...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 3847: TORCHWOOD: Mackerel Day: The New World


The problem with "The New World" is that it is structured very much like "Rose" but looks like the TV Movie.

There are moments of intense family drama that are signature Russell Davies; there are moments of awesome, mainly Gwen going ninja on that helicopter; there's some genuinely clever science fiction going on; even the in-your-face gore of the "live autopsy" is hilarious in the blackest of humour ways. But at its core there's something deeply schizoid about trying to blend British sensibilities with American drama. Like a ghastly transporter accident blend of The X-Files and the District Nurse.

Ask ourselves this: who is supposed to be the main protagonist? There are four possible candidates: Esther, Rex, Gwen or Jack? (It's probably not Oswald.)

Esther very much plays Rose in the remake of "Rose" that plays out in the first half of the episode, where a "mysterious event" draws her into investigating a "mysterious stranger" who appears in her life and then tells her to walk away. It's a story so successful that Russell used a version of it before for "Everything Changes" when it was Gwen's turn to play Rose.

The thing about Rose, though, is that she is clearly the lead, and not just for "Rose" but for a good bit of the rest of the 2005 series too, particularly "The End of the World", where she is still investigating the Doctor (along with all the other aliens) – who he is, what he and his box do, how she speaks alien all of a sudden, and the rest – (to the extent that Russell actually has to lock her in a room to force the Doctor to become pro-active); and "Father's Day, where the Doctor ends up dead!

But what everyone expected Rose's character parabola to be (and where she ends up once Davy T seizes the reins) is to be the identification figure who brings us to the lead and ends up as the supporting character once the Doctor comes into focus. And this is what's going on with Esther. She starts off investigating, but turns into a sidekick for Jack and/or Rex in front of our eyes. Which is a damn shame as she makes a likeable lead and a series where Esther and Gwen (and Dr Vera!) fight crime would be worth making on its own.

Incidentally, for a CIA analyst, Esther is remarkably uncurious about the massive bruising she has no memory of picking up. Because that's really a whole line of inquiry right there, starting with getting herself checked out by the CIA medics (what, Dana Scully's gone back to the FBI this week?).

And she seems to throw off her retconning remarkably quickly too. Jack erases her memory, right? But then the nice black guy from Greek drops the last Torchwood file on her desk and she doesn't react with a "What's Torchwood?" OK, it's the CIA – maybe they're trained to expect routine random memory wipes.

So if not Esther, maybe it's Rex. In the scenes set in LA doubling for "Washington", everything about the structure of the drama points to Rex as the central character with Esther as his support (companion if you like). The miracle happens to him; Esther and Dr Vera supply him with the clues; he makes the connection between the miracle and Torchwood (after Esther hits him over the head with it a good few times); he uses his magic laptop to hack in and observe the "live autopsy"; he manfully struggles to overcome having his heart punched out by a metal pole to get on that plane to Wales, England; he pays the Pont Hafren/Severn Bridge toll etc.

Except… In all the scenes set in Wales doubling for Wales everything says that Gwen is the hero figure. And in that, Rex turns out to be the antagonist; he's the villain who penetrates Gwen and Rhys's hideaway and he has the team arrested and carted off to America at the end. And we all know that "rendition" is not a happy euphemism these days.

Now, I'm all for plot twists and uncertain loyalties, but this comes across as just not having made its mind up. No, it's worse than that, it comes across as trying to have it both ways because it wants to please the UK and the US audiences differently.

And Rex comes across as a total jackass: crowing gleefully at the promotion opportunities afforded by the cancer of a rival's wife; shouting and bullying anyone and everyone and thrusting his badge in their faces with a grunt of "CIA!" (do the CIA have that kind of authority inside the US? For that matter do they even have badges? They're a secret service, not a police force!); grabbing handfuls of other people's medication off trays at random and downing them like a greedy ten-year-old in a Smarties factory. This is not an easy man to like. Plus, as the show says explicitly, he is the walking dead.

To be fair, Russell has written this character before, so having Cap'n Jack use unlikeable undead arse Owen Harper's name is just hanging a lantern on it. (Yes, I realise he wasn't undead in Russell's episodes, but the comparison is too apt.)

So maybe Jack is the hero. In spite of largely not being in it. Jack, who, by the way, is supposed to be freshly back from outer space but still has the resources to hack the CIA mainframe, pay for flights to the UK at zero notice and access a landrover, machine gun and rocket launcher. And then gets caught by the British police and a dead CIA guy. (It's like he's got superpowers except when the camera is on him!)

But then he goes and makes that suggestion about removing the exploded assassin's head. Which is a real bastard thing to do, reminding us of what Jack did at the end of "Children of Earth" and why he went away in the first place. Plus there's a really ambiguous expression on Jack's face when it momentarily appears that decapitation has killed the guy: is it relief? Nice touch from Barrowman.

The "autopsy" is a great scene, in part because, as I've already said, it's both horrible and really funny in a "live cartoon" sort of way. And it's good science fiction in answering the question "what would happen if people just didn't die?" But it also carries a moral punch by juxtaposing the complete abrogation of the exploded assassin's human rights with Oswald Danes using those same rights to get out of prison on the "technicality" that he has been successfully executed so they can't incarcerate him any longer.

Dr Vera loses points though for her passionate protest that "you just can't do that" being followed up by her completely failing to storm out, raise hell or call the cops when they go ahead and do it anyway. Way to show you mean it, lady. And anyway, what is the hospital's trauma surgeon doing at this top secret autopsy anyway?

