Sunday, 24 July 2011

If the Devil himself walked this earth, he'd surely be working in PR.

A brief return of our occasional feature "Gee watches a Science Fiction television programme and give his opinion on it. Lots of people then email him to tell him he's wrong". This deals with the first two episodes of Torchwood: Miracle Day and contains spoilers. So if you haven’t seen the show and don’t want to know what happens your best bet is to close this browser window. And then destroy your computer. Hey, it's better safe than sorry right?

Generally speaking there's an established life cycle for a bad television show. They burst on to the scene, are quickly found wanting, and meet an abrupt demise when the twitchy broadcaster notices the viewing figures are dropping quicker than News Corp shares during a phone hacking scandal. Except for Torchwood.

Torchwood, much like its lead character Captain Jack Harkness, simply refuses to die.

Torchwood began life as a post watershed spin off of veteran family sci-fi show Doctor Who, airing on BBC 3. Russell T. Davies, the man behind the project, said in an interview with SFX  "We can be a bit more visceral, more violent, and more sexual, if we want to. Though bear in mind that it's very teenage to indulge yourself in blood and gore, and Torchwood is going to be smarter than that.". Unfortunately Davies' only contribution to the initial two seasons was the very first episode, after which he handed the reigns over to Chris Chibnall. Chibnall, a man who is slowly carving out a niche as a piss poor sci-fi writer, decided to plough ahead with as much blood, gore and nookie as he could throw at the screen. And the result was a very adolescent and extremely unintelligent show. It became depressing viewing. Two episodes that summed it up perfectly were Day One and Cyberwoman. In a plot line that sounds like it was stolen from a late 1980's blue movie, Day One - and I swear I'm not making this up - features an alien that kills people via a lethal orgasm. And as stupid as that sounds it pales in comparison to Cyberwoman, where one of the lead characters keeps a cybernetic girlfriend locked in the basement until said sex toy goes bezerk and starts killing people. Simply put, the only way Torchwood could have been more "teenage" was if it sprouted acne and started listening to The Smiths.

A large part of the problem was that Torchwood suffered from an identity crisis. Its core plot line was that a five person team acted as the Earth's first and last line of defence against evil aliens rocking up and trying to kill us all. We were told that these people, Time traveller Capt. Jack Harkness, police officer Gwen Cooper, doctor Owen Harper, technology whiz kid Toshiko Sato, and jack-of-all-trades Ianto Jones, were the "best of the best" time and time again. Heck we even saw Harkness berating the British Prime Minister over the phone for allowing sensitive documents to be leaked  And yet the characters themselves were written and portrayed not as professional alien ass kickers but as a bunch of amateurs with the emotional range of spoilt children. If they weren't shouting or screaming or sulking they were stealing extra-terrestrial devices to make them more appealing to the opposite sex.  One started to hope that the little green men really would invade, because even if the aliens were only barely competent then they would easily wipe these histrionic losers from the face of the planet.

But they didn't and Torchwood survived. In fact it managed to make it all the way to BBC 1 - Auntie’s flagship channel. A special mini-series was commissioned, running for five consecutive nights. Reports suggested it was either designed to be a swan song for fans of the series or an experiment by the Beeb to see if "grown up" science fiction would fly on the main station. Russell T Davies was the man charged with bringing Torchwood to the mainstream. And, remarkably, he did an amazing job. This miniseries, titled Children Of The Earth, delivered on every aspect its predecessors had failed to. It was moving, funny, terrifying, at points gritty, at points lovely and warm. Most importantly it felt genuinely special; an indication of what Great British science fiction could be when all the pieces were put in the right place. Torchwood had grown up and become rather brilliant in the process.

Buoyed by this success Davies travelled across the pond to America, bringing Torchwood along for the ride. Starz network signed up and threw some money at it, and Davies retooled the show for an American audience. Characters that were killed off in the previous series were replaced by American counterparts, while still retaining the services of John Barrowman as Jack Harkness and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper. With a proper budget for once and the man who had led it to success firmly installed at the driving seat the future looked bright for Torchwood. 

Torchwood: Miracle Day logo

The news series started in the States earlier this month, with a six day delay before airing here in the UK. And it's come back bigger. And louder. And certainly prettier.

But, sadly, not better.

The concept itself is actually quite intriguing. All of a sudden everyone on Earth stops dying, the population explodes, and people start freaking out because in four months time we're all going to be shirtless and wrestling in mud over a left over packet of doughnuts. It really is a wonderful premise, allowing the show's creators to do all sorts of things with the nature of good versus evil. Are the people trying to save the Earth by taking away the human race's immortality truly good? Are those attempting to thwart them truly 'evil'? And just how thin is the line between those two opposing forces? It offers endless opportunity to explore what makes people tick when their natural instinct for survival becomes null and void, and examine the carnage that would ensue should folks start taking their endless supply of life for granted.

Alas Torchwood never bothers to address those questions, or any others for that matter. We're re-introduced to Gwen Cooper, who has started a new life for herself with her husband and their baby daughter in a remote part of Wales. For some reason she's become paranoid about people hunting her down, and somehow amassed a vast array of guns which she heads for whenever there's a knock at the front door. And she's quite correct in doing so, as not only are helicopters whizzing past suspiciously but sinister ramblers - yes ramblers - are beating a path to her house.

