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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day - All About Ianto?

One of the first things a writer (or a keen reader) realizes is that everything is autobiographical. Some writers wear this fact proudly; others like to hide it under layers and layers of distancing tricks; but the fact remains: a careful reader can always pick up the fictional threads that lead back to the writer's reality.

Digging through my favorite writers' heads is one of my favorite pastimes. As such, Russel T Davies has a wonderfully big one to roam around in. Brash, outspoken, confrontational, Davies wears his convictions on his sleeve, unapologetic about his radicalism. People (like myself) whose politics are in line with his might see him as an activist, a champion who screams the things too many people are afraid to whisper. Others wish he'd just shut the hell up.

Activists are driven by emotion. Some may be more diplomatic than others, but deep down, only powerful, overwhelming, undeniable emotion that keeps you up at night can force you to fashion yourself into an object of scorn and hatred. You don't make yourself a target for fun - you do it because otherwise the anger will asphyxiate you.

But writing - and especially television writing - is a highly structured affair. It demands a seemingly impossible feat: making best friends of raw, overwhelming emotion and iron-fisted control. Too much restraint, and the writing falls flat, failing to ignite the passion of the audience. Not enough restraint, and the anger will spin out of control and crash and burn like a war plane on fire.

This is exactly what seems to have happened with Torchwood: Miracle Day. For once, it felt like Davies couldn't quite force his anger into the structure of a storyline. And I think by retracing our steps, we can figure out what went wrong.

Miracle Day stands in stark contrast to the last installment of Torchwood. The powerful Children of Earth wasn't lacking in emotion - passionate rage burns through the show's exploration of the class system, the government's ongoing betrayal of its electorate, the self-hatred that makes us our own worst enemies, and the impotence of trying to make yourself heard. And yet all these beautiful literary gifts seemed overshadowed by the fans' insane overreaction to the death of Ianto Jones.
Russel T Davies made the mistake of demanding maturity from his audience. And the audience would have none of it. In the wake of Children of Earth, along with near-uniform critical praise, Davies was subjected to a torrent of vicious attacks - even death threats - from viewers who refused to accept the powerful emotional experience Davies was offering them. Even his family wasn't spared by angry fans.

This reaction seemed completely out of place in the context of a show like Torchwood, where one main character was killed off in the very first episode and two more died at the end of the season immediately preceding Children of Earth. For some inexplicable reason, an extremely vocal group of fans seemed to think they were watching Hustle instead - a show of perpetually happy endings, solid structure, fun storylines, and complete absence of even the slightest pretense of emotional involvement. Now, don't get me wrong, Hustle is a pleasant little distraction - but it's no Torchwood.

In the context of viciousness directed at Davies after Children of Earth, Miracle Day almost feels like a direct response to the Ianto crazies. You want a show where nobody ever dies? Davies seemed to be saying. Well, here you go. As the show constructed an argument for the value of death in both fiction and reality, dialog seemed to be addressed more and more explicitly to the Ianto brigade. "You know what, let him die," Rhys tells Gwen in the last episode. "Bless the poor bugger, he's had his time." He is talking about Gwen's father - but he might as well be talking about Ianto Jones.

There is a marked difference between the anger we might feel towards a government that has betrayed us, and the anger we might feel towards people who are personally threatening our family. It's the latter that seems to fuel Torchwood: Miracle Day. This very personal, protective, primal rage has nothing to do with reason, or politics, or least of all structure. It's blinding - and as such, it's not the best foundation for writing. In Miracle Day, potentially powerful storylines come and go, never quite making the artistic and political statement they are intended to make - it's as if Davies feels like he has an obligation to address certain things, but keeps losing interest. Other elements seem to be introduced solely for the benefit of the Ianto brigade: the "Dead is Dead" movement, which could potentially serve as a springboard for serious sociopolitical discussion, is reduced to a mere taunt aimed at Ianto fans, not a whole lot more mature than the people it addresses. Even the show's closing scene seems to be designed to stick it to the "Bring Ianto Back" people.

Despite all this, Torchwood: Miracle Day still manages to be highly entertaining - a testament to Russel T Davies' underlying talent and to the show's two remaining stars, John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness) and Eve Myles (Gwen "Rambo" Cooper). I even found its failings strangely satisfying, in a purely juvenile way. The Ianto brigade had managed to hijack the discussion of Torchwood: Children of Earth, viciously shouting down anyone who dared to like the show and generally behaving like rabid dogs even PETA wouldn't defend. As a fan of Torchwood and Russel T Davies, I found myself cheering Davies' jabs at the people I found so excruciatingly annoying last time around. But it's hard to ignore that, in a very real sense, the same people still dominate the discussion of Miracle Day. This time around, however, they didn't have to hijack it - this time, Davies simply handed over the steering wheel.

Let's hope he got it out of his system.


FElizB said...

hahahahahaha. RTD has 'underlying talent'? It must be buried pretty deep, because I have never seen it. Boring, cliche, repetitive ...

It amuses me that you blame fans of some character for the total failure of Miracle Day. It can't be Russel's fault people are finally starting to realise just how little he bothers to plot/redraft, and how much of other people's work (including his own) he recycles.

Anonymous said...

I follow many forums and twitter and apart from those forums that do not allow any real criticism of MD the reactions of fans and reviewers has been mixed. Some of those may be SIJ supporters but the fast majority are not.
RT Davis started with a concept that he awknowledged had pre dated COE but failed in its execution.In the end the death of Ianto became a mute point within a production that was poorly scripted,lacked charactor developement,wit and any sense of the orignal TW tone or dialogue.Charactors do not need to exibit perfection but they do need to engage the viewer and MD struggled to achieve any audience rapport and this mimimised he response to the politics and social commentary.Add to this the simplistic analysis,and tendency to patronise his audience through overstatement and the message becomes a rant which i have to say was epitomised in the metormorphis of Gwen this year into someone who often appeared to overreact as opposed to truly thinking the issues through.So perhaps Gwen is the autobiographical element and not a mythical reaction to the SIJ campaigners.
I awknowledge that RTD is not in my list of excellant writers but he is competant and watchable however too often his work suffers from excess and a tendency towards overdramatic moments and overstated social commentary.
His body of work is not exceptional and apart from Queer as Folk I have not rated his work highly.One argument supporting his credibility as a writer was that he kick started the new Dr Who but DW was an existing premis and he was supported by a team of writers who understood charactor development and offset his excesses.I found his specials OTT and much prefer the more thoughtful style of Stephen Moffat and the audience figuires seem to support this.MD and the move to the USA was ambitious and RTD tried to off set this by building in links to the WHO universe and the death of Ianto etc but it failed to hold the attention of over 2 million viwers in the UK and that is far more significant than the Ianto backlash.
To say that those who criticised COE or MD lack maturity seems to me to be an oversimplified analysis--a bit like the writing in MD.

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha, ha. I laughed so hard I snorted coffee out of my nose. Not sure what is funnier, that you think what you say is a small group of fans could hijack an entire season of a show costing more that 30m dollars, or the idea that Russel T Davies has underlying talent.

Polina said...

Ccoralacid - I am not talking about people who had structural complaints about Children of Earth. I am talking SPECIFICALLY about the very vocal group of fans who reacted to the death of a character with an organized campaign of abuse and intimidation, and about how this campaign of abuse and intimidation might (or might not) have influenced Miracle Day.

Xtiansugar - am I speaking English? Ianto fans certainly hijacked the DISCUSSION of Children of Earth.

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