Torchwood – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Ten: Second-guessing the Blessing? Fri, 16 Sep 2011 07:00:29 +0000 Finally the Blessing (almost) reveals its secrets. This series has played a long game with audiences, continually deferring vital information, and in this closing instalment we get some answers but perhaps not as many as may have been hoped for. Showrunner Russell T. Davies seems intent on second-guessing audience expectations – for example, laughter greets Captain Jack’s showdown plan to reset the Blessing; the “symbiotic” force deep within the Earth is never identified since Jack doesn’t have a clue what it is; and we get an apparent reformatting of the whole show in Miracle Day‘s last gasp.

Taking these moments in turn: the sense that Jack’s plan is laughable, and that he’s failed to consider the bipolar nature of the Blessing, represents an intriguing piece of plotting. It makes solid use of the entire Torchwood team, here pretty much divided into its old school and new American contingents, with Oswald being the odd man out. The solution to the Families’ plot proves to be something that a lone hero could never achieve: this narrative requires bilateral action rather than singular agency. As such, this deliberately binary conclusion (Shanghai/Buenos Aires) challenges individual heroism – Jack cannot be in two places at once; by definition, no individual could defeat the Families’ scheme. And so Russell T. Davies and co-writer Jane Espenson avoid there being a big ‘reset button’ by entering into a game of reset inflation. Instead there are two reset buttons that basically need to be pressed at the same time.

A bipolar threat requiring two climactic stand-offs also helps to generate narrative guessing games – will both Jack and Rex die? Will Gwen go ahead and shoot Jack for the greater good? What of Esther’s fate? Audiences are made to compare Gwen and Jack’s decisions with the actions of Esther and Rex, as a UK/US binary is created and exploited. Ultimately, it is the American wing of Torchwood which saves the day by injecting new blood into proceedings – without the US newbies, Torchwood would have been so much matchwood.

If ‘reset buttons’ are multiplied to create a novel, bi-reset narrative structure, then ‘The Blood Line’ also takes a new stance on any sort of deus ex machina ending. Because here the morphic-field-generating ‘god’ is in the Earth rather than in any ‘machine’. As Gwen says: “we’re so used to these things being extraterrestrial, but this might be the most terrestrial thing of them all”. Just as the bipolar ending deconstructs rugged individualism – with an ensemble show getting an ensemble resolution – then the Blessing likewise deconstructs the ‘human versus alien’ binary. This is a tale which takes Torchwood‘s prior typical reliance on SF threats, teases the audience by with-holding alien baddies, and finally argues that we are alien, bound together by a morphic field which makes planet Earth itself a fantastical, science-fictional entity. Existing in symbiosis with humanity, the Blessing ultimately represents a sort of Gaia Agenda, but it remains outside Jack’s knowledge, with Davies throwing in a jumble of Doctor Who Racnoss/Silurian references to maintain the Blessing’s mysteries. If it could simply be named in SF terms – “oh, it’s a Bleb, they live inside planets” – then the Blessing would be too pinned down, too classified, to provoke fan speculation. Instead, it remains unexplained, an ineffable narrative gap that is itself “the gap in between”, as Jack notes.

But the Blessing’s revelation of Gwen, Jack and Oswald’s souls to them – after all the build-up – amounts to precious little: each character simply shrugs off the experience and carries on regardless. In fact, the whole idea of people seeing their own true selves proves to be a rampant red herring since it fails to form any significant part of ‘The Blood Line’. It could perhaps be suggested that Oswald’s self-sacrifice is, in part, fuelled by his having gazed into the Blessing. Yet his narrative role remains extremely awkward. In structural terms he is redeemed – blowing himself up to allow Torchwood’s escape while burying the site – but redeeming such a “monster” seems absurd, so at the same time Oswald dies while screaming out to his child victim, Suzie, to “run faster”. Danes’ story is thus neatly book-ended, referring back to his villainous words from the very opening of Miracle Day. But despite this writerly trick, his fate remains uneasily and queasily ambivalent: he performs the narrative role of a “self-sacrificing hero”, but in a defiantly monstrous way. Beyond Good and Evil? Perhaps Miracle Day attains Nietzschean resonance after all. Amid big explosions and lipstick-smearing fights.

Then there’s that final scene. Having enacted a story about the necessary failure of individual heroics, it makes sense that Jack’s “fixed point” would be doubled. It’s still a rather curious gesture, though, implying that Torchwood is now definitively a US-UK coupling, as well as potentially allowing the show to continue without Captain Harkness. It’s a final jolt meant to provoke yet more guessing games, but one that can also be readily ignored if Torchwood‘s future requires it. Children of Earth Day Five felt like an ending: this closing twist feels like a shout-out to Starz executives: look, we gave the CIA guy a co-starring role, just think of all the story possibilities offered by immortal-espionage-a-go-go!

Miracle Day‘s behind-the-scenes publicity hasn’t had anything much to say about series one and two’s head writer Chris Chibnall, being largely focused pre-transmission on Russell T. Davies, and on Jane Espenson across transmision. But “with thanks to Chris Chibnall” appears in the closing credits here, suggesting that Chibnall has been hidden at the core of this storyline all along, mysteriously concealed in the gaps between production credits, and secretly infiltrating the writers’ room. It’s a final reveal of sorts, though we don’t yet know exactly what Chibnall’s involvement was, nor whether Torchwood will continue under either of its two showrunners. Say what you will about the Blessing, the guessing isn’t over yet…

This column is, however, so I hope all those who’ve followed it, or dipped in over the weeks, have found something of interest. All together: press those reset buttons…. now.


