All entries for September 2011

September 23, 2011

Why Torchwood: Miracle Day Sucked

So we’re a week on from the finale, we can finally get some distance and reflect on if this season of Torchwood was really that bad. Turns out it was. It’s sad because at the halfway point I was ready to defend it. I watched the first eight episodes over one weekend and so the pacing problems were obviously there but didn’t really hit affect me half as much as people watching it with a week between each episode. But then it went so badly wrong and gave us an ending that betrayed the whole show. Here’s my analysis of exactly why this was bad television.

Character development: there was none. Seriously. Look at every character’s first and last appearances in the show. They’re exactly the same. No-one changed. Maybe, just maybe, Oswald Danes changed a bit, but the show never let us in his head. We never knew what was real and what was fake. His character veered from one place to another every week. Less a character journey, more a character spider-diagram.

Esther Drummond: the exception to the above rule. She changed. She grew up. It was kind of hokey and obvious: nervous researcher slowly becomes confident field-agent, it’s not setting the world alight as a concept. But at least it was there. So of course, she gets shot and killed. Because god-forbid we have more than one strong female character on a Russell T Davies show. She doesn’t even get to die any sort of heroic death. She’s just cast aside. Imagine how much more interesting the next series of Torchwood would be if she was the one that ended up immortal.

The acting: the main characters were all fairly wooden – we know Barrowman and Myles are a little wooden but Mekhi Phifer is generally decent but was the most shocking of the lot in his portrayal of Rex. It didn’t help that the show kept introducing decent actors before killing off their characters a few episodes or even minutes later. The wonderful Nana Visitor gets about three minutes of screen time before getting blown up, and John de Lancie’s character lights up the screen and makes the show actually feel alive for an episode an a half before he’s… blown up.

The ‘Britishness’: producing a British show with US locations and money. Sounds okay in theory, in practice we get US-style seriousness peppered with hammy British ridiculousness from the two leads. On its own one can just about deal with how silly Torchwood can be. That sense of fun seems to be an all-pervading part of British drama, for better or for worse. But dropped into the middle of a US cable show it just feels embarrassing.

The science: no-one dies, but why is no-one dying? It’s the crux of the show, and early on we get a glimpse at what sounds like proper science-fiction. Morphic fields are real and an area of science that we currently don’t fully comprehend, something ripe for exploration. Then they discover the device under Angelo’s bed and it all starts to seem very interesting. Then it turns out no-one is dying because of a giant magic creature that lives in the earth and ate Jack’s blood. Sorry what?

The politics: if you read any reviews of Children of Earth, the scenes in the cabinet office dealing with how the government react to the whole thing, making tough but selfish choices, are highlighted as one of the best parts. On the surface, Miracle Day is perfect for doing something similar. It’s a crisis, how are they going to deal with it? And this time there’s a chance to feature that sort of thing on an international scale with the UK-US connection. And they don’t bother. The classification system gets introduced but we never see the horrendous discussions that must have taken place to bring in that and the camps.

The medicine: some of the best parts of the early episodes are when Dr Juarez is attending the medical conferences, and they discuss the consequences of what’s happening, how medicine has to change and so on. None of this ever reflects on the plot, but it’s moments of interest and speculation that show how good the show could have been. And then one episode she turns up at the conference centre, only to be told they’re over. She looks disappointed, and so were we. Apparently they used them to work out the classification system, but somehow we missed all that.

The irrelevant episodes: there’s an entire flashback episode featuring Jack in 1927, and introducing who we assume will be an important character. Not the best episode, but I could live with it. But then that character is killed off in the next episode, the device he was protecting is talked about for a bit, Jack nicks part of it and it’s never mentioned again. It has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Which means that the flashback episode was there solely to establish that in 1927 Jack died infront of three people and they watched him come back to life.

The failure of the arc: taking the previous point even further, nothing comes together at all. The camps are introduced, fought against and then accepted later on after a time-jump. The Oswald and Kitzinger stories both go absolutely nowhere at all. The Angelo thing has no point. The morphic field angle is dropped. There’s no effort made to tie it all together. Why not let the fact that Oswald was the first ‘survivor’ matter? Why not have the camps and ovens be a part of the story, perhaps the still living souls of the people burned affect the morphic field or something. Anything. Just have a story arc that actually ties itself together. We don’t even learn the motivations of the people behind it – they want to create a new world but it’s never really explained how they’re going to do that.

The missed opportunity: Russell T Davies got given ten hours and a huge budget with basically free-reign to do what he wanted. There isn’t a writer in television that wouldn’t jump at a chance to do that. And we get this. Something that can’t even hang together consistently over ten hours. And it’s such a good concept too – people stop dying. And the show even tells us what that would mean and the problems it would create, but doesn’t bother to show us. It should have been brilliant but it wasn’t. Worse than that, it was actively bad. It tore up the TV rule-book on mini-series and character development but instead of being a radical re-invention it just looked like Davies had no clue what he was doing.

I have a fairly high tolerance for bad TV, but Miracle Day was just so irredeemably, objectively awful that it should be university syllabuses as an example of what not to do. Wake me up if Moffat ever takes over this show as well.

September 21, 2011

The annual X–Factor rant

If you know me at all in the real world, you’ve probably heard all this before, but for those that haven’t, I figured I’d type this up after seeing Twitter once again light up on Saturday with things on one side of the debate or another.

So here’s how the theory goes: if you like The X-Factor, you don’t like music.

You might think you like music, but you don’t. At this point I’m also going to throw out any claims for watching it ‘ironically’ or ‘for a laugh’. If either of those are true, then you may also like music. But you are also wasting your life. Please stop.