On top of this, there's the fact this is supposed to be a crisis of global proportions that only about eight people actually seem to care about. Yes, Russell does his usual trick of throwing in TV anchors from around the world to make us think global, though that's a little undermined by the mostly US faces of the channels portrayed.

But, and this is actually slightly odd, having the focus on "the bit in Cardiff" and "the bit in Washington" seems to make the case smaller rather than larger. Short-cutting Rex's flight to the UK doesn't help this. Yes, I know it's the language of television, but it does make it look like he can travel instantaneously – or possibly Dr Moon is messing with everyone's heads. And who was the Hispanic woman he berates at the airport? I'm guessing she was his cleaner but her appearance out of nowhere makes it look like he's just nicking her passport. (And are the CIA happy that he's letting his cleaner have access to his personal documents?)

There is no sense of what the entire rest of the CIA are doing: shouldn't it be all hands on deck? And does no one care that in the middle of major crisis Esther and Rex have just, off their own recognisance, gone off on a wild goose chase after a defunct British secret outfit? Sure, they're probably not expecting Rex to be in – even the CIA must give you a day's sick leave when recovering from a mild case of death – but once he starts racking up transatlantic airmiles and tying up British security service resources, does no one on the top floor start saying "hang on, we've got more important things to be doing?"And Esther just wanders in late after her night on the tiles with Cap'n Jack and gets nothing more abusive than a mild "nice lie in?"-type remark from a colleague.

The reveal that death has stopped is done oddly too, basically as exposition in the mouth of Dr Vera, not once but twice – first she tells Esther that "miracles got easy" and later to explain that she checked out all the hospitals and no one's had a fatality. If anything calls for a sweeping "round the world" of vignettes, showing people not dying, then this does.

I've got to protest Russell's maths somewhat, too. PC Andy explains the crisis to Gwen with the aid of the Wackypedia: "there ought to be 300,000 people dying every day," he says. "So that's a million extra people every three and a bit days." Fine, with you so far. But then he goes on "and there's all the people being born. That's another half a million a day."

The way he says it, it's like the population increase has jumped by 800,000 a day: the 300,000 who aren't dying and the 500,000 births.

But those 500,000 births would have happened anyway.

If there's anything that's shocking here, it's that we are adding a net 200,000 people to the planet every single day even without aliens making us immortal!

Think about it: if a population increase of 500,000 a day… no, let's be generous and accept 800,000 a day… if a population increase of 800,000 a day means we run out of planet in four months, then a population increase of 200,000 a day – which is actually happening – must mean we will run out of resources in sixteen months!

It's like that thing with bees disappearing in Doctor Who. Reality is every bit as appallingly terrifyingly bad as Russell's "crisis of the week" and saying "aliens did it" is actually undermining that not reinforcing it.

As I understand it "Miracle Day" was supposed to be the first episode of "Torchwood: The New World" and I think I should have preferred it that way around to "The New World" being the first episode of "Torchwood: Miracle Day": "Miracle Day" is just one day, no matter how miraculous; "The New World" is opening up a whole new vista as well as referring to how everything has changed (to coin a phrase).

Overall, it was good in moments. There were some terrific – if a little derivative – directorial sweeps: Cap'n Jack appearing in the CIA archive; the helicopter on the beach (and why didn't we get the flaming zombies of the pilot and gunner emerging, eh?).

Lovely to see Tom Price back as PC Andy (I don't care that they've promoted him). Lovely to see Sharon Morgan and William Thomas reprising their roles as Gwen's parents. Lovely little cameo for Robin Sachs as "British Professor" (he's either Ethan Rayne if you're a Buffy fan or not-the-real-Adam Carrington from "Dynasty: the Reunion").

And there were good performances from the leading female actors: Eve Myles as Gwen, Alexa Havins as Esther and Arlene Tur as Dr Vera (notwithstanding the nonsensical character points listed above and the fact that her legs are skinnier than the exploded guy's remaining strands of neck!). I think it's the charisma of these three women that keeps the show on the road.

But for all the rounded family life of his Welsh characters, Russell writes the Americans as clichéd ciphers (hard-boiled CIA agent, fluffy ingénue and rushed-off-her-feet doctor). And Russell's writing should be better than that.

So it's only good in moments, and the feel is that those moments don't properly mesh. Not yet anyway.

Finally, why text the CIA with the word "Torchwood"? Wouldn't the words "Captain Jack Harkness" be more accurate and useful if it's his immortality that's been transposed with the world?

Oh, and what was that bit with the two hikers at the start? After Gwen's wonderfully hyper-paranoid performance, they could not have been more sinister if they'd winked straight at the camera and unzipped their Slitheen Skinsuits, and yet nothing at all came of it.

Next Time… A marked improvement in an effective bottle show: Jake's on a Plane!

(OK, OK it should be Jack's on a Plane, but give my puns a little wiggle room!) "Rendition".

You can watch episodes one and two of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" on the iPlayer and episode three, "Dead of Night", tonight at 9pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Day 3841: Goodbye Cruel World*


It turns out that we owe an apology to Harold Camping, of all people, for LO the End of the World has arrived and the Elect has indeed been lifted to Safety!

In other news…

We may be in the gutter…

…but some of us are looking at the stars!

To the Space Shuttle Atlantis: go to Heaven.

To the News of the World: do the maths!


*In the absence of the Current Bun covering this appalling phone-hacking story, it seems the Tell-lies-o-Graph have decided to take their place. Says it all, really.