outside the government
It’s August 5th, 2011. Yep. LMFAO again. In news, terrible flooding strikes Thailand, the US manages one of its periodic narrow aversions of global economic catastrophe by increasing its debt ceiling, but suffers a downgrading to its credit rating anyway, and some guy named Mark Duggan is killed by the police in London, but really, what are the odds that that’s going to go absolutely terribly.
While on television, Miracle Day reaches the halfway point. “The Categories of Life” is a ruthless, effective thing. It is not quite a surprising piece of television – it is an episode built around major character death, which is by this point an absolutely bog standard trick that television pulls. But Jane Espenson has been around the block more than enough times to execute it correctly, and “The Categories of Life” is a well-worked example, with the standard approach of focusing the episode heavily on the character you’re about to off, and initially making it appear that they’re going to be newly minted as a primary character before unexpectedly killing them.
There is a certain degree to which this is an inherently flawed practice, especially given how common the episode structure is. The use of shock deaths as a default way of adding tension to a show has become a cliche and a crutch – an easy way to generate the feel of something being a “major episode.” Torchwood has been plenty guilty of this in the past, most infamously with the finale to Season Two, but it’s hardly a Torchwood-specific vice.
The most infamous version of this phenomenon, named by comics-writer Gail Simone in reaction to a particularly grim plot twist in an issue of Green Lantern, is the trope of “women in refrigerators,” a trope whose naming serves to identify and condemn the tendency to use female characters for the job of being gratuitously killed in order to anger and motivate male characters. And the killing of Vera Juaraez, the series’ most promising new character, in order to give Rex some more man pain, fits squarely and frustratingly into this tradition, so much so that the means of her death – being incinerated in an oven – has to go down as the most bitter joke Jane Espenson has ever written.
And yet for all of this, “The Categories of Life” bristles with a potential not previously seen within Miracle Day. Part of this is the fact that Miracle Day has been consciously configured to take character death off the table. Shock character death is, it has to be admitted, a materially different trick in a show where nobody can die, and the fact that the previous episodes contained three separate instances of a character who visibly should be dead being shown to be alive, including the gruesome eyeball-in-a-crushed-car scene at the end of “Escape to LA,” further emphasized the illusion that this was a show that wasn’t going to kill characters. And so killing Vera feels wrong and shocking in a way that other television deaths don’t.…
The schedule for this week will be Miracle Day on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, comics reviews on Thursday, Last War in Albion on Friday, and Waffling on Sunday.
It’s July 29th, 2011. LMFAO remain at number one. Forever. In news, Amy Winehouse dies, Congressman David Wu resigns over a rape allegation, and Congress decides to ignore the ten year term limit on FBI Directors to keep Robert Mueller in place.
While on television, more Torchwood. “Escape to LA” falls in an interesting place within Miracle Day. Not to look ahead too much, but with the next installment, “The Categories of Life,” Miracle Day finally hits a point where you can say with a straight face that it’s working. Which is to say that “Escape to LA” is another component of the awkward start that doomed Miracle Day. And yet in almost every regard the worst of that start is over, and the series is finally starting to get to the things it’s going to do well. It’s just that it doesn’t actually do them well yet, leaving that as a topic for Wednesday.
Here, though, what is interesting is that “Escape to LA” is in many ways a bespoke episode. In hindsight this has been an element of past episodes – the entire series thus far has been unusually focused on single episode storytelling: the instantly disappearing Soulless, the single episode villain of Lyn Peterson in “Rendition,” et cetera. But “Escape to LA” takes this to, perhaps, its furthest extent. Ellis Hartley Monroe, Jack’s father, and C. Thomas Howell’s nameless assassin are all single episode characters who exist to show up, make the plot of this single episode work, and then disappear into thin air.
This is, to be sure, an odd move for a ten-part series focused on a metaplot. Some of it is clearly motivated by a desire to do some stunt casting, although it’s not clear that Mare Winningham or C. Thomas Howell are particularly big gets. They’re both competent and respectable American actors, and the US equivalent of Torchwood getting, say, Richard Briers for an episode. But the decision to structure entire episodes around the ability to get them in for two days of filming creates a bizarre effect, in that “Escape from LA” ends up weirdly disconnected from the episodes on either side of it even as it picks up the plot from “Dead of Night” and sets up the plot of “The Categories of Life.”
