Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 4

Escape to LA

Hmm. Is it a good idea to derive your episode title from one of John Carpenter’s more rubbish movies? At least, I guess, Escape to LA was rather better than Carpenter’s Escape from it, though that’s not especially difficult.

Thankfully, the plot seemed to move up a gear this week, and things have actually started happening. Going to LA has given our heroes the chance to actually walk around in iconic LA locations – well, Venice Beach, at least. Of course, they were in LA all along, last week’s establishing shot of the Washington Memorial notwithstanding. But now LA is actually LA, and not pretending to be Washington any more, the director doesn’t have to be quite so circumspect about choosing locations. Mind you, the earlier scenes set in Washington this episode seemed even less convincing as a result. Also, speaking as someone who owns a military greatcoat, I hate to imagine how much John Barrowman was sweating under his in the California heat. Mine is too hot to wear even in a British summer!

The gang had flown to sunny California to infiltrate shady drug company Phicorp, and pull off a server-switching heist that required Gwen to dress as Audrey Hepburn and present herself at their reception desk for ‘training’. It has to be said, the ‘hair up’ look does not suit Eve Myles – it makes her face look a very odd shape. The heist formed one part of what are now clearly delineating into distinct plot threads. It’s clear now that Dr Juarez is in the ‘consequences of the Miracle’ plotline, as she explores what not dying means for society, while the Torchwood gang have the ‘find out how this happened’ plotline, and Oswald Danes and Jilly Kitzinger fit into the ‘how might people benefit?’ plotline. These do intersect from time to time, and will, presumably, all link up by the end of it. Right now though, it’s getting like watching several stories that make phone call to each other occasionally.

Phone calls, in fact, are an integral part of the ‘soap opera’ plotline that’s thankfully getting more germane to the rest of the plot, even though it seems mighty frustrating to professional intelligence man Rex that this gang of amateurs spend half their time chatting to their relatives. Rex himself is not immune to soap opera though, and this week delved into it by paying a visit to his shiftless father, who conveniently lives in LA. This scene didn’t actually achieve much except for establishing that Rex and his dad don’t get on, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we don’t see anything in the way of payoff to this – it seemed almost irrelevant, and I found myself almost nodding off as the scene progressed.

Meanwhile, Esther’s heavily-telegraphed unwise visit to her sister resulted in her sister being locked up and her children taken into care. That went well. As if to make matters worse, it also put her, and our heroes on the radar of a genuinely scary assassin, who’s a bit pissed off that his USP of killing people has been rendered rather redundant by the Miracle. So he resorts to being very, very nasty instead – pity poor Nicholas Frumkin, who loses an eye and a hand so the bad guy can get into the Phicorp computer room and then threaten Gwen with similar nastiness. Ironically, given Rex’s ease at getting in, it seems that wasn’t even necessary. This seemed a little unclear – did the fire alarm open all the doors to the secure server room? If so, why bother with all the elaborate deception in the first place? They could have just set off the alarm to get in.

The assassin – referred to in the Radio Times as simply ‘the gentleman’ – was a genuinely charismatic performance from an actor who looked vaguely familiar, but who I couldn’t quite place. After a glance at the Radio Times cast list for the forthcoming British showing, I was rather astounded to discover that it was C Thomas Howell, who used to be a bit of a pinup of mine in the 80s. He hasn’t aged well, looks wise, but that grizzled look and rasping voice fit the sinister character very well. It’s a character that seemed to belong in the X Files conspiracy organisation, what with his black ops euphemisms and cryptic monicker. Hardly surprising then to discover that this episode was co-written by John Shiban, who was responsible for many of the more impenetrable conspiracy episodes in The X Files’ later years.


C Thomas Howell: early 80s (left) and now (right)

As with that show, we’re finally getting some answers about a nebulous conspiracy that only pose more questions. Thanks to Howell, we now know that Jack has been targeted specifically for death – but why? Everything that’s happening is because of something Jack said or did a long, long time ago – but what? Those responsible have been around for a very, very long time – but who are they? “They used to have names. And they were-” And then Rex shoots him in the throat in a groan-makingly cliched effort to extend the best before date of the plot’s mysteries. This frustrates Gwen, who seems not to have considered that the undying assassin can presumably still write.

So, some nicely set up stuff, very X Files, that nonetheless plays off Torchwood’s own mythology. Rex and Esther still don’t seem to accept that Jack has been around for many centuries and comes from another planet, but that’s obviously crucial to what’s happening. Still no answer to whether the bad guys – let’s call them ‘the rotating triangle people’ – are actually aliens, but it’s seeming much more likely.

With, finally, some satisfying movement in the conspiracy plot, the rotating triangle people also stuck their oar in on the ‘consequences for society’ plot too. This was enlivened this week by a rather unsubtle Sarah Palin analogue, Ellis Hartley Monroe, who was campaigning for the segregation of ‘the dead’. Clad in a pink twin set and eulogising her status as a sensible mother, Mare Winningham brought her to life as a pretty clear dig at conservative America and the Tea Party in particular. The character may have been a little broadbrush to make a convincing antagonist – though she’d certainly fit well into the narrative staples of the X Men comics – so it was perhaps a relief that the rotating triangle people decided she was surplus to requirements and could be despatched to a handy car crusher. This was presumably a bit of wish-fulfilment on the writers’ part as to what might happen to such Tea Party harridans, but the obvious fact that she’d live through the experience – visualised unforgettably as one frantically moving eyeball in the depths of the crushed block of car – was this week’s really gruesome bit.