It’s also okay not to like music. I don’t like literature. I read, I enjoy reading, but I read low-brow pap. I read Star Trek tie-in novels and quite enjoyed The DaVinci Code. When I’ve tried to experiment with tougher ‘proper’ authors I’ve found it too tough. If I try really hard I can get something out of the plot and characters, but it’s more effort than it’s worth and I never really appreciate the prose. And that’s okay. I recognise that. Some people will think I’m mad or pity me because I can’t get the immense joy they can out of books but I don’t care. Reading the odd bit of pulp fiction is just something I do for fun but I don’t consider myself someone that likes literature.

Music, on the other hand, I love music. It means a lot to me, I’m passionate about the music I love, because the music I love creates feelings, emotions and mood-spaces within my brain that are otherwise hard to reach. Music affects me, emotionally, intellectually, even physically.

No performance on The X-Factor has ever made anyone feel anything. Except maybe self-disgust. Oh the show can create feelings for sure, but for a show that is ostensibly about music to have to resort to pre-filmed sob-stories about the tough lives these contestants have had just to get some sort of emotional reaction from the audience is, to my mind, ridiculous.

In the X-Factor version of Schindler’s List, it opens with a shot of holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg walking down the street before he relates part of his experience in an interview. We’re then shown how he met Schindler’s Ark author Thomas Keneally who wrote the novel based around his life. The shot then pulls out and Steven Speilberg is stood there, who then proceeds to tell us how the novel inspired him and moved him so much that he just had to make the film we’re about to watch. Because if we don’t know all that, how are we meant to be emotionally effected by the film?

Actual music isn’t going anywhere, of course. There will always be people willing to pick up an acoustic guitar and sing their hearts out wherever and whenever they may be. And there will always be people willing to listen, looking for something to connect to, looking for something that moves them. But it is getting harder for people to find.

While the awful, anodyne, emotionless candyfloss-pop that the likes of The X-Factor give us gets more and more common, to the point that those who do like the show don’t understand. They think they like music. They think they’re like us. They think that when we go to gigs it’s sort of like watching ITV on a Saturday night. They think that when we say we’re going to listen to a band, we’ll put it on in the background while doing something useful. When we explain that we’re going to sit down with headphones on and just listen to a new album they look at us like we’re a bit mental.

And most of all, they’ll never understand why we hate The X-Factor because they simply can’t comprehend caring about music enough to not want to watch it abused and beaten in to a messy pulp by Simon Cowell for two hours every weekend.

September 16, 2011

On Johann Hari

If you haven’t been following it, Independent columnist Johann Hari has apologised for being a Wikipedia vandal, and for using quotes from books or other journalists in his ‘interviews’.

Let’s set aside the Wikipedia thing for a moment. It’s silly and unprofessional but also sort of funny. It kind of makes me like him a bit more as a human-being to be honest. Your mileage may vary on that one.

But the plagiarism thing is another issue entirely. If you’re one of the journalists he nicked stuff from, then you should be very pissed-off. If you’re a journalist, you should be pissed-off on behalf of your fellows that had their stuff stolen. If you’re an editor that employed Hari you should be pissed-off that he misrepresented his work to you. If you were on a panel that gave him an award you should be pissed-off that he basically cheated his way to the prize.

But if you’re a newspaper reader, should you be pissed-off? No. He didn’t cheat you. And what he did was ethically bad and unprofessional, but it wasn’t bad journalism. In fact, it was far better journalism than what many of those throwing stones at him cultivate in their glass houses for a living.

I had a chat with Johann before writing this blog and he told me “An interview isn’t an X-ray of a person’s finest thoughts. It’s a report of an encounter,” before adding of some of his interviewees “I was attempting to represent them more accurately than the limited context of an interview offered. I felt getting across the point they wanted to make was more important than being 100% accurate in the words.”

If you Google that first quote, you’ll see I nicked it from the Independent article I linked earlier. I’m such a bad blogger! But luckily if you Google the second quote you’ll see it doesn’t appear anywhere else on the web at all, and hence it must be legit. Phew!

Except of course, I made the second one up. But if I hadn’t told you, you’d never know. The only person that would know is Johann Hari, as he’d be aware he’d never given me an interview. He’s the only person that can refute my claim that that is an accurate quote. And even if he did, it’s still my word against his. Maybe he said something he regretted and wanted to distance himself from it.

That’s the thing, if you want to cheat in journalism, if you want to make stuff up, then it’s easy. Rather than do that, Hari actually went off and did research to find something his interviewees had actually said and used that instead. That’s plagiarism, which is not okay by a long shot, but as journalism goes it’s actually a pretty good example of accurately representing the subject. It just also makes it a lot easier to get caught.

Two final thoughts: none of Hari’s interviewees complained about being misrepresented in the articles where he ‘cheated’. He did right by them, and so frankly he did right by us, the reader. He didn’t do right by his colleagues from whom he nicked stuff off.

Lastly if you’re reading this thinking “Yes, but it’s not like journalists routinely just make up quotes is it?” the I refer you to this fairly harrowing account of a woman interviewed by the Daily Mail. My favourite bit was her being quote as saying: “But most importantly, I’ve been asked out on more dates in the past three years than in the 20 years I spent in Manchester.”

Her response in the linked article:

“Leaving aside the assertion that had I spent 20 years in Manchester which meant that, using the ages in the article, I would have been 11 when I left my family and moved there (and she’s already stated I grew up in Derbyshire), this was simply not true. It was made up.”

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