Sunday 18 September 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day

As Torchwood: Miracle Day was already halfway through airing when I started this blog, I decided that, instead of reviewing individual episodes, I would just wait for the series to conclude and then review the whole thing. As such, I should warn you in advance, that the following review is rather long. I have also included a much longer spoiler-free section for the benefit of those who haven’t seen it and don’t want to know the end.

When Torchwood started a few years ago, it became only the second ever official Doctor Who spin-off (the first was K-9 and Company in 1981) and the first to last beyond a single pilot episode. Created by Russell T. Davies, the man who brought back Doctor Who, and billed as a more “adult” version of its parent series, its first season was met with a lot of derision from certain segments of Doctor Who fandom. While that season was indeed variable in script quality, it had some very interesting ideas and a few interesting characters (and an utterly unlikeable character or two, such as Owen Harper), and it picked up enough viewers to gain a second season. That second season showed a huge improvement over the first. It had a better consistency of script quality, the characters were fleshed out more, and even the unlikeable characters started to become a little more likeable.

However, Torchwood’s third season was when it truly discovered itself. That year they did something completely different to previous years, and told just a single story over a five-episode miniseries, entitled Torchwood: Children of Earth. It was truly phenomenal and achieved great acclaim from both critics and the general viewing audience. When people ask me what my favourite episode of Doctor Who is, or what my favourite movie or book is, I’m generally very reluctant to give a definitive answer. While there are many things that I rank better than many others, an absolute “favourite” really depends on my mood at the time. That said, when pressed, I can put together a list of a few things that stand head and shoulders above all the rest. Torchwood: Children of Earth is on that list—not just as the best Torchwood or Doctor Who or even television show, but on my list of best anything ever (tv, movies, books, etc.). It’s simply that good. (As an aside, I should point out that, as much as I love Doctor Who, there is no other Doctor Who-related thing on that list.)

Now, Torchwood has just completed its fourth season, Torchwood: Miracle Day. Like Children of Earth, it tells a single story, only this time over ten episodes instead of five. Of course, coming after Children of Earth means that it has a lot to live up to. As a result, many are bound to judge it unfairly and expect it to equal or even surpass Children of Earth (indeed, I do believe this is exactly what a very vocal portion of the fan community has done), rather than judge it on its own merits. Miracle Day is not as good as Children of Earth, but to expect it to be is ludicrous. I would have been very surprised (although pleasantly so) if it had been. It is, however, very good, and I was hooked right from the opening moments of the first episode. It’s not perfect, but it is a very enjoyable ride from beginning to end, and a fabulous relaunch of the series. I would even say it’s more re-watchable than Children of Earth since it doesn’t tear you apart emotionally to the extent Children of Earth does.

The first season of Torchwood was produced in association with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), but the next two were produced entirely by the BBC. For Miracle Day, the BBC went abroad again with a full co-production partnership (not just an association like with the CBC in the first season) with the American network, Starz. This meant introducing the series to a much wider American audience and moving events out of the United Kingdom and to the States (and the rest of the world). Since by the end of Children of Earth, Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper were the only surviving members of Torchwood, the show needed to introduce new characters anyway, and this provided an ideal way to do it.

The premise of Miracle Day is both very simple and utterly brilliant: What would happen if, suddenly, everyone on Earth stopped dying? People literally become immortal. At first glance, this seems like it would be a wonderful thing. But Miracle Day delves beyond the surface. With no death, the world’s population will begin to sky-rocket. Miracle Day also adds another layer to it: People can’t die, but they can still be injured and become ill. People in states where they would normally die don’t miraculously heal. Instead, they stay in that state, and have to live on in pain and anguish. And so, Gwen and Captain Jack, aided by new characters Rex Matheson, Esther Drummond, and Dr Vera Juarez, set out to discover what has happened and bring death back to the world.

The most common complaint I’ve seen about Miracle Day is the pacing. It is slower-paced than Children of Earth, and ten weeks is a long time to stretch a story over. However, despite what some people may think, it would not be possible to cut out half the material to bring it down to five or even fewer episodes, since pretty much everything that happens is necessary. Things that people consider padding really isn’t padding at all. The slower pace is necessary to tell a very different style of story from Children of Earth. There’s more of a mystery to uncover in this story, and there isn’t the same ticking clock. Children of Earth literally takes place over five days, each episode covering exactly one day (thus the individual episode titles, “Day One”, “Day Two”, etc.). Miracle Day takes place over several months. The world isn’t about to end in a few days—in fact, the world is destined to drag on forever in a way it was never meant to.