The reason the rotating triangle people no longer needed her was thanks to Oswald Danes, who stepped up this week to deliver a scarily inspirational speech at the first of the medical internment camps for the ‘dead’. Bill Pullman seems to have modified his performance a bit this week, and there were fewer of those inexplicable Christopher Walken style pauses in his delivery. His speech was deliciously sinister to an audience that knows his true feelings, particularly when he started becoming somewhat messianic. It actually made me wonder whether the speech was written with Pullman in mind, as a deliberate pastiche of the astoundingly awful ‘rousing’ speech that was the low point of Independence Day.

As a result of all this, we also found out that Jilly Kitzinger may be a cold bitch under the smiling, glam exterior, but she doesn’t like Oswald one bit. It’s his hands; she can’t get past what they once did. This was a nicely played scene, with Lauren Ambrose again pretty much the best of the guest actors, and nicely turned on its head some of our expectations about Jilly. Not only does she have some scruples – not that they affect her work – but she’s not the conspiracy insider we suspected.

But for me, the nicest thing about the episode was seeing Rhys and Wales again, to remind me that this was Torchwood after all, not just some overhyped new American sci fi show. Mind you, while the meagre glimpses at the UK did give a kind of fond nostalgia for the Torchwood of old, they seemed oddly out of place in this new world. It feels like the show still has something of an identity crisis – something it’s always had, actually – and this new start in America has only made that more evident. Rex and Esther often seem to belong to a different show than Jack and Gwen, despite being in the same scene together, and it’s a show that Rex and Esther fit into more comfortably than Jack and Gwen. I don’t know how much of that feeling is a holdover from what we’ve been used to with Torchwood in the past, and maybe newbie viewers don’t get that impression.

Still, at least we now have some movement in a plot that seemed to be getting bogged down in the consequences of the Miracle rather more than investigating its cause. Nice to see Russell T Davies moving towards the same kind of dystopian society previously visualised in Doctor Who episode Turn Left (as he planned the overall plot, I presume the internment camp stuff is his). And a couple of great guest turns from Mare Winningham and C Thomas Howell; Howell in particular I would have liked to have seen more of as an ongoing bad guy. The guest spots have in general been rather good, even if I still can’t get past the impression that Wayne Knight will forever be Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. With John De Lancie due to feature soon, hopefully I can get past thinking of him as Star Trek’s Q…

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 3

Dead of Night


Right then, here’s all that sex we were promised, apparently crammed into one episode as if to make up for the lack of it in the last two. Torchwood has always had a rather adolescent desire to show how ‘grown up’ it all is, and in the first series at least, this seemed to consist of all the team having sex left right and centre, their sexuality changing from week to week as the plot demanded. At least Miracle Day has been consistent there so far; Jack went to bed with a guy, and Rex with Dr Vera, though the latter did seem to smack of plot convenience. There’d never been anything approaching chemistry between them before this, but a bit of shagging and she’s all ready to infiltrate shady drug company Phicorp on behalf of Torchwood. James Bond would be proud of Rex’s ‘shag and recruit’ skills.

Mind you, with events starting to move on – we discovered that Phicorp had been stockpiling painkillers because they knew the Miracle was coming, a new cult of ‘the Soulless’ has emerged and murder as a crime no longer exists – it seemed a bit of an odd time for Jack to suddenly dive into a convenient gay bar and randomly go on the pull. It’s as if Mulder was about to uncover the Smoking Man’s agenda, but decided a quick break with his porn collection was suddenly more pressing.

Still, the sex scenes were interestingly interwoven, presumably to keep both straight and gay audiences happy. And it is of course the first time we’ve seen Jack himself get down to some explicit rumpy pumpy, with Russell T Davies previously having decreed that, even in Torchwood, a regular Doctor Who character shouldn’t be seen to be doing the deed. That philosophy seems to persist at the BBC though; it’s become a bit of minor showbiz news that the British showing won’t include – at least in as much detail – Jack’s random shag. John Barrowman’s been in a bit of a tizz about that, insisting that the scene isn’t gratuitous but vital to the plot. While the Rex/Vera hookup does have this argument in favour of it (just), I’m not seeing any plot advancement in Jack finally being seen to put his money where his mouth is (so to speak). Maybe it will all become clear in later episodes. Perhaps the cute barman is actually an alien being…

Speaking of which, are aliens actually going to come into it this time? Besides the sex, there was some genuine plot advancement going on. The discovery that Phicorp (which sounds a bit like ‘Pfizer’ funnily enough) knew about the Miracle beforehand and are linked to ditzy but dubious PR lady Jilly Kitzinger, not to mention the CIA and Oswald Danes, makes this start to look like an entirely human conspiracy. We’re roughly a third of the way into this now, and by that point in Children of Earth, we already knew for sure that it was the work of aliens. Here, all we’ve had are some murmurs that the Miracle couldn’t have been worked by any technology on Earth, and Jack’s continuing babble about ‘morphic fields’ (an odd scientific philosophy espoused by biochemist Rupert Sheldrake that sounds suspiciously like The Force out of Star Wars). I suppose there’s also that nifty red cellphone the team nicked from Dennis Nedry Friedkin, which has a screen that shows a mysterious rotating triangle. Triangles are pretty alien, right?

