Death, where is thy sting?

Thomas Pratchett is neither scared nor excited by Torchwood.

The pain! The pain!

“I’m sick of Torchwood acting like amateur clowns!” – Rex Matheson

 So, once again the Torchwood juggernaut… hmm, too strong a word. The Torchwood pick-up truck? Smart car? No, definitely not smart. Let’s say the Torchwood clownmobile – because the Extra-Terrestrial Intervention Community’s most stupid and bungling group are back, and it’s been a bigger and more global shambles than ever before.

After two series of discrete episodes with only a loose overall arc, Torchwood changed course for its third series, 2009’s Children of Earth, telling a single story in five hour-long episodes over five consecutive nights. Torchwood had become proper event television, at least in its own mind. With the fourth series, Miracle Day, this self-conscious sense of being event TV has been amped up even further, and with it the level of self-delusion. Ten episodes, over ten weeks, telling the same story. Wasn’t there a risk of the plot not being thick enough to cover that many hours? As it turns out, it was more than a risk.

As anyone who has read Russell T Davies’ The Writer’s Tale knows, the man writes one draft, and for him, that’s good enough. In the case of Miracle Day, it feels like all the other writers handed in their first drafts, and Rusty decided that what works for him clearly works for everyone else too, so accepted it all as it stood. The result was not so much a narrative arc as an irregularly shaped dotted line indicating successive events. What looked at first like plot points were often just themes that were never developed, or which disappeared outright. And the actual plot points appeared apparently at random, with no set-up (or obvious forethought) at all.

Good teeth: Russell T Davies

All this without going into the holes in the plot that developed as the series went on. Mostly Film dealt with these at the series midpoint, and while it’s fair to say vanishingly few were resolved (though Newman-From-Seinfeld did turn up again for ten minutes) what’s striking is how the series’ sheer length pushed them from being plot holes into outright contradictions.

To take a single – but very significant – example: in a world where a global “miracle” has extinguished death, the previously immortal Captain Jack Harkness discovers that he’s now the only one who can die. He almost simultaneously discovers that he’s being hunted by a shadowy cabal of Illuminati-types known as The Families, because his mortality has suddenly made him very important in the new world order. Various characters theorise that it’s something to do with his blood, which was collected as an article of faith by the ancestors of The Families. Jack denies this repeatedly: his blood is normal human blood. (His immortality results from being exposed to the TARDIS’s time vortex via Rose in the Doctor Who episode The Parting of The Ways.) Jack’s denial seems both canonical and final. And yet – at the very end the show seems to decide that Jack’s blood is immortal after all, and is the very thing that caused the miracle.

“Use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?”

So is Jack wrong about his blood? It would appear so. So how did The Families get it right? We don’t know. I’d call this an example of the Fridge Logic that made the whole show fall apart, except the ‘Wait a minute …’ realisation comes the exact second a new concept is introduced.

For a series in which a century-old global conspiracy to rule the world is introduced, and in which existing Who/Torchwood mythology is overturned on a whim, Miracle Day is very heavy on its feet. Information has been learnt, let’s go team! But no, the second episode is set almost entirely on a plane and devoted to concocting a magic potion to save Jack from poisoning. (Magic is the operative word: what are you going to find on a plane that will heat silver beyond melting point?) No sooner has the story begun than it’s being stalled.

A few episodes further along, Esther and Rex go to one of the overflow camps in LA to find out what’s being done to people who are too sick to live but prevented by the Miracle from dying. They learn the exact same information that Gwen is learning back in Cardiff. Then they spend nearly two episodes hanging around there.

This continued almost to the end. In Episode 8, John ‘Q’ de Lancie turns up as a CIA honcho, absolves everyone in the cast of their prior criminal and treasonous activity, and then tells everyone they’re getting out of here in twenty minutes. At last, the ball is rolling! But no. Despite being warned by Jack to leave well enough alone, Esther points out some mysterious floor panelling to Q, to which Q is all “OK, noone’s leaving!” – condemning the viewer to 45 minutes watching Torchwood and the CIA hanging around a house making small talk.

But surely there must have been good bits? As few and far between as they were, they did exist. Tiny moments here and there. Rhys is always good value, and continues not to think highly of Torchwood, as he should. “Captain Jack Bollocks,” is about right. Rex’s trip from DC to rural Wales, the entire length of which he spends complaining, is comedy gold. His ire at having to pay at a toll bridge (“Goddamn Wales!”) definitely brought a smile.

“How far can you suspend your disbelief? No – that’s not nearly far enough.”

The co-production between BBC Wales and Starz meant that the show had the budget to hire a whole raft of crowd-pleasing genre faces, so we had people like Bill Pullman, Lauren Ambrose (acting so well she seemed to believe she was in a much better show), Ernie Hudson, Wayne Knight, Nana Visitor, and no doubt more I can’t remember.

But the moment that defined the series for me was somewhere near the end of The Middle Men when the wimpy army subordinate (how is Fred Koehler in the army?) shoots Ecklie from CSI and yells: “This has got to stop!” Amen, little man. Amen.

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4 thoughts on “Death, where is thy sting?

  1. If only they’d cut it to 5 episodes they could have had a much better show. The story just didn’t stand up to ten weeks slow paced meandering.

  2. Cut down to 3 would have worked, I think even 5 would have been too many. Three sets of 3 hour long shows would have worked a treat and then they could have really used allthose US actors that they hired, rather than the blink & you’ll miss ’em cameos that were so plentiful it became exhausting.

    Actually that sums this story arc up, exhausting. Not clever, not cunning, not engaging, exhausting.

    Such a shame, it’s fun, it’s high camp, it is uniquely lovable and I love how terribly British it is. The cross Atlantic collaboration had so much promise and I so wanted to enjoy it, but really it lost me by 4 and I stopped caring at 5.

    How do the viewing figures stack up? Are we alone, or did enough people vote with their feet to suggest the exhaustion was shared by many?

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