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.