So, no aliens yet, but things are starting to move along a bit, if at a rather leisurely pace. The team’s investigation into Phicorp’s mysterious warehouse was a nice scene, with the Raiders of the Lost Ark/X Files revelation of acres of shelves packed with painkillers. “Bigger on the inside,” says Jack sagely, though I don’t think he meant it literally – I’d be surprised if all of this has been caused by the Time Lords. Elsewhere, after an encounter with some rather violent police officers, Jilly Kitzinger has finally got her claws into Oswald Danes. Oswald’s clearly important – he seems to be the first to experience the Miracle, and now he’s hooked up with Phicorp. Jack, unfathomably, has already worked out that Oswald is significant, leading to an electric confrontation between the two in a TV station green room – all the more electric because we can’t quite work out why Oswald seems so important to Jack. All right, they’ve both caused the death of a child, but Jack at least is genuinely repentant, while Oswald chillingly reveals that all his crocodile tears are fake and, far from regretting it, he considers the murder his greatest moment. It was a well done scene, though I still can’t get used to Bill Pullman’s peculiar delivery, all slurred words and oddly placed pauses. Perhaps he’s in training to play Rupert Murdoch.

I was hoping for great things in the dialogue with Jane Espenson on writing duties this week, but I have to say I was mostly disappointed. The clumsy British/American slang misunderstandings (chips/crisps, ATM/cashpoint etc) were obviously there to establish a bit of friendly banter between the newly formed team, but instead gave the impression that Gwen had never seen an American film or TV show in her life. I think they do show those, even in Wales.

Still, Jack’s sex scene did yield up a couple of nice lines. The obligatory reference to safe sex (every gay sex scene has to have one to show how responsible we all are) was met with a “what’s the point?” attitude, which gave Jack the excellent rejoinder, “a lifetime of regret just got a whole lot longer”. And we were into “oo-er” territory as Rex complained about Jack nicking his painkillers – “Did you get impaled too?” “You should have seen the other guy”. Perhaps he came so hard he forgot where he was…

We did get some nice character development in Jack’s post-coital phone call to Gwen, which actually was germane to the plot. There’s always been this not-so-subtle subtext that Jack and Gwen are attracted to each other, and this looked like Jack actually trying to admit that to her. This was nicely juxtaposed with her video call to Rhys, as she seemed to just ignore Jack as soon as she saw her husband and her baby. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this particular subplot.

And Esther and Rex are now a proper part of the Torchwood team, much to Rex’s annoyance, since they plainly have nowhere else to go. It’s a shame though that, since a strong introduction, Esther seems to be becoming a bit of a whiner. All right, it’s quite realistic that with everything that’s happening, she’d be so concerned about her sister, but it made her seem pretty ineffectual this week as she barely talked of anything else.

Top marks, character-wise, have to go to Jilly Kitzinger, marvellously portrayed by Lauren Ambrose as someone whose ditzy exterior and bright red lipstick mask a cold, bitchy corporate shark. Unlike Pullman’s weird mannerisms, Ambrose is taking the character to blackly humourous but convincing extremes, and that glamourous look combined with deadly serious intent mark her out as the most fun character here yet.

But it’s all still seeming a bit too leisurely for my taste. Children of Earth, with its five episode runtime, started out at full throttle and never let up; Miracle Day, by contrast, seems to be stuck at a slow idle speed. The longer run time does allow for deeper character development, but without a fast moving plot, that makes it more like a soap opera than a science fiction thriller. It’s maintaining my interest without thrilling me; let’s hope as the series progresses that it moves into a higher gear.

JFK bites the dust


So The Kennedys finally limped to what could charitably be called a conclusion this week, with the live TV event that was Bobby’s assassination at LA’s Ambassador Hotel in 1968. As my partner Barry said, it was probably unwise to have been playing such ominous music as Bobby was hustled out through the kitchens towards Sirhan Sirhan, who wasn’t even shown. Meanwhile, the now mute Joe Kennedy watched events unfold with frosty wife Rose from their posh New England mansion.

It’s been a peculiar beast, The Kennedys, suffering from much controversy in the US over smearing the Kennedy family. There are also a number of complaints about its historical veracity, though few seem to have mentioned that it was pretty terrible as an example of TV drama too. As it was produced by arch neocon Joel Surnow – the man responsible for the less than liberal politics of 24 – it was always reasonable to expect something of a hatchet job on America’s most revered Democrat President. And so it proved. After a fantastically bland opening episode that told us nothing about the Kennedy family we didn’t already know – Jack was a war hero, Joe a bit of a bastard with Nazi leanings, and Bobby a committed Catholic with an ever growing brood of children – we got to see JFK portrayed variously as indecisive, a puppet of his father, and a speed addict.

All of this does actually have some basis in history – though I question whether Jack’s supplier of amphetamines sounded quite so much like Dr Strangelove. Doing a mini series on this family is hardly new territory for American TV, but this ‘warts and all’ approach is definitely a new one. Surnow seems to be trying to tell the story of the family as a whole, rather than just JFK, in the style of The Godfather. It’s a lofty ambition, but one that doesn’t come off, mostly because the writing is so broadbrush that the people in it are more caricatures than characters.

Greg Kinnear does well as John F Kennedy, though in keeping with really cheesy historical drama, he’s been made up to resemble the real President as closely as possible. Struggling manfully with appalling dialogue delivered from underneath an immobile, sculpted coiffure, Kinnear does his best to deliver a performance, and just about manages – though it’s a surprise to hear that it was considered good enough to merit an Emmy nomination. That’s no slur on Kinnear; I think Olivier would have struggled with a script this bad.

