Millwall was notoriously the first district to elect a BNP councillor, again in 1993. So it shouldn’t have been particularly surprising when Paul Lewis, on the Guardian’s live blog of events for Tuesday posted an apparent account of a large gang of ‘drunk’ white men chasing after local youths presuming that, because they were black, they were looters .

Lewis later posted a follow-up saying that he had been “shaken” and “there were no racist chants”. However, this seems not to jibe with other reports; the Telegraph had a piece this morning in which it quoted the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon as saying he’d been spending the day in Enfield, while the Guardian’s Matt Taylor quoted one of the Eltham group as saying “This is a white working class area and we’re here to protect the community”. While I don’t want to demonise anyone for simply describing their ethnicity as white, given the area’s history this has a worrying ring. Later a video showed a large mob of shaven-headed men ‘patrolling’ Eltham High Street chanting “E-D, E-D-L!” And however much Stephen Lennon shouts at Jeremy Paxman that the EDL is not a racist group, it was pretty noticeable that this entire group were white.

A later video showed another entirely white gang of young men running through the streets of Enfield – after what is unclear – who seem to be chanting “England! England!” While I’d never dream of criticising anyone for supporting our national football team, this seemed an odd time to be singing their praises. However, it is – dispiritingly – the traditional cry of our ‘beloved’ white supremacists in this country.

However, perhaps the most disturbing account I’ve heard of this trend is from my friend Matt Tobin, who lives in North London. Earlier today he posted on Facebook:

“I was in Enfield last night, and I have to say, it appeared that the backlash of the rioting seemed to create a race war. I actually heard a white woman scream to a black woman, ‘Get in your car! They are hunting black people!’, then I saw a mob of white people, marching down the street, chanting “Come on England!’”

As with so many other aspects of this trouble, it’s hard to generalise or to vouch for the perfect accuracy of the reports being received – though I know Matt well enough to trust his first hand eyewitness account. And I would like to stress that I doubt whether this element even makes up a majority of the people trying to defend their property, livelihoods and safety in these boroughs. But to judge by the reports and the videos, there are enough of these people out there for it to be a major worry. The Enfield group were notable for all wearing white shirts, which sounds disturbingly like a uniform of sorts. And given that several reports state the groups congregated initially in pubs in the mid-afternoon , it’s safe to say that sober restraint was unlikely to be much in evidence.

So do we really want justice to be served by a mob of half drunk white supremacists? Apart from anything else, they’ve got the wrong target. If any of them had bothered to look for even a second at the multiplicity of videos and photos all over the news and the internet, they might have noticed that the looters are a pretty ethnically disparate group. Or they might not – after all, it’s amazing how blind people can be about anything that might overturn their own convictions. This kind of actual evidence is unlikely to change the mind of any of the racists. Meanwhile, Stephen Lennon has promised that EDL members will “launch street patrols in Bristol, Manchester, Luton and Leicestershire over the coming days”. Given the sort of strife usually associated with any EDL gathering, do we really want that added to the current mix?

This chaos has brought out the small ‘c’ conservative in a lot of otherwise fairly liberal folk, again understandably. But I’ve been disturbed to see how many of my otherwise rational Facebook friends have been cheering these groups on. And one of the most cliched phrases I know keeps recurring in these postings. So a word of advice to anyone thinking of posting on the topic – if your enthusiastic support has to be qualified with “I’m not a racist, but…” maybe you should think twice about offering it.

I know people are vulnerable. I know people are frightened – I’m frightened too. And as someone who was beaten up by homophobes a couple of years ago (in Cambridge of all places) I totally understand the desire to hit back. But turning to a mob of uniformed xenophobes because they’re hard has never been a good idea. Don’t unleash the tiger to catch the wolf.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 5

The Categories of Life

Torchwood: Miracle Day 2011; Episode 105

Thank heavens, this week Torchwood stopped pussyfooting around and got to some really dark stuff, more in the vein of Children of Earth than the previous four episodes of running around and ‘character development’. The events this week were somewhat signposted at the end of the previous episode, but still gave a few nasty shocks on actually seeing them. This was signalled last week by the ‘Next Time’ sequence, which as in episode four of Children of Earth had Gwen talking to camera about how terrible things were going to be. As it turned out, she wasn’t exaggerating.

