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Torchwood: Miracle Day – Finally Getting to America

21 Aug

Once upon a time I had a letter published in the New York Times in response to a piece they did on Russel T. Davies. In it, I noted that Torchwood felt like a show about people like me, just with more aliens.

What I meant by “people like me” wasn’t necessarily obvious. Because it wasn’t the show’s queer content so much as the smart-people-with-complex-friendship-and-romantic-networks-who-are-in-over-their-heads factor. But sure, the queer content helped, of course.

While I was one of the people who loved Children of Earth (so much so that academic research related to events in it took over a year of my life), Miracle Day, the current series, has been a bit of a struggle for me.

That’s been natural, I think. Aside from having to adjust to new characters and settings, there’s the sense of frustration that’s unavoidable as the show’s founding conceits are introduced to a new audience while us long-time fans are waiting for the plot to advance. But some of that has also been a frustration at tonal shifts that have been the result of the show’s coming to America.

Despite a team of US and UK writers, much of the show’s American content has felt like an impression of America from outside itself run through a damaged lens. This has come off less like commentary and more like just not understanding the nuances of life here: from our homophobia to our paranoias (justified and not) around the healthcare debate. It’s largely been a cartoon America, drawn hastily, with the wrong tools, and it’s been distracting.

These problems, however, are nothing compared to the ones Miracle Day very deliberately sets up for itself. Nazi allegory, even heavy-handed Nazi allegory, is nothing new in SF/F, of course. But it sets the bar high – how do you rise above the crowd with this trope? And how do you do it without being, well, assholes? (context, part 1: I’m half Eastern-European Jewish) While it can be harder and harder for many of us to remember, WWII and its atrocities are still events within our collective living memory.

I’ve been mixed on the show’s handling of this. Episode 4, for example, filled me with a near constant (and perhaps useful and strategic) rage. It reminded me of too many TV movies from the 80s, where people with AIDS were tattooed and put in camps. It was allegory upon allegory, and combined with the character of Oswald Danes, convicted pedophile, going in amongst metaphoric plague victims like Jesus, made some pretty unpleasant connections to some of the more revolting corners of our collective imaginations related to disease and queerness and the corruption of children. I was not comfortable, and I was unsure if the show had a remotely good reason for putting me in such discomfort.

Episode 5, however, knocked me over. Even as the Nazi allegory became even more aggressive to a degree that was perhaps insulting to the audience’s intelligence (yes, I can see that they are setting up camps), I was engaged. And I was perhaps most engaged when Oswald Danes gave his speech about us becoming angels, paralleled with the show’s examination of humans as monsters. I don’t know where Miracle Day is going with this (or if it was just a pretty speech) but at that moment I hoped, and perhaps still do, that part of the mystery to be revealed will have humankind as, in fact, the Nephilim – maybe we have been the supernatural and the monstrous all along.

But through all of this, Miracle Day hasn’t necessarily felt like it was a show about people like me. The interpersonal relationships were sketched too quickly; the casual queer content felt like a sloppy mockery of US homophobia and added nothing to the narrative; and while everyone was smart and in over their heads, they weren’t trying their best. Watching it, I felt, I guess, lonely.

And then, Episode 7 came along (after 6 mitigated some of my reservations about the Nazi allegory, because there’s a specific and legitimizing power when a UK citizen calls out another one on helping to set up camps in their own country), and it was everything I had hoped and wanted Torchwood to be since I first watched Season 1.

It was not just the content (Jack backstory, although where in Jack’s timeline it’s hard to tell), and it certainly wasn’t the sex, but the tone. Here was Torchwood once again understanding that what this show has always been, at its very best, is a romance, not because of Jack’s many relationships, but because of Jack’s many losses and the debt/reward relationship the show, and its source, Doctor Who, has always focused on between mortality and the wonders of the universe.

But it was, for me, also more personal than that. Now, I’ll grant you, fictions I love are always personal for me, and Torchwood has a very special place in both my personal and professional lives. However, that still didn’t mean I expected Episode 7 to take place in Little Italy in New York City or to hear gay slurs that I had previously only heard from my relatives (context, part 2: I’m half-Sicilian).