Also up for an Emmy is Barry Pepper, who fortunately only has to endure Bobby Kennedy’s haircut rather than having full facial reconstruction. Pepper too does his best with some terrible dialogue, making Bobby seem a peevish, headstrong figure in the administration as he baits Sam Giancana and slags off the head of the Joint Chiefs.

Giancana is less of a bad guy here than J Edgar Hoover, though, and Enrico Colantoni plays the founder of the FBI as a thuggish heavy. It’s surprising that anyone could play Hoover with less subtlety than Bob Hoskins did in Nixon, but with the aid of this script, Colantoni manages it. Plus, any fan of Galaxy Quest will find it hard to take affable alien leader Mathesar seriously as one of the biggest bogeymen of the twentieth century.

Probably the ultimate bad guy in the series, though, is the notorious Joe Kennedy Sr, here portrayed as a cold, manipulative, power-hungry monster in the mould, predictably, of Don Vito Corleone. He’s played by superb British actor Tom Wilkinson, who makes the surprising choice of playing the Kennedy patriarch as Hannibal Lecter. It’s true, honestly – he has the same dead eyed expression, and precisely the same cold drawl.

Oh yes, the accents! After more than twenty years of Mayor ‘Diamond Joe’ Quimby in The Simpsons impersonating JFK’s Boston drawl, it’s hard to take them seriously. Kinnear and Pepper do well enough, though Kinnear in particular has a tendency to come off more as an impressionist than an actor. Wilkinson doesn’t really bother with such cheap theatrics – after all, they would interfere with his Anthony Hopkins impersonation. But the award for most varied, inconsistent and downright terrible attempt at a Boston accent must go to the horribly miscast Katie Holmes as Jackie, who seems to have come from a different part of the East Coast in every scene.

Each episode dealt with a different historical event – the civil rights riots in Mississippi, the Cuban Missile crisis, the bay of pigs – and was preceded by a portentous quote from a poet or a book of the Bible that had some vague relevance to what was about to happen. It basically seemed to present history as a kind of cheap soap opera, in which people strode about in rooms agonising, then were unconvincingly inserted into genuine archive footage.

Terrible drama, then, but somehow compellingly watchable, like that other Surnow opus, 24. After the blandness of the first episode, I almost didn’t watch any more, but kept coming back week after week to see how much worse it could get. Trumpeted as something of a broadcasting coup by the British History Channel – after the US History Channel refused to show it – it was noticeable that the Radio Times’ enthusiasm seemed to die off after about a fortnight, and suddenly it was being shown two episodes a night, as if to get it over with as quickly as possible. Of course, if it is meaning to show the Kennedy family as a whole, this might mean we’re due another five seasons in which Ted gets annoyed in the Senate. Somehow I doubt it though, as the series didn’t consider Ted interesting enough to even warrant a mention. For that I’m sure Ted would have been grateful. Despite a surprising amount of Emmy nominations – for best miniseries, and acting nods for Kinnear, Pepper and Wilkinson – this was the sort of historical drama that makes The Tudors look like I, Claudius.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode Two


Torchwood: Episode 2; 2011; Rendition

So, with the slam bang opener out of the way, it’s time for Torchwood’s latest story to progress. Which it doesn’t much, in this second part. With Doris Egan on writing duties this week, this episode’s as much about character development as action, and consequently Jack, Gwen and Rex spend the entire hour on a plane to the US engaging in comic relief banter with a cute young air steward who’s definitely not gay (“It was only that one time!”). It’s left to Esther, on the ground at the surprisingly claustrophobic Langley HQ of the CIA, to progress the plot this week, though the plane trip is enlivened by a tensely done poisoning crisis.

That said, there are some interesting plot seeds planted here. Dr Juarez is looking like more of a central character than she did last week, as she recognises the necessity of changing medical protocol in a situation where emergency rooms are filling up with horribly injured people who just won’t die. “We’ll have to restructure the entire healthcare system in this country!”, she declaims. Good luck with that one, the President’s not had much joy with it.

Meanwhile, there’s a conspiracy at the CIA. Given that this is Torchwood, this is hardly a surprise. Someone wants the last of the team expunged, and happily for them, it seems that Jack is now the only person on Earth who can die. Esther finds herself caught up in it when she’s summoned to see her shifty boss Friedkin, who turns out to be Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. Actually, between that role and Officer Don in Third Rock From the Sun, it’s a little difficult to take Wayne Knight seriously in anything, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops as a credible villain.

Esther, it turns out, is being set up, her clearances revoked and a mysterious $50,000 payment from China deposited in her bank. Cue much 24-style evasive action around CIA corridors as she tries to get out with a stolen ID card and nicks a workmate’s Mini Cooper. I‘m not sure if the Mini is an example of product placement, but it’s nice to see a European car getting a starring role. It also gives Gwen some nice comic lines as Esther meets our heroes at the airport for a getaway – “This escape’s rubbish. I thought all you Americans drove great big SUVs?”

Meanwhile, Bill Pullman continues to give an oddly mannered performance as Oswald Danes, with a nicely written scene in which he nicks all the food from a TV news hospitality table and discusses the quality of food in prison (“You can always taste the piss.”). Danes is obviously going to be a important, as his tearful apology on live TV brings him Twitter followers, the new indicator of cultural significance. Later, he gets an offer he can refuse from a dodgy looking PR lady played by Lauren Ambrose out of Six Feet Under. She then also turns up to blag a cigarette from Dr Juarez at ‘Washington City Hall’, which looks suspiciously like LA City Hall.

