My pledge to be better tempered didn’t really last. Warning: this is a long and angry one, and it starts with me sounding like an enormous prude. For the record, I am in fact an enormous prude, and all sorts of squelchy on-screen genital manipulation just makes me ill. Luckily I live in a country with universal healthcare, to help me when I’m poorly. OH WAIT SILLY ME apparently I don’t any more. Thanks for brainwashing all the people, money. You truly are the root of all evil. On a day like today, whining about sapphicalism and rampant Torchwoodery seems extra-pointless, but I’ve written my last few Lessons I Learned From Bad TV now, so eat up.
Just because you can put girl-on-girl action into your show doesn’t mean you have to
HBO rightly prides itself on its intelligent, adult drama, but it has, on occasion, overstepped the mark. Game of Thrones had a stellar first season, but even if no episode was actually bad, there were mis-steps. In You Win Or You Die, a mostly good episode was marred by the excruciatingly awful fingerbanging scene, with Littlefinger monologuing about his achy-breaky heart while two women were given the thankless task of writhing around in the background with their boobs emoting like crazy. Poor Esme “Clothes Optional” Bianco (who played Ros); an actress whose near-constant nudity made even Paz De La Huerta look demure.
The scene acted as a laborious visual metaphor for Littlefinger’s philosophy (borne of his bitterness over never winning the love of Catelyn Stark née Tully) and an exhibition of his callous, controlling nature, but more than that, it was endless and laboured, giving away too much about his motivation and thus nullifying the shock of his betrayal at the end of the episode. That’s a bit better than Boardwalk Empire‘s similar scene with Angela Darmody and her lover Mary Dittrich. Yes, it set up the unfortunate beating of Mary’s photographer husband in a later episode following a misunderstanding. Yes, it displayed Mary’s love for Angela. But did we need three and a half deeply unsexy and actually quite unnerving minutes of it?
It’s not prudishness that makes me rail against this; it’s concern that someone at HBO is telling the showrunners to create talking points about the shows involving girl-on-girl action. It’s good to see lesbian relationships on TV; Shades of Caruso is all for it, but please don’t tell me that the Boardwalk Empire scene was included with the intention of celebrating a gay relationship, or trying to “normalise” gay lifestyles on TV. As ever, the ladies have to get nekkid and roll around hooting with orgasmic joy; fun (and edumacational) when served up in small doses, but these overlong scenes crossed over from “progressive” to “leering exploitation”.
For two intelligent shows to pander like that sours the relationship between creators and audience, who don’t want to feel that someone is throwing in sex scenes just because “hey, it’s HBO and that’s what we do”. It feels disrespectful to all concerned. Compare the outrageous sapphic writhing to the shaving scene between Renly and Loras in Game of Thrones, which was sensual, unexploitative and filled with information about the relationship between the two men. That didn’t patronise us. The lesbian love scenes were only there to titillate, and were so cynically added that the main reaction they generated in SoC was embarrassment for all involved.
Points also to Torchwood: Miracle Day for showing what many felt were unnecessary sex scenes between Jack and various men. SoC has far more time for something that shows a loving relationship in Immortal Sins which also just so happened to appear on primetime terrestrial TV, especially as Russell T. Davies has explicitly said he wants to do exactly that. Portraying a gay relationship in a well-known, popular show with a wide audience will have more impact than a gratuitous bit of lesbian sex on a cable network catering to an audience who have paid for the service and expect to be challenged. What we’re saying is more gay sex on TV, but also more gay relationships, and more humanity. Or are we asking for too much?
Don’t be Torchwood
Dammit! As soon as I praised Torchwood: Miracle Day a torrent of bile poured up my spine and into my brain to counteract it. Much as Casanova Frankenstein cannot help but antagonise Captain Amazing, I have to write about Torchwood. This year, however, it’s different. SoC is no longer alone in melodramatically and ineptly waving a plastic gun in the general direction of sci-fi’s most overrated show, and while it feels good to be part of a wider movement against bad TV, there is a sad element to this, and that is our old bugbear; anti-American sentiment.
