British TV’s sci-fi inferiority complex

Swearier, flashier, gayer and set in Cardiff, BBC’s Dr Who spin-off Torchwood shows UK sci-fi can’t take itself seriously.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

Why are the British incapable of making decent television science fiction?

For a nation that has produced such esteemed sci-fi authors as HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and Michael Moorcock, not to mention Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell (if you keep in mind that Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Brave New World (1932) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) are in essence sci-fi/fantasy works), you would think our national temperament would be suited to transferring weird tales to the small screen.

But whereas the US has given us Flash Gordon, The Twilight Zone, many incarnations of Star Trek, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Futurama and, more recently, a re-vamped Battlestar Galactica, Britain’s principal contribution to the field can be summed up in two words: Dr Who. Granted, The Quatermass Experiment was popular back in the 1950s, and The Hitchiker’s Guide to The Galaxy was superb – but the latter was sci-fi parody, and inadvertently betrayed our timidity when it came to taking this genre seriously. It was also perhaps even an unconscious admission that our previous attempts to do so had been execrable.

Blake’s Seven was perhaps the nadir of British television sci-fi, closely followed by Space: 1999. I needn’t extrapolate here to British readers about feeble plots, unrealistic special effects and ‘cheap, wobbly sets’ because you’ve probably heard it all a thousand times in one of those I Love Nineteen-Seventy-Something programmes on Channel 4.

Still, Dr Who is held up as paragon of British sci-fi (see talking heads on said I Love Nineteen-Seventy-Something programmes regurgitating the routine cliche about ‘hiding behind the sofa’). Perhaps we like to think it was good because the Americans liked it. We Brits always seem to think that Americans liking something is a seal of approval. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Office, etc. This both exposes our inferiority complex, in that we are desperate to be loved by our bigger, better brother, but also reveals our snootiness and stereotyped view of Americans. This was especially true of Monty Python. ‘Wow!’ was the collective reaction. ‘Monty Python must be good because even the Americans, who are so stupid and so thick and utterly devoid of understanding of irony and surrealism, actually got the joke.’

Apart from the Tom Baker incarnation, Dr Who wasn’t really all that. The Jon Pertwee episodes are especially atrocious, all seemingly featuring him driving round in a Jeep in an open mine, accompanied by the army and being chased by actors in fancy dress pretending to be monsters. And all the Doctors after Baker were forced by the scriptwriters to inject an element of levity into the shows. This is not to say that levity is a bad thing. Where would the Die Hard or Lethal Weapon films be without it? But levity only works if the core, serious script is strong, if the special effects are believable, and if the jokes actually work. Dr Who remains largely bereft of all three. Flying Daleks? Give me a break. Dr Who thus remains correctly categorised as a ‘cult programme’. And as everyone knows, ‘cult programme’ is euphemism for ‘shit programme’.

The Dr Who spin-off, Torchwood, has been on our screens since 2005. It aspires to be an edgier version of that which spawned it, so it has swearing and more explosions, but is essentially just as silly. Even more stupidly, it is set in Cardiff. I’m not anti-Welsh in the slightest, but Cardiff does not conjure up images of aliens and the paranormal. Horrible football fans and pointless, parasitic Welsh Assembly members bullying everyone into becoming bi-lingual? Yes. But time-travelling monsters and aliens? No.

You can set sci-fi or horror stories in London or Edinburgh because they have Gothic appeal and heritage, just as crime stories work in Chicago, New York, Manchester or Glasgow, but can you imagine a similar TV show being located in Peterborough, or Des Moines, or Edmonton? Admittedly, HG Wells got away with having his alien invaders in War of The Worlds (1898) landing in Woking, but you didn’t suspect he was trying to make a point about Surrey, and the extra-terrestrials did eventually make it to London. With Torchwood you just get the impression that the BBC are trying to labour some post-devolutionary point here – namely, that weird and interesting stuff can actually happen outside London.

Torchwood: Children of Earth (1), which concludes tonight, has our undercover team of extra-terrestrial experts investigating the phenomenon of the entire world’s children being possessed by an unknown alien agency. And once again it betrayed that British combined sense of hubris and inferiority. It seems that the aliens specifically have chosen the UK as the country of first contact. Why us? Were these aliens contacted by the Iranian government, and have mistaken Britain for the most powerful country in the world? Apparently not. In Wednesday’s episode it was revealed that Britain was chosen because it was regarded as a useful ‘middleman’ (2). The inference here being that we are America’s lackeys. Or nice people you can do business with. Or both.

Of course, science fiction and fantasy are the ideal vehicles for conveying metaphor and satire. But only when it is done with an element of subtlety. Only the literal-minded would think Animal Farm (1945) was just a story about pigs and horses. You’d have to be stupid not to recognise that War of The Worlds is an allegorical attack on European imperialism in Africa, that Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) was taking umbrage at US militarism, or Lord of The Rings (1954-55) was subconsciously about the Bomb (despite its author’s protestations to the contrary).

But the latest Torchwood was not so subtle about Britain’s perverse superiority/inferiority complex, which is, in other words, a manifestation of narcissism. Admittedly, it was, as usual, well-acted by gay actor John Barrowman (as the immortal Jack Harkness), whose gay character you believe really does care; and by the pouting Eve Myles (as Gwen Cooper), whose character, I dread to say, solicits that word seemingly only applied to women with courage: she is ‘feisty’.

I look forward to it anyway. Science fiction, of no matter what quality, does make you think. In Torchwood‘s case, it makes you ponder as to what it’s really trying to say. Is its portrayal of possessed children a reflection of our paranoia about kids in hoodies, society’s hatred of children and general fear of ‘feral youths’? Or does it reflect our climate of what Frank Furedi calls ‘paranoid parenting’, in which we suspect our infant young ones to be vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, from cars to phone masts to paedophiles? Is the government really embroiled in some giant conspiracy, as Torchwood suggests, and many half-wit 9/11 and 7/7 conspiracy theorists believe? Is the UK the world’s proverbial ‘middle-man’ – a calm negotiator, or lap-dog to the US? In believing that Britain is a magnet for aliens, is Torchwood unwittingly propagating the perception that this island is the ultimate desired destination for all illegal asylum-seeking ‘aliens’? And can gays save the world? We wait and see (3).

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) See Torchwood – Children of the Earth, Day One on the BBC iPlayer here.

(2) See Torchwood – Children of the Earth, Day Three on the BBC iPlayer here.

(3) See Torchwood – Children of the Earth, Day Five on the BBC iPlayer here.

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Topics Culture


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