Outside the Government: The New World

(28 comments)

It’s some time in early July, 2011. Let’s go with US transmission, since that is first transmission. So July 8th, 2011. Does that mean we should do Billboard charts for these? Yes, let’s. That means Adele is at number one with “Rolling in the Deep,” with Pitbull and Lady Gaga placing and showing. We are approximately one month into Doctor Who’s new “midseason break,” and from now on the break is going to feel like it takes forever. In news, News of the World is announced to be no more. On a spiritually related note, the Anthony Weiner photo scandal happened. And, the day this episode airs, the final Space Shuttle mission launches.

So, to start, we’re back on thrice weekly posting for the next couple of weeks. The next three, specifically - the final two episodes of Miracle Day, which are interspersed with the back half of Season Six, will go back to twice-a-week treatment, with Doctor Who on Monday and Torchwood on Wednesday. I am also pre-emptively doing away with all sense of what a post length is for Miracle Day. I’m covering it episode-by-episode, but if an episode only has a couple hundred words to write about, well, it’ll be a short post that day. 

All of this sounds rather grim, so let me also put in at the outset that I, at the time, rather liked Miracle Day. Of course, at the time I rather liked Torchwood Season Two as well, and that turned out poorly, so there’s certainly the possibility that this is all going to get very hostile and dour within a few entries, but for now, at least, my vague guess for where we’ll end up with Miracle Day is more or less redemptive. Equally, there’s no point in dodging the overall narrative here: after the stunning success of Children of Earth, Davies took Torchwood to America and promptly killed it. Miracle Day is a massive critical flop that did poorly enough that nobody really wanted to make more Torchwood after it was done. 

All of which said, “The New World” is a puzzling little thing. Much of why this is true is down to the circumstances of its production. Following the end of their time running Doctor Who, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner were basically sent to the US with the intention being that they’d generate some high-profile American co-productions, starting with the fourth season of Torchwood. Whatever high hopes they started with ultimately faltered a bit - Gardner has managed to get a production career going on a number of b-list shows like Da Vinci’s Demons, but Davies ultimately left the US after Miracle Day, albeit for reasons entirely unrelated to that show’s success or failure. (His partner had brain cancer, and he returned to the UK to spend time with him and care for him, abandoning the show he was developing for Showtime in the process.) 

No small part of this was down to the choice of US co-producers, namely Starz. This may require a bit of explanation for those in the UK. There are in essence three tiers of American television. The most basic tier is broadcast television - a handful of channels that can be received for free, over the air, with an appropriate antenna. These channels are nominally local, but are in practice almost all affiliated with national networks (NBC, CBS, etc) who set their daytime and primetime coverage. These channels are where shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, and The X-Files come from, to pick three that we’ve talked about over the years.

Atop that is basic cable - channels that require a subscription to a service. There are a couple dozen channels on the “basic” platform - CNN, Comedy Central, and SyFy are all examples, providing shows like The Daily Show, Battlestar Galactica, and, for its first four seasons, American rebroadcasts of Doctor Who. Cable is named for the way it gets to your house, namely through wires running up alongside electricity and phone service. (In contrast, the UK prefers satellite dishes, which Americans also have, but the category of channel delivered through these means are broadly called cable because that was what was initially more prominent.) 

And then there’s extended cable - the hundreds of small channels you get with a more expensive subscription like BBC America. These include a handful of channels that one must pay specifically for. The most famous of these is HBO, which combines semi-recent movies shown commercial free with a smattering of original programming that’s usually quite expensive and well-made. Behind them, but also prominent, are Showtime and Cinemax. And then, bringing up the rear, is Starz. 

The number of households that get Starz is, in other words, not huge. In terms of raw audience, moving from BBC America to Starz is in most regards a step down, especially given that prior to its move Torchwood had decent distribution on Netflix. That’s not to say that Starz made a bad call in acquiring Torchwood. But it’s important to be clear on what the merits of Torchwood could reasonably be expected to be. The logic underlying the subscription channels is not so much the attraction of a large number of viewers, but an increase in subscribers. HBO doesn’t spend an obscene amount of money every year to make Game of Thrones because tons of people watch it (though it does get very good figures), but because a significant number of people will pay $15 a month just to get access to Game of Thrones. So the appeal of Torchwood is that it’s a show with a reasonably large number of built-in fans who might credibly pay a premium to see it. 