Online comments about BBC/Starz’ collaboration have been as brutal, mean-spirited and entitled as anything SoC has written in the past; in fact, compared to the vitriol aimed at it our previous criticisms seemed quite mild. I have no problem with this; the show was a catastrophic failure on just about every level. When the only good thing I can say about a supposed high-octane action show was, “I quite enjoyed the moments when the writers couldn’t help but show off all of the research they did into death and population levels through long and clunky monologues about insects,” you know something has gone wrong.
No, my problem with the criticism was that the critical narrative became, “the decision to take our beloved, perfect UK show to the States without our explicit say-so has ruined it by making it more Hollywood.” There is no greater insult in pop-culture discussion than “it’s just Hollywood”. Did you know that in Hollywood they only speak with words of two syllables or lower, and they repeat everything every five minutes in case you missed something? Did you know it’s illegal to not have plastic surgery? No one in Hollywood reads, you see. Bill Hicks said so. It must be true!
UGH. Please hear me when I say Torchwood: Miracle Day was only as bad as the first two seasons of Torchwood, and only a bit worse than Torchwood: Children of Earth. It’s always been this ramshackle. That’s what makes it so delightfully entertaining. It’s a car-crash and always has been, except now it’s a car-crash that has Bill Pullman, Mekhi Pfifer and Lauren Ambrose in it. Their presence hasn’t suddenly ruined the show. Pfifer’s Rex Matheson is no more or less obnoxious than Owen in the first two seasons (and has the same immortal-but-broken plot that Owen had in season two). And Bland Esther Drummond, with her uselessness and ill-defined character? How soon we forget Toshiko Sato.
It’s easy to blame the failure of Torchwood: Miracle Day on some new element, especially one that is bandied about so regularly, but really it was doomed by the oldest element of all. The show was developed poorly from the start, with a hysterical tone bolted onto an ill-defined initial premise that removed the appealing campness of its main character and replaced it with unnecessary modish gloom as a substitute for actual thematic weight. It was broken before it even reached the cameras, and since then the show has doubled down over and over again on this theory that it’s actually a very meaningful and searching exploration of big ideas when it’s actually a bone-headed melodrama delivery system.
The US collaboration with the show didn’t suddenly introduce anything other than too many episodes; this could have been an efficient two-parter, but just as Children of Earth took too long to tell its story, this tried to fool us into thinking a lot was going on when the majority of it was spent wasting time explaining instead of revealing, or introducing half-formed ideas that are never paid off (e.g. Oswald Danes, the biggest single waste of TV time since the invention of the cathode-ray tube). Yes, it’s a shame the story was stretched to ten episodes, but BBC Worldwide is trying to create franchises that it can sell around the world and so adjustments to the format are necessary. It’s not just Starz that’s to blame for this. They only got the BBC out of its funding problems by co-producing, which is going to have to happen more often with the licence fee hobbled by the Tories.
And as for the ten-episode mini-series format, if this interview is to believed the idea came from Russell T. Davies, not from some Starz mandate. It’s something he intends to keep doing, but as I said regarding Camelot, the show needs to sharpen its focus if its ever going to rise above its ignominious past. It’s possible to do that even with a long-arc serialised season. The highlight of the season was Immortal Sins, the flashback episode that fleshed out Jack’s past. It had its problems (oh so many problems), but it had an emotional charge and a straight-forward narrative. It belonged in a better show.
Especially as the show proper was all over the place, and a simple throughline would have done wonders, even if the traditional Torchwood flaws (risible attempts at machismo, excessive padding, shonky lighting, hysterical overacting, etc.) were present. Torchwood‘s focus on the mystery of death has been one of the few interesting things about it, even though it never really seems to come up with a coherent idea about it. The central idea of this season — that death is replaced by planet-wide immortality — is unusual and full of potential. RTD seemed to agree; it felt like this was a response to the US debate over healthcare, and the ridiculous “Death Panels” idea floated by Sarah Palin.
