Writing is tricky. I mean, of course it’s tricky. But I don’t think people who don’t engage in the art of writing really understand how tricky the whole thing is. I’m not being apologetic for the tortured artist wank that you see all over the movies, where the process of being an artist is so gosh darn difficult that you have to take drugs all day and sleep with teenage girls until your emotions are “cleansed”.
Artistry as a profession is more rewarding than many other lives (though I do sympathize with the slight unbalance that can come with that temperament), and it’s certainly much easier to paint a painting or write a novel than it is to spend half your life down a mine or on a factory floor.
That all said, though, writing is tricky. And writing for television is a balancing act in and of itself. Character, story, ad breaks, teases and reveals and the ability to make viewers come back week on week to consistent, well-drawn characters – there’s a lot that goes into that, and a lot of room for things to go wrong. I’ve spent a lot of the last nine episodes of Torchwood talking about how things have gone wrong, but it’s not like I don’t understand how these things have gone wrong.
The biggest problem, as I see it, was that Russell T Davies’ vision of what Miracle Day was going to be was made up too many disparate moments and images, and this robbed him of a consistency of tone and character, as well as the ability to really dive properly into some of the ideas at play. Last week’s penultimate episode “The Gathering” did a lot to pull back to what made Miracle Day such an attractive prospect – the time jump meant that we were dealing with our characters in media res, with the Miracle now part of day-to-day life and the characters actually doing things rather than talking about doing things.
But it also became clear how far we’d strayed from much of the crumbs left along the way. The Soulless, the 45 Club, Pficor and even Dr. Vera have become meaningless distractions rather than parts of a whole. It’s also become painfully clear that the show didn’t know what to do with villain Oswald Danes, and with every desperate and disparate effort to pull him back into the story we were forced to sacrifice more interesting avenues.
So where are we going into this finale? Jack, Gwen and Oswald are in Old Shanghai, using Jack’s blood to trace their way to the location of The Blessing – while Esther and Rex are on the other side of the world in Buenos Aires doing the same. The Blessing, as ourselves and Jilly (Lauren Ambrose, still crazy and still the most enjoyable part of this show) found out, is an underground…. thing, that is responsible for the Miracle. And is somehow related to Jack’s blood. And the Families.
Over the course of the finale there were many things that were done right. Eve Myles got her moment to shine in the opening, where she told a story of her father, the man who had been brought to the flame chambers at the end of last week’s adventure (and a man she would essentially kill by stopping the Miracle).
We discovered how exactly the Miracle had happened, and in true Doctor Who style it was more a case of a malfunctioning creature than pure malevolence (though the Families took care of that side of things) – the Families had obtained a sample of Jack’s blood back in the 30s, and since then had striven to locate the Miracle creature using statistics. The creature was responsible for the morphic fields, which in turn are responsible for controlling the life expectancy of the Earth’s population.
When Jack’s immortal blood was introduced, the creature retaliated by flipping the morphic field to make everyone else immortal. Did it make sense? God no, but it did wrap things up in a neat bow, with Jack and a blood-transfused Rex bleeding themselves dry into the creature in a gruesome but undeniably cool-looking scene.
There was also some form of resolution for everyone involved, with Esther biting the bullet (in yet another example of RTD’s Whedonesque desire to “kill the girl”), Rex and Jack becoming immortal, Gwen finally letting her father go and Jilly being taken on by the Families to begin “phase two”. Oh, and Charlotte TheWorstDoubleAgentInTheWorld blew up Q before being shot at Esther’s funeral. Now there’s a sentence.
So in some ways the finale did give some sort of satisfying resolution.
The Miracle’s over, and Torchwood has for the most part survived to fight another day. But this is a simplistic way to look at finales, and the episode so often fell back into the worst of the season, with plot-driven character choices, nonsensical dilemmas and some fairly hollow heartstring tugging.
The worst offender, in oh so many ways, was our old favourite Oswald Danes. To say that the show didn’t know what to do with him was an understatement, and while there was an illusion of importance surrounding his information-gathering last week, it’s clear this was just a ploy to keep him in the action.
For some reason, Jack decided it would be a good idea to strap a bomb to Oswald as a threat to the Families – a double illogic whammy as a) the Families were planning to blow up the cavern anyway and b) it’s fucking Oswald fucking DANES. Jilly’s observation that strapping explosives to a convicted pedophile and showing him a creature that would reflect his soul wasn’t the greatest plan in the world was a great line, but it did point out the stupidity of some of the plotting here.