I think the perceived pacing problem really comes down to the “real time” factor. Ten episodes spread over ten weeks is a long time to wait. In contrast, the five episodes of Children of Earth were broadcast on five consecutive days. Real time equalled show time. Also, one similarity that Miracle Day has with Children of Earth is its five-act structure (like a classic Shakespearean play), each act played out over two 50-minute episodes, creating five mini two-parters within the whole. It is this that I think causes the feeling that the pacing is too slow. The best suggestion I’ve seen to solve this (made by Jonathan Blum here) is to combine each two-episode act into a single double-length episode (or perhaps shortened slightly to 90 minutes instead of 100).

That said, I personally didn’t have a problem with the pacing. Each episode successfully kept me engrossed and wanting to see what came next, and to me, that’s a success. Sure, it could have been done better, but at least it was done well enough. It had compelling and interesting characters, humour, action, a fascinating mystery, and lots of moral quandaries that Torchwood has become particularly known for. There were aspects of the resolution that didn’t fully satisfy me, but not enough to negate my overall enjoyment of the series.

Although Russell T. Davies didn’t write every individual episode, his controlling mark is on every episode. This is one thing I have always loved about Russell T. Davies. During his time as showrunner for Doctor Who, he made sure there was a consistency to every script, even those he didn’t write himself, so that it felt like everything was coming from one source even when it wasn’t. It’s a consistency that I feel has been lost on Doctor Who since he left the show and it’s great to have that consistency back in Torchwood. Indeed, over the ten weeks of Miracle Day, I found that Torchwood was supplying my Doctor Who “fix” in a way that Doctor Who itself was not. SPOILERS FOLLOW

Another thing I love about Davies’s writing is his ability to convey living, breathing, and fully believable characters in just a few moments; a couple lines of dialogue or an action or two and these people become real. A perfect example is new character Rex Matheson. In the opening moments of the first episode, “The New World”, before the opening credits have even started, we learn several key things about him. Through the use of a seemingly inconsequential phone call, Davies shows us that he’s a class-A pompous jerk (taking joy in the illness of an associate’s wife because it means he gets that associate’s job from it, and by totally ignoring what Esther is trying to tell him). That same phone call also establishes the type of position he has with the CIA. Most importantly, it also shows us that he can be distracted easily enough to make mistakes by having him then get into a car crash that “kills” him. Naturally, Rex gets further development as the series goes on and starts to learn a bit of humility, but those opening moments (that last no more than a minute or two) secure who he is in the viewers’ minds. Another testament to Davies’s skill at writing characters is the fact that although Rex is a person I would no doubt despise if I ever met him in real life, I like him as a character and I’m actually interested in what he does. Of course, some praise has to go to Mekhi Phifer for bringing the character to life on screen.

That same phone conversation also introduces us to Esther Drummond, the CIA analyst Rex is talking to. In those same short moments, we learn that Esther is much more timid than Rex, but also more focused on the important matters at hand. We learn that Rex doesn’t treat her all that well, but nonetheless, she has a bit of a crush on him. Of the principal characters of Miracle Day, Esther is my least favourite, but she did grow on me as the series progressed. However, this is a matter of personal taste. Her set-up as a character and her development are excellent, and Alexa Havins is fully believable in the role. And I was quite saddened by her death at the end.

Of the new “good guy” characters introduced in Miracle Day, Doctor Vera Juarez (played by Arlene Tur) is easily my favourite, and I suspect a favourite of many viewers. She’s a strong, independent, and intelligent woman. I love that, after sleeping with Rex and then finding out the he was just using her, she doesn’t break down, but instead calmly tells him that she’s going to take a shower now and he had better be gone by the time she comes out. It’s through Vera’s eyes that the viewers get to see much of how the rest of the world is reacting to Miracle Day and how people are trying to cope. Alas, her status as an easy “favourite” also makes her the ideal choice for wrenching at the viewers’ heartstrings. Her “death” in the cliff-hanger of episode five is both heart-wrenching and terrifying. We have spent five episodes learning about the world through her and it makes narrative sense that, through her, we learn that the world’s governments are incinerating the terminally ill people they don’t otherwise know how to deal with. The added fact that she is murdered just intensifies the horror of it all.