Perhaps the most bewildering is Rex’s father, a scene that exists in strange isolation from everything around it. In an episode that hinges in a large part on the consequences of Esther’s inability to leave her family alone, Rex’s decision to visit his father (a father who is clearly known to the CIA, as Esther says she found mention of him in his file) has no consequences or implications whatsoever. It’s barely set up, little yet paid off. And within the scene there’s precious little content – clearly Rex and his father do not get along and never have, but there’s not even a hint of why.…
It’s July 22nd, 2011. LMFAO is still at number one, and my cheeky decision to do Billboard charts means I can’t get more than the number one single, so we’re going to be bored on charts for a while. I could switch back to UK charts, but really, this feels funnier. In news, the final Space Shuttle mission lands, and Anders Breivik kills seventy-seven people in Norway.
While on television, Dead of Night. For the most part, the arrival of Jane Espenson was a major boon for Miracle Day. She is, after all, flat out one of the best writers of genre television working in the United States. Having trained under Whedon, she went on to amble about any number of shows, including a sizable stint on Battlestar Galactica, where she quickly shed the label she’d acquired on Buffy as your go-to writer for the light and funny episodes, instead establishing herself as a flexible writer who could make almost anything sing. She is, by any estimation, very, very good.
And it’s clear from the breakdowns of episodes that Davies picked her to do a lot of the heavy lifting on the show. Davies surely provided some lines here – “they’re so alive” is, for instance, almost certainly him. But Espenson is clearly set up to do the bulk of the actual writing – she’s the one with the job of making a majority of the scripts work. The trouble is that she’s been dealt a strangely unworked through hand. There’s a dramatic shift in tone that’s taken place between “Rendition” and “Dead of Night.” “Rendition” wanted to play at being a procedural – at being a story about what would actually happen if the Miracle took place. Yes, it cut corners in some key spots, but there was a real effort being spent to figure out what actual problems might spring out of this premise.
One episode later, however, that’s in tatters. We’ve got magic painkillers, the panels discussing what to do have derailed into being excuses to hammer on the pro-life movement instead of actual explorations of the premise, and suddenly the focus is on this Soulless cult, which is terribly ill-defined. Indeed, this is where the entire Oswald plot, dodgy to begin with, really gets into the realm of the fundamentally problematic. The problem, in a nutshell, is that you’ve got a fundamentally satiric idea – a celebrity cult around a pedophile murderer – being employed for entirely serious purposes. The “everybody falls in love with the horrible killer” story is doable, hence it having been done loads of times, but the point there is always to highlight the absurd notions involved in celebrity itself.
But this seems to be trying to employ that idea for serious purposes – as part of a quasi-realistic thriller. Although to be fair, this point could use unpacking. Certainly there’s an embrace of the ridiculous throughout Miracle Day. “Rendition” had loads of it alongside the Vera Juarez plot, and so does “Dead of Night,” with its magic contact lenses and all.…
It’s July 15th, 2011. LMFAO are at number one with “Party Rock Anthem.” In news, South Sudan becomes independent, and that’s about it. While on television, “Rendition.” And I should note, I did say posts would be short sometimes.
One suspects that this, more than any other episode, is responsible for Miracle Day going down poorly. An opening episode with rough edges can be forgiven, but the obvious critique of “Rendition” – that it is an hour of people on a plane – is relatively solid. Sure, lots of other things go on, with Oswald, Esther, and Vera all getting meaty (if not entirely functional) plots, but the character that “The New World” established as the new lead and the two familiar characters are, indeed, on a plane all episode, dealing with a deeply silly plot. And the result is an episode that is spinning its wheels visibly.
There are structural reasons. A broad look at Miracle Day reveals that it is basically the structure of Children of Earth slowed down such that it’s a series of five two-parters. Each pair of episodes constitutes a distinct phase of the operation and take on the story, leading to a cliffhanger that moves to something else. On the whole, the degree to which this works generally increases over the course of the season – the episode five/six pair and the episode seven/eight pair are actually both very sharp. The problem really is early on, when it means that Miracle Day spends two hours getting to the point where its main cast is actually assembled and ready to start engaging with the plot. It’s a bad structural gaffe that in no way erases the later, more interesting things that Miracle Day, but that does get the entire thing off to a kind of rotten start.
