Torchwood–What kind of Day has it been?

MiracleDay

So here’s a plot synopsis for you. Death decides to give up the day job, and fairly soon, the world notices that nobody’s dying. Everyone thinks that’s pretty great. Until the hospitals start to fill up with horribly injured people who should be dead, but have to live on instead in unspeakable agony. The medical profession, horrified, must try and find some way of reversing the effect.

Sound familiar? It should, but it’s not the plot of Torchwood: Miracle Day. That’s a 2002 Twilight Zone episode called One Night at Mercy, which stars Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as a depressed Death (“It started in about the mid-1300s. You know, the Black Plague.”) who ups and quits, and deals with how a young doctor persuades him to go back to work despite the fact that it means his own death. Now, there’s nothing wrong with re-using a good idea; Doctor Who does it all the time. But the thing about One Night at Mercy is that it covers the same premise as Miracle Day, and implicitly deals with many of the same effects that Russell T Davies seemed so interested in exploring. And it does so, with admirable economy, in 25 minutes. Russell, on the other hand, took 10 hours to do it – and that’s just the start of what was wrong with this season of Torchwood.

But to be even-handed, let’s start with the good stuff – and there was some, no matter what the internet haters think. I thought this was a pretty badly constructed drama as a whole, but it was still entertaining enough to hold my interest for ten weeks. The suspension of death is an interesting premise, even if it has been done before – and for all I know, the Twilight Zone episode is just one of many examples, it’s just the one that sprung to mind. It allowed for some enjoyably gruesome scenes, starting with the ‘live autopsy’ in part one, through the ‘head turned backwards’ CIA assassin, the wince making probing of Rex’s chest wound and the existential horror of burning people to ashes when they can’t die. Russell was plainly interested in exploring the effects of the scenario, even if only in throwaway lines about having to redefine murder. That said, I think some of his hypotheses about the Malthusian population explosion may have been a little off the mark, and I question whether infections would run rampant quite so easily – surely with the host organism unable to die, the infecting agent would eventually be defeated by the body’s immune system? Still, I’m no expert, and from what I hear, Russell did have quite a lot of advice from professional medicos in the writing process.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have any advice from script editors. What made Children of Earth such a taut thriller was the total lack of any extraneous material that didn’t drive the plot forward. Russell’s laudable desire to explore the various ramifications of the lack of death made for a surplus of interesting ideas chucked in as though they were  meant to be major plot points, only to be abandoned by the next episode. What happened to the cult of the Soulless? That was an interesting idea, given some prominence then never mentioned again. Or the ‘45 Club’ of people jumping from 45th floors to get as near death as possible? Why did we have to spend so much time not caring about Esther’s loopy sister, when her storyline was forgotten about for many episodes then casually resolved in one shot at Esther’s funeral? OK, I know Esther’s concern for her sister is what gave away the heroes to the conspiracy, but that could have been just as easily achieved without spending so much time on her. And speaking of relatives, why introduce a dramatically portentous fraught relationship between Rex and his dad in part four and then never show or even mention him again?

Some would argue, with a little validity, that these touches gave a needed depth to the new characters, in much the way introducing Ianto’s family did in Children of Earth. But in that story, Ianto’s family turned out to have an integral role in the storyline, whereas giving so much screentime to characters who have nothing to do beyond make one appearance then be quickly forgotten about smacks of padding. As did the subplot about Tea Party politician Ellis Hartley Monroe and her campaign to segregate the ‘dead’. At least that wasn’t entirely forgotten about as the Holocaust re-enactment got underway, but it was something of a waste to introduce a character as nasty (if one-dimensional) as Monroe, then kill her off in the same episode and have her entirely forgotten about. I mean, come on – Mare Winningham is a multi-award winning actress, surely she could have been kept around as an identifiable bad guy to personify the government?

Speaking of the government, Miracle Day gave Russell an opportunity to get political again, something which, while laudable, is rarely a good idea in his case. His intentions are always good, and in the best tradition of Doctor Who’s liberal tendencies, but he’s not good at making pointed, incisive political comment in a script. Remember the promise in The End of Time that Barack Obama had ‘found a solution’ to the Recession? Well, if he’s found the ‘Start Economic Growth’ button in the White House, I’ve seen no evidence of it yet.

The trouble with starting to make specific comments about politics in a script is that it’s easy to be broadbrush and simplistic. This is by no means limited just to Russell; not everyone can write something as pointed and relevant as Drop the Dead Donkey or The Thick of It. Still, while I thought the two-tier US healthcare depiction in the overflow camps was relatively well-done, Gwen’s righteous indignation at Phicorp having ‘privatised’ UK healthcare seemed a bit too easy a target. I don’t want market forces running the NHS either, but  as Richard comments on his Millennium Dome blog, plenty of countries manage to incorporate private organisations into state healthcare without becoming the cesspit of greed and self-interest represented by the US system. It’s almost as if Russell has just read in the left wing press that ‘private=bad’, a simplification every bit as moronic as the right wing press’ assertion that the heroic market forces will always save the day unless interfered with by that meddling State.

The US/UK comparison is one that did seem central to a lot of opinions of the show. There seem to have been relatively few who enjoyed it with reservations; most either loved it or hated it. Among those who hated it, one of the most common complaints was that “it isn’t really Torchwood any more”. True, the quirky Welsh setting of the original series was what differentiated it from all the other X Files wannabes out there, but Wales wasn’t forgotten about this year (even if it did have to be recreated in Los Angeles studios most of the time). The parochial Welsh dialogue and quirky Welsh minor characters were still very much in evidence – that ear for Welsh speech being one of Russell’s better contributions.

And yes, the show didn’t have many of the original Torchwood hallmarks. But let’s remember that these were pretty much all wiped out over the last two seasons anyway, so even a wholly British return would have been a very different show. Season 2 saw the end of Tosh and Owen, and Children of Earth found Ianto, the Hub and even (thankfully) the ‘Torchwoodmobile’ following them into oblivion. By the end of Children of Earth, in fact, the only hallmarks of the original show left were Captain Jack, Gwen and Rhys.

But here, the show did seem to make a real misstep. Firstly, Jack was, for most of the first two thirds of the season, very much in the background of what many see as his show. As noted on the oncoming hope blog, it wasn’t until the Jack-centric 7th episode that he came to the foreground; the rest of the time he was just a slightly more mysterious member of a not entirely successful ensemble. He was at least a little less broody than in early seasons of Torchwood (although the glee that he displayed as he suggested cutting off that living corpse’s head seemed a little uncharacteristic), and John Barrowman gave a consistently good performance. In fact, I’d say that in parts 7 and 8, he actually veered into ‘good acting’ territory rather than just, basically, playing John Barrowman. While I’ve always thought he gave a good, charismatic performance as Captain Jack, it’s rare that the part has required him to actually act very much; the death of Ianto was one such occasion, and here we saw him portraying believably deep emotion in his interactions with Angelo both in the past and present.

Having said that though, Jack seemed more like Barrowman than usual in one respect – rather than being ‘omnisexual’, he was just gay this year. True, he mentioned previous trysts with women and referred to having been a parent. But in his first depiction of onscreen steamy sex scenes (which I’m still not sure were a good idea for a character with a large following of children) were exclusively with guys, and even when flirting it was men only for him. Given his past history, I would have expected him to at least flirt with Stuart Owens’ mistress, rather than offer to “drink Appletinis and bitch about men”. It seems odd that a US network like Starz would be so unflinching in portraying homosexuality; given the lack of it on mainstream TV, it was perhaps a bit courageous of them not to try and dilute it into bisexuality. All well and good, but Jack’s meant to be bisexual!

Gwen at least was more consistent with her usual self, though even here I think her occasional unlikely transformations into some kind of action heroine were a little unconvincing. But Eve Myles did well, I thought, being given most of the lines of righteous anger and moral outrage. Some people thought that made her seem irritatingly whiny this year, but fair’s fair – she’s always been the moral conscience of the show, and it’s not something you can say has only just started. She couldn’t even have a steamy affair without constantly beating herself up about it in the first season.

And Rhys, thankfully, was still Rhys – a believable everybloke in much the same style as Doctor Who’s Rory Williams. Like Rory, lots of people seem to think Rhys is just a buffoon who allows his wife to constantly emasculate him. But I disagree; again like Rory, Rhys is the anchor to the real world for the show, a character we can see ourselves in the way that he reacts. And – again like Rory – it doesn’t stop him from being genuinely heroic. Having pretty much joined the team proper in Children of Earth, he was here to be seen helping Gwen infiltrate the overflow camps and driving a truck through a hail of bullets. All credit to Kai Owen for making this as believable as his ‘ordinary guy’ schtick when lending moral support to Gwen’s family.