Davies’ character choice for Danes was cursed from the get-go: a man who’d been convicted of the rape and murder of a 10-year-old was never going to be a hero, or an anti-hero. The only way to make his presence grudgingly accepted was to make him a logical part of the action, but every time Oswald became involved it was either a leap of believability or because our team tracked him down.
He was important because people kept insisting he was important. But he wasn’t, and as he blew himself to oblivion with one of the worst lines in television history (“All the bad little girls, they run straight to Hell, And I’m following!”) it became painfully clear how poor Torchwood has been at nailing down its characters. This wasn’t a tortured soul struggling for redemption or an evil monster at the heart of a story – this was a convicted pedophile as a side character on an otherwise fairly fluffy sci-fi series.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by recent Doctor Who, but it’s just not good enough to say that sci-fi and drama don’t work well together, that somehow the silliness of the former undermines the latter. I had the pleasure of seeing (and will soon be reviewing) the latest Who episode “The Girl Who Waited” at the weekend.
It’s a story about time travel gone wrong, battling against things called handbots in a malfunctioning holiday resort. And yet it’s not – it’s a horrifically heart-punching story about two versions of one woman, how awful it is to be left behind, and how sometimes we are sacrificed for the common good without any choice in the matter.
Torchwood, meanwhile, lacked the subtlety or finesse that current sci-fi requires. The lines have blurred between sci-fi and drama thanks to shows like Lost and Alias, and viewers are emotionally intelligent enough to understand consequence without everything being broadcast at a maddening pitch. It also lacked the courage of its convictions, and so many loose threads the team stumbled on to along the way were jettisoned in favour of action movie cliches and solving the mystery.
That this mystery didn’t seem to hold water wasn’t entirely unexpected, but the fact that the finale managed to be illogical without being surprising was a master-stroke of bad writing.
So what now for Torchwood? I don’t believe the ratings for this series have exactly set Starz or the BBC on fire, so it remains to be seen whether a renewal is on the cards – and if so who would even return. I for one believe Torchwood should give up the game, unless there is a truly brilliant story and writing team to work with.
The hook of Children Of Earth and now Miracle Day was much more to do with the overall situation than the characters, and while I have some good will towards Gwen and Eve Myles at season’s end I couldn’t imagine justifying a new season without such an amazing hook. And that’s after Miracle Day squandered what was, after all, an amazing hook.
For anyone who thinks that I’ve been harsh on the show over the past few weeks I’d be happy to talk it out over a couple of brewskis, but bearing in mind that I went into this with so much good will after Children Of Earth I can’t say I’ve enjoyed picking this whole mess apart. The time for cardboard cut-out science-fiction – where idea usurps character and logic has no place – is gone, and it’s time for creators working in that genre to wake up and smell the wider audience. I don’t mean dumbing down, I mean recognizing that sci-fi now has to reflect humanity outside the world of conspiracy obsessives and those (including me) just happy to see Janeway travel through time again.
So perhaps Torchwood’s failure is a good thing, as it’s a symptom that now we expect better. There are harsher casualties, and there are far worse sci-fi offenders out there, but that won’t change the fact that Miracle Day squandered massive promise with messy writing. It was an unfocused project, the Glee of science-fiction, and there’s nothing sadder than that.
– The screenshot at the top is the best thing I’ve ever Apple-Shift-3’ed.
– Will someone please edit together a YouTube video of Jilly’s best quotes?
– “Be professional for once” – Rex says what we’re all thinking.
– “This is just Phase One” – nice vague setup for next season, The Families.
– Captain Federico Santos was a lovely generic South American name.
– Tracing the mole in front of the entire office may be the stupidest act in a series almost entirely composed of stupid acts.
– “Enough guilt to last me a lifetime. But that’s okay, I’m a working mother, I don’t need The Blessing to tell me that.”
– “We are evil. Let’s reveal how to stop our evil plan.” – Every bad guy ever, including Torchwood’s.
– What exactly is to stop the Families uncovering the caverns? Not so much plot hole as plot net at this point.
– Seriously, why did they team up with Oswald?
– I don’t mean to complain, but couldn’t one person have pronounced “Buenos Eye-res” correctly?
– Why did they wait until now to hide The Blessing? They activated the Miracle two months ago.
– I’ve said it before, but as much as Lauren Ambrose did so much heavy lifting to make Jilly that good, Mekhi Phifer made some of the worst acting choices I’ve ever seen to make Rex the unlikable (and immortal!) douchebag he is today.
– Just… why?