Which means that the one thing “The New World” really didn’t need to spend a ton of time doing was reintroducing the premise of Torchwood with a new POV character. And yet, with Mekhi Phifer’s character, that’s ultimately what we get - a story that’s about some bog standard American television characters (the hotheaded but brilliant agent and his overly patient and meek female assistant) finding out that something called Torchwood exists, and that it seemingly consists of an extravagantly violent Welsh woman and a kind of camp guy in a nice jacket. 

This was seized upon, in the early reaction to the show, as a reason to make a variety of complaints about the show being “Americanized.” And there is some logic to that, most notably in the basic fact that Mekhi Phifer is more or less the statistical average of American television actors, and Rex Matheson doubly so. In many ways, in fact, at first glance Miracle Day appears to be not so much an Americanized version of Torchwood as a sort of ultra-American show - more American, in many ways, than American television itself. 

But equally, this isn’t actually motivated by an effort to make Torchwood accessible to Americans - something we’ll see over the rest of the season. Rather, the Americanness of Miracle Day, at least at the outset, seems like part of the point. Certainly that seems to be what’s going on with Oswald Danes, who is, from the very start, visibly a sort of cracked mirror representation of American culture. It feels wrong and jarring, but then again, it’s very pointedly a British person painting a broad and exaggerated portion of America - an image of what the country looks like from the outside. There’s an argument, and a sane one, that this image plays poorly in the United States itself. There’s another that says this doesn’t matter, and that the practice of showing America from another perspective is worthwhile. There’s a third perspective that says that this entire discussion is irrelevant as long as Bill Pullman is busy deciding that he was mostly hired to eat the scenery.

And, of course, there’s a fourth perspective, and in many ways the one that was most damning to the show in the long term, which is that the British public didn’t much care about a crassly Americanized remake of Torchwood in the same way that they had cared about Children of Earth. Ultimately, whichever reading of “The New World” you take - Americanized to appeal to a new audience or Americanized to show an outsider’s perspective to the country - neither of them are great arguments for airing the show on BBC One, especially given that it’s not even first transmission and the UK is thus getting the delayed feed of their own damn show. 


But in any case, the result of all of this is a very odd first episode where the only real sense of a statement of “this is what Torchwood does now that it’s an American co-production” is to very loudly shout “we can afford a helicopter chase!” Regardless of what Miracle Day eventually finds to say - and at this point the general hints that it’s going to explore its premise in an old school “science fiction as a place to explore the consequences of ideas” way, albeit with a premise that is still firmly in the realm of magical realism more than it is in the realm of any sort of “hard SF” approach - this is a very strange way to start proceedings. 

Comments

SpaceSquid 2 years, 7 months ago

Doubly more or less the statistical average? Hasn't Logopolis suffered enough?

Link | Reply

Stuart Ian Burns 2 years, 7 months ago

Will you be doing the Web of Lies animated spin-off or the "The Lost Files" Radio 4 series which was broadcast as a run-in to Miracle Day? I'd love to know what you make of House of the Dead.

Link | Reply

Alex Antonijevic 2 years, 7 months ago

Yeah, that mid Series 6 break was tough, but I'm really wishing we had something like this to fill the gap between Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath.

Link | Reply

jane 2 years, 7 months ago

We've had Game of Thrones and Orphan Black. ;)

Link | Reply

Alex Antonijevic 2 years, 7 months ago

Both excellent shows. There's a lot of great stuff to watch, but I do miss Doctor Who and Doctor Who related shows.

Link | Reply

Ombund 2 years, 7 months ago

I was leafing through The Writer's Tale at the weekend and came across the bit where RTD describes receiving the Children of Earth scripts from John Fay and James Moran. He says that because he works so much on instinct now he was only able to wrestle the story into a coherent whole and really discover its themes when he had all the scripts together like that and he could edit at will. I assume that for (completely understandable) external reasons Russell wasn't able to undertake the same process with the Miracle Day scripts, and so sadly we're left with this rather incoherent stretched-out mess.

Anyway, I respect your attempt to at least try to find a redemptive reading. Good luck!

Link | Reply

Adam Riggio 2 years, 7 months ago

The reference to magical realism is something I expected you'd go through when you got to Miracle Day, as I found this both an extremely interesting and equally frustrating element of the season. Miracle Day has basically the same premise as Death With Interruptions one of the last novels of Jose Saramago, and was developed a couple of years after the release of the film version of his novel Blindness.

