Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Outside the Government: The Blood Line

It’s September 9th, 2011. Maroon 5 is at number one with “Moves Like Jagger.” In news, India and Bangladesh resolve their border dispute, and a ferry disaster off the coast of Zanzibar kills 240 people. On television, meanwhile, Miracle Day finally wraps up with “The Blood Line.”

You can say this about “The Blood Line”: At least it’s clear that Russell T Davies had something to do with this one. Guessing who did what in a coauthored script is always a bit of a mug’s game, but the writing credits here make it at least somewhat easy to figure out what happened here. Story by Russell T Davies, Script by Davies and Espenson suggests that, in effect, this is by Davies in the same way that The Daleks’ Masterplan is by Terry Nation, which is to say that some notes and scenes were dropped off by cab at Espenson’s door and she proceeded to try to build an episode out of them.

Parts of it are unmistakably Davies, in other words, or at least, Espenson doing an impeccable Davies imitation. Gwen’s whole “the breath” speech is vintage Davies, mixing the structure of Rose’s “this is how I died” speech with content and spectacle that is exactly the sort of thing Davies writes and excels at. The underlying dynamic - a two-sided confrontation at opposite sides of the world, the “introduce blood at both ends” approach, the elevator access to Shanghai, and the basic theatrical “everybody in one room” setup of the finale - is also very Davies-esque, very much feeling like it came from the same mind that approached Rose’s departure from the image of “two levers” or Tennant’s regeneration from the image of the two-chambered box.

So the appearance is that of a story that Davies had a beginning and end in mind for, entrusted to other people for the middle, and kind of wandered away from entirely. This is not necessarily a surprise - it really does appear that Davies was burnt out on sci-fi by this point, and it’s telling the show he’s working on now, Cucumber, is one he’d been talking about while Miracle Day was still going out. This feels like the contractual obligation album. 

But for all of that, there’s an interesting underlying dynamic of the show. It starts feeling like Americanized Torchwood and ends feeling like a Welshed version of the generic American thriller. The final scene is a gratuitous tease for a fifth series that never came, but it also functions as a delightfully unsubtle queering of the show, where the ultra-generic American character who’s been a bit homophobic through the entire series finally gets queered by Jack. (And there’s some properly potent imagery in having immortality come from a blood transfusion - a sort of bizarre reverse-HIV image that feels like something amazing could have been done with it, although we obviously never got to explore it.) The breath is a marvelous image, and handling the tail end of Gwen’s monologue in a time-dilated reaction shot after the climax, unpacking a single breath into a long moment  right before everything goes to hell, is a great shot. Oswald finally gets a second properly brilliant moment, which again suggests that this was a character only Davies ever quite knew what to do with. There is, in point of fact, a lot to like and admire here.

And look, this is the last actual Doctor Who-related script we’re going to deal with from Davies. I’m not going to hammer on him too much, because no matter how you cut it, he’s pretty much single-handedly responsible for Doctor Who’s comeback as a major television show and has probably enshrined it as a series that will continue to come back again and again in some form. Yes, his last effort is not his best, but it doesn’t have to be. Even in what’s a pretty mediocre episode of television, it’s easy enough to see why Davies is as successful a television writer as he is. First and foremost, and this is the biggest innovation he brought to Doctor Who, he gets the structure of television. He knows how to use it to communicate information in interesting ways. He’s attentive to the visuals. 

But more than anything, Davies is a writer of the set piece. This is where his genius properly lies: he’s better than almost anyone, ever, at constructing big television moments. And Miracle Day is no exception. In particular, as mentioned, the breath is absolutely marvelous. And it gets at the real appeal of Davies doing science fiction, which is that there are things you can do with it that other genres don’t allow you to do. Heck, it gets at the appeal of Davies doing Torchwood - the truth is that the breath wouldn’t work on Doctor Who or The Sarah Jane Adventures. (Of which there are, of course, three more episodes, but they’d been filmed with the Season Four stuff, and aren’t actually by Davies, hence my inclination to treat this as a sort of clear ending. Not least because we’ll all be too busy sobbing about Lis Sladen for the last season of Sarah Jane Adventures to care about Davies.) It needs this specific show. Unfortunately, Davies just did an episode and a half of a ten episode season, and the rest of it wasn’t up to snuff. But that’s strange sort of complaint to lay at Davies’s feet. In the end, Torchwood worked best when Davies was there to supervise it, and wobbled a bit when it was delegated. That’s hardly a surprise. But while it may be a fault of Torchwood, it’s in many regards the opposite of one for Davies. 

But on the whole, Davies goes out of Doctor Who not with a bang but a whimper, which is perhaps ironic for a writer whose specialty was the big set piece. And yes, this is a poor place to eulogize him, given that it is such a lesser effort. Nevertheless, it’s what we’ve got. The last bit of Doctor Who-related stuff written by Russell T Davies. And for all that he’s clearly not giving the series his full attention, it still, in its bones, reflects his approach. And while the series may have gotten away from Davies, the ways in which it fails aren’t just down to him not giving it his full attention. They’re also, quite frankly, just that this sort of approach is, by this point, stale. The premise of Miracle Day is top notch, but there’s just not much for Davies’s approach to bring to it. And there is, at the end of the day, a reason for this. 

It’s notable that for all that Davies is something of a bloodthirsty Doctor Who writer prone to whacking characters whenever things get a bit slow, at no point in the series did Davies ever play the major character death card. The closest thing to one that he ever did was killing Harriet Jones in The Stolen Earth. Davies will kill characters shamelessly when it advances the plot, but crucially, he’s never tried to make it work as one of his big set pieces. This puts him at marked contrast with a whole lot of television. Sure, Torchwood has massacred the cast repeatedly, but notably, not in episodes that Davies actually wrote. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s never quite worked for them. The deaths of Owen and Tosh were damp squibs of desperation, and Ianto’s death, while more successful, is still messy in some key ways. 

