...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Day 3868: TORCHWOOD: Madrigal Day: Escape to La la la Can't Hear You


Back in the real (ish) world, Daddy has received his conference accreditation. Apparently he's in category 1 with access to the Module. Er, that's good, isn't it?

Last time, I said Torchwood was playing join the dots between set pieces. This week, if anything, it's even more so.

Modern television presents us with unrelated events and by convention we infer links between them. We're so used to it, we're blasé. But here Torchwood is actually doing the reverse. These events follow logically from each other, but because of the blink-and-you-miss-it expository connections they appear like almost randomly unconnected incidents.

For example, it took me quite a while to realise that Dr Vera's field trip to the abandoned hospital is actually arranged by PhiCorp. It's part of her little visit to PhiCorp headquarters as set up by Jilly Kitsinger last week. It's PhiCorp who have bought the hospital and set it up as prototype for their Overflow Camps. Which, of course, is why Oswald is also brought to the scene later.

(It's also why she's away from Washington, so why she misses the outcome of the medical panel – hence her surprise that it's all finished when she gets back there next time.)

And, the hospital being owned and controlled by PhiCorp, I think the repeated question: "who left this baby here?" answers itself.

Isn't the image of the self-confessed child rapist and killer holding up a baby girl just the most skin-crawling thing in the series so far, even when we've already been clued up to it by Jilly's unexpected personality swerve into repulsion at the sight of Oswald's hands?

It almost makes the Oswald plot worthwhile, although the series' obsession with him is actually more sinister than Jack turning into his stalker.

I was moved to wonder if Oswald was in fact perfectly safe in the highly contagious atmosphere of the plague ship hospital, protected from all the viruses and bacteria because he's pumped full of even more deadly poison.

(Which in turn, led me to wonder why these deadly diseases aren't being treated with high doses of poison or blasts of gamma radiation given that we've established that only humans are immortal, and not germs.)

Oswald's reaction to having his airtime stolen – "I'm not going back to that" – is a bit off though: it’s as though he's had plenty of time to get used to all the luxuries that fame and PhiCorp can give him, even though in reality it's less than twelve hours since he was getting beaten up in police custody, and his experience of luxury amounts to, er, all the fun of opening every bottle of fizzy water in the minibar.

His rival for the airwaves is, for one week only, "darling of the Tea Party" Ellis Hartley Monroe, a character with all the shading of Venice beach at noontime and all the subtlety of John Barrowman doing "flaming". She seems to have no motivation for her "Dead is Dead" campaign beyond her own political ambitions. She's a machine politician on and off the camera.

Even more bizarrely, Ellis is a small time Mayor, and clearly only has a staff of one plus her driver, yet our friendly neighbourhood conspiracy, the mysterious triangle people behind PhiCorp, have still managed to infiltrate her team. They really are everywhere!

Clearly the exigencies of having that plot arc trail to keep on following mean that more interesting aspects of the episode will be reduced to a cartoon.

And the exigencies of only having your guest stars in for one episode each mean they'll either be "dead" or never heard from again (or both!), despite that making no sense. Do you really think the Tea Party would shut up about "Dead is Dead"?

But sticking your Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachmann analogue in a car crusher strikes as more than a little authorial wish-fulfilment.

The triangle conspiracy's given reason – "your message is revealing our plans a little too early" – hardly seems credible given that "their plans" has to mean segregating the "dead" (which is Ellis entire agenda): something that comes to pass in the very next episode which means within days of screen time, given the scheduling of the announcement before the LA Miracle event to which Oswald is now going which Jilly tells him will take place "at the end of the week".

The gift of a longer run of episodes – as Torchwood Miracle Day has been given – ought to be the chance to explore different reactions to and perspectives on the Miracle, and a look at the politico-religious response is exactly the sort of thing that was called for. It's just not the thing we got.

(The business with Rex's father – "I don't want to live forever like this" – was much, much better. In fact the spin-off-I-want-to-see-of-the-week is Cap'n Jack and Rex's dad taking on all the low dives of Hollywood.)

Meanwhile in L.A. (with crushing literality both the other side of the country and of the plot, though you could hardly tell as the light and scenery look identical) and also following the dot-to-dots from last week, Jack Rex, Gwen and Esther are breaking in to PhiCorp to steal a server full of secrets because of the information they nicked from Jilly's office last week.

No, it makes no sense at all that the location of the secret server (not to mention the specs of the security and the name of the guys whose biometrics they need) should be in the information available to someone who turns out to be a glorified temp.

(And the sudden downgrading of Jilly's place in PhiCorp is another of the things that really disappointed me in this episode. It was as though we'd discovered the Cigarette Smoking Man was just some guy from an agency. Jilly was a mover in this series who basically made the plot happen in the last couple of episodes. And now we're told she's a nobody? Perhaps someone should have told Lauren Ambrose that she's Henchman 3 and not the Bond Villain.)