Indeed, the locations in the show are oddly anonymous for a setting as iconic as Washington DC. I haven’t seen a single shot of the Capitol, the White House or the Washington Memorial yet – even The X Files used to show them in second unit establishing shots. My guess is that we’re mainly looking at generic LA locations that can stand in for anything. In fact, Cardiff has had a better showing than DC, with that sequence in the Bay area last week, though ‘Heathrow Airport’ looked rather smaller and less impressive than usual – almost, actually, like Cardiff Airport. Funny, that.

Given that last week Rex got from DC to London quickly enough for Esther to apparently wait on the phone from when he took off until he landed, much emphasis was given this week to the length of the flight he, Jack and Gwen were on. This gave them time to get to know each other a bit, and Jack and Gwen got some nice catchup dialogue – “What do I have to do, nearly blow up before you turn up?” And the desperate scrabble to mix an antidote to the arsenic Jack had been poisoned with was actually rather nicely done, a model of how to achieve a scene of action and tension with only a few people in one small set.

We get a few more gruesome scenes of the consequences when people can’t die, too. There’s nothing quite as nasty as last week’s live autopsy, but the finger-twitching severed arm was amusing, and it was perhaps unintentionally funny to see rogue CIA poisoner Lin (the Terminatrix-like Dichen Lachmann) lurching towards our heroes with her head on backwards.

Continuity-wise, we’ve established for the newbies that Jack is bisexual with mention of an ex boyfriend who used arsenic to make his skin look good, and attention has finally been drawn to how odd it is that Jack still insists on wearing a 1940s RAF uniform. Mind you, he did look strange without it when he donned a raincoat to pretend to be FBI agent ‘Owen Harper’ last week. We’ve also discovered that Jack’s vortex manipulator that he wears on his wrist is capable of monitoring bodily functions like sodium levels – and who knows what else? With the emphasis given to the gizmo this week, it’s obviously going to play an important part somewhere down the line, though no mention has yet been of its ability to transport the user anywhere in time and space. Sensibly, Jack chooses not to impart this information to the CIA.

With Jack spending half the episode poisoned and near death, there wasn’t too much of John Barrowman this week – which some may consider something of a relief – so we spent more time getting to know the new characters. Alexa Havins is excellent as Esther Drummond, who now seems even more like Lois, the government insider from Children of Earth. Arlene Tur is obviously going to play a major role as Dr Vera Juarez, who oddly seems to be the only medical professional able to grasp the ramifications of what’s going on, and Lauren Ambrose is already incredibly shifty as PR shark Jilly Kitzinger. Meanwhile, for those of us who like a bit of eye candy, there were a couple of pretty young men – Finn Wittrock was fun as air steward Danny, and Dr Juarez was aided by a sweet young scientist in a check shirt, played by gay comic actor Jeffery Self. Nice to see that Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who policy of casting at least one cute young guy per episode lives on here.

Two episodes in, and this is progressing quite nicely. With its lengthier, ten episode run time, it doesn’t quite have the dramatic urgency of Children of Earth, but the flipside of that is that we get more time to explore the characters and the what-if scenario. This week seemed to be mostly  further establishing plotlines to come, as last week’s was to establish the main scenario and who Torchwood actually were. There was a bit of action, but nothing to rival last week’s barmy Land Rover/helicopter chase – it actually felt like the show was taking a bit of a breather to sort itself out before getting on with the story proper, and also allowing itself to show the important sense of humour so absent from its first series.

Next week – the first of several episodes this series by Jane Espenson, who I worship as some kind of deity for her work on Buffy, Angel and Battlestar Galactica. I’ll try to be objective…

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 1

The New World


I’ve been lazy about writing TV reviews since the mid season break in Doctor Who. And for a while I’ve been considering writing another episode by episode series of reviews – I really should have done the excellent Game of Thrones, and still might do the new season of True Blood – though as of tonight that’ll be three episodes in, so I’ll have some catching up to do.

Fortunately, though, it fits in with my tradition of writing Who reviews that I can now do something similar for the much-hyped return of ‘sister’ show, Torchwood. Though that description doesn’t really seem adequate any more. While still nominally a spinoff from Doctor Who, Torchwood’s continuing evolution means that the two shows don’t really seem connected any more. Creator and showrunner of the new series Russell T Davies claims that they still are very much set in the same universe, and it’s not inconceivable that Miracle Day will feature some reference to the time travelling mad man with a box. But Torchwood was always tonally in a weird, fluctuating universe of its own, into which the Doctor would not have fit easily.

Since its inception as an ‘adult’ variant of Doctor Who in the heady, Who-crazed days of 2006, Torchwood has never settled down into its own identity, with each series quite different from the last. Series one was an intentionally ‘dark’, humourless affair, its ‘adult’ nature signalled by masses of gratuitous sex and violence, with swearing shoehorned uncomfortably into the scripts to show how grown up it was. Grown up in the sense of an adolescent boy, anyway, as initial showrunner Chris Chibnall gave an unwilling world classic quotes such as “When was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”. The characters were annoying and hard to like, even the formerly ebullient Captain Jack Harkness, and everyone seemed to be having sex with everyone else, regardless of gender or even species. Despite some intriguing premises, and that quirky Welsh setting, it was never a show I found that enjoyable.