Under the surface, however, there’s some genuinely interesting stuff going on. Or, at least, trying to. Esther may not be on a plane, but she ultimately spends all episode waiting for one to land. And Oswald is still misfiring badly. Most – indeed arguably all – of what works about “Rendition” are the scenes built around Vera Juarez, the one character who actually gets to explore the idea of the Miracle in a meaningful way. The scene in which she quickly and on the fly reworks the hospital’s triage system is absolutely wonderful, as is the image of a completely ad hoc team of people coming together chaotically to figure out how the world works now. On top of that, Vera is marvelously played by Arlene Tur, who unproblematically plays a hyper-competent badass while also feeling like an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. She’s very much the season’s breakout character, and this episode, where she gets essentially all of the good plots, is a lot of why. How Tur hasn’t had a meaningful role in anything since this is completely beyond me.
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t really the stuff that Torchwood is interested in.…
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.…
It’s November 15th, 2010. Rihanna is at number one with “Only Girl (In the World),” with Adele, Take That, and McFly also charting. In news, there’s a G-20 summit in Seoul and Aung San Suu Kyi is released from house arrest in either Burma or Myanmar, depending on your preference in country names. And on the day the second part of this airs, the engagement of Prince William and Catherine Middleton is announced.
While on television, the fourth and final full season of The Sarah Jane Adventures concludes with Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. There exists a sense in which this is almost unbearable to watch. It’s the last television appearance of Lis Sladen before she died, after all. And it’s an episode whose plot is largely concerned with Sarah Jane falling ill and nearly dying, with lots of talk about whether she’s too old and whether it wouldn’t be better to just hand the job of protecting the Earth to someone else. It is in no way easy to watch in the context of hindsight.
Let’s read this in light of the larger themes of the late Davies era, since we are by this point in what we might call the late for its own funeral Davies era. Specifically, let’s bring up the theme of Children of Earth, a critique, of reproductive futurism. For those just tuning in, reproductive futurism is a term coined by the queer theorist Lee Edelman to describe the ideological practice of justifying things in the name of an idealized vision of “the children” with no material investment in actual childhood, with childhood being defined specifically as the absence of any political engagement. It’s not a good thing, and generally speaking people who produce children’s media that embraces reproductive futurism should be shot in the face.
So here’s a reality of the world instead. There are children who grew up on The Sarah Jane Adventures. Children for whom the hastily assembled “My Sarah Jane” tribute was an absolutely essential piece of mourning because the star of their favorite television show unexpectedly died. Children who still went back and watched the show after she died, because they had DVD sets, and who engaged with this story in exactly the same way that we all do now: as a story that’s about death and abandonment and the fact that people grow old, centered on a character played by an actress who, at the time of transmission, was five months from death.
Surely this is a good thing. What, after all, is the point of children’s entertainment if not to help mediate learning about exactly these things. We’ve long asserted here that the value of children’s television and literature is inexorably linked to its capacity to scar children for life and thus to stick in the memory as something fascinating and impossible to quite process. This, surely, is why. Because people die and awful things happen in the world. There are crocodiles, as one children’s show put it once.…
Last War in Albion will run on Friday this week.
It’s November 8th, 2010. Rihanna is at number one with “Only Girl (In the World),” with Katy Perry, Nelly, Cheryl Cole, and Duck Sauce also charting. While in news… I’m at an honest loss to find anything interesting. The US Federal Reserve is apparently going to buy $600 billion in bonds, there’s a kerfuffle about a contrail in California that people think is a missile, and Nigel Farage is re-elected as the leader of UKIP.
While on television, it’s similarly boring as The Sarah Jane Adventures airs Lost in Time, which is, unfortunately, an absolute mess. Even more unfortunately, the reasons for this aren’t particularly interesting. Its central conceit – sending Rani, Clyde, and Sarah Jane to different time periods where they each have to recover an object made of unobtainium – turns out to be a damp squib. Instead of, as with The Empty Planet, focusing things on the quality of the dynamic among its main characters, this means that everyone spends the story with one or two guest characters. With only fifty minutes of story to deal with, this means that nothing gets fleshed out in any detail, and the whole thing feels rushed.