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Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Nine: Global Drama? Fri, 09 Sep 2011 07:00:34 +0000 “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”

So argued philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, and it’s become something of a staple epigram for gothic fictions, as well as informing a television trope or two. Here, we finally get to discover what The Blessing is, and it literalises this Nietzschean aphorism. Could Russell T. Davies – whose highly recognisable voice begins the ep via a newsreader cameo – possibly not have had this infamous Nietzsche quote in mind when he pitched the idea: it’s a monstrous abyss, right through the centre of the Earth, which shows you your own true self. But if this is meant to provoke discussion over Miracle Day‘s philosophical stance it feels too on the money, and as yet too undeveloped, to really do so. Added to which, we’re very much not beyond good and evil in ‘The Gathering’. Instead there’s a depiction of banal villainy in the figure of the Category 1-hunting Finch, whilst Oswald’s status as a “monster” is again bluntly reinforced, and the CIA mole is little more than a ‘baddie’ cipher. So we’re given a Nietzschean CGI chasm that’s contradicted by non-Nietzschean, conventional moralities. “Institutional murder” referred to by newsreader/showrunner Davies raises the spectre of a society no longer capable of separating out ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but as an audience we’re clearly meant to be appalled by “Day 61 of the Great Depression”. What could have been a challenging representation of social (dis)order thus seems rather cartoonish as a consequence.

About midway through this series I pondered whether it would offer a sort of ‘Gaia Agenda’, and I’m tempted to put that option back on the table now that the Phicorp logo has surrendered its secrets. Not once did I think ‘why is that the logo?’, despite it being plastered all over the place, and the revelation of something “hidden in plain sight” feels dramatically satisfying in this case. Less so the discovery of the antipodean twist, though, which hinges on Rhys happening to have an inflatable globe to hand at the vital moment. Given the amassed talent of the writers’ room, could a more elegant route to this plot point not have been found? But the big reveal of the Blessing does raise one inevitable, intriguing question: just what will the Magical Crack in the World reveal to Captain Jack?

This episode hails from John Fay, the only other writer carried over from Torchwood ‘s prior UK life by showrunner Russell T. Davies. For my money, Fay penned one of the strongest episodes of Children of Earth, and also has form in the TV thriller department thanks to his ITV miniseries Mobile from 2007. Like Davies, Fay has combined work on UK soaps with social realist and genre fare; also like Davies, Fay has tended to root his TV writing in regional geographies (Mobile focuses partly on Liverpool-Manchester rivalries, for example). And Fay delivers some tense sequences in this episode, expertly hybridising kitchen-sink drama with the stuff of global conspiracy. All the sequences set in that Swansea house feel both very Davies-esque, and yet also of a piece with Fay’s writerly voice. Indeed, John Fay seems to enjoy combining the down-to-earth with outlandish fantasy – Mobile made pronounced use of one character’s fixation with bathroom fittings within its tale of murder and mesmerism; here, Fay fuses what’s required of him – key plot points and societal beats – with musings on Geraint missing his own bed, Rhys’s bathroom time being disrupted, and other details such as the value of storytelling, whether as a source of clues (The Devil Within) or as something vital to the Families (Jilly’s recruitment). The ordinary, the homely, and the human are repeatedly contrasted with extraordinary events.

One of the strongest ideas in this episode, however, lies in the CIA’s investigation and Charlotte’s analysis that they have “6 million suspects” – something like twice the population of Wales. This is a stunning concept: how could a force of so many millions ever be defeated in CSI-style or 24-mode? Just as Torchwood wasn’t designed to deal with politicians, how could it ever deal with a collective monster indistinguishable from the social fabric itself? But the notion is too subversive to be explored in any depth, and instead it’s quickly glossed over. Torchwood can’t fight society, or the system; its monsters need to be far more localised in order to be defeatable – like an abyss, which even if it runs through the Earth’s core can at least be tracked down, travelled to, and (presumably next week) gazed into by the Torchwood team. Davies’s solution to creating a ‘global’ TV drama, akin to his apparent use of Nietzsche, is to literalise, literalise, literalise – hence mistranslation is the Families’ favoured tool of concealment, and the globe itself hides or contains the Blessing. When TV screenwriting manuals advise that a global menace is needed, I’m not sure they’ve ever meant a CGI chasm running globally from pole to pole. But with this concept Davies definitively pre-empts any Fox or Starz executive giving him a note along the lines of ‘we like Miracle Day, but it needs a bigger scale of threat’. The miraculous Blessing, it turns out, is textbook global drama.


Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Eight: A Fatal Floor? Fri, 02 Sep 2011 07:00:32 +0000 Having long since set up the rules of a post-Miracle world, here those rules are challenged and reworked. This is a tricky game to play, as the meaning of a man dying, and the definition of a Category Zero depend entirely on audiences having already internalised this shifted, skewed science-fictional world for their shock value. If supernatural horror achieves some of its effects by breaking the rules of realism and introducing threatening, fantastical elements, then Miracle Day sets itself a more difficult mission: first to realise a coherent, convincing vision of a world without death, and then to unsettle the audience by unexpectedly restoring elements of our reality. But, as yet, mortality has returned to just one deathbed.

Pre-Miracle Day Torchwood has been criticised by some writers for its “lack of originality”; in the recently published book Cult Telefantasy Series, Sue Short argues that the show never convincingly found its own identity instead typically coming across as a mix of The X-Files and Buffy (2011:179—180). This episode seems to take that refrain and play with it – look, there’s Nana Visitor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Oh, and there’s The Next Generation‘s Q, John de Lancie, almost effortlessly stealing the show. And look, it’s co-written by Jane Buffy, Battlestar Galactica etc Espenson. This week, links to other telefantasy shows are not only front and centre as fans of American telefantasy are treated to a parade of cameos – such links simultaneously dare the viewer to ponder what, if anything, they’ve ever seen that’s remotely like this. The essence of the world is altered by one flooring underlay; characters magically discuss their escape with guards standing all around them; a celebrity paedophile requests a prostitute of legal age and tries to will himself into a different identity. Where have you seen that combo served up before?

Mind you, 24-style plot beats are all present and correct – Jilly being offered promotion by the Families; Shawnie infiltrating Oswald’s set-up and then being discovered; Charlotte acting as a Family mole within the CIA. But surrounded by Star Trek star guests and re-contextualised by Miracle Day‘s quirks, these plot points feel as if they’ve fallen through a rift in space-time and found themselves mysteriously embedded here, a veneer of generic content plastered over rampant strangeness.

