Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Did Starz Kill Torchwood?

Sciencefictionworld.com delves into what went wrong with Torchwood in America, as the highly anticipated 4th season lost it's steam halfway through. It's unfortunate, because Torchwood's budget was huge this year. You'd think they could have pulled together a better season. It had a great premise, but a terrible follow-through. I stuck it out, but it was painful.

Did anyone else watch Torchwood implode this year? According to Den of Geek, as of November there's been no official word of Torchwood Season 5.



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I’ve now watched more than half of the new US Torchwood: Miracle Day, a joint Starz and BBC production, and it’s clear that Torchwood’s fourth season is now officially dead on arrival in the US - which is ironic given that the season’s premise concerns a day when everyone worldwide stops dying. The elements that made the show original and fresh in the UK have largely vanished. Let’s start with the characters. It’s great to see Jack and Gwen return to their pivotal roles, and they perform admirably as usual (although we see a lot less of them), but the rest of the new US cast are seriously bad. You have to wonder what producer/ head writer Russell T. Davis and Starz were thinking.
CIA Agent Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) and CIA Agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) are particularly unwatchable. Rex appears to be a stupid, dumb American (is this intentional?) who we are supposed to believe is working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (note the word intelligence in the title). Pretty much annoyed most of the time, he appears brash, insensitive and seems to act at one level - urgent and frenzied. As the experienced field operative, his behaviour is unconvincing to say the least. How are we supposed to feel empathy for such a character? In the real world, why would they give that much authority to such an emotionally driven personality? The silliness really gets going in the second episode where he detains the Torchwood team on American soil (because he wants to?). It makes no sense in the story, but makes perfect sense if you’re trying to move a TV show to the US from the UK (in other words, it’s completely unconvincing TV). And why does Rex initially hateTorchwood so much when he knows nothing about them?
CIA Agent Esther Drummond is equally unimpressive. In fact, I still can’t work out what her character is. The writers seemed to have forgotten to give her one, apart from providing a one dimensional outline. She has some level of technical prowess as a hacker and computer expert, but overall she’s simply boring. The sub-plot with her mentally ill sister doesn’t really help (just as Rex’s sub plot with his father - who hates his guts - doesn’t help either). Franky, I’d hate his guts too.
The early scenes set inside the corridors of the CIA are completely unconvincing. Do CIA operatives really gather round monitors like school children to watch YouTube videos? Is it really that easy to grab someones ID tag and just walk out of an important intelligence facility without being checked? Are secret files thrown around the office and dropped into unsecured draws? They seemed to have based these scenes on Steve Carell’s The Office, rather than a realistic representation of a high tech modern intelligence agency (at least I hope they are nothing like that).
Everything seems to be slow and laboured. Every plot point is telegraphed in advance so no one will miss anything (American style). Rescuing Gwen’s Dad from the compound/concentration camp seems to take forever. I get the impression that they’ve dragged out a single plot idea over a season of episodes when in the past (the golden days of seasons 1, 2 and 3) they would have used the same amount of plot and character development per episode - which is what happens when you explicitly state everything as you go, rather than leaving gaps for the audience's imaginations to fill.
Colin Maloney, the Camp Manager, is another example of a badly drawn, unconvincing character. He is just a middleman we hear (I think he tells us this about three times and so do a few other characters in case you missed it). Just following orders, Colin quickly starts torturing and shooting people at the drop of a hat. For some reason he tells us he’s a badminton player about four times too. I guess the writers felt that this was his most salient character trait? His only motivation is that he is carrying out the policies of people in charge. I guess as they are burning people in ovens they had to introduce such a character to make it clear to the audience all this is exactly like World War 2 and the Holocaust. Let's use the line "I'm just following orders" a few times just to ram the similarities home.
Scenes where Jack ends up in bed seem to be just thrown in for the hell of it (see, we're still edgy, we can show gay sex on television!) and the same goes for the bar scenes too. These scenes don't provide anything new to advance the plot or develop character. 
There's plenty of explosions and gun shots, but they never seem to add extra credibility. Gwen carrying a bazooka in the first episode was just silly and the helicopter explosion scene on the beach pointless. It’s the first episode, let’s make sure something explodes!
It’s taken me seven episodes to become vaguely interested in this season (when Jack discovers that the pharmaceutical company is not ultimately responsible is great). God knows how I've held on for so long though. Perhaps I remember how great Torchwood can be? Remember the Japanese computer specialist Toshiko Sato or the Doctor, Owen Harper from season one and two? Characters with character.
Before anyone gets offended (although it may be too late for that), let me be clear, I don’t hate American science fiction and fantasy. In fact, the best science fiction and fantasy comes from America full stop: Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica, the Twilight Zone, the recent Game of Thrones, just to name a few. It’s just that Torchwood: Miracle Day seems to have dropped massively in production values, character credibility, interest, dialogue and style upon its move to the US. I wouldn't say it's as bad as Spielberg’s recent alien invasion TV effort, Falling Skies, but it comes close.
I still pray for a miracle. Perhaps the real miracle when it's revealed will be so miraculous and the final episodes so intense that all the bad will be swept aside?  Really though, if I was going to be direct and forthright, I just want everyone to go back to Cardiff. Everything was better there.