And while Blindness was an interesting film, it proved just how many core aspects of Saramago's writing can't really be transmitted to visual media, particularly his reliance on the functional nature of his characters, which rarely have names, and whose singularity is constructed from an assembly of attributes and actions. When Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo are playing these characters that are assembled from functions, their identities are obvious and clear.

So in adapting the central idea from a late Saramago masterpiece, Davies and Gardner mutate the concept into the camp action sci-fi of Torchwood. You could think of Rex, Esther, and Danes' programmatic natures as an attempt to adapt the functionality of Saramago's characters: "the hotheaded but brilliant agent and his overly patient and meek female assistant" and the "cracked mirror representation of American culture." We already know Jack, Gwen, and Rhys well enough as personal characters that they're our guides into this twisted thematic adaptation, as the context of Torchwood explores the more violent, terrifying aspects of the premise that in Saramago's hands was giddily cynical but also warmly redemptive.

Of course, if the series had actually achieved any of this, we'd probably be just wrapping up Torchwood's sixth season, having migrated to Netflix original productions, complaining that the new season of Orange Is the New Black has overshadowed it.

Link | Reply

John Anderson 2 years, 7 months ago

Watched over ten - was it ten? - interminable weeks was soul-sapping in the extreme. Able to re-watch it over a few nights on DVD, I found it much more palatable. Not good, I hasten to add, but palatable.

Link | Reply

Ombund 2 years, 7 months ago

It's one of the least episodic TV shows I've ever seen (the Jack flashback episode aside). It felt very much like "is that 50 minutes of material yet? OK, cut there". So I can see how it would work better in quick succession.

Link | Reply

John 2 years, 7 months ago

Your description of the tiers of American cable is puzzling to me. BBC America is a basic cable channel, just one that's not available on all cable packages. That's a completely different thing from a premium cable channel, which is available to people who subscribe to it specifically.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 2 years, 7 months ago

We're Torchwood, says Gwen, right after shooting down a helicopter. Because shooting down helicopters is exactly what Torchwood has been all about up until now.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 2 years, 7 months ago

Saramago's prose style, being largely based around the ironic misuse of cliches to convey the inability of bureaucracies to deal with actual facts, is also untranslatable. The kinds of television that Torchwood could most easily satirise as incapable of dealing with inconvenient realities - CSI, 24 - are visually highly innovative.

Link | Reply

Pen Name Pending 2 years, 7 months ago

I was just about to post something like this--it very much depends on privider. My family gets BBCA at second tier, but no HBO or Starz or the like. However, my grandparents get BBCA at the most basic cable package.

Link | Reply

John 2 years, 7 months ago

Right. And I think the distinction between "getting it in the most basic cable package" and "getting it at the next level up cable package" is much less than that between "getting it in a cable package" and "paying for that channel specifically."

Link | Reply

SpaceSquid 2 years, 7 months ago

Torchwood: never the same thing twice. Including good.

Link | Reply

Philip Sandifer 2 years, 7 months ago

Looking at the price tiers for where I live...

The most basic cable package runs $29.95 a month, and includes SyFy but not BBC America. BBC America shows up at a $49.99 a month package.

HBO, Starz or whatever can be added to either of these packages for $10.

All of those are promotional prices that expire after a year and then jump by $10-15.

I think these are thus meaningfully distinguished as types of channels.

Link | Reply

Lewis Christian 2 years, 7 months ago

Mind you, Torchwood do enjoy shooting at shit in general, so it fits.

Link | Reply

Jordan Murphy 2 years, 7 months ago

I don't think this means, however, that channels like BBC America are any more "premium" than channels like Comedy Central, just more niche. I suspect BBCA would eventually move to the basic tier if there was enough demand for it. Channels like HBO, Showtime, and even Starz are a different category. You specifically add HBO, where you might get BBCA because you moved up a level to get TCM (which is why I had it when I had cable).

Link | Reply

Jordan Murphy 2 years, 7 months ago

You might get BBCA as one of a number of channels, I meant to say.

Link | Reply

evilsoup 2 years, 7 months ago

House of the Dead was the one set in India, wasn't it? Man, those radio plays were so much better than the Torchwood TV series, Children of Earth excepted. I suppose because they couldn't shove alien pheromone date-rape tee hee hee into something intended for the Radio 4 audience.