The various plot strands do seem to be drawing together into something more coherent, but this week was less about the Miracle and its causes than about its effects – and about how humanity deals with them. Consequently, we had less evidence of the rotating triangle people this week, though Phicorp was everywhere. We still don’t know what, if anything, Phicorp has to do with the rotating triangle people, but for this episode they were almost irrelevant. Pretty much all the nasty stuff here could be laid squarely at the door of humanity, in a similarly bleak look at our ability to stoop to the lowest moral depths in the name of pragmatism to that which is often seen in George Romero’s zombie movies. Or Children of Earth, for that matter.

Back on scripting duties this week, Jane Espenson acquitted herself rather better than previously. Unlike her last episode’s clumsy ‘British/American slang misunderstanding’ character comedy, she actually gave us some much less contrived moments of fun in the early part of the episode. John Barrowman and Mekhi Phifer in particular are starting to have some rather good buddy chemistry (or is it something more?). Captain Jack’s snidey remarks about where Vera was going to sleep (“I mean… you did… didn’t you?”) were followed up by a bit that actually made me laugh out loud, as John Barrowman affected even greater levels of camp than usual to pretend he and Rex were boyfriends. “I really love him. My crazy boyfriend!” Rex flipping him the bird just out of the paramedics’ sight was priceless.

But the humour didn’t last long, as the episode veered determinedly towards darkness. We’d got the impression last week that the ‘Overflow Camps’ had a sinister ring of segregation and internment like those Russell T Davies had previously created in Doctor Who episode Turn Left. And so it proved, as even before the credits Dr Vera was informed that the medical panels had summarily broken up and recommended that life would now have to be ‘categorised’. This would have been sinister enough without the knowledge that, as Ellis Hartley Monroe hinted last week, those who fit into the category for what would have been death were to be segregated and locked up. Of course, the big question for the audience was, what was going on in these camps? So pretty much the entire team, including new recruit Dr Vera, set about infiltrating them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yes, Gwen was back in Wales this week on a mission to rescue her father, who Rhys had well-intentionedly sent off to one of the camps. It was good to see the UK shown properly this week, as I’d begun to think the occasional sequence of Rhys on a phone was all we’d see of this side of the pond. But this is a BBC co-production, and just hearing Welsh accents again – other than Gwen’s – made it seem more consistent with the Torchwood of old. For British viewers, it also has slightly more of an impact seeing the events unfold on familiar ground; we’re so used to seeing the US through the prism of films and TV that it seems almost fictional in itself. But internment camps in South Wales gave it a chilly reality that sunny San Pedro didn’t have, for me at least. Plus, seeing aspects of these events unfold in tow such widely separated countries gave a sense of global scale far more effective than the over used device of showing lots of different news broadcasts.

The camps, and their funding by Phicorp, gave some great opportunities for righteous anger at the healthcare systems in both countries. Gwen’s disgust at the glossy Phicorp leaflets distributed in the camps, and her realisation that the NHS couldn’t pay for all this and healthcare had effectively gone private, was oddly timely and relevant. Presumably when Russell was plotting the season, he already had some inkling of the way the incoming Tory-led government was going to try and marketise the NHS. Meanwhile, in San Pedro, Vera got some righteous anger of her own as she stumbled into the second class area of the camp – a festering hellhole where those without health insurance were left to rot, and patients weren’t even categorised properly. It was a neat indictment of the US’s two tier system of healthcare, craftily done in a sci fi setting – George Romero would be proud.

Unfortunately Vera’s righteous anger was also her undoing, in what must be the shortest run for a Torchwood agent ever. Shot by the unctuous, sexist civil servant in charge of the camp, she found herself investigating the mysterious ‘modules’ a little more closely than was entirely safe. Torchwood has never been shy about killing off main characters, and it’s one of the things that has given the show something of an edge – like Spooks, you know that no-one’s safe (well, except presumably Captain Jack). However, with the show’s main premise this year being that no-one can die (except Captain Jack), it’s been something of a challenge to put any of our heroes in mortal danger, leading to rather a lack of jeopardy.

