As this site is all about television, I figured it would be remiss of me not to do some actual television reviews while I’m here (also, I’m apparently a glutton for punishment and my work schedule isn’t crazy enough). So from here on in I’ll be doing a weekly review of a current TV show, hopefully picking apart how things work and what television can and can’t be and, hell, why I like it. We’ll laugh, we’ll cry, we might even learn a thing or two.
Science-fiction gets a lot of flak. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a defensive rant on the merits of well-crafted sci-fi (though I have, on occasion, been known to do so), but rather point out that science-fiction gets a lot of very specific flak.
It’s a genre, sure, but it’s one that people don’t really “dip into”. The staunchest anti-horror folk may well enjoy “The Shining”, while the can’t-stand-Westerns gang often have a special place in their heart for something like “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” or “Maverick” (for those of you who’ve never heard of it, I recommend checking it out). What I’m saying is that people tend to fall along genre lines, in an understandable way that shows pop culture is as much about identity as it is about taste, but everyone has a place in their heart for a couple of gems from a genre they don’t particularly care for.
But this isn’t really true of science-fiction. You can blame it on an exclusive fan community, but with the Internet pretty much everything has at least some core exclusive fan community. Indeed, many people revel nowadays in finding a niche obsession where they wouldn’t necessarily have before – the Valley airhead knows every show and every stat for a specific designer, the Wall Street broker is insistent on reviving Jai Alai. Not to generalize there, but this is the age of the nerd – even if that obsessive streak is applied to something populist.
Science fiction, though? Many people have been burned, yes, but many more find the genre inaccessible for one over-arching reason – plot usurps character. Obviously this happens all the time in every genre, where Anne Hathaway happens to run into Hugh Grant in the back of a tulip truck while she’s escaping her over-bearing parents in Mexico. But the idea is that plot and character tug back and forth, the former moving things to a destination, the latter ensuring things feel important when we get there.
In sci-fi, though, the idea is so over-arching, so important, and often so intricate (if you look at the information conveyed in even a bad Trek episode, it’s easily a ten to one ratio on what you’d “learn” from an ep of 90210) that it tends to bull-doze over everything else. As a viewer, this is disconcerting – it’s not how you’re taught fiction works. It’s also inherently wrong, but as a writer I can tell you often the idea is so enchanting that you forget about character a little bit.
Going into Torchwood, Season 4, Miracle Day (and whatever other title you’re having yourself) then, I was equal parts excited and terrified. This was a show that had, in its first two seasons, fallen into some really quite unforgivable sci-fi tropes. Nonsensical charactarisation, increasingly deranged plotting, and a tone that was aiming for adult but instead managed to come off as cartoonish and even more immature than Doctor Who (from which it spun off).
And then came Season 3. It’s impressive for a show to recognize its own shortcomings without overhauling its writer’s room, but it’s downright unheard of for a show that was enjoying a fair amount of (some would say undeserved) success to completely turn itself on its head. “Children Of Earth” was a huge gambit, changing from a weekly episode structure to one week of five episodes – but it was a gambit that paid off hugely. Instead of stories spinning off in insane directions over the course of an hour, Russell T Davies and co. created one story, one hook, and explored it in a genuine manner. The best science-fiction takes what we know about humanity, places an idea over it, and explores that idea to its logical and insightful conclusions – it’s why Battlestar Galactica is frequently at the top of critics lists, and with “Children Of Earth” it seemed that the Torchwood crew understood this.
They overhauled the format, reduced the cast to a few key players, gave it an almost 24-like format, put the entire world at legitimate threat and gave us a reveal that didn’t ruin the mystery and an ending with real sacrifice. Basically, job well done.
“Miracle Day” has weighty expectations, then, and even moreso as it’s a truly US production complete with the unforgiving audience that that entails. Last we saw Jack and Gwen they’d parted ways forever, the only surviving members of a now defunct Torchwood. Jack had just killed his own grandson and Gwen was about to give birth, so frankly neither were interested in continuing to carry that particular flame.
As a concept, then, “Miracle Day” makes sense – the whole world is threatened by an unknown force who directly references Torchwood, and the old crew can’t help but get involved. The specifics of the concept, meanwhile, are a doozy. As we open on a death-row execution, to a car accident, to a hospital, it becomes painfully clear – the human race has stopped dying.
That sentence alone was enough to send shivers up my spine. Much like the previous season’s “the children of Earth have… stopped” it had chilling imagery (special nod to the obliterated bomb victim above) but also chilling consequences. When Gwen and recurring bobby Andy Davidson began to tot up how quickly the planet’s population would rise and how soon we’d run out of food, that was when it became clear how much can be milked from this concept (and how far this 10-episode run could really go on a global level).
