Saturday, 10 September 2011

Jack Of All Trades: Torchwood Miracle Day review


TORCHWOOD: 'Miracle Day'

My review of tonight's Doctor Who is going to be held back until tomorrow because I'll be spending all today at a wedding, but I thought I would do a quick write-up before leaving of my thoughts on the latest season of Torchwood, 'Miracle Day', which ended its US run last night.

Few programmes divide fan opinion as much as Torchwood. Not only are there those who love it and those who hate it, as would be expected, but also people whose feelings depend on the season in question. As far as I'm concerned, the first season was an utter catastrophe, showing Russell T. Davies at his most juvenile and self-indulgent. The second year improved somewhat, though severely ran out of steam towards the end, before the third season, a five-episode serial entitled 'Children Of Earth', marked an enormous upturn in quality and showed what Davies could do in the sci-fi genre when able to tackle the sorts of themes too dark for the Doctor to go near.

Despite that steady trend of improvement, 'Miracle Day' ended up dragging everything back to square one. Interestingly, like every Torchwood season to date, its problems were quite different to those of previous years. With too many ideas and not a clue how to use them, Jack Harkness' journey to America struggled to ever take flight.
What is perhaps most frustrating is that the core conceit behind 'Miracle Day' is much more dramatically interesting and distinctive than 'Children Of Earth', which at its heart was a particularly elaborate hostage situation. Maybe it is that openness which was at the heart of why 'Miracle Day' failed: Davies' best Who episodes were never those where he had a big budget and the ability to do whatever he wanted, but smaller and more intimate ones like 'Midnight', 'Gridlock' or 'Turn Left', where he was necessarily confined.

Davies and his writing team threw endless ideas at the screen over the ten 'Miracle Day' hours, yet failed to develop any of them to a satisfying degree. Many of them, in fact, were left hanging after getting a single scene in a single episode: anyone remember the march of the 'Soulless' from episode two? No? Did anyone see any ramifications of the apparently collapsing economy played out on screen? Maybe I missed that one. The most prominent recurring motif seemed to be how, under dire circumstances, people and governments are willing to forego basic moral boundaries and resort to the most diabolical measures to ease their own troubles. Yet where 'Children Of Earth' was similarly pessimistic, it showed how the people in question reached the conclusion that they had no other choice but to do the terrible things they did. In 'Miracle Day', only the slightest context was given to any of those decisions.

Even if Davies' default position is that it takes only a little prodding for the human race to start tearing down their systems of civilisation and morality, the idea that it does so on a whim is preposterous. After all, people are creatures of ego and even the most evil dictators want those outside their regimes to think that they are as noble and misrepresented as they like to imagine themselves. In 'Miracle Day', the world went under fascist rule overnight, with little evident attempt to consider an alternative or even hide what had happened. That black-and-white morality extended to individual characters: consider Maloney, the leader of an American 'overflow' camp, who was painted as the most irredeemable sexist boor to begin with, then turned into a killer for no greater reason than because a woman started shouting at him.

If anything, so much thought seemed to finding time to show the various permutations and consequences of death being put on hold that the central storyline, which should have been the thing tying all those threads together, was given equally short shrift. 'Miracle Day' could quite easily have had its number of hours reduced by half, possibly even moreso: when the second episode is already resorting to the most blatant of filler material - Jack being poisoned on a plane - the suspicion arises that all is not well. By the time nearly all of the plotlines that the first six episodes have been developing are discarded as red herrings - PhiCorp turning out to just be making the most of a situation someone else created, thus also invalidating the big picture relevance of Oswald Dane's messianic rise - it is not just bad writing, but wasting the audience's time.

Virtually everything that happened between episodes two and seven turned out to not have a shred of relevance as to how the denouement played out. The closest any of it came was revealing the furnaces at the overflow camps, where Gwen's father was due to be sent, yet that could (and should) have been revealed as background detail, not required a multi-episode diversion, especially since poor old Mr. Cooper ended up dying anyway. That Vera Juarez, the most interesting and competent of the new set of characters, ended up being killed off largely for effect is sadly representative of how little grasp the writers had of their situations and characters. To make matters worse, not only did the insufferable Rex survive, but he's now immortal. Sheesh.

Speaking of which, any discussion of 'Miracle Day' has to touch on the Oswald Danes question, for me representing one of the most grievously misjudged characters in years. From beginning to end, not only was Danes' purpose in the story tenuous at best, but the paedophilia which defined him seemed to serve no other purpose than to make a series of unpleasant references to the abuse of a little girl. (Nor did Bill Pullman need to play him as a ridiculous caricature, but I suppose he might have only been responding to the standard of the writing). The storyline placing him as a PhiCorp-sponsored messiah used the fact that he was a widely detested man apparently making good, but there was no need for his crime to be as vile as it was. In fact, everything that played out in the storyline seemed to be pushing against his paedophilia, having to engineer situations and outcomes which were unlikely in the extreme: his transition from universal hate-figure to hero happened in almost no time at all and with only token resistance, which is to say nothing of the implausibility that a drugs company would ever adopt such a controversial figure as their spokesperson.