The new characters, unfortunately, were not so successful. Rex was the major offender here, I’m afraid. I’ve seen Mekhi Phifer in a number of things before – Dawn of the Dead, 8 Mile etc – and he’s always been a believable, likeable onscreen presence. Perhaps it was something to do with the writing here, but he seemed to be gurning and chewing his way through a surprisingly one-dimensional portrayal of a guy who really wasn’t very likeable anyway. It didn’t help that when we first met Rex he seemed to be gloating about a colleague’s wife having cancer; and his perpetual reminders to the rest of the team of how much more professional he was than them quickly became a major irritant. If anything, he managed to beat out the season one version of Owen Harper as ‘most annoying character’. The only good thing about this was that it gave us all a chance to relish it when Jack wound him up.

By contrast, Esther was less annoying but unfortunately not remotely memorable. Her heavily signalled transition from deskbound dormouse to action hero never really materialised; in fact, my abiding memory of her as a character was the end of episode 8, as she drove an unconscious Jack away while screaming. “I don’t know what to do!” By the end, she seemed little more than a cardboard adjunct to Rex, which made it hard to care about the ‘shock’ moment when she was shot. Despite a perfectly good performance from Alexa Havins, I don’t think anyone’s going to be putting up any shrines to Esther.

The best new character was Dr Vera Juarez. Arlene Tur made her a believably harried medical professional with a conscience, and it was refreshing to see a character smoking cigarettes without being a major villain. She also managed to be believable and likeable without having to be saddled with several dead-end plots regarding her family, showing that a soap opera background for a character is not a strict necessity. This meant that it genuinely was a bit of a shock that she got burned alive in episode 5 – a twist that worked precisely because she was such a good character, but sadly means that she won’t be back if the show is – unlike Rex, unfortunately.

The other two regulars can’t really be discussed separately – they formed a good double act throughout the series that, like so many other subplots, sadly turned out to be a misdirection or a dead end. Lauren Ambrose was sensational as Jilly Kitzinger, portraying a soulless corporate shark with just the right amount of wicked glee, and with a much-commented on excess of lipstick. If the show comes back, so presumably will she – which almost makes up for not following up on the “better run faster” recurring line and letting her escape the Shanghai explosion in that seemingly tacked on coda.

Oswald Danes, on the other hand, didn’t seem quite so successful as a character. As I’ve mentioned previously, it seems bizarre to have one of your major characters be a murdering paedophile without that fact having some specific relevance to the story you’re trying to tell, but Russell managed it here. While his verbal sparring with Jilly was among the highlights of the show, his ultimate revelation as a virtual irrelevance made it hard to see the point of him. It didn’t help that Bill Pullman portrayed him in one of the most bizarre acting styles I’ve ever seen. It was all about oddly placed… pauses… and sudden DRAMATIC emphasis for no easily fathomable reason. In fact, after his appearance in episode one, I actually looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he’d had a stroke recently. But no, he’d actually made the choice that this was how Oswald should be portrayed. Memorable perhaps, but for all the wrong reasons.

Generally more successful were the roster of one-episode-only, stunt cast guest stars. John De Lancie was a highlight as CIA chief Shapiro, and Daniele Favilli was sweet and likeable as Angelo. It’s always good to see Wayne Knight too, even if for most of us he’ll be forever Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. At least he was consistent; sweaty, shifty CIA mole Friedkin was almost like Nedry all over again. C Thomas Howell was so good as the Families’ sinister assassin that I’d really have liked to see more of him than just one episode, and Mare Winningham managed to extract a believably hateful Tea Partier from the rather one dimensional writing of Ellis Hartley Monroe. Ernie Hudson showed himself to be every bit as good as the other Ghostbusters in the one-scene shot as Phicorp boss Stuart Owens. The only guest star who was a bit of a let down was Nana Visitor; not through any fault of her own, but more because the script had given her no personality beyond functioning as an exposition machine.

If the characters were a bit of a mixed bag, though, the plotting was an absolute mess. The show couldn’t quite seem to decide if it wanted to be a proper serial, like Children of Earth, or an anthology show featuring stories set in a world where no-one can die. This identity crisis made for a very oddly structured story in terms of pacing and momentum, which wasn’t helped by the ‘one-big-guest-star-an-episode’ approach.

The overall plot seemed to move at a snail’s pace for about half the season, not helped by the inclusion of all the dead-end subplots and bits of interesting but irrelevant detail about the situation which kept distracting Russell as though someone had yelled “ooh, look, kittens!” Then it suddenly got moving with the Holocaust re-enactment stuff, although the team’s quest to expose it proved an irrelevance too as the exposure failed to stop it happening – meaning that Dr Vera, the most likeable new character, effectively died for nothing.

Then the plot screeched to a halt for the (admittedly excellent) ‘standalone’ episode Immortal Sins (ep7). Oddly enough, this was the episode that felt most like ‘proper’ Torchwood, with Jack’s 1920s antics being both a romp and then very dark, while Jack and Gwen’s interminable car drive/soul baring framestory recalled a very similar drive in series one episode They Keep Killing Susie. Good though it was, however, it put the brakes on the plot proper while imparting admittedly relevant background that was mostly rather tangential and could have been dealt with far more quickly in a few lines of dialogue. Alternatively, this episode might have been better placed earlier in the series before the overall plot properly gained momentum – it would have been a shame to lose such a good piece entirely. Whichever, it didn’t feel like it worked where it was.

As if to make up for the drip feed of information in the first half of the series, the final three episodes ended up being mostly a nonstop barrage of exposition, in which the plot had to keep pausing for people to explain things to each other at seemingly interminable length. The very last episode seemed to recover something more of a balance between exposition and action, but this was rather undermined by the fact that not only did it not make sense on its own terms, but that a number of the explanations given actually undermined things which had been previously established earlier in the story. A case of ‘learning’ from The X Files again, perhaps, as that show constantly shifted the goalposts of its messy conspiracy story to extend its sell by date. Torchwood had no such excuse, though – this was a story meant to have been economically told over one season.

Overall, there was a lot to like here, and it could, with some heavy script editing, have been a very thrilling, memorable show rather than one that merely entertained while causing frequent impatience. Of its many flaws, the excessive length and obvious padding were probably the worst, and its not surprising that so many internet forums have been expressing a desire to create a tighter ‘fan edit’ of about half the length that would still retain all the relevant parts of the story. The lack of consistent internal logic didn’t help either, though any show that features a drug called ‘retcon’ can presumably fall back on the option of retconning itself in any potential future series – it’ll have to, to at least explain why the Whoniverse is now saddled with the impossible-to-like Rex Matheson as another immortal being. Given Russell’s stated disinterest in doing any more Torchwood, coupled with the generally lukewarm response to this one, I’d be surprised if we did see any more of it, despite internet rumours already circulating that it’ll be back next year. If it is, though, I’ll still watch in the hope that they’ve relearnt all the lessons they seemed to have forgotten this year.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 10

The Blood Line

BloodLine

So, that’s that then. All those answers we’d been working towards for the past 9 episodes, in the end, boiled down to “What is it?” “I don’t know.” As our heroes finally reached the planet straddling pink lined cleft that was The Blessing (already likened elsewhere to a ‘planetary vagina’), you couldn’t help feeling a real sense of anticlimax. Not since the end of Lost have I felt an ending to be so unsatisfactory, though at least with Lost we had six years of involvement with likeable characters to sew up, making up for the lack of resolution to the actual mysteries.

Not that this should be particularly surprising. As I’ve mentioned before, Russell T Davies seems to have a real problem with writing satisfactory endings. It’s the hallmark of a writer who cut his teeth working on neverending soap operas, I suppose; he does characters, dialogue and ongoing plotting very well, but when it comes to wrapping things up, he’s more often than not written himself into a corner. Hence the frequent ‘Davies ex machina’ endings to various Doctor Who seasons, in which, basically, magic is used to extricate our heroes from the insoluble; or even the endings to both series of Queer as Folk – one ends with numerous unresolved storylines, the other with the heroes inexplicably jetting off to the US in a flying Jeep.