Because it’s a square of flooring that’s the narrative star of the show in this ep. Unlike Henry James’ The Figure in the Carpet, this bit of floor covering surrenders its secret meanings rather than remaining forever elusive. James’s novella challenged reviewers – implying that authors could evade and escape their readers’ understanding – and this episode also throws down a gauntlet to its reviewers: Angelo’s floor may have promptly given up its mysteries, but can you find the Families? Hidden “in plain sight”, everywhere and nowhere, they are the Jamesian motif – the metaphorical figure in the carpet – through which the showrunner’s secret currently outruns his audience, tantalising with the lure of meaning yet to be unearthed. How can their names never have existed?

Angelo’s under-floor tech is sufficiently important that tie-in novel Long Time Dead by Sarah Pinborough takes specific care to integrate its recovery from the Hub. In this recently published Miracle Day prequel, one character enters the devastated Hub back at Cardiff Bay:

“he laid his torch down on the floor, idly noting an unfamiliar name stencilled on an empty packing crate: ‘Colasanto’” (Pinborough 2011:238).

It’s all rather self-referential: Jack inspired the search for immortality last week, and this week flotsam and jetsam from the good old Hub offers a way out of deathlessness. At this rate, the mysterious three men at the historical head of the Families will prove to be part of some 1920’s American Torchwood spin-off (Torchwood in Manhattan?), and the Families will have vanished themselves using time-travel shenanigans stolen from a travelling Time Lord. Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things don’t get any more self-referential across the next few weeks.

Livetweeting the episode, co-writer Espenson noted that its heroes felt vulnerable and real to her; Jack doesn’t know exactly how to deal with the null field, just as Esther doesn’t know how to help the wounded, mortal Jack, and Gwen clearly doesn’t know how best to deal with Shapiro. Some have playfully interpreted this as Torchwood’s absurd incompetence (both the organisation and this series), but I’m tempted to read it more positively. Rather than omnipotently dealing with the Families’ scheme, our protagonists don’t quite cut it as action heroes: all are fatally flawed, whether by lack of field experience (Esther), lack of smooth diplomacy (Gwen), lack of knowledge (Jack) or lack of empathy (Rex). Muddling through, and doing the best they can, if this Torchwood team are victorious then it won’t ever be as a result of their pure shiny professionalism.

Of course, it’s a remix of Doctor Who: amateurism and human improvisation against monstrous worlds of managerialism, evil capitalism, and techno-industrial control. Torchwood is all about its character and organisational flaws; it always has been. Even when series one manically badged itself with hexagonal ‘T’ logos this never quite seemed convincing – as if Torchwood was trying to persuade itself of its professional standing by madly imprinting that brand everywhere. But whether flawed or floored, this serial continues to provide a rich sense of oddity and originality.


Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Seven: Who’s Buying Who? Fri, 26 Aug 2011 07:00:19 +0000 This episode – ‘The One With An Alien In It’ – toys with audience expectations that some sort of extraterrestrial force or technology will finally be unveiled… only for the Brain Spawn beastie (trailed in ‘Next Time’ promos) to be rapidly dispatched amid a flurry of intertextual references to Doctor Who and, potentially, the child-orientated Sarah Jane Adventures. The Trickster’s brigade may have been responsible, but it’s hard not to see this gambit as a narrative trick played on audiences. And it’s not the only one, because this is an expertly structured episode in which the frame story (Gwen driving Jack to a hand-over) and nested flashback (Jack and Angelo meeting in 1920s America) merge to provide a final twist.

Forget the alien, though. The real pay-off this week isn’t a sci-fi creature at all, but rather three men joining arms to form a triangular motif. Yes, the spinning-triangle baddies have their apparent origins in a pact sealed with the manly grasping of wrists. Because these three men acquired the rights to none other than Captain Jack himself. The Miracle, and all its corruption of humanity, seemingly stems from treating Harkness as a commodity to be bought, and owned, and cashed-in. He’s given religious meaning by the crowd that repeatedly torments and kills him – a “miracle” and a “blessing” – but only before a price is put on this sacredness. Welcome to the land of the free.

Oh, the delicious irony, the implicit subversion of co-branding and international TV partnerships. Russell T. Davies must have been chortling – insert various “hoorays” here – when he first pitched this storyline to Fox executives (Starz later stepped in, of course), waiting to see whether they were buying. And whether they’d get the subtext. Because on my reading, the meat of this episode is that moment when American (immigrants?) purchase Jack: the ultimate villains of the piece are those who assume they can own a piece of Harkness’s distinctiveness, manipulating him as a commodity to their own ends, as well as satisfying their own desires for a shortcut to immortality. Theirs is the sin; the immorality of assuming that everything can be bought and sold.

It’s an odd story to decide to tell when attempting to sell Torchwood, as a commodity, to American TV executives. Or perhaps it was the only story for an auteur to focus on when writing for new imagined paymasters, and looking to hawk Harkness to new global markets. The spinning-triangle baddies even have their own logo that pops up when they’re in touch via telecomms, rather like a TV network, say. Perhaps all that earlier stuff about US-UK cultural differences was just a distraction from the fact that Miracle Day is actually about itself at a deeper, narrative level. And about what can be done with Captain Jack as (a) property.

In Stacey Abbott’s excellent edited collection, The Cult TV Book, there’s a piece by one Jane Espenson entitled ‘Playing Hard to ‘Get’: How to Write Cult TV’. Among many observations on the importance of cult TV’s storylines and characters, Espenson includes the following:

Captain Jack Harkness is as complex a character as you’re likely to find… Moral shadings and unexpected weaknesses, and the way a character evolves over the course of a show, these all help make complicated people. When an audience has to bring contradictions into focus as they try to understand the totality of a complex character, they cannot help but get involved. Characters that defy easy analysis invite investment (2010: 49—50).

And ‘Immortal Sins’ – written by none other than Jane Espenson – restores Captain Jack to narrative centrality and complexity in a series where he has sometimes seemed to be an afterthought, competing for screen time with new additions Rex, Esther, Jilly and Oswald, as well as being rendered less powerful by his newfound mortality.

But this week is all about Jack.