Moving to the returning cast, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much further development of Captain Jack’s character. Considering that the entire storyline centres around him and his past actions, I would have liked to have gotten a bit more look into his current psyche. He is much less flamboyant than he once was, but this is understandable given what he went through at the end of Children of Earth, and we get a couple of brief glimpses at the loneliness and hurt he is dealing with. His phone call to Gwen in the third episode, “Dead of Night”, is one of the few moments that really show us these feelings that he has. He sees Gwen as his last true friend. When she gets distracted by her own family and unthinkingly hangs up on him, it’s a perfect first-hand view of how Jack is feeling more and more sidelined. However, there were very few scenes to show this side of Jack. A couple more would have been nice, and would have made his moment of forgiving himself when he looks into the Blessing all the more poignant. I also wish there had been a little more explanation as to why Jack becomes mortal when the rest of the world becomes immortal. There’s a symmetry to it, certainly, but no real explanation. That said, Jack is still Jack, and is great fun to watch. The seventh episode, “Immortal Sins”, is a particularly good Jack-centred episode.

Then we come to Gwen Cooper. I do so adore Gwen. She’s fiery, controlling, demanding, and rather selfish, but so believable as a real person. When it comes down to it, even though the show is based around Jack, Torchwood is really all about Gwen. She is the vehicle through which the viewers can see themselves in the same situation—not necessarily making the same decisions as others might, but representing the everyday person. Flawed, but capable. And Eve Myles is fabulous in the role, able to move effortlessly from Gwen’s anger and determination to her love for her husband, Rhys, and their daughter, Anwen, and her father. Gwen gets all the best lines in Miracle Day, too.

CIA Operative: If you’re the best England has to offer, then God help you.
Gwen: I’m Welsh. **SMACK!**

As great as Eve Myles is in the role of Gwen Cooper, the prize for best actor in Miracle Day has to go to Bill Pullman as convicted paedophile and murderer, Oswald Danes. Too many actors would go over the top in a role like this. Instead, Pullman plays the role very subdued. Danes, while arrogant, is at heart an incredibly shy man ( I love the idea of a shy villain—tv and movies don’t do that type of character very often) and Pullman captures this by giving him a nervous quality to his voice whenever he speaks, while also making him sound sinister and creepy. He sent chills down my spine on more than one occasion.

I also like that the story makes no attempt to redeem Danes. Even though he ends up working with Torchwood at the end and even sacrifices his life so Gwen and Jack can get away, the show never tries to present him in a sympathetic light. When the Blessing shows him his “true” self, he doesn’t break down and ask forgiveness. At the end, when he’s about to blow himself to kingdom come, he goes out joyously reliving his memories of raping and killing a young girl. It is the type of moment that Torchwood is particularly good at, combining triumph with horror and difficult moral quandaries. Danes is no hero, and the show never shies away from that fact.

Jilly Kitzinger, played by Lauren Ambrose, is another example of a character who would be utterly annoying to encounter in real life, but a lot of fun to watch. Ambrose is particularly good at fake smiles, allowing Jilly to smile at other characters whilst simultaneously telling the viewers how much she’s not smiling inside. She has to do a lot of these around Oswald Danes.

I have to give a special honourable mention to John DeLancie (best known as Q from Star Trek: the Next Generation) as CIA boss, Shapiro (can’t remember if we ever learn his first name). He’s a joy to watch in every scene he’s in.

Since Miracle Day has to introduce the show to many potential viewers who have never seen previous seasons of Torchwood, the series needs to be very careful about direct references to previous episodes. Nonetheless, it doesn’t fall into the trap of severing all ties to its older self, instead inserting enough nods to the previous stories to satisfy long-time viewers without confusing new viewers. A perfect example is the occasional reference to the new “four-five-six amendments” to CIA protocol. New viewers are unlikely to notice this as it goes by so quickly, but viewers who have seen Children of Earth will know instantly what it refers to. Returning characters like police constable Andy Davison is just another character to new viewers, but a familiar face to old. There are little references to the Doctor, UNIT, the Racnoss, and Silurians, all in a non-obtrusive manner.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the overall plot of Miracle Day with its ongoing mystery and gradual revelations, there were a few things about it that disappointed me a little. For the first half of the story (till episode 6 or so), we get a lot of glimpses into how the Miracle is affecting the world at large. We see the fear it engenders, the companies (like Phi Corp) trying to cash in on it, the media response, and so on. And of course, we see the governments’ response in the creation of the “overflow camps” and the creation of the category system. Alas, in the second half of the series, we see fewer and fewer glimpses of the continuing collapse of society. We are told the economy has collapsed, but we see little evidence of this (Gwen and Rhys are even still able to have groceries delivered to their home).