It’s also, perhaps, another indicator of how much this series of Torchwood has tried to be like The X Files, a series not renowned for its episodes’ satisfying resolutions. “I know it probably doesn’t have the sense of closure you’re looking for,”says a weary Dana Scully to author Jose Chung in Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, “but it has more than some of our other cases.” Even by season 3, The X Files had established this trope well enough to be self-referentially mocking about it; Torchwood, sadly, does not have that luxury, and as a result, you’re just left gaping at the screen, saying “But… but…”

To be fair, the episode did entertain if not actually thrill. There was some good character stuff, hardly surprising in a script co-written by Russell T Davies and Jane Espenson; the subplot of Gwen making peace with her dad’s inevitable death was very sensitively handled, and a well-played scene between John Barrowman and Bill Pullman gave real insight into the characters of Captain Jack and Oswald Danes. That scene, in which Jack expressed his admiration for how magnificent humanity would become in the future then gave Oswald a Total Perspective Vortex moment by showing him how small he’d made his life, also served to defuse one of the show’s very real contradictions. If Jack is from the future, surely everything’s bound to turn out ok; after all, he’s seen it. ‘Borrowing’ from 1976 Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars, the script then has Jack explain that, “the future can be changed. It’s being written right now.” As good an explanation of the paradox as we could hope for, and certainly better than many of the other ‘explanations’ we got this week.

Indeed, nods to Doctor Who were all over the place this week. Perhaps recognising that, given Torchwood is set in the Whoniverse, fanboys would immediately rush to the internet to query how come The Blessing hasn’t intersected with all those other things we know to be lurking beneath the Earth, Russell had Captain Jack specifically mention both the Silurians and the Racnoss as he speculated on what The Blessing could be. A nice moment, to be sure, though some concrete explanation of what it was rather than sub-X Files waffle would have been nicer. Later, Jack referred to the Blessing sites having been sealed up by UNIT; that was another nice nod. Less nice was an unwelcome return of what Russell presumably believes to be much-loved catchphrases from his time on Who. As Rex is shot, Jack gets a chance to annoy like Tennant by saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. Followed immediately, as Rex wakes up, by Russell’s default season ending line – “What? What? WHAT?” I think I could have lived without hearing that one again.

But I could have lived with some credible resolution to the plot(s). Ok, so, The Families were trying to gain control of the world by using The Blessing to control when people live or die at their whim. All right, I’ll buy that. Except that, given the century spanning conspiracy we’ve already seen and the pseudo religious fanaticism displayed by The Families’ many catspaws in positions of power, they basically already do control the world. Do they just want more publicity about it? Also, if this is “phase one”, or a “trial run” as Mormon-missionary guy explains to Jilly later, just what are they planning for an encore?  All right, I’ll grant you that this may be a teaser for a subplot in a later series (which may not be entirely welcome given the general reception of this one), but having massively shaken up a world they effectively already control and seemingly virtually own, it’s hard to see what more The Families are hoping for. After all, once you’ve got immortality, everything else falls into place, given time; what else could you need?

Then there’s the numerous contradictions implicit in the torrents of exposition we were given to explain the nature of The Blessing itself. For a start, there’s the surprisingly laborious means by which our heroes locate it. It’s a neat idea that Jack’s blood rolls towards it (though this presumably means that it has an inherent desire to return humanity to its normal state, despite Jack’s assertion that it’s trying to be kind by granting everyone immortality). But having established that the direction in which the blood rolls must point to The Blessing’s location, why on earth do our heroes than decide the best way to find it is simply to walk in that direction until they encounter something weird? These are supposedly professional intelligence agents (well, Rex keeps telling us that he is, anyway). Have they never heard of triangulation? Simply try the same thing in a different building, plot the two blood rolling directions until they intersect on the map, and hey presto, you’ve got the exact location. Perhaps less dramatically weighty than Gwen’s encounter with the improbably English-fluent old Chinese lady, but so obvious that it made our heroes look a bit silly.

As The Mother and her Buenos Aires counterpart The Cousin (does Russell have something against families in general, or did he just think such cryptic monickers were apropos of the recurring ‘homage’ to The X Files?) defused the tension with their mountains of inconsistent exposition, it became hard to care what was happening. Nonetheless, it became apparent that The Blessing had always been under the Earth (“the most terrestrial threat we’ve ever faced”, Gwen noted sagely), and via the scientifically dubious means of morphic fields had always controlled humanity’s average lifespan. OK, despite the New Age bollocks of morphic fields, I can buy into that within the rules the show has established for itself. But even here, it didn’t have any consistent logic. Given that The Blessing apparently controls the entire population’s lifespans rather than specific individuals, how were The Families planning to achieve the targeted control the Mother referred to? And leaving aside the question of how, despite previous assertions that this was impossible, it used Jack’s blood as a template for immortality, why did The Blessing’s change to humanity affect just him in completely the opposite way, and why was this reversed when humanity became mortal again? No explanations were offered, and by the time it became clear that Rex had caught immortality himself, it was as if Russell had just thrown in the towel as far as contradictions of the show’s internal logic were concerned, and fallen back on “What? What? WHAT?” Let’s be clear about this; I can suspend disbelief in any which way a sci fi or fantasy show demands, providing it’s consistent with the internal logic the show has established for itself. Lost cheated somewhat here by never actually explaining the rules of its universe, but Torchwood clearly has, and retconning them without a damn well-explained reason totally takes the viewer out of the drama.

There was some drama and thrills, but even these were not particularly well-handled. The idea that Rex had used his immortality to absorb all of Jack’s blood, thereby becoming a walking weapon, was a good one (and nicely signalled by Rex’s twinges throughout the episode, as The Blessing tried to drag his new blood towards it). Having established this trump card for our heroes, it was also dramatically rather good that the only way to return humanity to normal was for both Rex and Jack to sacrifice themselves by spewing all their blood towards The Blessing simultaneously. The fact that both were willing to do so (even after Jack’s recent assertion that he still enjoys living and will fight to carry on) was an excellent moment. Unfortunately, it was then totally undermined by the fact that, having made the heroic sacrifice, both were not just ok, but better than ok – immortal, in fact. The hard-hitting, no compromise approach at the end of Children of Earth was totally lacking here; it’s as though, in that show, Jack’s grandson appeared to die but was then shown to be fine. Drama that, in fact, totally pulls its punches.

And then there was Oswald. Bill Pullman was more naturalistic than usual here, but there was no revelation as to why exactly he’d been made out to be so important all the way through the serial’s run. I don’t mind a bit of misdirection, and the dialogue even spelled out earlier how insignificant he really was. But when The Mother dismissively told him that he was an “irrelevant by-product” of The Miracle, again I felt somewhat cheated. After all, if you’re going to have one of your story’s central characters be a murdering paedophile, there’s usually some kind of plot point reason for it, and you’d be expecting to see that at the story’s resolution. What we got here felt, again, like The X Files – and not even good X Files, but the terrible recent movie I Want to Believe, in which Billy Connolly’s psychic priest was, for dramatically spurious reasons, a convicted paedophile. It served no real story purpose there, and neither does it here; in fact it makes one feel a little queasy at having invested so much time in such a nasty character for no particular reason.

Oswald’s ‘heroic’ sacrifice, blowing up himself, The Mother and the pit of The Blessing, was not at all unexpected either. It felt dramatically pat that the character had been on a path of redemption all along, so kudos to whichever writer – my money’s on Jane Espenson – managed to make his ’noble gesture’ consistent with his character, as he looked forward to Hell because “that’s where all the bad little girls go”. So a mixed moment there – I always expected something like that to happen at the end, but I didn’t expect that they’d manage to keep Oswald consistently vile even up to his death. It’s one of the episode’s nicer touches that it can make you muse on how bad people may do the best of things for the worst of reasons.

Also dying this week was John De Lancie’s CIA boss Shapiro, which was a shame; if we must have another season, I would have liked him to have been in it. It wasn’t a particularly well-written part, but De Lancie seized on the character handles he was given to charismatically portray a believable and likeable boss figure in (inevitably) the Walter Skinner style. Great death line too; now that I’ve heard Q out of Star Trek say “oh fuck”, my life seems complete. It also seemed consistent with the (actually fairly believable) earlier portrayal of the CIA as some kind of CTU-like department of incompetents who would not only not spot an incredibly shifty mole, but also completely miss that she’d somehow managed to hide an incredibly powerful bomb in the back of a filing cabinet. Sherlock Holmes these guys aren’t, but they’ve been enjoyable in the same way that Jack Bauer’s compatriots were. And at least shifty mole Charlotte eventually got her comeuppance, through the incredibly contrived last minute data transfer to Rex’s phone (it even zoomed in on her name without him having to touch a thing, as though the phone itself was trying desperately hard to increase the tension).

Actually, Esther’s funeral was like some kind of reunion for all the major characters who’d survived. We saw Esther’s sister, who had rather implausibly been given back custody of her children; but it was a measure of how little I cared about that character’s unnecessary subplot that it took me a few moments to even remember who she was. And Rhys was there too, in LA for the first time – storywise anyway. Contrary to my theories last week, I’ve been told that, barring the exterior shots, all the Welsh material was actually filmed in LA too; so Gwen’s frequent and increasingly irritating phone calls home presumably weren’t charged at international rate. Still, more kudos to the production team for making the sets and costumes convincing enough that I actually believed those interiors were in Wales, a feat not many US TV productions would pull off given the depictions of the UK I’ve seen in the past.

