FACKELWALD: On Watching Torchwood in German(y)

When I first started poking around the intertubes and became aware of the fact that there were websites where people indulged in interesting discussions about science and its social acceptance one of the first scientific blogs I stumbled across was Orac’s Respectful Insolence which introduced me to his world of medical woo, vaccination and holocaust denial. As a side line Orac occasionally blogs about his obsession for the cult British television series Doctor Who, now this I found fascinating because being British and being the age that I am I grew up on Doctor Who. In fact my father was a historical advisor on the original black and white Doctor Who with William Hartnell, something that gave me a certain amount of street cred in those far off days. Living as I do in Germany I had lost complete touch with the good Doctor as German television didn’t do him, so reading about it in an American science blog was something of a strange experience. However times change and one of the German TV channels bought the rights and started broadcasting the first David Tennant series and then stopped after only three weeks, it was a flop. Later they re-launched and finished broadcasting the one series but that was it, Germans don’t do Doctor Who!

On his blog Orac also discussed the Doctor Who spin off Torchwood, which was a complete mystery to me as it had come into being long after I had left Britain. Now a few months back a different German TV channel started showing Torchwood and so of course having been alerted by Orac I tuned in. I have to admit that I’m not that enthusiastic. It’s an OK sci-fi TV series, and there are much worse ones, but I’m not sure that I would continue to watch but for one thing, it’s filmed in Cardiff!

When I left secondary school with a set of very mediocre A-Levels, it’s a miracle that I got any at all given the vast quantities of drugs that I consumed in my last school year (but that is another story), I went off to study archaeology at Cardiff University (OK, University College Cardiff for the pedants). Having decided that this was not what I wanted to do I dropped out after one year but I stayed in Cardiff. In all I spent most of the next ten years of my life in Cardiff, with brief periods living in Sweden and Belgium, and they were probably the ten most formative years of my life.

Now watching Cardiff as the background set for Torchwood, that unlike Doctor Who appears to be successful here in Germany, every Thursday Wednesday evening is a very strange experience. Cardiff is very much a product of the 19th century it was one of the largest ports in the world based around a thriving coal and steel industry and when I lived there in the 1970s it was very much a city in decline. The steel works, East Moors, at which I worked for a time was the first steel works in the world to have a Bessemer converter and had seen its last refit in the 1930s. It was literally on its last legs in the 70s and finally closed down plunging Cardiff into a deep depression, very high unemployment, social problems and all the signs of terminal decay. Sometime after I left, the city went through a phase of high-powered urban renewal and is now a thriving modern city that I have difficulty recognising when I make occasional visits and this is the Cardiff that I get to see when I watch Torchwood. It is a tantalising experience, in some senses what I see is so familiar in others so strange. I have the feeling that I have been transported with the Tardis into a Cardiff of the future and not to the city that I knew so well and in a certain way loved.

In all I am thankful to Orac because without his directing nod I would probably never have begun to watch Torchwood and never have experienced this strange feeling of displaced nostalgia.

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