Internet/Telecom/Social Media

Torchwood – why global conspiracy plot tropes no longer work

In the final moments of Children of Earth, Captain Jack Harkness – sometime immortal, but really a “fixed point in time and space” – must make a terrible decision: sacrifice his grandson, Steven, in order to channel a transmission and destroy alien invaders.

In so doing he will save 10% of the world’s children whom the invaders, the 456, wish to use as living factories to produce recreational drugs.

At its best, science fiction confronts us with human choices against the stark contrast of an alien background.

Children of Earth asks us: would you sacrifice someone you treasure and love in order to save millions of others who you have no connection to and who may never know of your sacrifice?

The surprise success of the series led its creator, Russell T Davies, to take the franchise across the Atlantic to the US where Starz financed the new series, Miracle Day.

And then everything went to pieces.

Miracle Day has as simple and brilliant a plot device as does Children of Earth.  What would happen if, one day, all over the world and at exactly the same moment, people stopped dying?  There would still be terrible accidents, disasters and illnesses.  There would still be bodies maimed and brutalised.  They just wouldn’t die.

Davies uses the device to show a backdrop of political and legal systems grappling with the implications of criminals on life sentences, murder victims who don’t die, of hospitals struggling with trauma words that are full of casualties who won’t die but can’t be healed, of disease epidemics and chaos and social movements filling the streets with their fears and phobias.

It’s all good stuff and despite everything I’m about to say, an idea so compelling I’m willing to overcome everything else just to see how this ends.

For you see, the idea is let down by some rather obsolete story tropes.

Trope 1: The obvious villain

Stories have always needed obvious villains.  We like to believe that, if we just get that one person, everything will be better.

This simple-headedness led Americans into believing that Saddam Hussein was responsible for all of Iraq’s faults.  A more chastened America realises that removing Muammer Gadhaffi from Libya will not bring about democracy there.

Any system requires lots of people to accept it.  Not necessarily support it, but be sufficiently disinterested in alternatives as to tolerate the status quo.  When sufficient people change their minds then systems change rather rapidly no matter how entrenched they may appear, or how untouchable their leaders think they are.

Robert Mugabe didn’t single-handedly create the cluster-fuck that is Zimbabwe, although he has certainly profited from it.  Ditto for North Korea’s Kims, Iran’s ayatollahs, Russia’s oligarchs or even Fox News in the US.

Miracle Day persists in this trope.  The simple enemy is a single pharmaceutical company which has engineered the end of death in order to sell lots of painkillers and make a fortune.  The BBC has only shown three episodes at this stage, so I really hope this doesn’t turn out to be the whole story, but it’s a crummy beginning.

Pfizer is the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company by revenue.  GSK, Sanofi-Aventis and Novartis round off the top four.  They’re mind-bogglingly large with revenues of almost $200 billion a year.  They make up only 25% of the global market.  Pfizer only has an 8.7% share and this is falling.

There are over 200 global pharmaceutical companies and the greatest profits and growth are found in tiny companies in new industries (like biotech) or new markets (like India and China).  Competition between these companies is fierce and disclosure requirements are brutal.  You can pretty much track every drug everywhere in the world, including all new product pipelines.

The idea that a single company could somehow produce a new type of painkiller and corner the market without any company or country doing anything about it is just silly.

AIDS and anti-retroviral drugs provide a real simple illustration of the consequences of patent monopolies for what are perceived to be critical medication.  From Brazil to South Africa to India, governments passed legislation to compulsorily license these drugs and have them produced by local generic manufacturers.

The impact of such legislation, and the threat that drugs classed as “essential” could become worthless, has propelled Pfizer to produce treatments for illnesses that really only worry rich people.  Lipitor, for treating cholesterol and Viagra, for treating impotence.   Lipitor alone is worth about 25% of Pfizer’s revenue.

But there we go, the bad guy is a global pharmaceuticals company and this may suite the many who believe that such companies exist merely to exploit our sickness or to create illness so that they can sell us the cure.

Unfortunately, this view doesn’t happen only in stories.  Much of the AIDS in Africa disaster is caused by the view that it is an invention of Western pharma companies.  Ditto for the last holdouts of polio in parts of Northern Nigeria.

Tope 2: The obvious hero

Choosing an obvious villain is sometimes forgivable.  It can simplify a way of focusing attention on a particular problem.  Saying, “We will defeat the minority Islamic fundamentalism which has found a claw-hold in an otherwise peaceful and progressive religious movement,” is very different from saying, “We will kill Osama bin Laden.”

Unfortunately, what happens when bin Laden is dead and fundamentalist intolerance still exists?

This problem fades into insignificance next to the next plot trope.  The “all of our leadership has been corrupted and that leaves only us/me to take on the forces of evil” trope.

Space opera has often had a small band of heroes defeating mighty armies. Ditto Space Invaders or Doom, for that matter.  But it’s always been a bit silly.

The arrival of the Arab Spring has killed that trope for good.

Mubarak did not lose control of Egypt because a plucky band of can-do heroes took on the might of the state.  It is because millions of people decided that they would deny him his authority to rule.

These mass protests are not necessarily honest or honourable.  Mass revolutions in Russia led to the USSR, in Iran to the Ayatollahs, in the US to the Tea Party.  Neither do these revolutions necessarily have a clearly-defined agenda or recognisable leaders.