What got us to this point of characters interacting and the problem explored was a little shakier though. Gwen’s hideaway in Wales, with its on-the-nose fairytales and locked-and-loaded attitude to the occasional knock on the door gave us information – but it felt a bit too heavy-handed. The passage of time that’s clearly happened doesn’t permeate these scenes, the fear feels too fresh, and it seems more like a likable exercise in information than a truly comfortable sequence. That said, Gwen and Rhys’ relationship remains a strong lynchpin for the series – she has always been a counterpoint to Captain Jack, a person with genuine stakes in these apocalyptic battles. These stakes often get in the way of the story, and I’m curious how she’ll balance parenting with this season. Then again, that’s what makes “Miracle Day” such a delicious idea, because it affects everyone – Gwen has to be involved, baby or no.
On the other side of the pond, the introduction of US government agents Rex and Esther was like an Acting 101 class which should be disseminated to the youth of the nation. As Torchwood attempts to pull back from the brink of panto that previous seasons tread so near, Mekhi Phifer barges in with a character that has all the hallmarks of, well, if you haven’t seen it it’s a sight to behold. The ill-judged (if informative about gun control) montage of Rex barging out of hospital was physical comedy more than dramatic escape, and it seems like Phifer may have misjudged how this story is likely to be played.
Esther, on the other hand, falls too far in the other direction. Alexa Havins, to be fair, hasn’t been given a lot to go on – but she doesn’t make a real mark on who this character is. She’s the one who’s really been dragged into this mess, rather than Rex’s actively searching for trouble, but it’s hard to get a handle on who she is. Perhaps down the line circumstance will help sharpen her character, but it would have been nice to have a little more to work on.
Bill Pullman (!), meanwhile, has an awful lot to draw on for paedophilic death-row survivor Oswald Danes, but it’s almost impossible to see how he fits into the narrative yet so I’m withholding judgement – although I hope his legal drama doesn’t draw on too long, because even a cursory application of logic and his argument falls to pieces.
And as for Captain Jack? I’m very curious how he’s going to be introduced to American audiences, and I say “going to” because while information about Torchwood was heavy here (nice use of the retcon drug to get it all out there, Jack) there wasn’t a huge amount about him thrown in. I hope the sacrifice of his grandson from “Children Of Earth” still weighs heavily, but even if we see no more of that than the newspaper clipping of the flaming tower I hope the characterisation follows on naturally. I don’t like Jack dour, but I do like when he knows his actions have consequences – a few acting tips from the infinitely onion-like Matt Smith wouldn’t go astray.
How the episode hung together was much stronger, and while it’s impossible to know what a virginal US viewer would think coming into it, it seemed to strike a nice balance of information from the old and the new. The key to this, of course, is that the central tenet of immortality is both a new story in Torchwood for UK viewers and an intensely familiar concept for everyone. It could be what makes this show work in the US, especially as Davies’ writing and show-running has proven to be, in my opinion, more uneven than Stephen Moffatt’s leadership of the recently star-spangled Who.
That said, if he can make this kind of serialized science-fiction his oeuvre, he’ll be doing something that Who simply can’t do (it’s an adventure show at heart) and the Treks and co have never had the skill or inclination for: long-form exploration of intelligent ideas (that just happen to involve aliens).
That’s why I’m so giddy at the thought of where “Day” can go, as long as the balancing act of Davies’ bombast and Buffy-alumni Jane Espenson’s more measured tones can work as a coherent unit. It remains to be seen how this will all play out, and frankly the unpredictability of such a novel plot means it could span out in any number of directions. If it can retain the brisk pace and dread of “Children”, and crucially balls up neither the enemy nor the ending, it will mean that Davies has finally found his sci-fi Holy Grail. And if someone could please run an eye over Davies dialogue before the finale (which, according to Wikipedia, will be the only other ep he’s penning) it would be amazing – master of subtlety he is not.
I’m coming to “Day” with the open mind that “Children” earned Torchwood – and the opening episode has left me optimistic. The flaws are there, but they are the miniature details and character moments that have never been Davies strong point. What he has done is left a delicious platter of opportunity at the feet of his writing staff – whether they’ll spin wheels until the finale or truly up the ante week on week as “Children” did is up to them. I, for one, sincerely hope they do – because sci-fi could use a show that’s willing to appeal broadly for reasons of humanity and intelligence, and not because “oh look Dr. Suresh is a mutant now for some reason”. Frankly, sci-fi could use a savior.
– I know it’s important to be a professional medical person and all, but how bitchy was that doctor when she told Esther “family only” when Rex was undergoing a man vs. pole incident?
– “Miracle Day” it may be, but I don’t buy Gwen rushing towards a rocket-launching helicopter with her baby in tow. BAD PARENTING.
– Again, I can’t get over the Mekh-ontage from the hospital to Wales. Seriously. The crutches, the downing of pills, that Mexican lady. Wow.
– It kind of goes without saying, but that bomb victim was awesome and extremely troublesome. More of that, please.
– The introduction of Gwen’s father has me thinking there might be a similar sacrifice in store for her. What if the end of this means retro-active death for all who should have died? Will she be willing to let her father go?
– So Jack can die now. Please let that have consequences rather than just being for dramatic effect.
– Everyone’s hearing must be awful after all these explosive shenanigans.
– Isn’t the question on everyone’s lips “will this be the role that will finally distinguish Bill Pullman from Bill Paxman?”