By the end, Danes' sole purpose proved to be blowing himself up, which could have been done by the myriad explosives already present at the site. What's worse is writers Davis and Espenson gave him a final speech which seemed to treat what he had done as a kind of blackly camp joke, with the character claiming to be looking forward to hell and 'chasing all the bad little girls', specifically calling out the name of his victim, Suzie, to 'start running'. I will credit the writers a degree of bravery in not giving him a redemption arc and making his sacrifice one made willingly, rather than the clichéd 'villain commits suicide for the greater good' nonsense, but those last words were an unpleasant example of how the season has treated one of the most vile crimes imaginable as nothing more than an attention-grabbing taboo. If the writers had gone full throttle and knowingly presented Danes as a cartoon villain, perhaps there is some alternate universe where it might have worked. More often than not, though, it seemed like the audience were asked to take him seriously, giving those final words a particularly nasty aftertaste.

That was 'Miracle Day' all over, though: ideas set up, but never thought through to a logical or satisfying conclusion. Pointless gratuitousness similar to the juvenalia from Torchwood's first season, only taken to a more unpleasant extent and with zero wit or subtlety to counteract or justify it. Perhaps the only remotely amusing and accidentally telling thing in the entire ten hours was Russell T. Davies, a man who has never shied away from reminding audiences of his homosexuality, positing that the cause of all mankind's suffering was something resembling a vast inter-terrestrial vagina. That piece of unintentional hilarity at the climax - and possibly the unexpected appearance of John De Lancie - was the only thing to to make the ordeal feel almost worthwhile. Almost.



theoncominghope said...

Did people actually love this series? What's WRONG WITH THEM?

RTD gets so caught up in his bombast that he forgets that we need to be shown how A goes to B. He thinks he was doing a character drama, but no one cares about the characters. You're right that they need to get rid of him.

Xander Markham said...

Hard to believe, isn't it...!

I agree with most of the suggestions you wrote up on your blog, with the exception of allowing Rex to return. In that one department I don't care if they use bad writing, so long as that unbearably irritating buffoon is ditched for good! Why did he have to survive and not Vera Juarez, the only bearable new character?!

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you said.
You could probably watch the 1st episode and the 10th episode and still have it make as much sense as it did.
So many episodes were just wasting time, it's like RTD had a good idea then didn't know what to do with it and then stretched it for 10 episodes, the more I see his work the more it becomes apparent that he is a terrible writer.
Just 1 of many examples is the whole Gwen kidnapping Jack because her family got kidnapped, then at the end that woman going something along the lines of "oh, you'll want to come anyway." Which seriously begs the question of "WHY THE HELL WAS ANYONE KIDNAPPED IN THE 1st PLACE?!"

A criticism of TV as a whole is why do people shout or obviously do things they shouldn't, eg. Rex shouting CHARLOTTE at the end then getting shot, I mean seriously would anyone do that? Surely a normal person would walk up casually and handcuff her or something?
Then Vera ranting on at the guy who was obviously being portrayed as 'bad', then gets shot (didn't see that coming(!)) and to make it worse she then rants even more in a more threatening way to a guy that just shot her and who still has a gun, and you're the 'smart' character? seriously?
The other thing TV does is waffle on about stuff, eg. at the end Rex and Esther didn't have to explain in detail the blood transfusion, how the families plan is ruined, and how they can't stop them now (low and behold someone got shot again). He could have just shouted something like "Do it now Jack, I have your blood." Then done it and not given anyone a chance to react and everybody lives. Why is that so difficult? Or failing that when the families couldn't shoot anyone cause of the bomb on Danes/Jack's blood in Rex Torchwood could have just shot all the bad guys, or at least disarmed them. Then they could take as much time as they liked.

And all that combined text is just the tip of the iceberg of the terrible writing and waste of plot; it doesn't even come close to the nonsense of how Rex is now magically immortal...

Rish said...

All that said and done... I have some serious questions to ask.

What the hell happened to the rift in Cardiff. The first two seasons, there was a new Alien life form everyday ( more than one many times). Did the rift just disappear? What happened to the weevils?

I think Torchwood could really do better with some inspiration. A Doctor Who crossover maybe? Maybe I am just a hopeless optimist.Sigh.