Series two learned some lessons from that, reinjecting some much needed humour and toning down the over the top sex and swearing, though it was as violent as ever. It had a likeable villain in the form of James Marsters’ Captain John Hart, and went about reinventing the regular characters in a way that changed them from being irritating to likeable, even Burn Gorman’s ultra annoying Owen Harper. Notably, it shifted from BBC3 to BBC2, and seemed a little more mainstream as a result.

With the success of that much improved second series, Torchwood found itself changing again – now on BBC1, it was retooled as a much hyped ‘five day television event’ called Children of Earth. Taking a prime post-watershed slot on the main BBC channel with episodes broadcast every weekday, Children of Earth was a massive critical and popular success. The tale of a powerful alien race called ‘the 456’ and their demand for 10% of Earth’s children to take as tortured, drug-producing playthings was a masterful blend of political thriller, action and conspiracy story; compared to a sci fi version of Spooks, it was actually infinitely better than that, with the scenes of the British government discussing how best to capitulate with the aliens being especially chilling.It also pretty much ended the Torchwood universe, as their secret Cardiff Bay HQ the Hub was totalled in part one, and the ridiculous ‘Torchwoodmobile’ (a black Range Rover kitted out with unnecessary bulges and fluorescent lights) was stolen, never to be seen again. And with the team already having lost two of its regular characters the year before, they were further whittled down as Russell T Davies, now in charge of the show, killed off the inexplicably loved Ianto Jones, much to fanboy dismay.

But that was two years ago now. Russell T Davies, now freed of the enormous workload of Doctor Who, has been in LA with his old cohort Jane Tranter, shopping a new Torchwood idea around the American networks. With Davies seen as quite a success story after Queer as Folk, Doctor Who and of course Torchwood itself, it was only a matter of time before someone bit. That someone was cable channel Starz, also responsible for Chris Chibnall’s current toe-curlingly bad series Camelot. Old school fans immediately began to fret, not just about the identity of the BBC’s co-producer, but about the very fact that it was going to be, primarily, and American production. Surely, they worried, the Americans don’t produce drama as good as the British – won’t Torchwood lose its amazingly high quality?

Actually, the Americans very much do produce drama as good as the British these days – as any viewer of Mad Men, Deadwood and Game of Thrones could tell you. And the fans needn’t have worried – on the basis of part one, Miracle Day is nearly as good as Children of Earth.

I say ‘nearly’ with the reservation that this is a ten part story rather than a five part one, and doesn’t hit with the same slam bang as the beginning of Children of Earth. It also necessarily has to introduce the characters and premise of Torchwood all over again for a completely new audience. However, Russell has shown he’s good at doing this before, with Doctor Who in 2005, and he does it again here.

It works by having Torchwood as a now-defunct organisation who’ve become the focus of a group of young, implausibly good-looking CIA operatives. They’re baffled by the sudden appearance of the name ‘Torchwood’ and associated files on all their computers, and want to know what the hell it’s all about, which helpfully delves into the concept for any new viewers. But that takes second fiddle to the big premise on which Russell’s building the story – people have stopped dying. Nobody is dying anywhere in the world, however life-threatening and horrific their injuries – a fact which nominal hero Rex Matheson finds out when he’s impaled on a steel bar hurtling through his windscreen from the truck in front.

It soon turns out that people not dying could be a bit of a problem, as Gwen Cooper finds out in an interesting scene with old pal PC Andy. Taking into account the birth rate and the now defunct death rate, the world population will be so large that global famine could hit within weeks. Wars are problematic when you can’t actually kill the enemy, but North Korea are fronting up to invade South Korea, emboldened by the fact that their troops can’t be killed. And it’s no fun living forever if you’ve had horrific injuries that should have killed you, as is graphically demonstrated by a blackly humourous and chilling ‘live autopsy’ scene on a man who’s been, quite literally, blown to bits. “What’ll happen if we cut off his head?” “Let’s find out.”

It’s a good premise, typical of Russell’s interesting ‘what if?’ ideas, although I seem to recall the conceit having formerly been played out in an Outer Limits episode. The script for part one is by Russell himself, and makes the most of the idea, while reinventing Torchwood yet again. Starting from the viewpoint of the new characters, it’s a long way into the episode before we see Gwen Cooper, and even longer before we see Captain Jack. But when they appear, they’re every bit the characters they always were. Gwen, lying low with husband Rhys after the events of Children of Earth, is as marvellously Welsh as ever,  and both Eve Myles and Kai Owen are a refreshingly normal pair of characters – as they always were. About a third of the first episode takes place in Wales, allowing incoming American Rex to do a comical fish out of water act – “What’s this bridge?” “The Severn Bridge, it links Wales to England?” “What, Wales is like New Jersey? Wait, I have to pay for this bridge?!”

Captain Jack is almost his old self too. Reappearing to save the life of CIA researcher Esther when a masked gunman blows up the CIA archive, he then plies Esther with amusingly named memory suppressant ‘retcon’ in a virtual replay of the scene with Gwen from the very first episode of series one. John Barrowman’s accent seems a little out of place here, though I can’t put my finger on why – it’s a real American accent, but just seems almost overplayed. But Jack is till Jack, clad in his traditional 1940 RAF gear, though not yet trying to chat anyone up.

Indeed, there’s a surprising lack of sex, or even innuendo about sex, given Torchwood’s past history. I gather some quite graphic scenes are coming up though, some even involving Jack himself for the first time. Interestingly, some of the graphic sex, I hear on the grapevine, will be cut out for British transmission, though extra dramatic scenes will be added that weren’t in the American broadcast. Meaning die hard fans will have to watch both versions for comparison purposes!