And this gets at a paradox that’s at the heart of almost everything Davies does, and not just on Doctor Who. He is, as a writer, obsessed with death. The idea of loss and mourning is one of his baseline, default themes. But his response to it is and always has been a sort of hedonism. Death, for Davies, is a fundamental reason to live. And so while his writing is often about death, his major technique - the big set piece - is a reaction against death. Davies’s sense of excess is fueled by his ideological commitment to a form of hedonism. And so the one thing he can’t successfully make a spectacle out of is death itself. Which means that Miracle Day is on the one hand an attempt at the most Davies story ever to exist, and on the other something that Davies is fundamentally ill-suited to writing. It’s not, ultimately, that Miracle Day doesn’t work because Davies didn’t put enough time into it. It’s that Miracle Day doesn’t work because it’s fundamentally not an idea Davies was ever going to succeed with. More than anything, including the problems of The End of Time, this is the show that really demonstrates that Davies’s approach to sci-fi television eventually hit its limit. 


So let’s say this: Davies originated a style for Doctor Who, and really for British sci-fi/fantasy drama in general, that was a massive success and that changed television. And in 2011, it was time for someone to do it again. This is, in terms of the overall arc of this blog and the sort of view of history that it takes, one of the highest compliments that can be paid to a writer. Davies was big, innovative, and brilliant enough to require moving on from. He was good enough to define an era, and now that the era he defined has firmly and properly become history, it means he’s good enough to reject, break from, and surpass. And writing now, in 2014, that’s rough, because that’s as historicized as he is right now. All there is to do with Davies is reject him in favor of something new. But with as little history as he has, being moved on from is the highest praise that can possibly exist. To, five years after you left the scene, be the obvious target that everyone is trying to outdo and surpass is the mark of a giant. 

19 comments:

  1. Will you be covering Web of Lies, the iTunes animation which is on the dvd. That's really very interesting in the context of authorship, casting and the connecting tissue between Anglo and American Torchwood.

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  2. Not having watched the episode since it aired: what is "the breath"? The moment when everyone stops being immortal, yes, but what happens on scream?

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  3. "the breath"

    ...did you mean the blessing?

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    1. I think it's this bit, Gwen's speech.

      "And that's what I did. In a pit in old Shanghai I brought death back to the world. They said it was like a breath. The breath that went around the whole wide world. The last breath. And then no more. We said goodbye to them then, the dads and the mums, the sick and the old, the friends and the neighbours, and the people we once met, and the people whose names we never knew. We said goodbye to them all on the day that death came back."

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    2. OMG does anyone think Capaldi's opener "Deep Breath" will be set around The Miracle then?




      I jest.

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  4. "To, five years after you left the scene, be the obvious target that everyone is trying to outdo and surpass is the mark of a giant."

    Very true. It reminds me of Terry Pratchett's remarks about Tolkien's inescapable influence on the modern fantasy genre being like Mt. Fuji in Japanese art: It's always in there somewhere. Sometimes it's huge and overwhelms the picture, sometimes it's a speck in the distance, and sometimes you can't see it at all and that's because the artist is standing on top of it. Maybe Davies' influence on the series now is like that last one - we can't always see the correlation between his approach and the current writers', but that's because they're standing on his shoulders.

    My one quibble - I do think Davies successfully handled one death scene - The Master's. Yes, the climax of the Last of the Time Lords has its issues. And yes, Davies brings the Master back later (although at the time he didn't know he was going to do that). In the moment, for me anyway, the Master's death scene is powerful.

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    1. Great pterry quote, Katherine, and great photo, BerserkRL - thanks!

      Phil, I hadn't expected this RTD post here. Spot on.

      There - that's my quota of praise for today, I'll go back to being grumpy now.

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    2. The Shadow of Mount Fuji: that's a Vashta Nerada story right there! :)

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  5. Didn't Davies write the episode where Ianto dies?

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    1. As I understand it, based on James Moran's blogging at the time, Children of Earth was done in a collaborative, writers-room fashion. Each episode had a lead writer, but all the writers contributed to all the scripts. Specifically with respect to Ianto's death, he said something like "We all had a hand on the lever".

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    2. Ah, right, Ianto died on Day 4.

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  6. Russell pitched a Doctor Who graphic novel for the 50th. Shame that was rejected and turned down. He never said why, but I suspect it may've been Time War-related and they perhaps worried it would 'clash' with the upcoming TV special? In any case, Russell's a great artist and it would've been nice to see a story by him for the 50th as a big final 'hurrah'.

    I also want him to pen an episode for Peter Capaldi - even more so knowing that he's such a huge fan of him.

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    1. There is a rumor that he might for the tenth anniversary of the new series. (Or maybe more of a whispered half-hope. Like the Peter Jackson thing.)

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    2. Everything I've heard says the Peter Jackson thing's moved past rumors and hopes and into serious negotiation at this point. Given that a New Zealand production would probably eat up the whole location shoot budget, they're wise to keep kicking the can down the road.

      It's clear they're hoping for Lord of the Rings Jackson, but I personally would love a look in from Frighteners Jackson. In a lot of ways, he has the personal range to match a Doctor Who episode in that sense, sorta like Danny Elfman.

      ... look, I have certain allegiances, alright?

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    3. I agree, Jarl - I think he has the right sensibility to match the current show's cinematic visual sweep with campy over-the-topness. I'd love to see a PJ-directed episode.

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  7. So, Phil, is it correct to say your opinion of Miracle Day took a plunge as you watched it a second time?

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