In reality, it’s always been all about Jack, but to keep viewers (and US TV execs?) guessing, the unfolding storyline has presumably had to hold that fact back for a while. (It was hinted at in eps one and two, only to be set to one side once Phicorp took precedence in the narrative game). Following her own advice in ‘How To Write Cult TV’, Espenson sketches out a complex Jack who comes back for his lover and companion Angelo Colasanto, but who tells Gwen he’ll rip the skin from her skull if it means he gets to live on. And this Jack cannot forgive Angelo’s mistakes, despite his immortality. Angelo is likewise depicted with deft vibrancy. His religious beliefs come into conflict with his sexuality, ultimately causing him to radically misjudge Jack and fear him as a sort of devil. Religion and capitalism: twin devils of the Davies-verse.

There are also many wonderful Espenson moments: Jack not knowing the name of Gwen’s mother; that initial seduction scene as Jack and Angelo discuss their passion in a het-coded way; the fleeting lifecycle of a firebird. And there’s a real sense of Jack being on a mission-of-the-week, meaning that the flashback feels somewhat like a throwback to Torchwood series one and two. Jack’s history reminds viewers of the programme’s history. But although Espenson was writing about audience and fan devotion when she noted that characters like Jack Harkness “invite investment”, in the end it’s a different and more literal investment that Jack invites here by unwisely sharing his secret with a mixed-up bootlegger. This series was initially entitled Torchwood: The New World before morphing into Miracle Day. Somewhere out there, faithful viewer – perhaps in Russell T. Davies’s mythical bottom drawer – I like to imagine there’s an even earlier draft. Torchwood: Bought By American Baddies.


Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Six: Stuck in the Middle? Fri, 19 Aug 2011 07:00:22 +0000 In this week’s post I want to tackle the idea that Miracle Day has been too slow, suggesting that the critique rests on a category error; a refusal to enter into the genre game being played by the series. Because the thriller is a genre identifiable as being almost all middle: a journey where the pay-off doesn’t arrive until the finale.

Episodes one to nine will, by definition, be gradually decoded bits of narrative machinery encountered en route: enigma after mystery after puzzle. This week, for instance, we get the Shanghai operative who joins the 45 Club within moments of its introduction: whatever he saw on that secret Phicorp site was evidently grotesque enough and bleak enough to provoke immediate ‘suicide’. At the heart of any thriller there’s a gap, an invisibility, a blankness promising significance and meaning. Imagination fills that gap: what do you think he saw? How bad could it have been? What the hell was it?

This episode poses other questions; are Phicorp executive Stuart Owens and overflow camp boss Colin Maloney both just ‘middle men’? Both are caught up in a system that they can’t clearly understand or effect. Phicorp’s control over the Miracle is thus akin to penpusher Maloney’s control over the San Pedro modules, suggesting a symbolic coherence of sorts. Indeed, Owens’ account of the build-up to the Miracle is a dialogue highlight. He tells Jack that this doesn’t betray any perceptible force at work, just carefully hidden and artfully dispersed networks of accountability implicating everyone and no-one. A truly powerful conspiracy would never be visible… so the failure to find any sign of unknown forces at work is evidence of inconceivable, omnipotent forces at work. Writer John Shiban sells this mad logic by dressing it up in the form of actor Ernie Hudson; conspiracy paranoia in a three-piece suit.

However, Shiban can’t quite decide how to handle the concentration camps storyline – this episode wants to indicate that team Torchwood secure a moral victory by exposing what’s going on, but then also wants to undercut their triumph by showing that the political system simply carries on. The former perspective exaggerates Torchwood’s action-adventure agency – the Holocaust as Monster of the Week? – as well as overplaying the role of social media in a rather self-congratulatory way. The implication appears to be that in a world of uploaded video, there could be no Holocaust because the truth would always get out there (either on a video-camera or via magic contact lenses). And the latter perspective – “Torchwood wasn’t designed to fight politicians”, Jack solemnly intones – broaches a melancholic worldview where easy fixes (and genre resolutions) don’t work, and where reality is a more complex system. It’s a murky world which leaves Torchwood‘s heroes stuck in the middle too.

But what of the show’s audiences? Are we stuck in the middle in another sense – watching the sixth of ten episodes and still not understanding what’s going on? As literary theorist Lars Ole Sauerberg has argued, suspense in the thriller hinges on concealment and protraction: withholding crucial narrative information (who’s behind the Miracle? Why?), and “stretching an issue and its result as much as may be tolerated” (1984:83). There are two ways of achieving protraction: prolongation and shift (ibid.). As examples, Sauerberg refers to a countdown (prolongation) and a flashback that changes the story’s setting (shift) – a textbook example of the latter looks to be episode seven, judging by the ‘Next Time’ trailer. In short, Miracle Day is placed within a genre which hinges on not giving away key narrative information until perhaps the closing scenes of the closing episode; we edge closer to the final reveal, but encounter numerous layers of implications, hints, and clues along the way – with “The Blessing” being added this week to previous weeks’ mentions of “the families” and special “geography.”

Because we’re ‘The Middle Men’ and women, Torchwood‘s viewers who assent to the thriller’s rules and go along for the ride. Sure, we expect twists along the way – but the end of episode five did that, as did this week’s ending, whilst episodes one and two largely set up the show’s premise and the new Torchwood team. Eps three and four consolidated the post-Miracle world, building up Phicorp’s role and prefiguring the overflow camps via ‘Dead is Dead’. I can’t see any of this as “treading water” – but if you try to read a thriller as episodic TV (with a tidy resolution or a big reveal allocated to each week’s narrative) then it will look slow, whether you’re talking about The Shadow Line, Edge of Darkness, State of Play or Torchwood: Miracle Day. Moving even closer to the thriller format than Children of Earth, this year’s Torchwood wants its audience to spend nine weeks asking questions and imagining answers rather than being handed them every fifty-or-so minutes. I’m still hoping that the final reveal will be breathtaking enough, challenging enough, and bold enough to have richly deserved weeks and weeks of speculation over cryptic phrases. But ultimately any thriller’s labyrinthine plotting – where those stuck in the middle are “just following orders”, and where our heroes can’t instantly bring down a political elite – is about transforming opaque, incomprehensible systems into legible, significant patterns of meaning. Miracle Day‘s genre contract involves the promise of meaning – delayed, deferred and withheld via concealment/protraction, yet promised nonetheless. You have to tolerate being stuck in the story’s elongated middle in order to appreciate eventual revelation.