As if to make up for the lack of sex, there’s action aplenty, and on a scale that the poor cash-strapped BBC can rarely afford by itself. Aside from the aforementioned blowing up of the CIA archive, the episode culminates in a riotous helicopter/Land Rover chase across a Welsh beach, with Gwen (visibly loving every minute of her return to action) blasting away from the back of the car with a rocket launcher. As the helicopter fairly convincingly spirals to destruction mere inches from our heroes’ heads, it’s hard not to emit a Keanu Reeves style, “Whoa…”

Also in the car is nominal hero Rex, whose central dilemma is that, should the ‘miracle’ end, his injuries may well mean his death. Thus far, Rex is fun but little more than a cipher. Mekhi Phifer brings a lot of charisma to the role, but we don’t really know much about him as yet, and his comic stooge role in some of the Wales scenes seems a little forced. And his actual investigating mostly seems to be done via the phone to his Chloe O’Brian alike assistant Esther. Esther, engagingly played by Alexa Havins, neatly fills the ‘baffled innocent’ role filled by Gwen in series one and Lois in Children of Earth. n fact, thus far, she’s the most likeable and rounded of the new characters.

The other new character we meet in episode one is potentially the most chilling and controversial. Oswald Danes is a convicted paedophile and murderer, who justified the killing of his last victim with the phrase, “she should have run faster”. The failure of Danes’ execution is the first, uncomfortably graphic, instance of death having ceased to function, and Danes wants out of prison on the grounds that his sentence has been carried out – it’s not his fault that death has taken a holiday.

Danes is incarnated by Bill Pullman, probably the biggest ‘star’ name in the cast – if ‘star’ is the right word for someone whose best known role is playing second fiddle to a lot of hyperkinetic effects shots in Independence Day. Actually that’s a bit unfair – Pullman has given some good performances, and takes on a doozie here as his first villain. But he’s giving a very odd, mannered performance so far. In the scene with him demanding his release from the state governor’s assistant, his dialogue is delivered almost as if he’s had a stroke. This could be meant as after effects from the injection that should have killed him, but it’s not spelt out if that’s the case. Still, mannerisms aside, Pullman is quite magnetic in the role. It’s not clear yet what he has to do with the main story, but given the casting and the focus on him in episode one, Danes is clearly going to be a major player.

Episode one, then, makes clear that this is a continuation rather than a reboot, and neatly introduces the ideas to a potential new audience. Even the old theme tune plays out in the background of the new score, though theme composer Murray Gold has now supplanted Ben Foster on scoring duties. This is a well-scripted, well-acted, and well-directed show that should keep the old fanboys happy without excluding newbies. And if anything, the lack thus far of gratuitous sex and swearing makes it seem more grown up than the very first series did. With upcoming episodes by Jane Espenson (Buffy, BSG, Game of Thrones) and Doris Egan (Smallville, House), expect more rapturous – but hopefully shorter – blog entries soon.

Internet of Truth

“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line.” The Doctor, The Aztecs

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984


The truth is out there…

A couple of days ago, Charlie Brooker’s sporadically brilliant Guardian column ran a piece on the current politics meme of the moment – the ‘Milliband loop’. For the one or two unfamiliar with this chortlefest, it refers to a news pool interview carried out with the less than charismatic current Labour leader, in which he manages to answer five different questions with exactly the same, verbatim answer, mixing up the order of the phrases being the only variety – “these strikes are wrong… negotiations still ongoing… government… reckless and provocative… get round the negotiating table… so it doesn’t happen again”.

Obviously all Milliband was attempting to do was to ensure the soundbite he wanted would be selected from the interview for the tiny excerpt that would undoubtedly be played out on the TV news coverage of the public sector strikes. It’s a sad indictment of the current state of political journalism that he felt the need to do it in this way, and he’s probably rueing the fact that the BBC News website chose to display the raw footage unedited as it makes him look like a robot iPod stuck on repeat. But for me, what was slightly more interesting rereading Brooker’s piece was that its headline was quite the reverse. In fact, by the end of the day, it was on its third regeneration.

What Brooker is saying in the piece is that it’s by no means new for this to happen; it is in fact an emerging trend, and he points to similar displays by both George Osborne and Alastair Darling. Logically, then, the original title of the piece didn’t single out any politician in particular – it referred to ‘Politicians’ identikit responses’. By lunchtime this had morphed into ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’, presumably to capitalise on the hapless leader’s misfortune of going viral on the internet, making him far more noticeable than the other two examples. This, however, seemed a little dishonest and misleading, when the whole point of the piece was to bemoan a trend rather than attack one particular exponent of it. By the end of the day, though, the headline had morphed again. This time the phrase ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’ had been replaced by ‘the Milliband loop’, a phrase Charlie seems to have coined himself in the article.

While I like Charlie Brooker’s work, I’m by no means an unquestioning follower of his, and this strikes me as a disturbing trend in itself, of which he is now as guilty as anyone else. In short, the increasing dominance of newspapers’ online content means that they get to rewrite history several times a day. It’s like Winston Smith’s job from 1984, at warp speed, and doable by any half-drunk journo at his desk.

Brooker – or his editor – altering his headline is probably a fairly trivial example of this. But there are worse out there. On Friday, the day after the teachers’ strike, the Daily Mail ran one of the most scurrilous headlines I had ever seen – “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench because her teachers were on strike”.