Unfortunately, the inherent silliness and illogicality of Palin’s made-up Death Panels meant that this show’s own Death Panels made absolutely no sense. The big reveal in the middle of the series is that camps have been set up to house the millions of terminally injured but non-dying patients who are triaged into one of three categories, with Category One being for those pronounced brain-dead, or in a state of incapacity that would equal death if the mysterious mystery at the heart of the show hadn’t made everything “superalive” or whatever the daft exposition would have it. Category One patients are incinerated out the back, and this is portrayed as a horrible thing.
More horrible than lying on a dirty hospital bed, stinking of filth, trapped in agony and unable to do anything about it? In the middle of the season Torchwood seemed to be using your classic anti-euthanasia argument, multiplied to infinity. It’s rather confusing. Until that point, the show goes to great lengths to explain that humanity is totes fucked by the lack of death, and drastic measures are called for, so you’d think euthanasia is a worthy solution, especially when the healing abilities of humanity have not been clearly explained by the showrunners. Can people heal? Rex is injured throughout; a frustrating and pretty much unworkable idea which also makes a mockery of the resolution to the mystery; the big stone thing that resets humanity after coming into contact with Jack’s blood only confers immortality, but not his rapid healing ability, which makes no sense at all.
So anyway, we’re meant to think the euthanasia is horrible, so it’s portrayed as a particularly barbaric act by a) having the victims burned alive while still conscious, and b) showing Doctor Vera Juarez being murdered by the insane caricature of a demented perverted racist bureaucrat played by poor Marc Vann from CSI and Lost. Firstly, why aren’t the victims knocked out first? Why just burn them without palliative care? I’m sure the showrunners would say, “Because humanity is so evil!!?!” but this is just absurd loading of the equation, and thus any point to be made here is swallowed up by the contrivance necessary to get there.
The other point, that the bad guys are going to use the classification of life and death as an excuse to kill off people who aren’t actually ready for death (either by the evil evilness of Dr. Pervy Bureaucrat or just by the usual slippery-slopiness of moral arguments as experienced by philosophy students), is the usual kind of anti-government hysteria that inspired Sarah Palin to expel the phrase-turd “Death Panels” in the first place. The mundanity of evil and all that. Just to undercut this point more, the show had already by that point shown that there was a group of doctors who were making informed medical decisions, giving hope that a sudden, massive change in the nature of life and death would bring about a well-considered solution by the world’s greatest minds, but I suppose Torchwood is merely imagining the worst possible outcome. Who needs subtlety when showrunners can add subtlety-free supervillains, thus abrogating their responsibility to provide a balanced ethical quandary for us to pick over?
Of course, writing this on the day that The House of Lords decided to allow the privatisation of the NHS means my arguments about the better nature of man seem particularly wrong-headed, but I honestly don’t believe that such a process would be approached with such stupidity. It’s a depressingly negative view of government, so needlessly melodramatic that I wonder if RTD was actually satirising the infinite stupidity of Sarah Palin and her desperate Tea Party cultists. These are people who are so detached from decision-making, so mystified by rationality, so devoid of empathy and so threatened by “Elitism” (aka “Not being incredibly, proudly incurious about the way the world works”) that they would happily assume anyone who has read a book about anything is secretly a Nazi, and therefore would happily doom us all because the only thing they have on their side is the ability to be monstrous fucking bullies without the capacity for reflection and who can then ride roughshod over the rest of us like Klansmen of the modern age. They literally have absolutely no shame, no shame at all, no urge to accept that they’re wrong or confused by life, no awareness of their monumental awfulness, no realisation that history will judge them as the worst of the world, who need to just back off and let the fucking adults sort this shit out. All they have is cruelty, and an urge to masturbate frenetically at the thought of a fellow human suffering. Shun these vile assholes out of society, into the naughty corner, until they forget the point of the Randian soundbite that pissed them off in the first place and triggered their anti-intellectual pogrom.
::Deep breaths:: So anyway, the central idea of the show makes very little sense when you pick it apart. This isn’t the only thing wrong with it. There’s some misguided idea that featuring an unrepentant paedophile as a main character, whose good fortune in being executed at the moment that immortality falls on humanity means he and he alone is somehow treated as a Messiah, will make for some compelling drama or give them the chance to explore some point about evil mistaken for good simply because a miracle occurs. It’s another moronic idea, that only works if you accept that humans will look to this man as the Second Coming. Why him? Just because people are paying attention to his imminent death? Yet again Torchwood is mistaken in thinking the worst of humanity in an attempt to clumsily bolt some “Meaning” onto their show.