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Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Five: The Allegories of Life? Fri, 12 Aug 2011 07:00:49 +0000 There’s no faulting the ambition of this version of Torchwood, which here tips its hand as SF TV coding the Holocaust. Science fiction has long been lauded as a genre which is able to smuggle in social critique via symbolic, allegorical means. But this episode doesn’t surreptitiously smuggle its meanings in, it pretty much drivcs them in through a big plate-glass window. It’s one way of doing hard-hitting TV (c.f. Queer as Folk).

By wearing its (great)coat of allegory so conspicuously, Miracle Day creates a problem for itself. Because it isn’t just symbolically coding the Holocaust, it’s also doing something else at the same time: creating a science-fictional mystery about who’s behind Phicorp, and what they stand to gain. This means that the Holocaust parallels are muddled, if not undercut. The likes of Maloney may be petty bureaucrats intent on coming in “under budget”, and the modules’ purpose may be opaque to many of those involved who shrug and say “ask admin”, but all those renderings of ‘just following orders’ beg the question – what’s the point of it all? What do Phicorp’s controllers stand to gain? And this level of meaning runs somewhat counter to ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ by implying an as-yet-unknown fantastical explanation for events. Vera speculates that the category 1 patients may be used as petri dishes to breed new diseases, but burning them doesn’t immediately or obviously benefit Phicorp.

What, then, is the value of presumably still-living ashes to the spinning-triangle Baddies? Has all this happened before, and so somewhere on earth (or beyond) there are special areas of geography where the soil is already sentient? Perhaps “the Families” used to have names because they are now living molecules, dispersed into the environment, but still interconnected by morphic fields (and that’s been mentioned enough times it’s clearly going to come back in the eventual reveal). I’m tempted to ponder whether, following the Holocaust parallels, there’s going to be some sort of Gaia agenda, with living earth being (re)created on Earth. But the fact that, as a science fiction fan, I’m considering such questions and mysteries suggests that Torchwood‘s coding of the Holocaust could be so much more powerful – and so much more hard-hitting – without accompanying layers of SF mystery. The fact that this is science-fictional allegory gets in the way of what’s being connoted, rather than simply helping to smuggle challenging material into primetime TV.

Worse, though, the revelation that we’re dealing with a version of the Holocaust comes at Miracle Day‘s midway point, suggesting again that there are further, bigger reveals to come. There’s a breath-taking kind of allegorical grade inflation here: the Holocaust somehow only merits an AA+ allegory rating, with the triple-A-rated stuff yet to come. Holocaust parallels as a kind of midseries game-changer? Didn’t anyone dare question this in storylining terms? Because it raises the question of what, if anything, could possibly be worse. And it simultaneously raises an ethical question: should an historical event of such magnitude and implication be used to furnish a rather muddled set of half-time, second-tier connotations?

This episode also focalises its trauma via Dr Vera Juarez’s fate. But Torchwood has killed off so many lead characters across its run, that to (seemingly) kill a character we’ve only seen in 5 episodes lacks the impact of Ianto Jones’ death, say, or even those of Tosh and Owen back in the days of series two. It feels comparatively less significant this time, which is surely again a difficulty: for long-terms fans, at least, Miracle Day is potentially pulling against the show’s history in order to realise its intended impact.

Intertextually (Vera is no Ianto), narratively (coming at the end of episode five rather than climactically at the end of episode nine), and generically (what about the Big SF Mystery?) Miracle Day‘s allegorical coding of the Holocaust is lessened, weakened, and reduced. It should be plain heartbreaking. It really should be utterly, utterly devastating. What we get are cuts from stadium lighting at the Miracle Day Rally to flames surrounding Dr. Vera. The bright lights of media celebrity visually rhymed with concentration camp death; different shades of (extra)ordinary humanity. It’s a startling piece of editing and intercutting, to be sure, its meaning-making also strongly aestheticised. But it’s yet another layer of distraction, pushing the audience to think about Oswald’s loyalties while the San Pedro module fires up. In fact, this episode pulls its punches in so many ways that I’m tempted to conclude the Holocaust parallel is made obvious only to the extent that its impact can be warded off, guarded against, and contained. Perhaps ‘The Categories of Life’ would have been more shocking, and more potent, if its allegorical coating had been that bit thicker, and its connotations just that bit less obvious. By wanting to announce its audacity, Miracle Day calls into question its own narrative ethics – globalised TV drama may ask tough questions about what humanity is capable of, but should it evoke real-world global traumas as second-order shocks, subordinated to a science fiction story-arc? The show’s undoubted success this week lies in provoking questions not just about man’s inhumanity, but also about Miracle Day‘s own narrative and allegorical form.


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Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Four: Escaping Cliché? Fri, 05 Aug 2011 07:00:54 +0000 One of the odd things about blogging a TV series as it goes along, rather than writing about it after the fact, is that certain narrative events, even specific scenes, can come to define a show. Torchwood: Children of Earth announced its intent through that Cabinet discussion, for example. Miracle Day has, thus far, offered its share of gruesome, spectacular non-deaths – Ellis Hartley Monroe’s this week managing to top earlier efforts – but it doesn’t feel as though it has yet reached its defining point. Episode Four, ‘Escape to L.A.’, offers some prefiguring, perhaps, via ‘Dead Is Dead’ satire. Because the overflow camps are coming. I can’t help but wonder – and this is speculation rather than spoiler – if Torchwood is going to go to the darkest of places… primetime BBC1 connotations of the Holocaust? Would Russell T. Davies really dare? Because if Miracle Day does go there, then all earlier discussions – all earlier grumbles and niggles – are going to tumble into irrelevance. Have episodes one to four constituted nothing less than the delay and decay necessary to accrete a narrative world in which the unthinkable can, somehow, become thinkable?