So it may have taken seven episodes, but my weird show about dysfunctional people trying to save the world with not enough resources while distracted by interpersonal dramarama is back. It’s even in America; one I recognize, finally, because my family came through Ellis Island too and sometimes uses some pretty terrible words.

I’ll do a real analysis of Miracle Day and its various references, allusions and allegories when it’s over. But right now, I’m a little too busy being grateful and stunned.

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7 Responses to “Torchwood: Miracle Day – Finally Getting to America”

  1. laughingacademy August 21, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    Spotted two typos: “angles” and “sow.”

  2. firefly124 August 21, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    As I tweeted immediately after watching it, Jane Espenson knocked this one out of the park and created an awesome episode that finally feels like Torchwood. Because up until now, it has felt to me like a sloppy crossover with an X-Files-ish show that uses the CIA instead of the FBI. Which, if that’s what RTD really wanted to create, would explain why he approached Fox in the first place, a move that is otherwise pretty baffling imo.

    But this, yes this was Torchwood. Because while it’s always been seen largely through the lens (ha) of Gwen’s POV, it’s always been Jack’s story, and for 6 episodes, it really hadn’t been. Now we finally see that it is, though we’ve been left hanging as to exactly how. I’d still argue the pacing is utterly hosed, because it shouldn’t take 7 out of 10 episodes for a show to feel like itself, but yes, it’s back. Serious sigh of relief.

  3. Laurie August 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    I’m just grateful that Rex and Esther found their competence, even though Jack and Gwen left theirs in Wales. But I liked the cliffhanger. I feel like the narrative is finally going somewhere interesting.

  4. April L'Orange August 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Oh dear. It may be a cartoon America from your point of view, but for me, it’s very much the one I’ve been living in. I don’t know where our life experiences have diverged to produce that. And for me, the most terrifying thing about the camps was that, having worked in healthcare for a few years, some of our most extreme emergency plans for dealing with mass illness in this country look very much like that. 😦

    I am so very glad to have “my” Torchwood back, though. *g*

  5. Christine August 21, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I think they bit off a lot, going for 10 episodes over the 5 like in CoE, and they didn’t have more story to fill twice the number of episodes they had before. So they’ve stretched the material (and I think the whole Oswald Danes subplot is moot now; however I see a connection between him and Jack, who is still seeking redemption for taking the life of a child. OD is fascinating to him, a man who has no remorse for a similar crime.) too thinly, and are just now catching up to the story they wanted to tell in the first place.

    If I were plotting this in a nine-block, like a novel, ep 7 falls squarely into the block 5 – connect the dots. It should take the biggest chunk of spa Problem is that blocks 1-4 took far too many words. We should have been where we are now way back in episode 5. Because now there’s only 3 episodes left to get the rest out and wrap it up, and it’s going to feel rushed. I know it is, and I don’t want it to be.

    I wanted this episode weeks ago. I wanted more of a connection to the previous series and to DW before now.

  6. Nisaa August 22, 2011 at 2:05 am #

    Yes, I completely agree with your assessment of Episode 7. I caught up on a few of the episodes yesterday. None of them really hooked me until this one. This is what I’ve been waiting for. Also, I was doing a little happy dance because it was set in Little Italy.

  7. Ana McFarland (@brilliant_snark) August 22, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    “Because it wasn’t the show’s queer content so much as the smart-people-with-complex-friendship-and-romantic-networks-who-are-in-over-their-heads factor.”

    THIS. So much this. And you are helping to pinpoint why so far MD has felt like just something I was watching, versus participating in. Due to many factors, I’ve had emotional reactions to Jack throughout the episodes so far, but it’s been much more surface-based, or connected to head-canon and fanon, rather than a connection to the show. Ep. 7 did change all that for me. It felt like Torchwood, my Torchwood, in a way MD had failed at so far. Up till now, when people asked me how I felt about MD, what my thoughts are, my response has been “I’ll have to get back to you when it’s done. I’m just absorbing and can’t make judgments until I know where this is going.” That’s largely still true, but this episode has certainly been a big turning point.

    “…fictions I love are always personal for me, and Torchwood has a very special place in both my personal and professional lives.”

    I’m brewing a post on LJ about this very topic. About how the fictions I love are so personal. Too personal. So personal it hurts. And why I still wouldn’t trade that relationship for everything.

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