Friday, 16 September 2011

Even compared to the entire run of its sister show, Doctor Who, Torchwood has been less than consistent. What started out as Russell T Davies' panic attack over not being allowed to put explicit gay sex into every episode of Who, thus creating an "adult" version that was less mature in themes than Sooty & Co. (the episode about a cloud of gas feeding on orgasms has been hard to forget for all the wrong reasons) turned into something actually quite good with 2009's five-part Children of Earth. The BBC obviously tried to recreate this actually-quite-good-ness with this year's Miracle Day, a ten-part series made in conjunction with US network Starz. Despite no-one in the UK having heard of Starz, this meant a bigger budget and a bigger scale. Because a bigger scale means it has to be better, right? (They also needed the bigger budget to fund John Barrowman's botox - he needs to not age for continuity purposes.)

The concept: one day, nobody dies. The next day, nobody dies. And the next. And the next. World population: a large, ever increasing number. As we're reminded at the start of every episode. This is bad, by the way.

Of course, the CIA, even with agents Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), are not going to be able to deal with this situation on their own. There are mysterious forces at work here. While The Doctor and UNIT are conveniently busy (respectively, family troubles and wondering why they haven't been invited back since Planet of the Dead), Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowman) returns from his showtunes tour of the galaxy, pops over to Wales, finds Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), blows up a helicopter, and there you have it; Torchwood are back together. Yay.

So, big concept, eh? The consequences of the Miracle were explored well, from the resulting financial meltdown to the problems of over-population and what to do with people who would normally be dead. The main problem with the series was the stretching of the plot over ten episodes - while I love the use of long form to tell slow-burning stories in many American series (have I ever mentioned that I like The Wire? Also, Treme, Dexter, Mad Men. Boardwalk Empire isn't bad), by episode two of Miracle Day it became apparent that maybe the writers had been a bit too ambitious. While the Torchwood team's investigations carried on at whatever pace was convenient, the episodes were padded out by the sub-plot of the week. Some potentially interesting and cool elements were introduced - the cult of "the soulless" vigilling their way around in silly masks, a hitman in a black suit and sunglasses, a hateful Sarah Palin-alike politician, and Ghostbuster himself Ernie Hudson as some sort of important executive man in a suit. Yet each of these plot elements appeared in one episode only. Yes, they wasted a Ghostbuster. The plot was quite a bit of a mess.

One sub-plot that was reasonably well developed was that of Oswald Danes. While my thoughts upon finding out that one of the new characters would be a convicted paedophile were along the lines of "Wow, Rusty must be getting near the end of his 'Things to put in Torchwood just because I couldn't put them in Doctor Who' list," the manipulative Danes was unique and strangely fun to watch. His attempted redemption led to a rather unusual cultural apotheosis, yet all he really wanted was death. And a prostitute. The fact that he was played by the wonderful Bill Pullman, on suitably sleazy form, made this character darkly believable and interesting.

Another highlight came in episode seven, almost entirely composed of a flashback to 1927. Jack visited 20s New York City and did exactly what anyone in their right media-saturated mind would want to do on a visit to 20s NYC - became involved in a smuggling ring and had an illicit gay affair with an Italian immigrant. He also got tortured a hell of a lot, perhaps one of the less desirable aspects of his trip, and encountered the only alien in the series, slotting in a nice reference to Who/Torchwood's mature spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. It's always good to see more of Jack's past and this was a touching, tragic and deeply enjoyable love story, despite, typically for the series arc, being only very slightly relevant to the rest of the story.

Aside from these sub-plots, the main story did have its highlights. The opening episode was exciting, setting up the global events and the introduction of the main characters in an efficient manner. The middle section, where the truth behind the government's "overflow camps" was discovered, was tense and full of shocking twists. The development of Gwen's relationship with her family, as her father's heart attack lent a personal slant to the crisis for the heroine, as well as with Jack, was also a very well-implemented element, making the scenes where Gwen was ordered to betray Jack in order to protect her family particularly emotional. The conclusion was suitably dramatic and pulled the major plot strands together nicely, if a bit rushed, due to time being wasted on the hundreds of minor plot strands, and reliant on the kind of "science" we've come to expect from Russell T Davies. Miracle Day's variety of settings helped a lot, giving the show an impressively epic cinematic style - the climax in Shanghai and Buenos Aires would have lost a lot of its dramatic impact had the Blessing tunneled from Splott to Swansea.

Overall, Miracle Day was certainly an exciting and enjoyable series of Torchwood, with some solid exploration of the issues brought up by the Miracle as well as pleasing development of the main characters and a cinematic visual style. However, its messy plot structure and less developed sub characters render it inferior to the perfect political thriller that was Children of Earth.


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