Viewed, as yet, without that larger context, episode four still feels attenuated. It’s the protraction – the you-don’t-know-yet – that thrillers need. A scary mystery man pursues Torchwood. And he gives enigmatic clues about what’s going on, bless him, embodying a hackneyed device that’s even older than Captain Jack, and which the writers hang a sizeable lampshade on by way of deflecting criticism; “oh great, he’s cryptic”, Gwen tells us just in case we’d not noticed. But this is where it gets interesting. Because Miracle Day has made a big show of its socio-politico-medical extrapolations – what would happen if nobody could die? Breeding infections; the ‘Dead Is Dead’ right-wingery; Oswald Danes as a Phicorp mouthpiece, etc. ‘Look’, the series says, ‘look at how carefully we’ve thought about what this would do to the skin, and flesh, and bone and sinews of the world.’ Dr. Vera attends various medical panels, as further consequences are computed and considered. Everything changes, as they say.

And then we get the following narrative gambit: scary mystery man (C. Thomas Howell) is about to spill the beans on his scary mystery paymasters. And he gets shot before he can do so. Doh! But wait a minute – nobody can die now, so this cliché shouldn’t work any more. Like macro world-changing extrapolations, the conventions of thriller narratives also need to be extrapolated from, shifted, and destabilised by the writing team. But instead clichés are replayed with just a veneer of difference. The Baddies want rid of Ellis Hartley Monroe. They can’t kill her, so instead she’s crushed inside a car, leaving her a compacted cube of baleful eye and engine parts.

Or, in old money: she’s bumped off and out of the story.

Likewise, scary mystery man can’t be silenced by his untimely death. Oh, wait, no, he’s been shot in the neck by Rex and so now can only gurgle and froth even more cryptic sounds. But Team Torchwood could surely still get him to write down the answers to what’s going on. Pen and paper to save the world. The story doesn’t seem interested in pursuing this line, though, because in narrative terms he’s been bumped off too, as per thriller conventions.

In short, what this episode illustrates is that Miracle Day is characterised by a schizophrenic, divided premise: it makes a big show of altering social/political/medical logic, yet soldiers on with pre-Miracle narrative logic and all its associated cliches. The result is a series that feels torn in two.

Whether the writers’ room intuited this or not – and I’m guessing it did – episode four does something rather marvellous. It appears to set out two distinct story strands: Rhys and baby Anwen are back in Swansea, whereas Gwen is on a Torchwood mission in Venice Beach. Rhys calls at inopportune moments, and the US-UK time difference is toyed with; “it’s already tonight”, the poor fellow protests. The separateness of these two worlds is reinforced. Then, just as the overflow camps are discovered, we find that what have been constructed as two divorced realms collapse together to create a new level of jeopardy for Gwen’s family. This unexpected dovetailing is well crafted, leaving the viewer with a feeling that things are, at last, coming together. But the merging is partly a feint; by crafting a storyline with such a strong unifying impulse, ‘Escape to L.A.’ covers over the fact that it remains structurally split between an altered diegetic world and unaltered thriller tropes.

Oh, and the spinning-triangle Baddies know Captain Jack of old. Who are these evil geometry fiends? The hokum quotient puts me in mind of Russell T Davies’ 1991 TV drama, Dark Season, although that was BBC kids’ television rather than a big, global, grown-up conspiracy drama. And yet there’s something oddly child-like about Miracle Day‘s adherence to the reassuring familiarity of unreconstructed action-adventure. While humanity stumbles toward ruin, there are shadowy figures behind the scenes pulling all the strings. Ontological shock meets old school. Forget US/UK tensions. This, I’d say, is the most powerful culture clash currently underpinning Miracle Day: a startling science-fictional novum strained through thriller clichés.


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Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Three: Tonight’s The Night? Fri, 29 Jul 2011 07:00:09 +0000 Not on BBC1, it wasn’t. Because this episode’s UK transmission was marked by what it failed to include. The Starz edit featured a sex sequence intercutting between Captain Jack and Barman Brad, and Rex and Vera, showing each couple rolling about in bed. But despite warnings about sexual content from the BBC Wales’ announcer, the UK version skipped this entire montage, as well as cutting away pretty sharpish from a preceding sequence where Jack pushed Brad’s head down below frame’s edge (you know what I’m saying). No sex please, we’re prudish. Both gay and het couplings were lessened, leaving classically coy post-coital scenes in place.

The Beeb have responded to complaints about this cut, stating that differing edits related to the show’s “different audiences”, and insisting that “in a later episode a sequence of gay sex is important to the story and therefore both the US and UK will show the same version.” So the likes of Jane Tranter and Julie Gardner weren’t able to gauge what would be suitable content for the episode ‘Dead of Night’? Really?

One problem is that Torchwood has to function as ‘TV III’ in the US (‘edgy’ niche TV reinforcing the ‘Starz Originals’ brand, and drawing in paying cable consumers), while simultaneously acting as ‘TV I’ in the UK (broadcast TV for a mass audience). My feeling was that Russell T. Davies and co. would square this circle by focusing on ‘edgy’ concepts rather than sex and gore – a celebrity paedophile as protagonist; a world without death. But the tension between two different paymasters – with radically different imagined audiences, and imagined agendas – has now fractured Torchwood into ‘TV III’ and ‘TV I’ incarnations. The differences aren’t national per se, but they’re about the differing industrial contexts of Starz/the BBC.

And that issue leads me to John Barrowman.

Currently UK TV audiences are enjoying early Saturday evening light entertainment, Tonight’s The Night, fronted by the bright-smiled prankster and granter of wishes. This BBC1 show draws on Barrowman’s star intertext, frequently being linked to music and the theatrical. It presents its presenter as genial, playful, and family-friendly: Barrowman-as-everyman. But such an image seemingly doesn’t match up well with depictions of Barrowman-as-Jack involved in gay sex (even safe sex). I can see no real reason for the BBC to have cut the Rex/Vera sex scene, but I can imagine a reason why BBC Execs would think twice about having a Saturday night family entertainment host appearing in a post-watershed sex scene. However, if they’d only cut Captain Jack’s sexy time then they’d immediately have looked guilty of homophobia. In fact, if the BBC are concerned about Barrowman – an out gay man – playing a bisexual or ‘omnisexual’ character who has sex, and if they are concerned that this may contradict the family entertainment values of Tonight’s The Night, then perhaps this remains nothing less than tacit, implicit homophobia. If only the BBC were braver – if they really wanted to stand by the fuller ideals of a ‘public service broadcaster’ – then they’d embrace Captain Jack as a character to be integrated with John Barrowman as a TV personality. Barrowman himself says in the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine: “about 75% of it is wonderful writing, and then may be 25% because of personality. I put a lot of my own personality into Jack” (in Cook 2011:19).