Spanish protestors in Madrid are simply united as The Indignants, outraged at the current political status quo.  They don’t have any solutions. They don’t even seem to have any real demands.  Politicians are scared of them.

As with all these movements, people turn up wanting to place themselves in front and take advantage of the vacant leadership spot.  Sarah Palin turned up for the Tea Party, Mussolini for the fascists, Castro for the Cuban Revolution.

Most movements are too messy and chaotic for there to be a driving and controlling leader.

But outrage can have triggers.

News International didn’t upset too many people when they hacked Prince Charles’ phone.  British newspaper readers don’t think much of celebrities.  However, when Milly Dowler – a teenage murder victim – had her phone hacked, the outrage was palpable.

When Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor, set himself on fire on December 2010 his frustration and despair finally resonated with Tunisians.  They turned out in their millions and only four weeks later President Ben Ali fled.

What that trigger will be, or how many times a trigger will be required before a social movement gets going is always a large unknown.  But they are essential.

So, when the Torchwood team realise that PhiCore may be at the centre of creating Miracle Day in order to profit, what happens?  First they call a senior US government representative.  Who sends in the troops to catch them.

Their response? It’s only us, we’ll have to save the world ourselves.

Children of Earth never flinched.  When Harkness went careening in like an all-conquering hero, the result was the death of his lover, instant alien revenge, and collapse of support for standing up to the villains. That’s what happens when you’re a single target standing before the tanks.

Miracle Day would have us believe that Harkness can be at once torn apart by his sacrifice of his lover and grandson due to his own choices, but still ignorant of the alternatives to going it alone.

The world has changed

Writers and story-tellers seem to know the world has changed.  Films are filled with people filming events on their phones, or watching clips on YouTube.  Almost as if the writers are mugging to the cameras about how “hip” they are with this new Intarwebs thang.

If they really are web-savvy writers, maybe they’ll go the other way, showing how everything will soon be free and we’ll live in a utopian world where humans are mere bacteria in a world governed by an all-knowing internet.

That’s just as silly.

What’s changed is not how the world works, but its speed. A single trigger event can rapidly spiral out and inspire millions.

The movement can die just as quickly.  Pyjama activists can soon switch websites if a cute kitty comes along.  But they can also be re-energised by a stream of information from the front.  And this is easy to arrange.

Joao Silva, New York Times war photographer recovering from the loss of his legs to a landmine in Afghanistan, spoke about the future of war footage.  “[A] lot of the fighters are getting cameras and videophones. They’re filming their own stuff and they’re getting a lot better footage than what [we’ll] ever get. It doesn’t pay, but [they’re] getting the message out. These guys don’t really care about payment. They care about getting their picture out there.”

The stream of news from activists is, individually, meaningless but it becomes a massive concert of action.

Miracle Day has cast the Earth’s citizens as background scenery for a handful of heroes to perform against.  In the real world, everyone has a role to play and no one person dominates.  We may idolise heroes but we don’t need them.

“Whether you shoot a thousand pictures or you shoot 10 to get a good one, who cares? The pictures get run all the time. You see it with the paparazzi and the celeb pictures. Nobody cares about the quality of the picture. Nobody cares about whether it was taken with good ethics. Nobody cares, they just want it,” says Greg Marinovich, in the same interview with Silva.

Miracle Day would have been better if it had not flinched from allowing the world’s people to tell the story of their response to the Miracle.

That wouldn’t leave the Torchwood team with nothing to do.  After all, someone needs to be the trigger.

In Captain Jack Harkness’ immortality we have the real consequence and tragedy of living forever; the torture of all the world’s trigger choices – for good or evil – mounting up without even the solace of death for escape.

The power of Children of Earth was of Harkness’ decision for his grandson to be that trigger. Would that Russell T Davies had found the strength to let something similar happen again.

Disclosure: There are still a lot of episodes to go and Davies’ capacity to surprise and entertain is beyond doubt; with more than half the series still to go, I really hope this happens and I get to write an apology.

5 replies »

  1. I personally am enjoying the series and I don’t agree with your take on it. I also don’t agree on your take about heroes, the world still needs heroes and one person can do things that change everything. Take care.

  2. Right, it won’t be a pharmaceutical company that implements an evil conspiracy to bring down the world for the sake of profit. It will be an investment bank.

    Just because you’re paranoid does not mean that no one is out to get you. The giant, vampire squid is stalking the earth: consuming everything in its path and wholly undermining whatever vestige of democracy is left.

  3. As I look at your real-world examples, I’m reminded of an important lesson about the Obvious Hero. Obvious Heroes are great for the citizenry at large because they’re easy to focus on. One man or woman, one set of words to track with, one set of instructions, etc. Of course, if you look at an example like Palin, the facts are that she had very little to do with her arrival on the national stage. She happened to be a convenient tool for a set of more powerful people who wanted to accomplish something.

    The Obvious Hero is a helpful narrative device because it’s hard to do a movie or TV show about the myriad complex behind-the-scenes dynamics, especially when the players, powerful though they may be, are unattractive and kind of dull.

    In this respect, television often imitates life… 🙂

  4. The Obvious Hero is similar to the Obvious Villain, something an old zoology lecturer of mine used to call “stories for children”. They’re gross simplifications that still carry important lessons or guidance.

    I still think Davies may surprise and turn the story arc on its head, but I feel that setting up the obvious tussle between good and evil squanders the amazing live spectacle we’ve all experienced this year of seemingly random individuals triggering – but not leading – history-changing events.