Even by Daily Mail standards, this was a jaw dropping example of gutter journalism at its worst. Using the tragic accidental death of a child to score cheap political points that support your agenda really is about as low as you can get. Perhaps whoever wrote the piece had some inkling of this; rather than credit the author by name, the website simply tells us this literary masterpiece was penned by ‘Daily Mail Reporter’. As if the headline wasn’t bad enough, ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ had also gone out of his/ her way to solicit/make up quotes from heartbroken locals about how this accident was all the fault of the teachers for going on strike.

To give them credit, even regular Mail readers were astounded by the effrontery of this, and the comments thread beneath the article rapidly filled up with the sort of disgusted reaction familiar to Mail website habitues – and yet also unfamiliar, because this time the disgust was directed at the Mail itself.

Thus it was, that, by about teatime, the headline’s implication of teacher complicity in a tragic accident had been softened somewhat. It now read, “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench as her teachers were on strike” – thus making the teachers’ culpability a rather less direct implication. It was still clear enough, though, and the ‘Disgusted of Hartlepool’ comments continued to flood in. So, by the next day, any reference to teachers had been excised from the headline, which was now simply “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench”. Similarly, the quotes blaming the teachers in the article itself were edited or excised altogether, and a quote from the girl’s family was inserted in which they implored (rather more reasonably than I might have done under the circumstances) that “Our beloved daughter’s death was a tragic incident, which occurred only 24 hours ago, and we do not want it to be connected to any other events.”

Thus, the Daily Mail had effectively, and without comment, rewritten a massively offensive headline and article to, presumably, protect themselves from the Press Complaints Commission – although given how toothless that worthy organisation generally is, I’m surprised they felt the need to bother. Nonetheless, the comments thread was not deleted. This is most likely because outrage over the nature of the headline now seemed nonsensical, though the article’s URL betrays rather more of its original content:

That’s a far more worrying example than Charlie Brooker (or his editor) altering the headline of a satirical piece to make it more sensationalist – the Mail’s headline was a genuinely obscene bit of journalism that they should have been held to account for. Now, they can simply claim that they altered the headline to acknowledge the offence caused – if they admit to it ever having existed in its original form at all. With no record being given of when and how the website was altered, it might well take a long and dedicated bit of cyber-detection to prove that it had been.

Yesterday, however, prompted an even more worrying example of this trend. Yet more examples had come to light, this time in an admittedly gloating piece from the Guardian, of News International’s propensity to hack the voicemails of anyone it considered likely to sell a few more copies of News of the World. This latest example, though, was rather more sinister than Sienna Miller’s love tryst texts or even Tony Blair’s confidential policy messages. NOTW, it turns out, had hacked the voicemail of the then-missing 13 year old Milly Dowler, even going so far as to delete messages when the mailbox was full so as to garner more ‘newsworthy’ material. This had, it seems, the combined effect of giving false hope to Milly’s family, who believed if she was deleting messages she must be alive, and potentially destroying valuable evidence that could have been utilised in the police investigation. The paper made no particular secret of having done this, either – contemporary articles even referred to information that had come to their attention via voicemails left on the missing teenager’s phone.

Now, it’s been notable that most of the tabloid press has been suspiciously light on coverage of the News International phone hacking stories – presumably proof of the old axiom that no-one wants to deploy a weapon that might be used against oneself. And obviously, there isn’t even a mention of the story in today’s Sun, despite Prime Ministerial condemnation and TV news saturation. Of slightly more worry, though, is the reported allegation that any such articles have now disappeared from the News of the World online archive.

Now, I must hold my hands up and say that I cannot actually verify that. Access to the NOTW web archive depends on registering with News International, something I’m not prepared to do. If true, though, it’s perhaps the most worrying example of this trend in a three day period that has thrown up just the examples I happened to come across quite casually, rather than actually looking for them. Further embarrassment for News International would be, to say the least, undesirable for them, at a time when parent company Newscorp’s full takeover of BSkyB is imminent. Not to mention the fact that News International’s Chief Executive, Rebekah Brooks, happened to be the editor of the News of the World at the time this particular bit of hacking took place.

And it could perhaps be said that, if true, the removal of these stories is a sensible measure at a time when a police investigation is still ongoing, and at a time of such sensitivity for the Dowler family. Nonetheless, if significant stories are disappearing from an online archive which apparently stretches back to 2000, deleted for political or commercial or even personal reasons – without comment – it’s a very worrying trend.

Of course, physical copies of newspapers are still sold, and those are rather harder to alter. And a dedicated researcher would be naïve to rely entirely on web archives to research news stories. But with the print media in decline, replaced by an increasing reliance on online content, how long will this be an option? And how many lazy researchers, or just plain normal people, already take what they read on a news source’s online archive at face value? Some papers at least acknowledge that web changes have been made – the Guardian is one. But even they don’t do it with any consistency – it’s usually only if a factual error has been amended, rather than an editorial change like the one to Charlie Brooker’s headline. Surely there should be, at the very least, an obligation for any organisation claiming to purvey facts to tell us when and how they’ve ‘altered the truth’ – and more importantly, why?

In 1984, Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth was to alter the past, by cosmetically changing photographs and archived newspapers – inspired by the contemporary practices of Josef Stalin, who did this as a matter of routine. Orwell depicts it as a tedious, lengthy process, that’s extremely boring and requires a degree of skill. Today’s news editors and proprietors can now do it with a couple of passes of the keyboard and a click of the mouse – and that’s very disturbing indeed.