I’ve been quite harsh on this episode, harsher in fact than I have on any of the others despite their perceived flaws. That’s simply because, with this being the end of the story, I can no longer live in hope that the flaws will be explained or ironed out later on. Or perhaps I can; the fact that Russell has left story plots hanging and his main villains uncaught and unpunished presumably means that he, or network co-producer Starz, is hoping for another season. Unfortunately, given this season’s lukewarm reception, I’d be surprised if that happened. That’s actually sort of a shame, because despite the numerous flaws in Miracle Day, it’s never been less than entertaining – for me at least. Despite all the holes I’ve picked in this last episode, even that was entertaining even though simultaneously disappointing; though again, I think Russell had written himself into a corner that was impossible to get out of. But it’s worth remembering that many of us weren’t too impressed with Torchwood’s first season either. After that, though, it gradually realised its potential, and possibly could again. Even with a multitude of flaws, there was much to like here, and I’ll post a short review of the series as a whole at some point. For now, though, unfortunately the best I can say is that this finale entertained without actually satisfying.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 9

WARNING! AS I REALISE PEOPLE IN THE UK MAY BE LOOKING AT THIS BLOG FOR THE DOCTOR WHO POSTS ALSO, BEAR IN MIND THAT THIS REVIEW IS OF THE US SHOWING OF TORCHWOOD EPISODE 9, WHICH HASN’T BEEN ON UK TV YET, SO MAJOR SPOILERS!

The Gathering

Torchwood: Miracle Day; EP. 9

“61 days into the Great Depression…”

And just like that, in its endgame two episodes, Miracle Day has shifted the narrative speed into hyperdrive. After weeks of ponderously navigating the murky waters of the plot and showing us in painstaking, often tedious detail every aspect of what’s going on, we’ve suddenly leaped forward to “Two Months Later” and in the interim, all sorts of things have been happening.

Firstly, the financial collapse so topically alluded to last week has obviously happened. It occurred to me watching this episode that the references to “the Great Depression” are in voiceover only, as were, if I recall, last week’s radio bulletins about Greece and Ireland defaulting on their national debts. All of which made me wonder whether this was a bit of topicality inserted at a late stage to capitalise on real world events that have happened since production was complete. Either that, or Russell T Davies is clairvoyant…

Be that as it may, the Depression fits very well into the scary new post-Miracle world. It also gives new momentum to the Government sanctioned Holocaust re-enactment of the “overflow camps”. My friend Richard, on his Millennium Dome blog review of episode 5, has expressed scepticism at the speed with which humanity hurtled to this point, which I must say I share. But a financial collapse really does recall the conditions which propitiated the original Holocaust, and this week’s insertion of, effectively, house-searching Gestapo agents was a rather less in your face reference to it than actually showing us the crematoria in action.

Certainly Ian Hughes as Mr Finch looked and acted the part as a modern day Welsh Herr Flick. Actually, it could be said that casting someone who looked – and was dressed – very much as a stereotypical Gestapo man is a bit lazy, but it’s a neat shorthand for who he is and what he’s doing, which is the kind of narrative economy the show’s been sorely in need of during its rather overlength run. With Gwen’s father hidden behind a board in the cellar like a latterday Anne Frank, Finch’s sojourns downstairs were genuinely tense (though I’m sceptical that even Apple can develop a thermographic imaging app for the iPhone). Nonetheless, his callous rejoinder to Gwen’s comment that her dad was still warm – “he’s about to get a whole lot warmer” – was genuinely chilling, in keeping with exactly what you could imagine the real Gestapo saying.

Outside of the UK’s fast development into a police state, though, there was a lot going on here to do with the main plot. Gwen, it seems, has been busy since the CIA deported her from the US last week. In the intervening two months, she’s set herself up as a one-woman ram-raiding black market for Swansea residents scared to go to the doctor for painkillers lest they be classified as category one. Besides doing that, and helping her mother to hide her father from the authorities, she’s also found time to set up some kind of lifeline by which she was able to smuggle Jack and Esther, not to mention (presumably without her actual knowledge) Oswald Danes into the UK.

The narrative economy of this skipping forward of the story not only gives the series a much-needed sense of vigour in the mode of Children of Earth, it also allows for real surprises to be spun in a way that’s generally been lacking this year. I was genuinely surprised when Oswald turned up at the Cooper house in Swansea, precisely because we hadn’t been shown in mind-numbing detail how he got there. One minute he was running away from Jilly, the next time we see him, he’s in Wales! It was noticeable that, as he was hiding his face from the cute young surveillance guy, it might not have been Bill Pullman himself in the exterior shots. But I’m guessing they really did fly him to Wales for those scenes in the Coopers’ kitchen – it would be cheaper to do that than fly the rest of the cast out to LA.

After the rather tokenistic depiction of Wales in recent episodes, it was refreshing to have an entire episode that pretty much centred on the UK. For that, and for the narrative zip this week, I would assume we have to thank Liverpool-born writer John Fay, who scripted the episode of Children of Earth that was most chilling, as remarked on in Richard’s blog entry linked to above – the one that centred on the Cabinet meeting discussing how best to capitulate to the aliens’ demands. As the only Torchwood old hand writing this series except for Russell, he’s given us the episode that most resembles – in tone and style as well as setting – the Torchwood of old.

It does still retain an international flavour, though, and thankfully this week that wasn’t just limited to the US and the UK. Over at CIA HQ in Langley, Rex was hard at work trying to track down paper records of Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines, while seemingly unaware that Charlotte Willis was busily recreating the shifty actions of every mole ever seen in 24’s CTU – suddenly looking worried, disappearing from her desk to make furtive phone calls, being surprisingly defeatist about the chances of tracking down the relevant information. To give him credit, Rex has at least worked out that there is a mole, but I question his spook credentials that he can’t work out who it is.

Nonetheless, Rex did manage, via a ridiculously convoluted bit of research, to ascertain that one of the Families’ original conspirators had gone to ground in Buenos Aires. As a side note, given the century spanning nature of this conspiracy, it’s ever harder to reconcile it with the Doctor Who universe in which Torchwood is supposedly set; were the Families never inconvenienced by events like Dalek invasions? Still, be that as it may, the Buenos Aires link gave us another country to spin into the web – or perhaps I should say another country for the production team to dress LA up to look like.

LA was also dressed up to resemble Shanghai, a plot thread which, unlike many others, is actually being followed up. Shanghai, it seems, is part of the “specific geography” referred to earlier in the story. It’s also the location of “the Blessing”, as Jilly discovered when the Families’ hunky young representative dispatched her there with a one-way ticket and a new name. Jilly’s trip is characterised by a series of meetings with mysterious people who drop cryptic hints then tell her that she’ll never see them again – Fay has obviously picked up this trick from John Shiban’s X Files experiences. Finally, Jilly bumps into Frances Fisher – best known as Kate Winslet’s mum in Titanic, fact fans – who’s credited in the cast list as “Mother Colasanto”, implying that Angelo’s family had more to do with everything than we’d previously been led to believe. Apparently still playing Mrs Bukater – well, acting in the same style, anyway – Fisher took Jilly to see the Blessing.

And Gods alone know what it is. It looks like two rotating pink pillars, accompanied by gravity-defying flying bits. The Families may be human, but it’s beginning to look like this is the genuinely extra-terrestrial component of the story. Apparently it’s trying to communicate, and it can drive you mad. It also may run through the centre of the entire planet, like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock; something which Rhys, of all people, figures out with the aid of a conveniently available inflatable globe which shows him that Shanghai and Buenos Aires are precisely opposite each other on the Earth’s surface.

Oswald too has figured out that something odd’s up (to put it mildly) and thanks to him our heroes make a roundabout link to Shanghai. He refers to Jilly’s laptop mentioning ‘”Harry Bosco”, which according to Esther was the name of a CIA agent who routinely misinformed the American public about the Vietnam war by mistranslating Viet Cong transmissions for the US news media. I was intrigued by this, so I googled it (well, it works for Jack), but found no reference to Harry Bosco (if that’s how it’s spelled). I did, however, find reference to just such an alleged CIA project called Operation Mockingbird, set up by Allen Dulles in the 40s and apparently active up till the 90s, which placed CIA operatives in influential positions throughout the media, and may have been responsible for Ronald Reagan’s acting career, among other things. Scary, real-world stuff.