Link | Reply

Leslie Lozada 2 years, 7 months ago

Well, there was the Musketeers, if you wanted to see Capaldi.

Link | Reply

Leslie Lozada 2 years, 7 months ago

Well, to be fair, if there was an occasion Torchwood had to shoot at a heilcopter, it would have taken out half of Cardiff.

Link | Reply

jkorvin 2 years, 7 months ago

Er, yeah we do know what cable TV is in Britain, thanks. Was very popular in the late 90s. MicroSoft invested heavily in British cable TV during the dot com boom.
As for the outsider view of America angle, that's interesting and reminds me of why I like Danny Cannon's 1995 Judge Dredd movie, in which all the characters seem to be living out particular American fantasies. Fargo, initially the wise political leader in the Lincoln mold must be a Western fan, as he attempts unsuccessfully to embody The Man With No Name in the Wild West/Cursed Earth. Meanwhile, the cadets who clear Dredd's name appear to have grown up with reruns of ST:TNG. I thought it was a bold, fresh look at America.

Miracle Day I thought was an interesting take of conspiracy theory mythology, a theme Davies explored previously in Alien of London and The Long Game, as well as a admittedly unsubtle reminder of how we are a hairs breadth from fascism (cf Turn Left). I also found it very entertaining, in a morbid kind of way. I don't get the hate for it.

Link | Reply

Daru 2 years, 7 months ago

I found this first episode an odd one. As I had a pretty sense of the US from outside as an avid watcher of many shows, and from inside as a visitor. As a character I was switched off by Rex and there was not enough substance in the female assistant (can't recall her name) for me. It seemed that there was potentially something interesting in the premise that could build somewhere, but this episode only appeared to build to the climax of a helicopter explosion, and as a result felt a bit flatter than it could have been. Still sort of liked it.

Link | Reply

UrsulaL 2 years, 7 months ago

The channel is "premium" in that you have to pay a premium to get it. It isn't merely more "niche", in that you can choose one package that includes it versus another that excludes it but includes something else. There is no option for not paying for, say, a dozen sports channels I don't watch and getting science fiction and drama stations instead. You have to buy a package, which will include a lot of channels you don't want, in order to get the handful you do want.


Which means that not only is moving the show from a lower tier of cable to a higher one cutting the audience, it is also changing the demographics of the audience. The show becomes one for the rich, those who can afford to pay extra to see it.

Link | Reply

timber-munki 2 years, 7 months ago

The only good thing I can remember about the show was the end of the episode when they'd landed in America and having broken Dichen Lachman's character's neck on the plane they see her walking after them with her neck at an impossible angle. The awkward looks as they drive past her trying not to make eye contact with her was great visual comedy.

Apart from that the only real comment I have about Miracle Day was that it was just too long. Would have prefered 2 or 3 stories told over a few episodes each. Ultimately if you're telling a story over 10 episodes you really should have 10 different interesting things to say about it. MD sort of runs out of steam about half way thru.

Link | Reply

UrsulaL 2 years, 7 months ago

Thinking more about the significance of this season of Torchwood being on Starz.

It feels somewhat as if there is a fundamental disconnect between the mission of the BBC and the mission of Starz. The BBC is charged with making quality programming for the general British audience. It's an essentially democratic goal - quality TV for everyone.

Starz works by making television that will attract a small number of people who are both willing and able to pay a premium to get what they want. It's an essentially elitist endeavor.

When PBS works with the BBC to make television, there is a harmony in their goals. Both are public television, with a similar goal of providing a certain type of quality for a general audience.

When BBCA works with the BBC, there is a harmony of goals as well, because BBCA is essentially there to be a cheering squad for the BBC - it's for people in the US who like what the BBC is doing, and therefore supporting more of the same. Ratifying the BBC's mission and methods as interesting even outside Britain.

For neither PBS nor BBCA is the goal ever to make something that is more like US commercial television.

So I suspect that there was a fairly strong culture-clash between the people of the BBC and the people of Starz, rather than the clear affection that BBCA has for the BBC, or the established relationship of shared goals and collaboration between PBS and the BBC.

Link | Reply

Stuart Ian Burns 2 years, 7 months ago

Now. House of the Dead was something else, but to explain would be a massive spoiler which destroys the whole thing put is pertinent in relation to Miracle Day.

Link | Reply

New Comment

required

required (not published)

optional

Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

Authors

Feeds

RSS / Atom