It’s incredible watching TV shows change completely over their runs. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of doing things better. Star Trek: The Next Generation started out with terrible rubber-suit aliens, clumsy characters, and some truly godawful plots.
But then, somewhere between seasons 2 and 4, magic happened. They got some new writers, nudged the characters into their grooves, and let Riker become the manliest man in space.
They moved away from monster-of-the-week plots and toward larger story arcs. More importantly, they let their characters grow into their roles. Data, the unfeeling android, makes us question what it is to be human even more when he’s tempted by the chance at experiencing emotions. Picard demonstrates the personal sacrifices required by Western rationalism and career advancement. Worf became the most honorable Klingon in the galaxy by never, ever, ever acting like any other Klingon on the show, and Riker had sex on pretty much every planet he visited, because he was good enough at his job to get away with it. With some good writing and compelling character archetypes, TNG started good and just kept getting better. Except for the movies. The only one worth watching is First Contact and that’s because it has James Cromwell playing a drunk science cowboy. You heard me.
Sadly though, some shows manage to change everything and never get any better. In fact, trying so hard to be better makes them seem so much worse. I just finished up the fourth (and for the time being, final) season of Torchwood, a Doctor Who spin-off that’s equal parts Men In Black and Desperate Housewives. Is Desperate Housewives the right comparison here? What I’m getting at is that there’s a team of pretty urbanites who save the Earth from aliens all day then get some lovin’ from each other in various pairings all night. Sometimes they get their lovin’ from the aliens. No surprises here.
Anyhow, the fourth season is set up like a miniseries. Instead of a weekly shag, bag, and tag, it’ls more like Heroes, with the characters weaving together seemingly disparate plots until eventually it comes to an end that couldn’t possibly live up to the mysteries leading up to it. I’m not usually one to worry about spoiler alerts, but given the following rant IS primarily composed of the ending, I’ll make an exception.
Ahem. Torchwood Season 4 Spoiler Alert. There. You people happy?
So not only has most of the cast been completely replaced for this season, but the whole draw of the show is that the plot always involves an alien. You get used to a nice an-alien-a-week rhythm, then BAM almost not really aliens for the whole season. It’s all intrigue and long shots of people crying, sometimes while holding guns, leading up to the reveal of jack fucking shit. Are the bad guys aliens? Probably. But they’re mostly acting through rich people or crime families or a pharmaceutical company or something. So a show about aliens has no fucking aliens. Just immortal humans questioning the nature of death, which they don’t do very well at all.
Jack Harkness is one of the two main characters in the series, and the dude’s immortal. Long story. This season finds him suddenly mortal while everyone else all over the Earth is immortal! Gasp! Does this inversion bring him to any deep insights about himself or humanity as a whole? Do we follow him through his confusion and grief to a place where we can drink deep from the well of our own soul? Nope.
Captain Jack gets drunk, experiences a hangover, feels chronic pain for the first time in memory, and gets one or two lines about how “tired” he is of life, especially since he’s all mortal now. He doesn’t so much reach a thorough and satisfying understanding of mortality as of turning thirty.
Oh, and him and the other hero-guy literally pour their hearts into the nothingness of our world in order to restore the status quo. Seriously, their blood pours from holes in their chests into some eerie chasm that makes people immortal… you know, so it’ll stop doing that. All this, while making the funniest agonized hulk-out faces you’ll see in this genre, which is saying something. It’s heavy-handed, it’s largely pointless, and I am not impressed.
Alright, so it does do some good work with themes of apocalypse and genocide, and it even tackles the logistics of a suddenly immortal society pretty well. The bottom line, though, is that I didn’t give a shit. Humanity hangs in the balance, and the only people trying to save it are a smarmy captain who barely notices he’s mortal, a tough-as-nails secret-agent-turned-mommy, a CIA agent who I swear to god has no personality traits other than “is a CIA agent,” and two more women who I can honestly say aren’t much more than his sidekicks. Who both die before he does.
To recap – Shows start off stupid but cute, like toddlers. Some, like TNG, grow into something intelligent and comfortably self-aware. Others, like Torchwood, just keep shitting their pants.