Off our guys pop, then, Rex and Esther to Buenos Aires and Jack, Gwen and Oswald to Shanghai. It’s another telling example of this episode’s narrative economy that we don’t spend an hour showing how they got there; they simply arrive in the scene after they say they’re going, as we can take it as read that they have the means. Esther’s taken many bags of Jack’s blood, which will be handy as we discover that it will roll, like the blood samples in Carpenter’s The Thing, in the general direction of The Blessing. This does give cause for worry about Jack; presumably, if he gets too close to The Blessing, this effect will cause him to get dragged into it!

So it’s finally all coming together. Jilly, the Families, our heroes, Oswald, all are converging on Shanghai to find The Blessing, and presumably, the long-delayed resolution to the plot. I appreciate that Russell T Davies was bound to make this series ten episodes long (and apparently it was originally intended to be even longer!), but the structuring of this episode showed how the story could have worked so much better, like Children of Earth, as a high-octane, cleverly structured five part story rather than the lumbering behemoth we were presented with. Next week, though, it all comes to a head and so Russell’s back for the first time since episode one on scripting duties – albeit with Jane Espenson’s capable help. I’ve carped many times in my Doctor Who reviews about Russell’s inability to write satisfying story endings, but Children of Earth was one of a few occasions when he managed just that. Let’s hope he can pull it off again.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 8

End of the Road

EndoftheRoad

It’s exposition week for Torchwood! After last week’s virtually standalone episode which seemed to do little more than touch on the main plot, this week it was answer after answer in an episode which veered from occasional action through character development to mountains of infodumps. Still, at least some answers were finally forthcoming.

Chief expositor was Nana Visitor as Olivia Colasanto – as it turned out, the granddaughter of Jack’s ex Angelo, who this week was found to have lived this long by virtue of a sensible lifestyle and no immortality particularly. While it’s great to see Nana Visitor in anything, Olivia wasn’t given any kind of character as such; her function was simply to spew information as to what was happening, how it had happened, and who did it. This barrage of exposition came so thick and fast in the early part of the episode that my sleep-fogged brain had a hard time taking it all in.

Among the salient points that I did manage to discern were that Jack isn’t actually responsible for the Miracle – he just gave the rotating triangle people the idea for it, which seems like a bit of a swizz given all the hints dropped previously. And the rotating triangle people now have names – Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines. Three weird names, to be sure, and a pain to type over and over again, which may be why they’re usually referred to simply as The Families; you can almost hear the capital letters in the dialogue. Angelo wasn’t working with them, because they don’t like the gays. That’s not unusual for people in the late 20s, though it did seem incongruous that their properly contextual homophobia wasn’t matched by any equally period-accurate racism – there weren’t that many rich black people accepted so casually in society at that point. Which, if nothing else, should make them easier to track down, despite the fact that they’ve managed to wipe their names from the entire internet – perhaps with a virus similar to the one Jack used to erase all references to Torchwood.

Esther, listening in with a phone and a laptop, had the fun task of transcribing the infodump while Googling everything that came up in it. She really is turning into this show’s Chloe O’Brian, albeit without the endearing lack of social graces. Unfortunately for her, this meant that she had to endure the indignity of having a gun shoved in her face by Dennis Nedry Friedkin as Wayne Knight made a welcome return. After a succession of single episode guest shots, it’s refreshing when a character actually turns out to be more than a gimmicky cameo, and Knight’s trademark sweating panic was nicely consistent with the out-of-his-depth character we’d seen previously.

This all turned out to be due to a fantastically elaborate scheme by Rex, of all people, a man who hasn’t previously displayed much aptitude for anything beyond surly anger. Apparently his ‘careless’ phone call to express his condolences to Vera’s brother was actually part of a masterplan by which, when the time was right, he would bring Friedkin and his betrayals to book using the magic contact lenses – which begs the question of exactly when he got Gwen to give them to him and why she then seemed so surprised that he was using them. Perhaps Torchwood have lots of them, but if so that was a detail missing from the general flood of exposition. Additionally, the ones Rex was using seem to have a microphone built into them somewhere, as Wayne Knight’s distinctive voice was transmitted to the monitors watched by Jack and co, rather than the usual lipreading software/bland expressionless voice combo.

But we can forgive these little questions about detail and be thankful for the arrival of John De Lancie as CIA head honcho Allen Shapiro. De Lancie toned down the massive excesses of camp we’d come to expect from his years in Star Trek (or perhaps it just seemed that way because he was standing near John Barrowman), but this was still recognisably the guy who played Q in the same room as the woman who played Major Kira, which was kind of cool. It’s just a shame that he immediately bundled her out of the room before they’d had a chance to exchange more than about two lines. Still, Nana Visitor had spewed all the exposition required, and with no further function in the narrative, Olivia was conveniently blown up when Friedkin carried out the rotating triangle people The Families’ last instruction. They’re presumably no more dead than the guy who was blown up in part one, but their exploded state pretty much rules out any question of Visitor and Knight popping up in any future episodes.

The episode did seem a little unbalanced as this brief flurry of action and excitement was over with by about halfway through, at which point we got acres more character development as our heroes cogitated on the mountain of exposition they’d just heard. And took time to catch us all up on the well-being – or not – of their families. The trouble with this is that I don’t really care about them. A little family background for your characters goes a long way – as we saw in Children of Earth, it’s possible to give your heroes families that are only slightly involved in the action, without overloading the narrative to the extent that the thriller keeps pausing to catch us up on the soap opera.

And so it did here. While the revelation that you can ‘volunteer’ for the category 1 burning procedure (along with your children, somewhat improbably) was chilling, I really don’t particularly give two hoots about Esther’s sister, and think far too much time has been spent on her. She’s not a particularly convincing character, and she could have served the same plot functions in about a quarter of the time. Gwen’s morale-boosting chat with Rhys and her mum was nice, but really served no particular purpose other than to remind us that Wales was still there. At least Rex didn’t take time for a heartfelt chat to his dad, though given the general indulgence to script flabbiness of this kind, that was rather a surprise. As it is, if we don’t see Rex’s dad again, I’d say that scene between them in episode four was another bit of unnecessary padding that could have been cut to make this series overall as lean and fast-paced as Children of Earth was.

The soap opera part that did work, though, was a genuinely touching scene with Jack finally facing up to his former lover, trying to explain to the comatose Angelo how he felt. It was well-written dialogue – as Jane Espenson co-wrote this episode, I’d say this scene was hers – delivered surprisingly well by John Barrowman. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that he can actually be rather a fine actor. His rueful speech to Angelo also featured a fanboy-pleasing reference to Ianto Jones, which seemed also to underline that while Jack may now be several thousand years old, he’s only ever genuinely fallen for these two people. Perhaps behind all the rampant shagging, he’s a man of considerable depth after all…

But the plot kicked back to action as Angelo died. Yes, actually died – as our heroes later discovered, he had a handy bit of alien tech – probably nicked from the ruins of the Torchwood Hub – hidden under his bed, a ‘null field’ generator that neutralised what now seems conclusively to be a ‘morphic field’ used to create the Miracle. Cue Shapiro eagerly wanting to nip it off to CIA HQ for some analysis, and Jack’s now-familiar “humanity isn’t ready for this technology” speech – that part really did feel like the Torchwood of old. I’m not sure the ‘comic’ business about the null field making their conspiring inaudible really worked, mind.

So that part of the plot climaxed with Rex and Esther helping Jack to nick the vital bit of the null field generator, during which Jack was unfortunately shot, and now seems incapable of helping out. It was a curiously static episode in terms of setting, with basically only two locations – our heroes spent the entire time in Angelo’s luxurious mansion, but to enliven the proceedings they were intercut with what Oswald and Jilly were getting up to in, basically, a hotel room and a corridor.

Mind you, it was good to see Oswald and Jilly again after two episodes away. I’ve become inexplicably fond of Bill Pullman’s totally non-naturalistic, oddly mannered performance as Oswald, and he was in fine form this week, his delivery peppered with strangely placed pauses and veering from stuttering unconfidence to sudden outbursts of psychotic rage. It’s still not clear what function in the overall narrative Oswald has – unless it’s as a kind of moral barometer by which to judge everybody else’s actions – but if we have to have unnecessary padding and character moments, at least Oswald and Jilly’s are entertaining.

It was a kind of black comedy as Oswald tried rather improbably to reform himself into a normal human being by means of hiring a prostitute just for her ‘company’, and it was like watching a classic farce waiting for the inevitable moment when that was all going to end in tears. But the comedy went out the window as Oswald finally turned on Jilly, and actually gave her what looked like a really nasty punch in the mouth. It was a bleakly convincing bit of violence that served to underline how truly nasty Oswald is, but also to reinforce Jilly’s ‘ruthless bitch’ persona. She’s not one to be crossed easily, and her ranting threats to Oswald as he walked off had the convincing ring of Piers Morgan threatening someone with a long lens.