But apparently there can’t be too much Captain Jack in John Barrowman the 7pm BBC1 TV personality, and a clear semiotic divide has to be established between the two as far as BBC brand management goes. The DWM feature on Miracle Day may punningly equate it with Barrowman’s early TV presenting career (on Saturday morning kids’ show Live & Kicking) by using the banner title ‘Alive and Kicking!’. And tabloid TV journalists may blur John/Jack: “It’s not possible to watch him acting his pretty little socks off in Torchwood on Thursdays without seeing the presenter of Tonight’s the Night… on Saturdays” mutters Jim Shelley in the Daily Mirror. But the BBC is mightily keen not to lead viewers from Tonight’s The Night to Torchwood (though they’ll happily take the reverse trade: Tonight’s The Night was trailed after 11pm on BBC1 Wales last week, following immediately on from the Torchwood-focused one-off documentary, Wales and Hollywood).

The rationale that’s sometimes given is that Captain Jack might entice Doctor Who‘s child fans into watching inappropriate material – but Jack’s not been in Who for a couple of years; this may not be as active an issue as it once was. By contrast, Barrowman-the-personality-presenter is very much a live concern. It’s the transmission of Tonight’s The Night that’s currently running alongside Torchwood, not Who. And as James Bennett points out in Television Personalities, “the role of the schedule in television personality performance” (2011:122) is crucial. Primetime personalities perform ‘niceness’, while post-9pm or post-watershed UK TV personalities perform explicitness and irreverence. Bennett discusses Graham Norton’s mobilisation of sexuality in The Graham Norton Show versus his reduction to “fairy godmother” in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria (ibid). And right now, in the UK TV context, John Barrowman finds himself Norton-ed, or split into two incarnations.

As a result, Miracle Day faces not just the problematics of its own scheduling, and what’s suitable for the 9pm slot. It also faces the puzzle of whether its post-watershed Barrowman can be reconciled with the early Saturday evening Barrowman of Tonight’s The Night. And on the evidence of a missing sex scene, the BBC computer says “no”. It isn’t just death that’s mysteriously halted here; sex has gone AWOL too, sacrificed via latent homophobia in order to create a branding firewall between Captain Jack Harkness and family entertainment personality John Barrowman. Miracle Day has been divided into two versions (Starz/BBC) in order to protect and insulate these two versions of JB.


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Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Two: A Rickety Rendition? Fri, 22 Jul 2011 07:00:43 +0000 Advance publicity sells Miracle Day as ‘high concept’ Torchwood; as a philosophical and societal exploration of what it means that (almost) nobody can die. But after the matter-of-fact introduction of ‘Miracle Day’ as a media meme last time, episode two plays this aspect of the series for televisual gimmicks like Dichen Lachman’s dodgy CGI fate, and as fleeting asides (germ incubation; Pakistan and India; the fate of Tithonus). You get the feeling that there was a writers’ room competition to come up with the coolest new thing about deathless humanity, and that there was a checklist of freakish non-deaths to incorporate each week. Perhaps the accumulation of such detail aids with fictional world-building, cumulatively building a sense of the radically off-kilter and the ontologically wrong, but it doesn’t (yet) add up to a coherent narrative. As a result, ‘Rendition’ feels like a grab bag of ideas in search of a through-line. Doris Egan’s screenplay involves Captain Jack being saved by a list of odd ingredients mixed together to make the chemical EDTA, and it’s hard not to see this combinatory logic as emblematic for the episode itself which feels, similarly, like an exercise in mad admixture. Though he was writing of Casablanca rather than Torchwood, Umberto Eco once defined cult status as resulting from a “glorious ricketiness” of intertextual proliferation, and this has a rickety glory all of its own.

What relative coherence ‘Rendition’ does possess results pretty much from the generic tropes of the conspiracy/spy thriller. We get the villainous boss working for shady paymasters; the misguided pawn; and, eventually, a band of renegades teaming up to take on Unseen Powers. “Welcome to Torchwood”, Gwen announces at episode’s end, but “welcome to a generic action thriller” might have been more apposite.

And what’s so maddening about this melange of ontological insecurity and generic familiarity is how unbelievable it all ends up becoming. I can suspend my disbelief in order to go with the ‘high concept’ premise – that comes with the SF territory – but then I have to find it plausible that Esther is tipped off to murky goings-on by her bank phoning ever so promptly to discuss her newfound wealth. This seems like an incredibly strained plot device, its narrative mechanics glaringly standing out. I have to believe that Oswald Danes can mimetically win over tearful TV viewers with his own teary apology, in a sequence that seems almost ostentatiously implausible (and which also highlights the difficulties of star casting; I keep thinking ‘hey, it’s Bill Pullman doing exaggerated acting and nobody dared tell him to tone it down’, rendering the character of Oswald pretty much non-existent). I have to believe in a Flight Attendant who says “I knew my diabetes would come in handy one day”, as he produces a hypodermic that the storyline needs at just that moment. I have to believe in Rex Matheson, a figure so blatantly set up to be disliked that you just know he’s ‘going to go on a journey’ to basic, decent humanity in time for episode ten.

Miracle Day is a brilliant idea for redefining what it means to be human – and a brilliant story machine for creating a distinctive, terrifying fictional world – that’s shackled here to airport-thriller banality and landed with more lumpen riffs on US versus Welsh identity (this must also have been in the writers’ room checklist, hence Jack’s specific request for a cola, and the business about Esther failing to have a “big SUV” and instead driving a Mini; on this basis, of course, old-style Torchwood would have been more American than these Americans). National identity is equated with brands and with consumer culture… just as, it seems, New Humanity is about to be defined and enslaved by its need to consume painkillers-as-products. Is the drugs industry this series’ target, or is there a massive switcheroo yet to come?

