Archive for the ‘Torchwood’ Category

We Should Have Run Faster

September 15, 2011

I asked Dr. Richard Slater of the media department at Brunel University to give his thoughts on the latest series of Torchwood. He was kind enough to grant us the following article:

He's working up to a shout about *something*

For all the howling in the press about the proposed cuts to BBC4’s arts budget, it has been very pleasing to see the BBC pour its resources into a risky collaboration between itself and an overseas partner to provide the viewing public with perhaps the most outrageous presentation of avant-garde art since Jacob Bronowski’s ground-breaking Wagner deconstruction, Ring:Piece in 1978.

I refer, unmistakably, to BBC1’s recent showing of Torchwood: Miracle Day, spread luxuriously over ten weeks and climaxing, if that’s the right word, only last night.

A serial drama charting the workings of a formerly clandestine agency with a remit to investigate the unusual and outlandish, this programme has its roots in three previous series of varying connection. Indeed the lead character’s evolution goes further back than even that, originating in a set of children’s tales first broadcast in 1963.

But what sets Torchwood: Miracle Day apart from the crowd is the subversive nature of its design. Transcending the original premise – a sordid and distressingly regional update of Scooby-Doo – its new form sits in the television schedules like glistening spider, beckoning in the thrill-seeking and the onanistic, and tricking them into watching the equivalent of a new installation at the exciting end of the Tate Gallery, only with an awful lot more anal sex.

We should take a moment to set the scene. Within the realm of the story being told, ‘Torchwood’ is the code-name for the remains of an agency set up by Queen Victoria to investigate threats to the Empire from beyond Planet Earth. The previous three series had told a number of stories in an increasingly hysterical tone, culminating with only two main cast members left standing. The first, Captain Jack Harkness, is a chiselled leading-man with a greatcoat and a penchant for everlasting life. The other is Gwen Cooper, a miniature policewoman whose dark and scowling features herald a personality made, seemingly, of bauxite.

Here is where the process takes its first turn into the unexpected. For reasons known best to itself, the BBC had become ambivalent as to whether it wanted to play this particular game any further. The holder of the property, one Mr. Russell T. Davies, thus announced he was taking his ball to America, and shortly after, this ten-part serial was in gestation.

Mr. Davies had previously proved himself to have alchemical skills, transforming the moribund tea-time costumier Doctor Who into a going, if lightweight, concern.  One can only imagine the transatlantic phone-calls where he detailed hammering his low-rent potboiler into a vehicle for delivering a series of nerve-rattling artistic jolts, envisioned to shatter the aesthetic sensibility of the viewer.  That he persuaded a raft of American money-men to back his vision could be one of the more remarkable televisual achievements of the age.

Ladies, he's married

For let us be clear. If you want coherent narrative, look elsewhere. If you seek logic, you will find the door behind you and slightly to your right. If you seek consistent characterisation, believable motive, trenchant dialogue, subtle performances, a satisfying dénouement or any of the qualities normally ascribed to successful and popular television drama, then you will not find them here.  A deliberate and gleeful challenge to nearly every convention of television drama, Torchwood: Miracle Day utterly succeeds on its own terms.

The series opens to paedophile murderer Oswald Danes being executed for his crimes. That he fails to perish is symptomatic of a wider issue, however – all of humanity has – thanks to some outside force – just stopped dying.

The world, it is fair to say, does not react well to the lack of death, and it’s against this background of global confusion that Torchwood’s subversion begins to reveal itself – total confidence in its ability to tell a story and the *importance* of that story, alongside a wilful, deliberate and straight-faced set of narrative and production ‘failures’ that seep through the programme from titles to credits. At any point in the ten hours running time, what you are watching is exactly the opposite of what the show is ‘trying’ to be.

Suitably, as reversal of norms is the motif, instead the audience is punished, brutally and relentlessly; Mr. Danes remains with us for the rest of the series, a primal scream of twitching and jowly anger; hideous to behold and painful to hear, serving no purpose except to remind us that death will, ultimately be craved. In fact, you may even receive a first taste of longing for it during the first episode. It’s a brilliant move.

