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'Torchwood' recap: I have a few things to say

August 13, 2011 |  8:45 am


Earlier this week, Drew Westen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that argued, in effect, that President Obama needed to use his bully pulpit more effectively to advance liberal causes, that he’d ceded too much ground to conservative forces in the House of Representatives and no longer appeared to stand for much of anything. Shortly after the piece’s publication, any number of blogs rebutted Westen’s central point, arguing that all of the fancy speeches in the world wouldn’t change the mind of people who effectively wanted to limit Obama’s presidency to one term and didn’t care how they accomplished that goal. (Here's the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, saying just that.) Obviously, an episode recap of a science-fiction show on Starz is probably not the best place to put an end to this debate, but “Torchwood: Miracle Day” is inadvertently dramatizing this argument, completely by accident.

Take the pivotal scene in the episode “The Middle Men.” Rex has been captured by the military at the San Pedro overflow camp. He’s been chained to a pillar while the man in charge of the camp –- the goonish, stereotyped Colin, one of the worst elements of last week’s episode –- comes to speak with him. Rex has just narrowly escaped with his life from a place where somebody just burned his new girlfriend alive in a giant, human-consuming furnace. He’s well aware that after the camps get done working their way through the category one people, they’ll come for the convicted felons, the illegal immigrants etc. But he also knows Colin’s in charge of the camp and, therefore, probably has at least some idea of what’s going on there.

So what does he do? He tries to give a nice speech that appeals to Colin’s better natures, apparently not realizing that Colin isn’t just complicit in the death of his girlfriend but, instead, actually locked her into the furnace and started up the burners. Now, granted, Rex doesn’t have a great many ways to play this situation. He’s chained to a pillar after all. But still, he goes right on telling Colin about how he took film of the furnace and the camera’s laying right there and if you turn it on, boy, howdy, you’ll see how bad things have gotten. But, hey, if Colin will play whistleblower with Rex, then the both of them will live on as the men who brought down the evil of the overflow camps. Be the good guy, Colin! That’s Rex’s argument.

How does Colin respond? He drives a pen into Rex’s still seeping chest wound (and, thus, into his heart) in a moment that even made me –- someone who can usually handle squeamish moments such as this -– a little uncomfortable. Rex is saved by Esther’s timely arrival, then by Colin’s assistant having had too much and plugging his boss in the chest with two gunshots. It’s all a little convenient, and I’m not sure I needed anything more from Colin, by far the worst character the show has come up with this season, but it speaks to a larger theme of this season: The folks working for Torchwood think they can convince people by just saying the right things, but no one’s really listening. And the few who do -– such as Oswald Danes last week -– usually put their own self-interest ahead of doing the right thing.

And who can blame them? In the world of “Torchwood,” no one’s ever going to listen to pretty speeches when there’s money to be made or evil schemes to plot. About the only person who’s been swayed by one of these speeches is Mr. Owens, the COO of Phicorp (played by the great Ernie Hudson), and he was already digging into the suspicious circumstances surrounding Miracle Day. (Surprise! It goes much deeper than Phicorp and involves something –- or someone -– known as “The Blessing.”) The scene in which Jack and Owens lay it on the line is one of the better ones in this episode, even if it’s filled with lots of clumsy exposition, simply because it’s one of the few that feels like the story is moving forward, instead of rehashing what happened last week.

A certain amount of recap is always involved in serial TV, particularly since not everyone can see every episode. But this episode spent all but a handful of scenes going over and over and over what was going on inside of the camps, to the point at which it seemed like the writers were straining to think of some way to keep the story from moving too far forward. We’re at the point where the main villains of the piece pretty much need to reveal themselves (and with the reveal that Gwen’s family has been taken in exchange for Jack, I expect we’ll learn their identity next week). But this episode needs to spin its wheels for quite a while, which means more time with stuff that just, ultimately, doesn’t matter, including lots of restatements of why burning people alive isn’t a good thing to do.

In the end, it all comes back to the fact that Rex (and Esther, come to think of it) act like idiots this week because they really do believe people to follow their own better angels. This might be an acceptable plot point if the characters had consistently been built as idealists constantly beaten down by the system, but they haven’t really been developed at all. So instead, every episode is filled with speechifying about how terrible things are and how people need to do the right thing, and then everybody shrugs and just ignores the evils in their midst because it’s easier. There’s a potent idea there –- both sociologically and politically -– but the show struggles to make its points without resorting to scenes in which people talk and talk and talk. And in the world of “Torchwood,” the bully pulpit is even less effective than it is in our world.


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-- Todd VanDerWerff

Photo: Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) hatches an unlikely scheme to free her father from one of the overflow camps. Credit: Starz