Mention of PhiCorp, Rex’s need for meds, and Jilly Kitzinger’s apparent representation of big-business pharmaceuticals all look set to kick Miracle Day to the next level, where perhaps it will finally start to coalesce and cohere. But for now, it’s a resolutely rickety affair. Torchwood 1.0 always was tonally muddled, mind you, combining references to Splott and Cardiff’s real-world geography with B-movie renderings of Doctor Who monsters, pet dinosaurs, and shagging and swearing. Its continuity (or, rather, discontinuity) was remarkably fluid, as characters seemed to lurch from one relationship or psychology to another, depending on that week’s requirements, and as Torchwood was variously a secret organisation or recognised by locals. What’s surprising, in a way, is that for all its co-production budget, and its use of the US writing system, this incarnation is still so marked by “glorious ricketiness” wrapped in the as-yet-unconvincing shell of a conspiracy thriller, and shrouded in implausibility. Oh, yes, and with the added bonus of the single best use of the word “bullshit” seen in recent TV drama.


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Transatlantic Torchwood: Everything Changes? Fri, 15 Jul 2011 07:00:59 +0000 It’s only part one of ten – BBC1 being a tardy six days behind Starz – but how has Torchwood been retooled after its move from BBC Wales to a Starz/BBC Worldwide co-production? Russell T. Davies’s script is faced with quite a shopping list: re-introduce Torchwood given that the show’s been off television since 2009; acknowledge the programme’s history so as not to alienate established fans; bring in new American lead characters; set up the basic premise for a serialised SF thriller; make sure there’s some visible Welshness sprinkled in; and establish new character possibilities for Captain Jack Harkness by revoking his immortality. There’s so much to cram in that the episode belts from one set-piece to another.

However, this pace has its downside. Oddly, ‘Miracle Day’ lacks a sense of the miraculous. Nobody’s dying – it’s a big concept, a massive what-if – but all-too-quickly, and with very little shock and awe, this is rendered as a rolling-news soundbite. ‘Miracle Day’ becomes both the series’ subtitle and a diegetic media shorthand for what’s happening. A quick montage of vox pops and to-camera reporters and – tick that scripting box – it’s on to the next story beat, with ‘Miracle Day’ sketched in as something characters can refer to. By marked contrast, Children of Earth‘s eerie, frozen schoolchildren with their “we are coming” chant allowed that central mystery to gradually build. Episode one of Miracle Day is rather more manic, and more on-the-money in terms of spelling out its parameters. Although we don’t yet know who or what is behind ‘Miracle Day’ – is the global cessation of death just an unanticipated side-effect of some alien scheme to render Captain Jack mortal? – Davies’s screenplay seems more intent on spewing societal stats than evoking extraterrestrial enigmas. And the fluidity of character sexuality that previously marked out Torchwood is also problematically squeezed out here by the need to match up explosions and firefights with High Concept SF TV.

Davies takes a straightforward approach to doing Torchwood-meets-the-US: he literalises production and fan discourses of American-ness/Welshness within the diegesis. Worried that America won’t “get Wales?”. Rex rants about the Severn Bridge and having to pay its toll, as well as observing in mid-action sequence that “Wales is insane”. Will Torchwood become unrecognisably ‘transatlantic’? Rex crosses the Pond with Captain Jack at his side, with the return journey beckoning in ep two. Torchwood goes to America? Well, the team are due to be transported to the States under a “rendition” order. And we haven’t even got to Gwen’s “I’m Welsh” fighting talk yet, though it already feels like the series’ mission statement, after featuring paratextually and insistently in BBC Drama publicity, and at the close of the ‘This season’ trailer.

The curious thing about all this diegetically-rendered ‘culture clash’ stuff is that it’s hardly needed. Because, in a way, Torchwood: Miracle Day is no more or less ‘American’ than Torchwood ever was. The show’s very first episode name-checked CSI, after all, whilst drawing on a glossy, US-indebted televisuality of helicopter shots to depict Cardiff from the air. At least one such shot of urban Cardiff makes it into this episode for old time’s sake, along with lovingly rendered vistas of the Gower, casting the tourist gaze/picture-postcard aesthetic of Wales further afield than before. And it’s hard not to fannishly read the inclusion of a menacing helicopter as a self-referential moment: rather than helicopter shots of Cardiff (series 1 and 2), or the special-effects-simulated helicopter from Children of Earth, this time the show can afford to put an actual, proper chopper on-screen.

Torchwood 1.0 was always in love with the likes of Buffy: casting James Marsters, and aiming for the production values of American Quality/Cult TV. The rift was a kind of aggressively atheistic hellmouth. Now Torchwood is produced by Kelly A. Manners, and Jane Espenson live-tweets along with UK transmission. The show was always a symbolic collision between codes of US telefantasy and icons of Cardiff – the Hub residing underneath Cardiff Bay; Captain Jack stood atop the Altolusso building and the Millennium Centre. This latest version of Torchwood might diegetically literalise US/Welsh identity tensions, but its new production teams also embody the show’s hybridisation of Welsh/American imaginaries. As such, I’d argue that Miracle Day ep one intensifies the cultural logic of Torchwood series 1—3 (‘British’ TV desiring to inflect and emulate ‘American’ TV) rather than representing a ‘New World’. The series might now be partly filmed in America, and part-staffed by American creatives, but the Torchwood brand was always semiotically caught between connoting a specific version of Welsh modernity (mostly architectural) and coding itself as a modulation of US TV, whether in the playful guise of CSI: Cardiff, or via the hicksploitation of ‘Countrycide’, the casting of guest stars, or even Captain Jack’s accent. Torchwood‘s putative ‘Welshness’ was firmly BBC America-friendly; shards of Brit-quirk and signifiers of Welshness (though not the language) jammed into generic telefantasy. And this opener does just the same thing, combining skewed, subversive moments (Rex collapsing instead of offering a gun-toting face-off; Gwen admitting tearfully that she doesn’t know what to do; Rhys suggesting they should do nothing about ‘Miracle Day’) with the generic glitter of rocketlaunchers, interweb intrigue, and a hammily “evil” killer on death-row.

Still, this isn’t an ‘American(ized) Torchwood‘. It’s the making-literal of what was always-already a transatlantic semiosis, and a symbolic US/Welsh hybrid. This time round, though, the show wears its multiple, fragmented cultural imaginaries on its (billowing coat) sleeves.


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