Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mopping Up "Miracle Day"

Spoilers for the end of the latest series of "Torchwood" below.

"Torchwood: Miracle Day" ended up being such a disappointment. It kept waving around cool ideas and tempting hooks to keep us intrigued, but never stayed with anything long enough to earn any decent dramatic dividends. After nine episodes of portentous doomsaying, and hints of planetwide conspiracies, it turns out that the whole scheme was just a couple of super-secretive, megalomaniacal, but ordinary human beings exploiting a big fat McGuffin to try and take over the world. Prehaps the most disappointing part was that the source of the "miracle," The Blessing, was simply an arbitrary bit of supernatural phenomena being manipulated by the villains, and we got only very brief, very sloppy explanations as to the mechanics. It's easier to say that it granted immortality because the plot needed it to, and that was that.

I knew that the secret of this season's central mystery was bound to be something silly like this - "Torchwood" has always been a very silly show, no matter how adult its content is, but it felt like there was such a lack of effort on the part of the writers this time. The Blessing turns out to be a big, spooky chasm running through the center of the Earth (last seen in Season 5 of "Angel") with some poorly defined life-regulating powers. Pains are taken to impart warnings about people going mad by looking at it and remark how carefully it's guarded. Of course all four of the Torchwood team plus Oswald Danes blunder their way into the two sites where The Blessing could be accessed, and proceed to be almost entirely unaffected by its power. Oswald amusingly defeats it by chanting happy thoughts.

We meet a few members of the Three Families who were working behind the scenes the whole time. They are happy to say more ominous things, but come up with few answers to the questions that the series has been asking all season long. I got the part about throwing society into chaos to create a chance for the Three Families to seize power, but what was the genesis of the idea? Who figured out that Jack's blood, which isn't supposed to have anything to do with Jack's immortality, would make The Blessing react the way it did? Why doesn't everyone stop aging the way Jack does, or have the ability to resurrect themselves? Why is it only human beings that are affected instead of every living thing? And what safeguards do the Three Families have in place to avoid falling victim to the "miracle" themselves? There are simply too many holes in the story, and way too much information conveyed in hurried torrents of exposition. Show, don't tell, dammit.

And it's not like they didn't have the time to answer these questions or get us better acquainted with the key players. Torchwood spent too much time chasing dead ends, ping-ponging between one red herring and the next, and ever-so-slowly building up to a final confrontation that just wasn't ever very interesting. As much as I appreciate Frances Fisher, why would you have her nameless character, who is introduced at the tail end of the ninth episode, as the final baddie instead of Nana Visitor or John DeLancie or Teddy Sears, or one of the other great guest stars who showed up earlier? Why not upgrade Oswald Danes or Jilly Kitzinger to the role, the only two antagonists who actually managed to hang in there since the beginning? Or the turncoat Charlotte Willis, played by the stony Marina Benedict? If she'd only gotten more time and more to do, I think she could have been a much better character.

Looking back over this series, I'm amazed at how poorly planned and developed the storylines were and how badly major elements were tied together. There was simultaneously too much going on and too little. So many characters kept getting hurriedly killed off and interesting concepts cast aside so Torchwood could shove on to something totally different every few episodes. Where did those people in the creepy masks go? What was the point of using Oswald Danes as a Phicorp spokesperson? Couldn't we have gotten a little more wrap-up for the Angelo Colasanto or the Dr. Vera Juarez or the Ellis Hartley Monroe's subplots? Is anyone going to be held accountable for any of the deaths perpetrated by the Three Families? Is Dichen Lachman's head still on backwards? So much happened in this series, and yet so little of it was allowed to have any kind of impact.

The most interesting parts of "Miracle Day" all involved watching society try to deal with the implications of the "miracle," from the creation of camps for the infirm to redefining crime and punishment. This series lost me when it shifted focus away from charting the social turmoil and toward the far more predictable business of chasing down the mysterious bad guys responsible. By the time the world's financial systems began to collapse, we were only hearing about it through incidental news reports. Speaking of which, shouldn't the police have been out dealing with riots and general end-of-the-world violence instead of hounding Gwen's family about a single missing person? Aside from Gwen playing Robin Hood, when was there any other indication of a global depression going on anyway?

Again, I know "Torchwood" is campy sci-fi action at its core, but it's already proved it can be genuinely involving and intelligent entertainment in spite of that. There were a few moments that I liked here and there in this series, but they were pretty scarce next to the countless misssteps. The longer I watched, and the more guest stars kept getting blown up, the more I figured that the show's creators just let their ambitions get away from them. They weren't ready for a story this size and a budget this big. They couldn't figure out how to orchestrate something that would have really taken advantage of the resources they were given. I mean, for all the talk about increasing the scope and upping the production values of the show, the big showdown just involved a couple of actors yelling at each other on two crude sets with a few wind machines and green screens going.

I kind of wish they'd stuck with that from the start.

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