Torchwood: Miracle Day isn’t the first time a Who related property has been produced by the US but there was plenty of interest in how it would turn out. Co-produced by the Starz network there was plenty of questions about how it would translate and how much of the original show would remain.
Taking its cue from the success of ‘Children of Earth’ this season of Torchwood promises to tell one big story, rather than individual tales. One day people just stop dying. This fundamental shift in the way the world works causes panic and forces Torchwood out of retirement.
So how is it? In a word, awful.
There are certainly lots of parallels here with the tragically cut short series ‘Flash Forward’. Both concern large scale events, both feature a governmental organisation trying to find the cause, a hospital setting that explore the biological side and even a shadowy terrorist organisation who seem to have an involvement in events.
The problem is that while ‘Flash Forward’ was about something happening this is a story about something not happening. This makes the whole affair seem a lot more muted.
Rex Matheson (played by Mekhi Phifer) should have been a dramatic example of this event. Skewered by metal pipes after a car accident his injuries are treated as mere inconvenience and he even makes it to Wales only using a crutch to get around the problem of having several holes in his body. It is a lot harder to take his situation seriously when many of his scenes were played for laughs.
The cardinal rule of writing is ‘Show don’t tell’. Unfortunately in order to set up the premise there is an awful lot of telling. A stable of Russell T Davies writing in Doctor Who returns here in the form of endless unconvincing news reporters giving us information dumps while the camera zooms in on their mouths like it was a lip balm advert.
Worse still is where Dr Vera Juarez (Arelene Tur) relates how she contacted several hospitals around the world to find out that no one has died. This is prime example where we are told something rather than seeing that for ourselves. Any drama or rising tension is immediately lost by a character just giving us a bullet pointed account of something incredible.
The idea of death being suspended is hardly original. A particularly fine example is ‘One Night At Mercy’ from the 2002 series of ‘The Twilight Zone’. Even ‘Family Guy’ had an episode where Death takes time off.
Even putting aside the fact the idea has been done before taking death off the table reduces the drama of the series. A character being killed is obviously the greatest peril they can face. Now previously lethal injury are just inconvenient.
At this early stage much of the new rules are still unexplained. We don’t yet know if people will heal from their wounds. If they don’t is all healing suspended? If someone cuts their hand will it never heal?
To what extent does this ‘no dying’ thing extend? Do skin cells no longer die? Does hair still grow and if so do those who have fatal wounds still have to shave? If you burnt a body to ash or destroyed the brain wouldn’t that prevent conscious thought and thus be a form of death?
The two biggest problems facing the Earth is that with no one dying the planet will soon become overcrowded and food will run out. Do people still need food if they can’t die? Since people can’t starve to death what would happen to them? Why would space be a concern since now people can live in previously inhospitable locations like deserts, snowy tundra and under water?
These questions could be answered in upcoming episodes but in this first episode no one seems to be that concerned or curious about this dramatic change. There is also a puzzling acceptance that this is a permanent change, rather than a temporary phenomenon.
This lack of realism extends to all the characters. Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) is the only one in the CIA to be interested in why the word ‘Torchwood’ got past their electronic security because she feels bad about talking to Rex about it when he had his accident. It is almost insulting that the audience is supposed to accept this flimsy piece of motivation.
Captain Jack returns, alternatively brooding and cracking jokes. Although stripped of his immortality he has gained a new power, being able to teleport where ever the plot requires him to be.
He seems to know just where to go with no indication of just how he has come by this information. With Torchwood gone and having recently returned from off-world one has to wonder where he is getting his supplies of Ret-Con drug to wipe peoples memory, in exactly the same way he dealt with Gwen.
Gwen and Rhys have retreated to a county cottage to raise their child, occasionally pulling shot guns on passing ramblers and then feeling bad about it. While it is easy to see why they’d want a quite life after what they endured it isn’t as clear why they believe their lives are in danger. Were they really still in danger from the government after the events of ‘Children of Earth’?
There is one particular sequence involving Gwen and Rhys that feels like padding. They begin at their cottage before travelling to Cardiff to learn about Miracle Day. They ultimately decide not get involved and return to the cottage before Rex and Jack bring them into the action.
This whole section could have been removed and nothing would have been missed. The characters begin and end in the same place, both in terms of location and motivation.Not a single piece of the story has moved forward.
The Cardiff detour does lead to an enjoyable scene with Gwen’s parents. It is these domestic scenes that RTD writes best, finding the humour in the situation.
There was much anticipation that this would be Torchwood on a bigger budget thanks to the co-funding from Starz but director Bharat Nalluri certainly does his best not to make it show.
We get the same ponderous shots over and over again, including several claustrophobia inducing tight shots that seems designed to hide the limitations of the production. In particular the sequence of Rex driving at no point convinces that he is moving through the real word.
The sequence where Esther searches for a box only to then go look for another box was so boring I almost fell asleep. Like the Gwen and Rhys section I highlighted above was this something they felt they could edit out for the commercials?
Bill Pullman is creepy as the unashamed paedophile and murderer Oswald Danes but this again stretches suspension of disbelief. The government official points out that just because the execution failed it doesn’t mean Oswald is forgiven for his crimes. I have serious trouble accepting that the threat of legal proceedings would allow a child killer into public when it is very likely he’d repeat his crime. Nor do I think he’d have any support.
A similarly disturbing scene was the ‘autopsy’ of the suicide bomber. Reduced to little more than a charred skeleton the authorities proceed to cut his head off (at Jack’s urging) to see what will happen.
A rare effective scene it still raises questions about why the man blew himself up when he knew that he wouldn’t die? It also puts a darker spin on the later scene when the heroes congratulate themselves for shooting down a helicopter when those on board must surely be experiencing the same horrible fate in the burning wreckage.
My biggest issue with the whole story is Torchwood itself. Sure their name is in the title but why on earth would anyone think they were important. What does Rex think an ex-police woman is going to bring to the table in these events.
This is exactly where we were in ‘Children of Earth’ with people hunting Torchwood when they had no ability to deal with the situation. Gwen and Jack don’t know anything about what is happening, they don’t have any resources and they definitely don’t have any skills.
Let it not be forgotten but after a number of bomb exploded in Cardiff Gwen advised the police to go door to door to see if people were alright and Captain Jack is responsible for letting that bomber go free in the first place.
I can see what Russell T Davies is trying to achieve. The main character coming under threat during a crisis is much like how several seasons of ‘24’ begin. The difference is that Jack Bauer actually had a proven reputation that suggested that if he got involved in events he’d save the day.
The writing is leaden, the characters unbelievable and the direction lazy. The only reason I’m going to keep watching is that other writers will be handling subsequent episodes. The premise has potential and I hope this will be better explored in more skilled hands.