Over the last couple of days (and, if everything goes well, over the next couple of days) we’ve been watching “Torchwood: Children of Earth”. For those who don’t know, this is a special week-long, one episode-a-night presentation of a series that’s a spin-off from a very popular sci-fi series in the UK. That doesn’t sound like a glowing recommendation, I know. When Torchwood began, I watched the first series. I didn’t really take to it, for various reasons, and stopped watching during the second series.
What I did keep up with was reading the blog of a writer who wrote a Dr Who episode and a Torchwood episode.(James Moran: www.jamesmoran.blogspot.com) I watched that one and enjoyed it. So when he blogged to say he was involved in this neat idea, a self-contained Torchwood story that would run over five nights, I was really interested. For one thing, there’s the satisfaction of getting the next section of story just the next evening, instead of having to wait a week. There’s the fact that a five-hour story has a lot more potential than something that has to wrap up in half an hour. And there’s this – during the previous series of Torchwood, two of the regular characters had been killed off. Think about that for a second. Two characters had survived a couple of series and then been killed off. On the show that TW came from, Dr Who, none of the main characters die. Yes, there was a special episode one Christmas which ran like a disaster movie and Kylie Minogue guest-starred and died, but this is the exception, not the rule. Torchwood gives you no guarantees about the safety of the characters. This special could be interesting.
But, I moved to Canada. Children of Earth aired in the UK a month before it showed over here, and I watched in amazement at the effect it was having. Where did I watch? On the writer’s blog, of course. After the first couple of episodes his comments section had tripled in length as people came out of the woodwork to congratulate him and the other writers for such a gripping and chilling story. James wasn’t the only writer, but his blog is the most public – I’m not sure the other writers even had blogs running. James was the lightning rod for all the viewer response.
Then came episode four, when something really nasty happens. I can’t say what, because a: I haven’t seen it yet and b: I really hated the fact that other people tried to tell me what it was ahead of time. The comments section went insane. People were aggressive, insulting, threatening. James didn’t write episode four, but his was the only head above the parapet. Most of the regular blog readers and commenters weighed in with words of support, appeals for the fanatics to calm down, to consider what they were saying before pressing the “publish” button. It had no effect. James defended himself and his fellow writers many times over, but still the vitriolic comments continued. People accused James and the other writers if contempt for the fans, of “slapping them in the face” (I saw that particular phrase many times.) Some were simply bewildered or disappointed, but most had decided that this was a personal affront.
I’m still not going to reveal what riled these people so much, but it boils down to this: The story did not go the way they wanted it to. They wanted one particular narrative, and the writing team had decided on another. That simple. And yet these people felt that the fact they had watched the series since the beginning meant they could register their displeasure with insults and threats. Time and again James and his supporters pointed out that disappointment was a fair response, that you could be upset about the storyline, but you cannot claim ownership of it, that the story choices are not made by the fans of the series, but by the writers. In vain James pointed out that no series creator goes about wrecking his own show, that this was not done to alienate or exclude anyone. Still people railed and demanded an alternate ending, as if the entire mini-series could be re-shot in an evening and broadcast the next night.
Since then, since the final episode was broadcast in the UK, the comments have slowed to a trickle. James has closed his blog, saying he’ll take a leave of absence and when he does return, he’ll limit his blog to personal reflections rather than a discussion of the working life of a writer. I think this is a great loss. I know I have learned a good deal from James’ blog, things about writing as a job that no one else has told me. James had a feature film made, one that he had written. It was successful, many people went to see it, and you know what? He still had to work very hard to find more work. That’s something you don’t expect. Then he had a very successful year, writing for some very exciting tv shows and because of the lean years he said yes to everything and discovered the perils of having too much work. Again, not something a lot of people talk about. James was open about his work and life, and gave honest advice. He wasn’t smug or condescending or impossible to reach, but now he’s not there in the same way. Because some of the fans of Torchwood mistook openness for an invitation to criticise. And I guess he wouldn’t have minded so much if these people had also been professional writers, saying “I believe there was a problem with this sub-plot because of A and B…” but they weren’t. One amazingly rude person slammed the portrayal of a couple in the show saying “The writing of it was weak…” This person wanted to see the domestic life of the couple, wanted to see them doing the washing up together, spending some down-time relaxing. This was apparently supposed to happen during the five hours the writers had to set up an alien invasion of earth that demands ten percent of the children be delivered. I know I would have been irate if the aliens appeared in the skies and I then had to watch a cosy kitchen scene with hugs, kisses and soap suds.
Writers often have to make unpopular decisions. I nearly choked on my popcorn during the film “Serenity” when Wash died. He’d survived fourteen episodes of the tv show and most of the movie, but then BAM! He was dead. And what was the result of that? I was on the edge of my seat for the rest of the film. All the characters were in mortal peril and I was no longer sure who would come out of it alive. My principle thought was “If Wash could die, then any or all of them could! Oh my God!”. My expectations of the film were overturned and I became more emotionally involved than before. But I bet Joss Whedon got endless e-mails complaining about the death of the funniest member of Serenity’s crew. When I went to see “The Phantom Menace” I was surprised to hear people complaining about it on the way out of the cinema. The reaction seemed to be “I wasn’t expecting that to be the storyline.” Again, the fans expected something other than what they saw, and seemed to believe that their own emotional investment in the franchise should allow them some say in how the story went. My reaction, possibly because I know how stories turn up in my head, was “It’s George Lucas’ story. If that’s how he says it goes, then that’s how it goes.” Sure, I might have wanted some of the characters to act differently, but I also want to win the lottery and see an end to international terrorism. Wanting is fine. Believing that wanting entitles you to something is not.
So what should these people do? Well, as far as I’m concerned, the number one thing they should do is shut the hell up. If you don’t like a show anymore, stop watching, don’t bitch about it. When I thought that “CSI: Miami” had turned into the “Horatio Caine and his sunglasses” show, I stopped watching that, I didn’t send a letterbomb to the writers. And if silence won’t do it for you, may I suggest you write your own ending? There are legions of sites out there devoted to Fan Fiction. You want Captain Jack to marry Ianto on a deserted beach, wearing a pink Tutu? Write it. No one will stop you, unless you try to sell it somewhere (Characters are copyright, people, please remember that!) In fact, I would encourage everyone who’s disappointed with TW to write their own version, because then you’ll get the faintest of ideas how hard it can be to write. And if you finish your own story, hand it round to other fans and see how impossible it is to please all the people, all the time.