Transatlantic divides in science-fiction

Torchwood will be the latest in a long line of UK-US entertainment interchange.


With the news that Torchwood is being developed by Fox for an American audience, the debate about why US studios persist in remaking properties for their audience has reared its head again.

On the one side, the argument is logical. Television series and films produced almost exclusively in one country reflect aspects of that society that perhaps aren’t compatible with a foreign audience. Torchwood, for instance, is set primarily in Cardiff and the rest of the United Kingdom, environs that won’t have the same mass-market appeal in the United States as New York, say, or Chicago. We like a sense of familiarity in our entertainment – if something is set in the real world, a different arena entirely can take you out of the verisimilitude it tries to project, and more often than not turn off those who might otherwise be interested.

There are also issues of local vernacular, social norms and cultural traditions creeping in that may seem mundane and every day to the first intended audience, but out of place to others. This may range from something as simple as referring to the pavement using that word instead of ‘sidewalk’, or saying ‘quid’ instead of pounds, to our social obsessions with the pub and our very different subcultural dynamics. Something that isn’t instantly recognisable, again, removes a sense of immersion that science-fiction and fantasy shows set in the modern world so desperately need in order to thrive.

There are reasons why these transmutations of typically foreign products tend to fail at an alarming rate, however. Take Life On Mars for example. In the UK, it highlighted a period in our cultural and societal history that wasn’t anything like what we would consider to be acceptable today. Gene Hunt was a misogynist and a brute, but a senior police officer, while the modern sensibilities of Sam Tyler were an interesting and nuanced juxtaposition, an eloquent observation on how British society as a whole has changed within the space of a single generation. Transplanted to America, it simply didn’t work in the same way, or had the same powerful sense of resonance for US culture that it did for the UK.

Certainly, as well, those cultural peculiarities that can turn off a foreign audience if not carefully balanced are exactly what gives a show its identity, it can be argued. Doctor Who is the quintessential British science-fiction show, the norms of British personality archetypes and social interaction are so deeply ingrained in its characters and plotlines that it would be unthinkable to even try and arrive at the same product if you removed them. Torchwood suffers from this to a far lesser extent, of course, given the cultural homogenisation that has inevitably occurred due to growing links between the US and UK, globalisation and the shared medium of entertainment in the English-speaking world and beyond, but it still retains these quirks. Not only that, but the story specifically states that Torchwood was created by a mandate from Queen Victoria. Even if Fox decided to go ahead with making a Torchwood spin-off rather than a straight adaptation, it wouldn’t make much sense in the established canon of the story.

The immediate and consistent rejection of transatlantic imports is a hard one to understand, given that we in Britain follow American television so avidly, and Americans have a huge support base for shows such as Doctor Who (and indeed, Torchwood) already. Perhaps it’s a lingering sense of nationalism that causes such hostility, or perhaps it’s an appreciation of the fact that this is yet another recycled product being changed and usurped to appeal to a wider audience. More often than not, though, I suspect it’s a simple appreciation of the fact that not all ideas can be so easily changed without sacrificing the soul of it in the process. Torchwood will not be popular on a mass market channel such as Fox, despite its existing fans in the States (who, ironically, are exactly the market that will likely be turned off by the news). It’s too British, it’s too steeped in the mythology of a show that defines British genre fare, and quite frankly, a major network probably won’t take some of the more controversial decisions about violence and sexuality that the BBC has been able to through its run.

That television executives, both British and American, haven’t learned their lessons from any number of failed attempts recently is not only embarrassing, but mildly irritating as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m mooching down the manor on my Jackie Jones for a swift half before the last tinkle.