America killed Torchwood

gwen_flagI’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 hate Torchwood 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.

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