As with Laight’s previous story, it’s difficult to work up much of a reason to blame him, in other words. The story seems misbegotten from the start – to be fundamentally ill-suited to the series and episode structure it’s written for. It’s The Great Game done for The Sarah Jane Adventures. Only The Great Game relied, ultimately, on its sense of a countdown and inevitable reveal of Moriarty. The individual mini-adventures work precisely because they’re not the point of the exercise. Lost in Time has no such end reveal. Its climax centers around a magical black man who never really gets explained, with a final resolution that’s cribbed from Blink as blatantly as Sarah Jane’s entire plot in the episode is cribbed from the first episode of the 70s horror anthology Shadows.
The result is that the episode becomes three not particularly engaging mini-episodes. Clyde gets to fight against Nazis and tell them how racist they are, which, while certainly true, feels like a shockingly lazy attempt to give Clyde a racism plot of the sort that the series has quite sensibly avoided for the preceding twenty-one stories featuring him, and doubly so when the story is based around a racially caricatured magical black man. Sarah Jane hunts ghosts from the future in a story that mostly involves her explaining the plot repeatedly to a poorly acted guest star. And Rani meets Lady Jane Grey and convinces her of the merits of having her head lopped off in a plot that oversimplifies history to the point where it long since stops making much in the way of sense. (The event instigating Jane Grey’s fall is now Mary showing up outside the Tower of London, as opposed to the Privy Council switching sides, which has the odd effect of removing all sense that the monarch requires any sort of broad base of power to rule.)…
It’s November 1st, 2010. Cheryl Cole is at number one with “Promise This,” with Bruno Mars, Rihanna, Cee Lo Green, and Nelly also charting. In news, eruptions of a volcano in Indonesia kill hundreds and force hundreds of thousands to evacuate. The Independent launches a tabloid called simply i, a title designed to drive autocorrect mad. And on the second day of this story’s transmission, the Republican party makes massive gains in the midterm elections, taking control of the House of Representatives and winning six Senate seats.
On television, meanwhile, The Empty Planet. It is, in many ways, the exact episode that The Sarah Jane Adventures needed in the immediate wake of Death of the Doctor. As majestic as that story was, it required moving the focus away from the actual cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures and towards the larger legacy of Doctor Who. Here, then, is the counterbalance – a story in which Sarah Jane (and indeed the entire rest of the cast) drops out early on, allowing the adventure to focus essentially exclusively on Clyde and Rani. Unlike the previous Sarah-lite story, the sublime Mark of the Berserker, this is not a story in which Sarah Jane’s absence is filled by the other major supporting characters. There is no return of Maria, nor Luke and K-9. Not even the extended supporting cast – Haresh, Gita, or Mr. Smith – make significant appearances, and although there’s a welcome return of Jocelyn Jee Esien as Clyde’s mother, that too is essentially a cameo. Perhaps more importantly, whereas Mark of the Berserker hinges on the return of Sarah Jane at a crucial moment to put everything right, The Empty Planet really does leave her on the sidelines for the entire actual plot (she has three scenes and seventeen lines in the whole thing), allowing Clyde and Rani the opportunity to resolve things on their own.
That this is even possible as a thing for the show to do speaks volumes of how much effort has been put into building a supporting cast, and how strong that cast is at this point. To follow up a joyous homage to everything that the show originated from with a story that casually throws everything that the show didn’t invent for itself out the window is tremendous. Doubly so because it works. The Sarah Jane Adventures doesn’t need a trace of Doctor Who to work – it can and does get by on nothing more than the characters it’s built for itself. It may be a show that launched as a spinoff, but that’s not what makes it work. All of this is very much worth emphasizing. As is the basic fact that for much of this story’s runtime it is in effect a two-hander with a non-white cast. For kids. This is a show worth having.
So much of this, however, comes from the basic dynamic of Clyde and Rani. The Empty Planet plays at a romance plot between them, settling pleasantly in an ambiguous space into which a relationship can easily be read, but in no way has to be.…
The Kickstarter has less than $1000 to go before Torchwood: Miracle Day gets the same thrice-weekly coverage that Sarah Jane is. I just added a new reward where you can get all four volumes of TARDIS Eruditorum in ebook form for $15, which is $5 cheaper than you’ll get them anywhere else.
It’s October 25th, 2010. Bruno Mars is at number one with “Just The Way You Are (Amazing),” while Duck Sauce, Cee Lo Green, Wanted, and Katy Perry also chart. In a moment of being somewhat personal, then, I should note that Katy Perry is charting with “Firework,” a song that, whenever it comes up, I think of a very dear friend I was particularly close to at this moment in history, and specifically the fact that boom does not fucking rhyme with moon. In light of this, news seems almost superfluous, but let’s note that the International Space Station hits the record for the longest continuous human occupation of space. Woo-hoo.