Not that she seems likely to make good on her threats though – the not entirely unexpected reappearance of the mysterious, hunky young guy from the Families took her off at a tangent by offering her a job and shooting that nice young CIA agent who was pretending to be her intern. And while our heroes are – sort of – back in the CIA’s good graces, it was hardly a surprise to discover that Friedkin wasn’t The Families’ only CIA mole. With 24 a clear influence on parts of this, that was exactly the kind of ‘twist’ we’d become familiar with after eight increasingly improbable years of following Jack Bauer around.

So, another episode that very much encapsulated Miracle Day’s strengths and weaknesses – some good character development, a bit of action, masses and masses of exposition, but none of it particularly well balanced out, either within the episode or the story overall. Nana Visitor seemed rather wasted as a non-character whose only function was to deliver concentrated information, but John De Lancie was on fine form as Shapiro. And the Oswald/Jilly storyline is still entertaining, but its payoff to the main narrative had better be good to justify so much time having been spent on it over the series as a whole. The conspiracy stuff got a nice real world beat as we discovered that The Families were responsible for the economic collapse of 2008, along with the information that, in Miracle Day world, Greece and Ireland are about to default on their national debts and send the global economy into freefall. Mind you, with current events, this seemed uncomfortably close to reality.

Only two more episodes to go, which may be a relief to some and a shame to others. I’m finding it hard to have strong feelings either way though – this is a generally entertaining and intriguing show, but its script flabbiness and uneven structure have made it far from compulsive viewing. Fortunately, though, tonight sees the return of a show I genuinely do love, even if it is currently causing a similar love/hate reaction among fanboys. Yes, Doctor Who is back tonight! Which means much more writing on this blog as I try to keep up with reviewing that and Torchwood each week. Stay tuned…

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 7

Immortal Sins

With Jane Espenson back on scripting duties this week, we get a bit of an oddity. Clearly the information passed on in this episode is vital to the overall storyline. Equally clearly, this is a beautifully written little story, which puts Captain Jack front and centre for the first time this season, really. Yet given its place in the overall narrative arc, and the way it effectively ‘pauses’ the storyline, it still kinda looks like filler to me.

After my comments last week about missing Oswald and Jilly, I was rather surprised that this week’s episode actually narrowed down the cast even further. Rex and Esther get a bit of business at the end of the ep, cleverly working out that Gwen’s acting under duress (well, more by luck than judgement), and staking out the rotating triangle people’s hostage handover site. But other than that, this episode is really only about three people – in the present, Jack and Gwen, and in the past, Jack and his newly introduced ex, Angelo Colasanto.

It’s all about character development rather than progression of the Miracle storyline – though there are some vital clues here – but Espenson excels at this kind of thing, so it’s actually quite an affecting look at all three characters. The present day part of the story may have been very frustrating for viewers eager to move the plot along, consisting as it did of nothing more than a long drive to an unspecified location. But along the way, we got some great deconstruction of Jack and Gwen’s characters and relationship over the years.

Gwen’s guilty exultance in the mad and dangerous world of Torchwood was enlarged on, as was her increasing concern that this lifestyle is totally incompatible with having a family. She also overturned some of Jack’s – and the viewers’ – assumptions about her relationship with him. They may have chemistry, but it’s in the past where her family’s concerned. And she’s totally willing to hand Jack over if it means saving her family, despite, as a former police officer, presumably being aware that kidnappers are notoriously untrue to their words. Jack, for his part, gave back as good as he got with his affirmation of just how much he loves living – despite the fact that he’s been zipped through time often enough now to have experienced most of human history twice over.

And as they drove, we got a bit of cat and mouse as Jack tried to persuade Gwen to untie him, by promising to use his Vortex Manipulator (named for the first time this series, I think) to trace her family. Gwen wasn’t persuaded for more than a minute, though the question of whether he was telling the truth was left ambiguous for the viewer. The rotating triangle people chipped in with their judgement – “he always lies”. As Gwen comments, “whoever they are, they know you well”. And indeed, looking back on it, doesn’t that sound exactly like the sort of comment you’d expect from an embittered ex?

And it seems that it may be exactly that. We got our first real clues as to the identities of the rotating triangle people this week. As Deep Space Nine’s Major Kira (well, Nana Visitor – I’m sure she’s trying to avoid typecasting) turned up to collect Jack, she let slip that even Rex’s somewhat dubious marksmanship (really, how did he miss that bloke?) wouldn’t change things. Jack was going to want to meet the man at the top, because he was the man that Jack used to top! (Sorry, bad gay sex joke)

And so onto the part that took up most of the episode, with the Gwen/Jack car chat being little more than a framing story. Basically, we were looking at one long, extended flashback about a Torchwood mission Jack undertook in 1920s New York – and how he fell in love while he was there.

Given Jack’s propensity to flirt with, and shag, anything that moves, it seemed a little out of character for him to fall so heavily for one guy. Particularly when he was presumably out of time and should be returning to our present day. Actually, the script was rather vague on what he was doing there and how it fit into his established personal continuity. We know that the Vortex Manipulator can enable the wearer to travel in time, so did he just make a quick jaunt to the past to sort out the Trickster Brigade’s history meddling? Or was this one of the several times he was catapulted into the past and had to get back to the 21st century the long way?

It was actually continuity geek heaven this week, as Jack explicitly mentioned the Doctor, placing the show firmly in the Doctor Who universe just as Gwen did with her video message in Children of Earth. He also explained his immortality as being due to having become “a fixed point in space time”, which must have left a few fanboy geeks scratching their heads – if this is the first time he’s had to live through Earth history, after Rose resurrected him and deposited him in the past, he can’t have known that, as he only found out when Doctor Ten explained it to him later. Of course, if he used the Vortex Manipulator to travel there from some more recent point, that might explain it. Except, didn’t Doctor Ten deactivate the Vortex Manipulator’s time travel capacity just after explaining the “fixed point” thing to Jack? Neither really makes sense, and I suspect Russell doesn’t want us dwelling on that at too much length…

Continuity confusion aside, this was really the first episode this series that filled in Jack’s back story and explained important matters like his immortality. This seems an oddly long time to wait to foreground and explain, basically, the series’ main character – especially for new viewers. Although, it’s equally possible that new viewers might have found Jack’s mysterious nature more enthralling without early explanations.

Either way, this was Jack’s episode, and the story of his romance with Italian immigrant Angelo Colasanto was very sweetly written and played. It didn’t hurt that Daniele Favilli, the Italian actor playing Angelo, was rather easy on the eye – and due to yet another round of gratuitous sex, we got to see pretty much all of him. Actually, I’m being a little unfair – the sex scene wasn’t gratuitous, but integral to the building story of Jack and Angelo’s relationship. And it was actually quite a good sex scene. If only Daniele Favilli had been with someone rather sexier than John Barrowman, it might even have qualified as great soft porn!

As Jack has seemingly gone totally gay this year (perhaps the concept of omni-sexuality was deemed too controversial for US audiences to cope with), we got a pretty good depiction of how it must have been to be gay in 1927, both in Italy and New York. There was also a still relevant examination of how difficult it is for a religious gay man to reconcile his nature with his faith, as Angelo came to grips with the idea that his sexuality could include love along with sex.

In fact, the episode showed a great grasp of time and place in many aspects. If memory serves, Jack has been to Ellis Island before, but this time we actually saw a vivid depiction of how it may have been to be an immigrant waiting, sweaty-palmed, to find out if US authorities would let you enter and stay in the country of your dreams. And that country was shown not to be so dreamy as Angelo got used to it – with Prohibition in full swing, we saw a priest bootlegging and had a guest appearance from legendary (real) mobster Sal Maranzano.

Indeed, Angelo’s dreams were shattered in a particularly cruel way. As a naïve innocent, he’d finally found love with a man who wanted to show him a wider world of miracles, to take him on as a Doctor-style ‘companion’ as well as a lover. And then after his very first alien encounter, with an icky brain parasite thing, he finds his lover shot in the head, gets sent to Sing Sing for a year and emerges to find that his lover isn’t dead – and therefore must be the Devil. Boy, that guy has some really bad luck.

It was a genuinely shocking scene when we what we thought was going to be more rumpy pumpy turned into a stab fest as Angelo tried to ‘kill’ what he thought must be a devil from Hell. And that progressed into a truly nightmarish sequence of the Brooklyn locals ‘killing’ Jack over and over again, in some pretty brutal ways. It was basically the sort of thing the Master threatened to do in Last of the Time Lords, but was never actually shown. This time, we saw every wince-inducing moment of it – along with Angelo, whose horrified expression suggested he’d worked out that Jack wasn’t the Devil after all.