And yet this is dramatised in such a way as to make no real point. Oswald Danes, portrayed by Bill Pullman as a haggard sack of seizure-esque acting tics — all clenched jaws, rolling eyes, waggling arms; a billion metric tonnes of acting in need of direction — makes no sense at all. What is he there for? Could the show have done without him? All he does is fill time and give Lauren Ambrose (as the excessively-named Jilly “Jilly Kitzinger!” Kitzinger) something to do. Which is fine for Lauren Ambrose fans such as myself, but seeing her playing the gallumphing loudmouth Jilly Kitzinger was torture. Yes, I was not a fan of Jilly Kitzinger. Sorry, Jilly Kitzinger fans! (Someone please tell RTD that repeating a funny name over and over again does not count as dialogue.)
Oswald serves zero purpose in the show. There is no point made about human gullibility because it is literally IMPOSSIBLE that anyone would embrace a man as disgusting and unapologetically mustache-twirlingly evil as this when his survival is only as “miraculous” as the millions of other technically-identical incidents that happened at the same time around the world. There’s no point made about morality (his evil is never questioned or modulated) or redemption (he doesn’t give a shit right to the end). All that happened is that someone in the writers’ room said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and no one had the balls to say, “No, because there’s nothing we can do with that character.”
And don’t get me started on the finale. For it to work, most of the characters had to become psychic. Why did Jack stockpile his blood? How did he know it would be important, especially when his immortality was linked to his status as a “fixed point in time” (AKA a convenient Doctor Who plot point inserted to stop the omnipotent characters just fixing every problem in the first act of each episode) and not just because he was filled with magical go-juice? How did Rex know that the blood could be destroyed in a secret attack, thus inspiring him to replace his own blood with Jack’s just on the off-chance? What if anything had happened to him as well? Awfully convenient that it didn’t.
And as for the reveal that everything that had happened for the whole series was merely a way for the big bad to prepare for an even bigger evil plan, does anyone else wonder if RTD is secretly screaming in horror that there will be another series, and he’s going to have to actually come up with something that explains the hundreds of plotholes, inconsistencies and transparent narrative fudges that made the show look like a rat-eaten patchwork quilt? Because if he actually has a grand plan for next season, I’ll eat Captain Jack’s lovely coat.
Look, I know that there are fans out there who might wander across this blog and either praise me for taking a stand against the sullied US version of their favourite show, and there might be other fans who come armed with large metallic drums full of Grade-A FanWank to prove me wrong about some plot criticism. If you want to do the latter, please don’t bother. I’m sure there were dozens of lines added at the last minute to try to excuse a plothole, some magical bit of exposition that adds another rule to the already rule-heavy narrative. They’re magical wands inserted into the story to excuse a poorly thought-out plot which, as with Children of Earth, was little more than a handful of setpiece moments that RTD was attached to and wouldn’t abandon even when he didn’t have time to come up with an organic, logical plot that connected those events. The fantastical magical exposition that litters his work means nothing. It’s just words.
That’s all this show has been. A bunch of words that mean nothing, as empty as the blurb on the homepage of a creative consultancy’s website. All posture, all flash and dazzle, ineptly served up with nothing underneath other than a hundred ideas mashed together in the hope that it will seem relevant or meaningful or emotionally resonant. But what we need is one idea, polished and presented with less gaudy tinsel, no posing, no dullard-baiting “adult content”. I’d take a single thought-provoking, challenging idea over any of this. It was a disaster. You want your Caruso Awards Worst Episodes of the Year list? Torchwood: Miracle Day is the top ten.
Well, I got angry then. Blame that news about the NHS. Last week I was pissed about the BBC and now this. Congratulations, Tory shitslime. Your desire to turn this country into a less pleasant version of Westeros is going according to plan. ::sigh:: Now I’m depressed. And so I am now about to move onto the best episodes of the year! I’m going to enjoy that. Good TV; I watch that too, you know.