The problem stems mainly from the loss of the characters who were our windows into the world at large. Vera Juarez gave us an insight into how the medical community was trying to deal with the Miracle. Through her eyes, we see the effect on the terminally ill (now category 1) patients. We see the effect on hospitals. And, of course, we see the effect on people like Colin Maloney, who ultimately “kills” her when she threatens to expose him and what is happening to the category 1s. As I mentioned earlier, she is a logical character to kill off part way through, as she is the character most likely to draw a profound emotional response from the viewer, but the added side effect to her death is that we as viewers are deprived of one way to see the rest of the world. Jack, Gwen, Rex, and Esther are busy uncovering the conspiracy and fighting against it. We don’t see the world through their eyes (except sometimes through Gwen’s in the subplot about her father and very briefly through Esther and the subplot about her sister).

Jilly and Oswald Danes allow the viewers to see the media response to the Miracle. Through them, we see how the healthy people of the world are dealing with the situation. Unfortunately, after Danes rises to the height of his popularity in episode 5, “The Categories of Life”, neither he nor Jilly appears again for two entire episodes. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Those two episodes do have a lot of other things to cover, but one or two brief appearances each episode would have helped. When they do return in episode 8, “End of the Road”, we see the collapse of Danes’s stardom as he becomes a “category zero”. He has to go into hiding and we no longer see the world through his eyes. At the same time, Jilly is promoted and brought in to work for the mysterious Families. It’s a logical progression for her character, but again it deprives the viewers of a window on the world.

As a result, as of the sixth episode, “The Middle Men”, we have lost most of our insight on the world at large. From this point on, about the only way we get to see the world is through Gwen’s father. This is a heartfelt storyline (and despite what some fans seem to think, absolutely integral to the overall story as it sets up the terrible choice Gwen must make at the end, to end the Miracle at the cost of her father’s life), but it only provides us with a small look at the world. Other “glimpses” are generally just through voice-over news reports. I do wish the show had maintained its connection to the wider world, perhaps through having Vera survive, through not having Danes’s popularity collapse, or through the introduction of another character.

The concept of the Families is a strong one: three powerful families who have deleted all records of their names and secretly control most of the world’s finances. I like that the Families are not really defeated in the end and have been set up as an ongoing threat for future Torchwood stories. That said, I do wish there had been a stronger “face” for the Families, someone the viewers can get to know as a character. Given that the Families are supposed to be secretive, this would have understandably been a difficult thing to do, but not impossible. If we had seen just a little bit more of the personality of the woman who was overseeing things in Shanghai or the man in Buenos Aires, I would have been more satisfied. It would have also offered a little more insight into what motivated the Families to create the Miracle in the first place, something the story could have benefited from.

That said, I was very satisfied with the resolution of the series (even if the climax got a touch “talky” and you have to wonder why the villains, unable to use their guns, didn’t just use their fists to knock out the Torchwood teams). Many people don’t like that the Blessing isn’t fully explained, but I actually like this aspect. It’s nice once in a while to show that there are things in the universe that haven’t yet been fully understood and it adds another dimension to the Families in that they are willing to play around with something they don’t understand.

Rex’s final fate is brilliant. Even though it’s foreshadowed just moments before, it took me by surprise (which itself surprised me as I don’t usually miss those kinds of things). It was a good surprise though. Even though Rex as a person is the least deserving Torchwood member to gain true Immortality, from a story perspective, he is the most appropriate. He’ll make a great contrast to Jack, not having the same moral confines as Jack and likely to take stupid risks.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed Torchwood: Miracle Day. There are few programmes I find myself anticipating and looking forward to every week and Torchwood remains one of them. I look forward to a fifth season should it come.

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