While all this was going on, we got our first real glimpse at the rotating triangle people – or at least their antecedents. And it looks like they really are people, not aliens – three anonymous looking business types wearing perfectly normal late 20s clothing. But when the three of them clasped hands to cement their partnership, it made an unmistakeable triangle shape.

RotatingTrianglePeople

Jack, semi-conscious, heard them talk of paying $10,000 to own ‘it’. Note, not ‘him’, ‘it’. Either this was yet another example of how low people can stoop, treating another human as an object, or they meant something more significant, some ‘property’ which they’d obtained from Jack. It was also highlighted that an old lady took a vial of Jack’s blood – although whether being a fixed point in spacetime is contagious is questionable.

Nevertheless, it looks like at least one person worked it out quickly enough. Angelo didn’t seem connected to the rotating triangle people in 1928, but if he’s still alive now that would put him at over 100 years old. Not impossible, but so much easier if you can’t die. Next week will presumably give us a clearer view…

So, a curious one. This was, by any standards, a pretty decent standalone episode, with some excellent writing and characterisation and a really evocative sense of period. And yet it barely moved the storyline along one iota. This, if anything, is the real problem I’ve had with Torchwood this year; it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serial or an anthology show. This is a good episode – but it doesn’t seem to belong at this point in the story. For a properly crafted multi-episode narrative, the plotlines here might have been better threaded throughout all the episodes up to this point, rather than pausing the story proper to fill us in in an admittedly well-crafted load of backstory. That would have sacrificed a fine standalone episode, but given a far better balanced serial.

Still, despite my problems with the story structure, I’m finding each episode entertaining enough to hold my interest (though to judge by some rather venomous internet threads I may be in a minority). It’s still no classic, but there’s some interesting stuff here – Jack’s repeated ‘killings’ show yet another aspect of how low humanity can stoop, and there’s some surprisingly mature musings about sexuality, love and family. Next week though, let’s get the actual story moving along again. Please?

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 6

The Middle Men

MiddleMen

It’s a tighter, more focused episode for Torchwood this week, once again in the scripting hands of X Files veteran John Shiban. Having revealed the new world order’s Holocaust re-enactment plans last week, the team turn this week to action and how best to deal with the new death camps. The only other story strand this time is Jack’s continuing investigation of Phicorp, which means that there’s no room for Oswald Danes or Jilly Kitzinger this week.

But it’s fair to say that there’s enough going on here for that to have little effect; indeed, my other half Barry didn’t even notice their absence, only asking some while after watching if we’d seen Oswald or Jilly this week.

As some consolation for the absence of everyone’s favourite child murderer and PR shark, however, we did get another of those rather good one episode guest shots. This week it was Ernie Hudson, exhibiting considerably more charisma than he did as ‘the forgotten Ghostbuster’ Winston Zeddmore (Winston does actually get the last line in Ghostbusters, yet no one mentions him in the same breath as Venkman, Spengler and Stantz). Hudson was convincingly commanding (and a little sleazy) as adulterous Phicorp chief Stuart Owens; the part effectively required him to appear in only two scenes, but he made an impression.

As did Jack’s sting operation on him, achieved by opening the eyes of his starstruck mistress and secretary Janet. John Barrowman was at his campest here; as he used his insider knowledge of Stuart and Janet’s affair to suss what drink Janet would like in her glass, he offered her the option of getting back at her duplicitous lover, “or we could sit here all night drinking appletinis and discussing men”. Later, he once again displayed his coat’s uncanny ability to woo cute service staff, suggesting to a camp young coat check boy that, “maybe the three of us should get together… you, me and the coat”. Damn. I’ve got two military greatcoats, but I have to say, they’ve never been helpful in the way that Jack’s seems to be. Perhaps he’s sprayed it with alien pheromones…

Fortunately he wasn’t wearing it when he crossed to Stuart and Mrs Owens’ table to put his plan into action – perhaps the coat check boy was sniffing it in the cloakroom. Ably dispatching Mrs Owens in short order by dropping her husband right in it with news of his affair, Jack got to sit down and have a good old chinwag with the bloke who he thought, logically enough, could give him all the answers. But John Shiban used to write for The X Files, and he knows the tricks – you only provide answers if they’re going to lead to more questions. Thankfully Miracle Day only has a ten episode run; after nine seasons’ worth of this in The X Files, it had grown more than a little tiresome.

So Jack’s meeting with Stuart, played as a kind of conspiracy version of My Dinner with Andre, led us to the knowledge that he was “just the middle man”. So Phicorp are only a part of the rotating triangle people’s plan, and it’s much bigger than that. Stuart knew nothing of the “specific geography” mentioned by ‘the Gentleman’ in Episode 4, but he was earlier seen to send a Phicorp operative to investigate some mysterious land purchases in Shanghai. Said operative duly wandered around whichever part of LA they’d dressed up with neon to resemble Shanghai, before peering through a fence and seeing something that apparently motivated him to jump off a very high building in some kind of trance. He seemed to be an early adopter of a new trend known as the ’45 Club’ – people jumping from 45th floors in the attempt to get themselves as nearly dead as is currently possible.

Stuart passed this information on to Jack, along with confirming that this had been in the works for a very long time, “at least since 1990”, and dropping hints about something called “the blessing”. As it seems unlikely that the Catholic Church are behind it all, who knows what this could mean? Certainly not Jack, who decided the best approach to finding out would be to Google it.

With the investigation and exposition falling to Jack again this week, the rest of the team filled us in with some actual action. Rex and Esther were still trapped in the San Pedro overflow camp, under lockdown in the aftermath of Vera’s ‘murder’. And Gwen and Rhys were still trying to get Gwen’s dad out of the Welsh facility before they had to do so in an urn.

With the Holocaust analogy presented so starkly in last week’s episode, comparatively little time was spent dwelling on it this week. We did get an impassioned, and rather well-written, exchange between Gwen and Dr Patel, a medical functionary at the camp portrayed by Hollyoaks’ Lena Kaur. Dr Patel (presumably no coincidence that she was non-white) was yet another ‘middle man’, her “just following orders” philosophy deliberately reminiscent of the defences at the Nuremberg trials. A wordless exchange between Gwen and an obviously conscience-stricken cleaning lady helping her escape was a nice touch, their looks conveying far more of the staff’s moral dilemmas and courage in resistance than any amount of dialogue.

Meanwhile in California, Rex was similarly moved by righteous anger, though Mekhi Phifer’s conveyance of this was rather more overplayed than Eve Myles. Staring into his little camera, he angrily disavowed his loyalty to the CIA in favour of Torchwood – finally. Unfortunately for him, he fell foul of the increasingly skittish Colin Maloney (Marc Vann again superbly loathsome this week). Colin completes the triumvirate of ‘middle men’ to which the episode title refers, and he got a really nasty bit of business in which he decided to downgrade Rex to Category 1 by means of sticking a pen in his still open chest wound – a sequence that actually made me wince.

Luckily for Rex, the redoubtable Esther was on hand to rescue him by killing Colin as much as she could. Which turned out not to be enough, as he re-enacted every Friday the 13th movie’s cliché of grabbing her ankle in a shock moment to reveal that he wasn’t as ‘dead’ as he looked. He hadn’t counted on his aide shooting him though – Fred Koehler did well as little Ralph finally found some balls. Nice move shooting your own boss (and perhaps boyfriend – anyone else get that vibe from the two of them?).

Gwen and Rhys had slightly less trouble escaping from, and somewhat improbably actually blowing up, the Welsh camp. Nevertheless, it made for a cool action movie image as Gwen zoomed away from the exploding hangars on a motorbike, and Rhys charged the gate in an army truck that the sentries seemed unfathomably unable to shoot at with any accuracy. A bit of honest action was a nice counterpoint to all the exposition and moral angst, though it did feel that the tone was veering wildly from ‘dark examination of humanity’s depths’ to ‘let’s blow shit up’.

Finally returning to LA – do these people never get jet lag? – Gwen was somewhat disturbed that this week’s cliffhanger involved the rotating triangle people having hacked into the magic contact lenses to inform her that they had captured her entire family, and if she wanted to see them again, she’d have to bring them Jack.