However, as we chillingly discovered what the ‘modules’ were actually for, all that changed. Rex’s musings about them being too small for the torrent of living dead were something of a clue, but as Maloney’s fiddling with the controls was intercut with Rhys telling Gwen about the Welsh facility’s ‘burn unit’, it became horribly clear. They’re giant ovens for burning the inconveniently undead to ashes, where they can’t be a burden any more.

The internment camps in Turn Left were merely talked about, leaving their actual conditions to the viewer’s imagination. Nevertheless, the presumably intentional immediate impression was of a rerun of the Holocaust. Not having to worry about a family audience here, Russell has taken the implicit and made it explicit. The dead are to be segregated in terrible conditions and eventually burned like refuse.

The Holocaust looms large over the last eight decades of history – it’s become a benchmark for the depths of degradation the human race is capable of sinking to. As such, its echoes are prominent in drama of all genres. Sci fi has dealt with it before, notably as an allegory forming the basis of Star Trek’s darkest incarnation, Deep Space Nine, and as one of the planks of the conspiracy in The X Files, with their alien/human hybrid experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s a very sensitive subject that needs to be dealt with thoughtfully, and at least one person I know has already expressed reservations over using such an overt reference to a horrifying reality in what’s essentially a fantasy story. I do think that it’s treading a fine line here, particularly in the actual depiction of crematoria to burn the living dead to ashes; but I think the tone is about right. This season, and this episode in particular, have consciously had a fair bit of social commentary to them – and showing that, given the right conditions, we could stoop to those depths again is a disturbing, if pessimistic, possibility.

Such dark subject matter makes it difficult to be jocular about this week’s offering, but it has to be said that we were again blessed with at least one really cute young man – the rather camp nurse who ‘categorised’ Rex – and one great guest turn from Marc Vann as the slimy, perma smiling Colin Maloney, petty functionary in charge of the San Pedro camp.

Outside of the camps though, it was business as usual for Oswald Danes, making yet another rousing – if somewhat incomprehensible – speech. Bill Pullman, while still not exactly naturalistic, does seem to have permanently pulled back on the exaggerated quirks he gave the character initially, and he now seems even more sinister. And unpredictable – with both Captain Jack and Jilly Kitzinger waiting anxiously to see which of their speeches he’d deliver, he went with one of his own. Man, he told a rapturous audience of Californians, has made a great leap of evolution – to angels. Oswald’s increasing position as a new Messiah is – given that he’s a paedophile and a murderer – one of Miracle Day’s more disturbing aspects. There’s obviously a payoff waiting down the line as to why he’s so central to this, but again, this is edgy stuff – for an American show in particular.

With all that going on, the rotating triangle people did find time to put in a proxy appearance, as represented by a clean cut, Mormon missionary like young man in a suit, who popped up randomly to tell Jilly that she was doing a good job and was being noticed by ‘the right people’. Lauren Ambrose continues to be excellent as the amoral Jilly, and she seemed thrilled by the prospect. Or perhaps she was just coming on to the guy – he was kind of cute, too.

So, we’re at the story’s halfway point and we’ve already reached the stage where humanity is burning people to ashes on an industrial scale. Granted, it took a rather roundabout, dallying route for the story to reach that point, but where can it go next? Children of Earth left the actual capitulation to the aliens, and the giving up of 10% of the planet’s kiddies, to the very last episode. Here, we’re only halfway in and we’re re-enacting the Holocaust. I have no idea how you top that. It might cause a rather unbalanced storyline – or perhaps there’s something even more insane waiting in the wings.

Story spectacle aside though, there’s still plenty of unanswered questions – who are the rotating triangle people? What does Jack have to do with them? How does burning people to ashes benefit them in any way? The show’s had a shaky start this year, perhaps as a result of the radical overhaul needed to co-produce with an American company, but it seems to be into its stride now and the better for it. I don’t think it’s ever going to remembered as a classic – although the next few episodes may prove me wrong I suppose – but it’s never less than watchable, and when it hits the heights it did this week, thought-provoking too.