A few months ago I had an epiphany (briefly manifested here) that, in short, the world would be better if everything bad (particularly in the creative industries) was vigorously dressed down, spruced up, and released back into the wild much bigger and better. Right now, our more common responses to something terrible are either to stare awkwardly at our shoes until it dies or goes away, or to hurl snark. Basically I’d prefer a much larger, more inclusive pool of creative output that’s constantly being worked on and improved than one pile of assorted stuff that humanity has deemed good, and another pile deemed to be awful and foul-smelling.
The current season of Torchwood, Miracle Day, is seriously forcing me to reconsider all that. It’s such a monumental step back from Children of Earth, so absurd in its characterisation choices and (thus far – episode four of ten just went out) so timid in its execution of a tremendous idea (nobody on the planet can die, including exploded people who have their head removed by their own doctors) that I genuinely can’t think of a good reason for the parent series to continue existing. There’s one more reason, at once the simplest and most important, but I’ll explain these three first.
They Changed It, Now It Sucks
I’m a big fan of American TV – I grew up on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, have accidentally started conversations with total strangers with a Firefly t-shirt, and genuinely consider a five-minute scene from the season 2 finale of Chuck to feature the highest concentration of fantastic little moments of anything I’ve ever watched. It’s extremely saddening, then, for the USA’s influence on Torchwood to be mostly toxic. It’s a devious bait-and-switch – after enticing me with a decent helicopter battle in the first episode (that wouldn’t have happened with solely BBC funding, unless it was a remote-controlled chopper held close to the camera), it promptly forgets about any further big set-pieces and focuses solely on glacially paced corporate espionage and excruciating “Trousers are called pants?!” dialogue.
Not that UK television is 100% free of either, but old-Torchwood – frequently awful as it was – had an identity. Nu-Torchwood is sprinkled with so many instances of “Ooh, that happens a lot on American telly, let’s put that in” that it’s barely recognisable. Episode 4, for example, began with woefully generic ‘WASHINGTON D.C.’ location pop ups, a lame attempt to intensify the sense of urgency which didn’t exist, and ended with an honest-to-God CSI whoosh-zoom into the innards of a destroyed car. That was hands-down the grimmest thing to happen this season, and they managed to ruin it by drowning the whole sequence in thick Hollywood varnish.
On an unrelated note, it seems Murray Gold is doing Miracle Day’s music. I hope that’s some kind of colossal misspelling in the credits, because I don’t want to believe the man who composed this is also in charge of the insipid score that’s been quietly humming away in the background of this miniseries.
The Problem with Paedophiles
Here’s a brief list of some of the reasons why Miracle Day’s characters are less enjoyable to look at than, say, a five-year-old’s crayon drawings of them: Esther is a clueless plank who is only on screen because she happened to be driving the getaway car in episode 2, and while she can hack into the communications of a high-security pharmaceutical giant’s HQ, she is incapable of opening the doors of a lift (thanks to those renowned cyber-geniuses, the Los Angeles Fire Department, somehow locking them down). Rex is a sufficiently hateful jerk – even his rescue of Jack and Gwen, from his own probably-illegal extradition, was done in self-preservation – that he makes Gwen circa Season 1 look angelic. He even berates his teammates for using their phones hours after using his to solicit drug-gathering advice from his fuck-buddy doctor. Said fuck-buddy doctor is still getting far more screen time than her interesting/useful actions (current count: 1, and that was literally just opening a door) warrant. Gwen is still lucking her way through dull “missions” still way above her competency level. As of right now, we’re supposed to be horrified for her dad, who showed up for a few minutes in the first episode and hasn’t been seen since. The PR woman went from wanting to tattoo the face of convicted murderer and child molester Oswald Danes on her arse to grimacing whenever they were in the same room, with no explanation as to why. Danes himself is slimy enough for to be Convincing Villain material, but has absurdly managed to become a nationwide hero by saying some nice things on TV.
The subplot of Danes’ rise to something of a spokesperson for the somewhat-dead has to be the stupidest thing in Torchwood’s history. The small fact that he raped and killed a schoolgirl is conveniently glossed over time and time again, no more so than when his ultimate moment of ascendency is attained – while triumphantly holding a toddler. The only rational explanation is that Miracle Day takes place not in the Doctor Who universe, but in another, more forgetful universe the Torchwood team fell into whilst performing teleportation experiments on a bag of Peanut M&Ms, where everyone is a complete and utter fucking idiot. They could have easily circumvented this issue just by toning down the severity of his criminality – he could be a master thief killed evading arrest, or still a killer but sentenced to death despite evidence suggesting provocation or self-defence. Instead, we’re supposed to believe the best part of a country has fallen in love with this despicable cretin, presumably so the writers can keep making comparisons between him and either privatised healthcare or the Tea Party. Comparisons usually in favour of the paedophile. How subtle.
I’m hoping this paragraph will become irrelevant and wrong in the coming weeks – we’re less than halfway through the season, after all. But thus far, what is made to sound like a worldwide catastrophe could at best be described as a confusing nuisance. According to the Wikipedia page we see PC Andy reading in the first episode, it’ll take about four months of undead body pile-up to cause complete societal collapse. Fuck that. I want to see baffled looters breaking into anywhere that sells aspirin, hysterical lunatics suddenly and hopelessly attempting suicide in the streets like The Happening on fast forward, actual scenes (and not just passing mentions) that show how other countries are dealing with the crisis. Right now all we’re seeing is two, maybe three overcrowded hospitals, a handful of flustered medical staff and the occasional candlelit march by mask-wearing religious types. A good job has done making sure both the villains and the bumbling, mostly unlikable heroes don’t become invincible supermen now they’ve lost their mortality, but this is a meant to be a global thing. That ambition has, thanks to a preoccupation with a single recurring doctor and a tendency to tell rather than show, yet to be realised.
Also this thing
I’ll keep watching Miracle Day, especially since it supposedly ends back in Cardiff (and under BBC control), so perhaps we’ll see a few more scenes like this and fewer cartoon gay stereotype ‘jokes’. Even so, it would be no problem at all if these were the last six weeks I spend in the series’ company.
It’s fair to say Torchwood was conceived as, basically, Doctor Who For Adults. The earliest problem was it tried to live up to this interesting promise not through sharper writing or genuinely terrifying monsters, but cheap knob jokes and the now-infamous Sex Gas Alien. Things improved fairly drastically over seasons 2 and 3, but then disaster struck – Steven Moffat took the helm on Torchwood’s daddy show, and with wit, intelligence, visually imaginative settings and characters who weren’t dicks, made a proper Doctor Who For Adults called…Doctor Who. Whether or not this season gets dressed down and spruced up is irrelevant – the programmed that spawned Torchwood has now made it redundant. This, combined with a) the endearing Welshness at the heart of the show having been mercilessly buffed away with a chamois of dollars and b) the wealth of already-good sci-fi out there, makes me wonder: is there even a place for Torchwood any more?