Basically, the series is reducing itself to plot coupon-ing: each set piece results in something that superficially looks like a development but might as well be a treasure hunt clue saying "go to this place, do this thing and find where you need to go next".

And speaking of following the trail of breadcrumbs, we come to the world's luckiest cliché on legs, the assassin hired by the triangle people (why a triangle? Do the Mysterons have a copyright on the circles?).

Cliché? Have you seen him? Alex was unsure whether it was worse that he stands right in front of Gwen on Venice beach and snaps photos of her with a long lens, or that she doesn't notice. And then his dialogue goes all X-Files-esque – yes, it's that John Shiban – and then he gets himself shot just before he can reveal that the Thirty Nine Steps… arrgh!

And Lucky? Yes, because there he is working alone and of all the people he could pick to stake out, he chooses Esther's sister.

Because Esther, it turns out, has done a bad thing. She went to see her sister – the one we established "couldn't cope" back in episode three – and gosh dobbed her in to social services. The penalty for this betrayal is to get a good shouting at from Rex.

"What if you were followed!" bellows Rex. Bellows the man who has just driven them two thousand six hundred and eighty-eight miles across America and not noticed that he was being followed all that way. Demands the man who last night dropped by (and committed a felony breaking and entering while there) the residence of his father who we know is on the CIA's database. What if it was you who was followed, Rexy boy?

Rex of course is happy to bang on about PhiCorp's conspiracy on the phone to Dr V, but gets all coy about revealing his location. As though it's not easier to track him by his cell phone's signal than it is to break in on his call.

And then he complains that the rest of them are a bunch of amateurs.

To be fair, Gwen does then top this by taking her mobile on a mission, leaving it on and in fact answering it all while breaking into PhiCorp's secure computer suite. And then, since she's not actually paying attention, encouraging her husband to have her father sent to a concentration camp. Dressing Eve Myles up as Audrey Hepburn does not excuse this kind of thing.

The actual caper parts of the episode were pretty good, if you can excuse an American accent so bad that the actor is compelled to apologise in character for it and so long as you can get past the way Gwen's contact lenses are becoming the Torchwood sonic screwdriver.

This actually made for the best performance being… the one from John Barrowman. Which is probably saying something. His action moments went well, and – hooray, someone remembered Jack is omnisexual, not just gay – a lovely double-take at Gwen's boobs. Plus nice batting down of Rex's mild case of homophobia, replying to "Do you make everyone gay?" with a completely casual "that's the plan".

There's a moment where Jack returns to the loading bay and finds the building guys strangled in the back of his van. And the guy very obviously blinks. Ha ha oops, I thought. And then realised: of course; it's deliberate. No one can die (as we're told twice an episode) so he's strangled but still alive.

And speaking of mistakes that aren't, people have complained about Rex getting into the secure suite after all the fuss that was made of needing Mr Frumkin's biodata – or failing that bits of his person – to get in, but clearly the assassin left the door propped open as part of his lure to get Jack back in.

What does puzzle me is how did Jack get back upstairs without having to yomp up the stairwell too – 'cos if Jack can still use the service lift now that the fire brigade are on their way then why can't Rex? Or did Esther just send him up all those stairs as revenge for making her cry?

(And call me old fashioned, but I'd prefer it if my IT team rather than my security consultant had access to my server room. PhiCorp don't even seem to have taken the elementary precaution of having the secure suite lockdown if the guy who is key to getting in takes a sick day. Frumkin really was asking for it.)

What's becoming clearer is that "Torchwood: Miracle Day" isn't actually bad so much as it's just sloppy. It's not an original observation, I know, but the shorter five-hours-over-five-days form brought pace and focus to "Children of Earth"; "Miracle Day", by contrast, is just almost literally all over the place.

These last three episodes – "Rendition", "Dead of Night" and "Escape to L.A." – could easily have been compressed into the space of a single hour by trimming out a lot of the repetitive find clue go to next clue shtick. Where are we at the end of "Escape to L.A."? Torchwood have just stolen the secret computer data from PhiCorp… exactly where we were at the end of "Dead of Night".

And frankly, even though the next episode is vastly better, "Categories of Life" and "The Middle Men" could and should have been done in half the time as well.

I've not yet seen "Immortal Sins" but assuming that has enough shocks and revelations to make an episode four, then you only need a conclusion and you've got a "Miracle Day" that would be "Children of Earth" length. So when you're asked for another five episodes, you write 'em a new story, not try to pad out your existing one to twice its natural life cycle.

Next Time… If anybody out there can hear this… just ignore what I said last time I recorded one of these doomsday tapes. Yes, sorry about that.

"Torchwood: Miracle Day" continues tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and BBC1HD or if you're falling behind like me, then there's always the iPlayer!

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