On television, meanwhile, it’s Death of the Doctor. It is, obviously, the marquee episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ fourth season. Featuring not just one but two major guest stars, the lion’s share of the budget, and Russell T Davies himself on scripting duties for his only Eleventh Doctor story, it’s not clear that there are ways that the series could have trumpeted any louder that this was a big episode.
And yet none of that is what jumps out. As with Enemy of the Bane, it’s impossible to look at this now and not have it feel rather elegiac. This is the last time that Sarah Jane Smith and the Doctor will ever appear on camera together. That run of adventures started with Jon Pertwee in 1974, and ended with Matt Smith thirty-six years later. It’s a huge deal of an episode in that regard. Let’s face it, one of these days someone is going to get Davies out of retirement to write something else that features the Doctor, even if it’s just a comic book or something. But nobody is ever going to get Lis Sladen to appear on screen with Peter Capaldi. It can’t be done.
Given this, it’s nice that her last adventure with the Doctor is at once so retrospective and so forward-looking, combining loads of classic series montages with a very up-to-date “here’s Sarah Jane adventuring with the present of the show” plot. Davies lets his inner anorak cut loose, working in jokes about Peladon, a reference to the unseen adventure that provides the backstory for Timelash, tries and fails to solve the regeneration limit, and even briefly lampshading the complex relationship between City of Death and Mona Lisa’s Revenge. Anyone coming to this story for the raft of obvious sentimental reasons will find a wealth of exactly what they’re looking for. In particular, the sequence in which Jo and the Doctor make their peace over him not coming back for her is wonderful, giving a satisfying alternative to the vision of post-TARDIS travel mapped out with Sarah Jane back in School Reunion.…
The Kickstarter may have made enough to get through The Sarah Jane Adventures thrice weekly, but there’s still a ways to go before Torchwood: Miracle Day gets the same treatment. And we’re just $1200 away from securing Volume Four of The Last War in Albion, covering Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Plus, I’ve just posted the second chapter of the secret Doctor Who thing, which is, if I may say so myself, quite fantastic and worth throwing a few bucks at. Just fifteen days before the window to see it serialized as I write it closes forever. All of which is to say that if you’ve not pledged yet, now’s a lovely time to.
It’s October 18th, 2010. Cee Lo Green continues to be at number one with the charmingly euphemistic “Forget You,” while Bruno Mars, Labrinth, and Duck Sauce also chart. In news, John Henry, owner of the Boston Red Sox, completes a takeover of Liverpool FC. There’s a bunch of back and forth over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in which it’s overturned and then returned a couple times in court cases, including, notably, a day in which President Obama simultaneously appeals a ruling declaring it unconstitutional and declares that the policy will end during his presidency. And Mary MacKillop becomes the first Australian saint.
While on television, it’s The Vault of Secrets. In any other season, this would have been the season premiere. There’s a formula, after all – every season kicks off with a story featuring a monster borrowed from Doctor Who. Sure, this, depending on your perspective, either breaks the formula by hinging on the return of a monster from The Sarah Jane Adventures instead or stretches it to its breaking point by grabbing the android men in black from Dreamland, but it’s still recognizably filling that slot: the story focused on drawing from The Sarah Jane Adventures’ mythology – both its own and what it borrows from its parent series.
But by shedding both the premiere status and the easily promoted monster The Vault of Secrets changes the formula slightly. In terms of the arc of Season Four, this is unambiguously a good thing. The Nightmare Man was the outright perfect story for Luke to depart with, and focusing on making sure that departure works instead of opening with something that’s easy to make trailers about is both brave and smart. Even if The Vault of Secrets had featured Sarah Jane, Rani, and Clyde encountering a Silurian, it still would be, on the whole, the better decision to open with The Nightmare Man.
But that does raise something of a question: why isn’t this story a Silurians story? Or something else from the Doctor Who vaults – your choice, really. It’s obviously not that this season is lacking in references to Doctor Who – heck, this story opens with a wonderfully cheeky nod to The Pyramids of Mars. But equally, there is a real shift in the nature of things when The Sarah Jane Adventures starts drawing on its own past instead of leaning on Doctor Who.…