(Bill Pullman, the actor playing Mr. Danes, requires special acclaim for having his jaw repeatedly broken and reset prior to filming, not to mention having his tongue injected with semen before each scene.)

Gwen and Jack then return from their respective exiles (Wales, and outer space) in time to find themselves mysteriously hunted by powers beyond them. This theme of vastly-powerful, world-controlling conspiracies – a familiar trope, to be fair – is given a fresh boost by being reduced to a single pixel which flashes on and off in the corner of the screen when required.

Next, we meet grievously-injured Rex Matheson, CIA agent and unusual in consisting of little more than a looping, endless snarl. He provides the essential grounding for the new, American setting, and is the drama’s engine, despite having less warmth and humanity than the metal pole that killed him.

The last member of the team is Esther, a CIA analyst, intriguingly played by some tears and a wig. She need not detain us.


In a traditional narrative sense, we have our ‘team’. However, despite the ludicrous swagger injected by the producers, they all hate each other, nobody wants to work together and everyone is staggeringly inept at their job. The usual gun-fetishism applies, like most US drama, but by episode three it is impossible not to wish all the main characters (and indeed, the actors) turned their weapons on themselves. Have you ever wished John Barrowman dead? Of course you have – you’re only human – but have you even spent any time wondering how you, yourself could contribute to the brutal murder of a fistful of Equity members, and played out the scenarios in your head? As you can see, this is unusually powerful and emotive television.

And that’s before we even consider the plot.

Red herring is piled upon red herring like some hideous fish pressé. Whole hours are spent running up blind alleys, on straight-faced quests for information which, once gleaned, add nothing or say nothing, except, possibly “fuck you, audience”. Characters wander in from left-field, demanding your investment, and then wander out again, or are arbitrarily killed off. The casting director, in particular, needs congratulating for an extended series of cameos from former teen stars, well-known character actors and genre ‘faces’ that pack their characters with pointless significance – it would be called stunt casting if there were actually any tricks involved. This reviewer’s particular favourite was Ernie Hudson’s ten minutes of screen-time, in which not one word, action or line-reading made any sense whatsoever.

Mr. Hudson featured in episode six, perhaps the best single hour of the run. A hymn to clashing tones and sensibilities, it invented a new televisual trope; the ‘frantic longeur’, where the show expended a lot of sound and fury doing absolutely nothing. Viewers came out the other side both numbed and antsy.

Episode seven was just filled with men having sex with each other. This is where the show failed for me, to be honest – if it had the courage of its convictions it would have actually shown the lovemaking in all its honest and physical glory. I remain deeply disappointed with the lack of explicit male-on-male penetration.

Television series can redeem themselves, however. Sometimes a run of mixed quality can be set against a thrilling finale and all is then forgiven. That would be too mundane for Torchwood, however, and it serves up a last episode in which the battered heroes shout at each other in an unconvincing pit, in front of a giant space vagina that runs through the centre of the earth, and requires sated with blood, for a reason that achieved escape velocity some time ago and is currently waving at us from Jupiter.

I confess to whooping at the screen with unrestrained delight as the main characters tried to hammer the various strands of plot together and failing, like an uncle with a jigsaw on Boxing Day. All of which was drowned out by the anguished rumblings of the massive subterranean fanny. Completely incoherent, completely nonsensical, and yet convinced it was selling you the story of your dreams.

It was only made more wonderful by the show’s coda, set at the wig’s funeral. The double agent, who had previously spent the last three episodes with a face that screamed I Am A Double Agent, shot Rex in the chest. Poor Rex, a man so grouchy even his testicles would look at you askance, then came back to life in the same fashion as the now-immortal-again Cpt. Jack, in a manner that stripped away any dignity the corpse of Torchwood may have had left, while simultaneously begging for another series.

There appears to be little chance of a return for the Torchwood team. Those viewers who braved through to the end will be reluctant to go though the experience again, even if it did act as a glorious purge. Those who missed the nuance will run away howling at the very thought.

I hope Mr. Davies did a little jig after urinating on his chips so comprehensively. He deserved it.