So Jack’s still instrumental in all this, and as yet we don’t know how. We don’t even know yet (it’s episode 6, remember) whether the rotating triangle people are aliens or some dark conspiracy of humans – though it’s worth remembering the exchange in episode 2 about this involving “no technology on Earth”. Also, we’ve refreshingly seen no more gratuitous sex since episode 3, though I wonder how long that can last. Next week, perhaps more answers. Or more shagging. But hopefully, a definite return for Oswald and Jilly – I would miss them if they were absent for two episodes in a row.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 5

The Categories of Life

Torchwood: Miracle Day 2011; Episode 105

Thank heavens, this week Torchwood stopped pussyfooting around and got to some really dark stuff, more in the vein of Children of Earth than the previous four episodes of running around and ‘character development’. The events this week were somewhat signposted at the end of the previous episode, but still gave a few nasty shocks on actually seeing them. This was signalled last week by the ‘Next Time’ sequence, which as in episode four of Children of Earth had Gwen talking to camera about how terrible things were going to be. As it turned out, she wasn’t exaggerating.

The various plot strands do seem to be drawing together into something more coherent, but this week was less about the Miracle and its causes than about its effects – and about how humanity deals with them. Consequently, we had less evidence of the rotating triangle people this week, though Phicorp was everywhere. We still don’t know what, if anything, Phicorp has to do with the rotating triangle people, but for this episode they were almost irrelevant. Pretty much all the nasty stuff here could be laid squarely at the door of humanity, in a similarly bleak look at our ability to stoop to the lowest moral depths in the name of pragmatism to that which is often seen in George Romero’s zombie movies. Or Children of Earth, for that matter.

Back on scripting duties this week, Jane Espenson acquitted herself rather better than previously. Unlike her last episode’s clumsy ‘British/American slang misunderstanding’ character comedy, she actually gave us some much less contrived moments of fun in the early part of the episode. John Barrowman and Mekhi Phifer in particular are starting to have some rather good buddy chemistry (or is it something more?). Captain Jack’s snidey remarks about where Vera was going to sleep (“I mean… you did… didn’t you?”) were followed up by a bit that actually made me laugh out loud, as John Barrowman affected even greater levels of camp than usual to pretend he and Rex were boyfriends. “I really love him. My crazy boyfriend!” Rex flipping him the bird just out of the paramedics’ sight was priceless.

But the humour didn’t last long, as the episode veered determinedly towards darkness. We’d got the impression last week that the ‘Overflow Camps’ had a sinister ring of segregation and internment like those Russell T Davies had previously created in Doctor Who episode Turn Left. And so it proved, as even before the credits Dr Vera was informed that the medical panels had summarily broken up and recommended that life would now have to be ‘categorised’. This would have been sinister enough without the knowledge that, as Ellis Hartley Monroe hinted last week, those who fit into the category for what would have been death were to be segregated and locked up. Of course, the big question for the audience was, what was going on in these camps? So pretty much the entire team, including new recruit Dr Vera, set about infiltrating them on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yes, Gwen was back in Wales this week on a mission to rescue her father, who Rhys had well-intentionedly sent off to one of the camps. It was good to see the UK shown properly this week, as I’d begun to think the occasional sequence of Rhys on a phone was all we’d see of this side of the pond. But this is a BBC co-production, and just hearing Welsh accents again – other than Gwen’s – made it seem more consistent with the Torchwood of old. For British viewers, it also has slightly more of an impact seeing the events unfold on familiar ground; we’re so used to seeing the US through the prism of films and TV that it seems almost fictional in itself. But internment camps in South Wales gave it a chilly reality that sunny San Pedro didn’t have, for me at least. Plus, seeing aspects of these events unfold in tow such widely separated countries gave a sense of global scale far more effective than the over used device of showing lots of different news broadcasts.

The camps, and their funding by Phicorp, gave some great opportunities for righteous anger at the healthcare systems in both countries. Gwen’s disgust at the glossy Phicorp leaflets distributed in the camps, and her realisation that the NHS couldn’t pay for all this and healthcare had effectively gone private, was oddly timely and relevant. Presumably when Russell was plotting the season, he already had some inkling of the way the incoming Tory-led government was going to try and marketise the NHS. Meanwhile, in San Pedro, Vera got some righteous anger of her own as she stumbled into the second class area of the camp – a festering hellhole where those without health insurance were left to rot, and patients weren’t even categorised properly. It was a neat indictment of the US’s two tier system of healthcare, craftily done in a sci fi setting – George Romero would be proud.

Unfortunately Vera’s righteous anger was also her undoing, in what must be the shortest run for a Torchwood agent ever. Shot by the unctuous, sexist civil servant in charge of the camp, she found herself investigating the mysterious ‘modules’ a little more closely than was entirely safe. Torchwood has never been shy about killing off main characters, and it’s one of the things that has given the show something of an edge – like Spooks, you know that no-one’s safe (well, except presumably Captain Jack). However, with the show’s main premise this year being that no-one can die (except Captain Jack), it’s been something of a challenge to put any of our heroes in mortal danger, leading to rather a lack of jeopardy.

However, as we chillingly discovered what the ‘modules’ were actually for, all that changed. Rex’s musings about them being too small for the torrent of living dead were something of a clue, but as Maloney’s fiddling with the controls was intercut with Rhys telling Gwen about the Welsh facility’s ‘burn unit’, it became horribly clear. They’re giant ovens for burning the inconveniently undead to ashes, where they can’t be a burden any more.

The internment camps in Turn Left were merely talked about, leaving their actual conditions to the viewer’s imagination. Nevertheless, the presumably intentional immediate impression was of a rerun of the Holocaust. Not having to worry about a family audience here, Russell has taken the implicit and made it explicit. The dead are to be segregated in terrible conditions and eventually burned like refuse.

The Holocaust looms large over the last eight decades of history – it’s become a benchmark for the depths of degradation the human race is capable of sinking to. As such, its echoes are prominent in drama of all genres. Sci fi has dealt with it before, notably as an allegory forming the basis of Star Trek’s darkest incarnation, Deep Space Nine, and as one of the planks of the conspiracy in The X Files, with their alien/human hybrid experimentation. Nevertheless, it’s a very sensitive subject that needs to be dealt with thoughtfully, and at least one person I know has already expressed reservations over using such an overt reference to a horrifying reality in what’s essentially a fantasy story. I do think that it’s treading a fine line here, particularly in the actual depiction of crematoria to burn the living dead to ashes; but I think the tone is about right. This season, and this episode in particular, have consciously had a fair bit of social commentary to them – and showing that, given the right conditions, we could stoop to those depths again is a disturbing, if pessimistic, possibility.

Such dark subject matter makes it difficult to be jocular about this week’s offering, but it has to be said that we were again blessed with at least one really cute young man – the rather camp nurse who ‘categorised’ Rex – and one great guest turn from Marc Vann as the slimy, perma smiling Colin Maloney, petty functionary in charge of the San Pedro camp.

Outside of the camps though, it was business as usual for Oswald Danes, making yet another rousing – if somewhat incomprehensible – speech. Bill Pullman, while still not exactly naturalistic, does seem to have permanently pulled back on the exaggerated quirks he gave the character initially, and he now seems even more sinister. And unpredictable – with both Captain Jack and Jilly Kitzinger waiting anxiously to see which of their speeches he’d deliver, he went with one of his own. Man, he told a rapturous audience of Californians, has made a great leap of evolution – to angels. Oswald’s increasing position as a new Messiah is – given that he’s a paedophile and a murderer – one of Miracle Day’s more disturbing aspects. There’s obviously a payoff waiting down the line as to why he’s so central to this, but again, this is edgy stuff – for an American show in particular.

With all that going on, the rotating triangle people did find time to put in a proxy appearance, as represented by a clean cut, Mormon missionary like young man in a suit, who popped up randomly to tell Jilly that she was doing a good job and was being noticed by ‘the right people’. Lauren Ambrose continues to be excellent as the amoral Jilly, and she seemed thrilled by the prospect. Or perhaps she was just coming on to the guy – he was kind of cute, too.

So, we’re at the story’s halfway point and we’ve already reached the stage where humanity is burning people to ashes on an industrial scale. Granted, it took a rather roundabout, dallying route for the story to reach that point, but where can it go next? Children of Earth left the actual capitulation to the aliens, and the giving up of 10% of the planet’s kiddies, to the very last episode. Here, we’re only halfway in and we’re re-enacting the Holocaust. I have no idea how you top that. It might cause a rather unbalanced storyline – or perhaps there’s something even more insane waiting in the wings.

Story spectacle aside though, there’s still plenty of unanswered questions – who are the rotating triangle people? What does Jack have to do with them? How does burning people to ashes benefit them in any way? The show’s had a shaky start this year, perhaps as a result of the radical overhaul needed to co-produce with an American company, but it seems to be into its stride now and the better for it. I don’t think it’s ever going to remembered as a classic – although the next few episodes may prove me wrong I suppose – but it’s never less than watchable, and when it hits the heights it did this week, thought-provoking too.