Now, why Gwen has become enemy number one for "stereotypical shadowy organisation" has yet to be explained. It sure as Betsy had nothing to do with what happened in the last series anyway, which saw the demise of Torchwood largely because Jack was a bit bummed out about killing his own grandson and losing all the other members of Torchwood apart from Gwen. It's also never really explained why she spends half the time unable to sleep because of the trauma of her time in Torchwood, and the rest of the time sulking because she can't go running around shagging her team mates and shooting aliens any longer. I mean you'd think it would be one or the other. Either you miss it, or it haunts you. Not both at the same time.  At one point she and Jack have a ridiculous conversation on a plane where at first she complains that bad things happen when Jack is around, before scolding him for not turning up sooner. I guess the idea is to present Gwen as a tortured soul. But instead what we have a stroppy young lady who is never satisfied.  I swear we’ve had two hours with this woman and she hasn’t cracked a smile once.

Also, by the time the helicopter starts trying to mow people down with machine guns the whole world is well aware that no one can actually die. So what the point of shooting them would be is anyone's guess. Seems like an awful waste of fuel and bullets to me. In fact it would make way more sense just to hire one person who was a dab hand with a lasso and rope them like cattle instead. Luckily for Gwen and Jack however this "shadowy organisation" is apparently run by idiots so all is well. 

Torchwood. BBC 1. July 14 2011

The new characters don't fare much better either. Our hero for the US audience to sink its teeth in to is CIA agent Rex Matheson, portrayed by Mekhi Phifer of ER fame. And, well, Rex comes across as a complete tool. First he's happy that someone's wife has cancer because it potentially means he'll get a promotion. Then he acts as if a major security breach of the CIA's digital infrastructure is something not to be concerned about at all. Then he complains about driving across a toll bridge to get to Wales as if it's the craziest thing in the universe ever to happen to an American male. I mean sure, it's completely understandable that he would be unfamiliar with toll bridges. There's only ELEVEN of them in New York City alone. And then he arrests the very people who helped him escape a group of assassins trying to blow his brains out. In fact the only enjoyment to be found from Rex is when a large metal pole lodges itself in to his chest. But, of course, this being Miracle Day it only means we get to spend more time with him as he lies in bed moaning about how much pain he's in. If there's an award for "Most irritating new character in television" then this dickhead would be a shoe-in.  Sure, anti-heroes are fashionable at the moment. Characters such as Dr. Gregory House and Raylan Givens aren’t nice people. But the difference is House and Givens are highly intelligent and extremely capable individuals who demand your respect. Rex Matheson demands to be pushed down an elevator shaft.

On the other end of the scale we have Bill Pullman. Pullman is one of the most underrated actors working in Hollywood today. Portraying child killer turned unlikely media celebrity Oswald Danes, he steals the show. Actually he doesn’t so much steal the show as obliterate everyone around him. He’s such a joy to watch that he illuminates proceedings whenever he is onscreen, and leaves a gaping void when he isn’t.  Where it would be easy to ham it up as a moustache twirling baddie, Pullman puts in a tremendously chilling performance using nothing more than dead pan eyes and a staccato speech pattern. Unlikely to be recognised in any awards ceremony, Pullman has created the best television villain you’ll see all year. It’s just a shame it had to be on this particular show.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Barrowman is fine, but you can’t help but yearn for the charming con man that Harkness used to be. Arlene Tur puts in a good turn as a hospital surgeon.  Alexa Havins does the best she can with a wafer thin character that has a crush on Rex.  Wayne Knight is wasted as a walking cliché. But really the major problem with Torchwood has nothing to do with the actors but its creative direction.

The reason why 24 worked so well is that Jack Bauer, as plagued by demons as he was, was an exceptional counter terrorism agent. But that didn’t mean the rest of his colleagues were complete muppets. There were several excellent agents who worked alongside him who simply weren’t quite at the level he was. The same thing applies with McNulty in The Wire, or Fitz in Cracker. The problem with Torchwood is that we’re supposed to believe that the entire CIA is either a collection of incompetent evil doers or a bunch of simple minded idiots, and that Harkness and Cooper are the only two people on Earth smart enough to work out what’s going on and skilled enough to take down a helicopter with a rocket launcher. It’s writing that’s designed to set these two apart as something special, but instead it destroys any sense of believability the programme may have had. It’s the same with Oswald Danes. We’re meant to accept that a child killer in Kentucky is let out of prison because a lethal injection doesn’t kill him and he threatens to sue to governor for wrongful imprisonment. Really? I mean, really? I would have thought that any politician shown to be soft on paedophilia in Kentucky would be signing his own death sentence. But no, the child killer gets released and no one, not one single person, raises an eyebrow let alone a political shit storm.

If you can ignore the annoying characters, insane plot devices, and sporadically lame dialogue (at one point a secondary character produces a syringe out of nowhere and proclaims “I knew diabetes would come in handy one day”. Urgh) then you may find a decent show somewhere in there. The sets look glossy, the pace is breezy, and one thing you can’t say is that Torchwood is boring.

But I’m not convinced enough people will do that for Torchwood to survive Miracle Day.

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