Living Things

Torchwood: Miracle Day reviewed by John Connors

"We'll have four lagers, please."
It was a surprise to everyone that silly old Torchwood ended up producing something as superb as Children of Earth, one of 2009’s television highlights. The problem then became how to follow what was surely intended to be the series’ swansong. Turning up a tardy two years on, Miracle Day finds the chameleonic series undergoing yet another change, this time becoming a co-production with US company Starz. How much Stateside influence has infiltrated Torchwood was bound to be almost as intriguing as what the series was about.

The show has always been influenced by US production values - remember how the first series tried to frame Cardiff Bay as if was New York?- so the leap is not as jarring as you’d expect especially given that the lead character is American anyway.  As for Welsh pride, that remains courtesy of Gwen Cooper who never misses an opportunity to point out her heritage. Russell T Davies’ love of high concept storylines also fits the transatlantic production; instead of showing us news reports of what’s going on outside Cardiff- or having it standing in for elsewhere - we can now see our characters genuinely Stateside. Ironically enough, some of the Welsh scenes were actually shot in Los Angeles!

The concept is typically RTD, something big enough to encompass the world yet identifiable enough to engage us. One day nobody dies then the next day and the next and so on. The series asks how we would deal with that emotionally, morally, practically. Not that it actually answers all these questions with sufficient rigour. Once the writing baton is handed on after the first episode, there are times when there is a noticeable disconnect between the urgency of what we are being told is happening and what we are seeing.

Also, for a story that is supposed to be continuous there are too many diversions leaving interesting questions unanswered while less important things are covered in more detail. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is Jack’s 1920s episode which takes an hour to tell a tale that could have been made in ten minutes. Miracle Day never reconciles its constituent parts into anything really coherent. Almost every episode seems to start again meaning we end up with an over expositional finale. Even then lots of developments along the way are forgotten or prove to have been side alleys of little consequence.   

Gwen's approach to herding sheep was rather different

The narrative is strong on governments’ initial inertia and eventual extreme measures for which you can see smaller scale parallels in modern crises. We also have the intriguing story of Oswald Danes, a convicted paedophile who survived his execution to become a talisman for the new order. Yet once we reach the precipice where people that should have died are labelled “category one” and burned – a shocking revelation you’d think – the urgency drains from the show. It’s as if having reached a tipping point where you imagine a combination of mass panic and quasi religious fervour (hinted at but never followed though in earlier episodes) the writers don’t know what to do next or perhaps realise they have several weeks to fill before the conclusion. The result is a meandering narrative that never engages.

Throughout, the emphasis is as much on the language of spy thrillers as it is on sci-fi, with fiddly covert missions, discoveries that become irrelevant two weeks later and sudden revelations that someone is working for the other side. During the middle episodes there are also repetitive parallels between what’s going on in Wales and what’s going on in the US. Additionally the tendency to have characters flying to and from Wales feels forced as if there is some contractual obligation to include the principality in every episode even though it’s already been established the problem is global. The result is a production far less focussed than Children of Earth and far more likely to lose your attention.

That being said, there is still much to savour from some strong sequences when the series seems like it’s taking off. The confined tension of the airplane in part 2, the discussions in the medical panels, Oswald Danes’ creepy quasi religious rise to prominence, the way Vera’s fate becomes increasingly clear in part 5; these are high points. Jack and Gwen’s feisty working relationship has never been better- the sequence in part 7 when she is forced to kidnap him and they argue in the car is the best of several keynote exchanges between them. In this case though, you do wonder why someone didn’t just phone Jack and tell him his former lover was still alive- why go to the trouble of kidnapping Gwen’s family? The series is rather too fond of this sort of unsubtle way of moving the plot forward.

His former frivolity now receding John Barrowman steps up to be more convincing than before as Jack is faced with exactly the opposite problem to everyone else which provokes a lot of soul searching. In season 2, Barrowman seemed unable to step back from his pearly white playboy image to convince us of Jack’s darker moments; here he carries weightier material confidently... Eve Myles steals the show though, her performance gutsy and enjoyable but it’s the way that the US writers have tagged her fierce nature that also impresses.

The new American cast members are, it has to be said, and more generic in nature though as they are mostly CIA or professional types you’d expect that. Alexa Havins’ Esther Drummond is the best of the bunch, her bewilderment and practicality colliding with satisfying results; her personal story is also a useful background plot. In contrast, as Rex Matheson, Mekhi Phifer struggles with a poorly defined character while Bill Pullman’s Danes is too mannered to ever be totally convincing.

We’re made to wait a whole 7 episodes before we get a hint of aliens; even then it’s the alien’s floor coverings that attract a lot of attention in episode 8! The revelation of the Blessing takes us in another direction again meaning we climax with a weird melange of Mafia style families and an unlikely tunnel running straight through the world.

The final episode ups the pace but still feels somewhat unsatisfactory. Yes, everything is explained (well, mostly) and there are a couple of excellently played climactic scenes involving the main characters but the series has not worked hard enough for us to really feel it’s been worth the wait. The end result is that for all that’s gone on in ten episodes, very little has actually happened.

"Welsh? Yes, I'm Welsh, did I not say I was Welsh..(etc)"

1 comment:

  1. Generally, a mess, though lots of hints about what might have been. I'm with the group who didn't find Esther credible, however.