7 comments:

  1. I didn't stick on past season 2, but wow.

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  2. Yeah, it really went downhill season 4. I was really looking forward to it too.

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  3. I thought it was doa myself, I couldn't get past the second series either. I don't think its the transition across the atlantic I think the concept has a brief shelf life-it will always be in the shadow of the Dr.

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  4. Call me a sap, but I haven't watched since they killed off Ianto. I lost interest. It is sad to read about how unhappy people are with the direction of Torchwood so that makes me even more inclined to not watch.

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  5. Paul-- I agree with you about the shelflife thing. That's kind of how I viewed the series Flash Foward. Also, Miracle Day would have been great had it been limited to about 5 episodes, like Children of Earth. 12 episodes was just way too much

    Melissa-- I agree. If you saw the end of Ianto, then you saw all the way through the 3rd season. So you've only missed this last season, Miracle Day. Miracle Day started really well and it had an interesting ending, but the middle way through was pretty bad.

    So I wouldn't recommend it. Had it been a 5 episode arc, it would have probably been the best Torchwood ever, b/c it really did look like a million bucks. There budget was massive. It just went on for too long. 12 episodes of Miracle Day was way too much.

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  6. I actually watched all four seasons of Torchwood for the first time a few weeks ago. After the first season I wasn't sure if I was going to keep watching because I disliked the Captain Jack character so much. I was assured by fans that he got better, so I watched season two, still disliked him, plus hated that they killed off the most likeable character (Tosh).

    I watched Season 3 because it was only 5 episodes and that was actually the best of the Torchwood series, storywise, but it also finished killing off what made the show "Torchwood" - the sense of team and the sense of place - that season 2 had started to kill.

    I watched Season 4 just to complete the run. They managed to kill off the one, new likeable character they introduced. I agree it would have been better with the story compressed down into fewer episodes, but I disliked the new Phifer character just as much as Captain Jack, for pretty much the same reasons.

    Honestly, the writing was pretty inconsistent the entire run. Maybe that's more apparent when watching the episodes so close together. Captain Jack supposedly never sleeps, then in the very next episode he wakes up from a nightmare. Corpses of 1,000 foot tall monsters just disappear and no one ever mentions them again. Torchwood is supersecret, but everybody knows about it and what they do. Captain Jack is bi, no he's straight, no he's "anything with a hole", no he's with Ianto, no he's gay. Nobody knows about Jack not being able to die, not even his co-workers, yet he's practically taken out full page ads in the papers by the time we see all the flashbacks. He's the same man who disappeared during WWII, no he just took his name from that man after he disappeared, no he was going by that name long before WWII. The only thing keeping the time/space rift somewhat in check is the device in the tower - which is completely destroyed in Season 3, yet nothing bad happens to the rift. I could go on.

    This may sound all negative. I enjoyed more aspects of the show than I disliked, but let's be honest: the writing was never the strong part of the show. I didn't think season 4's was any worse than any of the other seasons, other than having to be filled out some to stretch over the number of episodes.

    The only way I'd watch a fifth season of Torchwood is if they put them back in Wales, back in a new tower, maybe revive Tosh somehow, and get rid of the Captain Jack character (and the CIA character). Since the likelihood of any of those things happening is slim to none, I doubt I will be watching it, even if they produce more.

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  7. Chip-- I agree that Torchwood has been inconsistent at times. I personally thought their first two seasons were the best. I thought it started to go down hill in Season 3. Although I thought season 3 was still pretty good being that it was condensed to five episodes. That's kind of what Season 4 should have been. 12 episodes was way too much.

    I also agree with you about the character of Rex Matheson (Phifer). I really disliked his character the duration of the show. Jack's character isn't necessarily meant to be likable, which is why I can tolerate him.

    To me it doesn't matter where they set the show, as long as the writing is good. I hope they get a new batch of writers. Russell Davies is a hard act to follow.

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