Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day (spoilers included)

In Children of Earth, Torchwood overturned two years of lukewarm reviews and innuendo-laced sci-fi… leaving fans open-mouthed at the audacity of a bleak, world-weary ending. Finally it seemed to be fulfilling its much-trumpeted, risk-taking potential. So it’s disappointing to see it fumble the ball with Miracle Day. The main problem is that rather than head towards a landmark, gut-wrenching climax as per CoE, Miracle Day starts with that shock-value element and then meanders away from it in search of something it never quite finds.

Placing Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) in the middle of a world without death was a rich narrative seam to mine and starts well. For the first few episodes we balance set-piece action  (exploding helicopters, hoorah!) with a hard look at the cultural and moral implications that such an occurrence would cause (fluid political ethics, boo!). Indeed, it seems to picking up the themes of high-up corruption that were the most interesting aspects of the previous run: social commentary is often superb when disguised in sci-fi clothing. This was all very promising…

But soon, it’s notable that we’re running on that shock value alone:  Jack, Gwen and newcomers Rex  (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther (Alexa Havins) encounter euthanasia, concentration camps, people being burned in ovens – all unsubtle weekly examples of human nature at its worst. However, narrative-wise, it’s all raised eyebrows, looks of horror… our heroes don’t have  ‘action‘,  merely  ‘reaction’, stumbling around in search of answers and merely getting drop-fed enigmatic symbols or more questions. We consistently have the what – but little real progress on the why or how (never mind a Who).

In parallel we see the fall and opportunistic rise of child-rapist Oswald Danes (an earnest Bill Pullman), a character dripping with potential but whom the writers can never quite get a handle upon from week to week – is he Lektorish evil personified or a resurrected man in search of redemption? Equally, is Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) a manipulative mover-and-shaker with a direct line to the Powers that Be or merely a mad-eyed opportunist PR woman with a nice line in lipstick’d shrill?

Suddenly Miracle Day loses its nerve – clearly jettisoning social commentary in favour of single-episodic diversions:  Angelo (Daniele Favilli) turns from Jack’s significant other (circa 1920s) to contemporary comatose prop, Esther’s sister threatens cult-driven suicide and then… nothing. There’s also a raft of stunt-casting. Ernie Hudson, Nana Visitor, John De Lancie and Frances Fisher arrive, but all provide little more than exposition or one-liners before being shuffled off like day-players. We seem to be focussing more on Gwen’s Trans-Atlantic Air Miles and Jack’s century-wide libido than matters of life and death. (Sadly subsequent tabloid ‘outrage’ over explicit sex-scenes seems largely manufactured to fill space – arguably as much so as Davies’ tendency to use slash-fiction punctuation for the same reason).

By the time we get to the finale, the audience wants answers but is likely to feel less than blessed by the eponymous ’Blessing’. The dots we’ve sought to connect now appear arbitrary or irrelevant: mainstays Jilly and Oswald largely reduced to needn’t-be-there bystanders, massive coincidences abound and characters make amazingly fortunate decisions beforehand that somewhat save the day. (Rex has a full-body blood transfusion in a seedy hotel room merely as a back-up plan? Really?)

Miracle Day is… something to do with looking too long into a global abyss which then looks into you (Davies clearly likes Nietzsche) and Jack’s blood (which has special qualities /but it doesn’t/but it does) has reset it. It is with some serious audacity that Miracle Day, after 10 episodes of looking all enigmatic, literally has Jack Harkness  turn, shrug and declare a ‘who knows?’ speech when asked to explain the climax‘s logic.

Despite all this, one really wants to like Miracle Day because of the many talents involved, the occasional glimmers of greatness and the sheer potential on show, but it simply doesn’t earn it.  Rife with blatant continuity errors, contrived McGuffins and a tendency to indulge every distracting whim, it tries  to ‘squeeze’ a tight five-parter into a 10 episode run. While the likes of Doctor Who can shift tone from separate story to story,  this single Torchwood ‘epic’ simply can’t decide whether it’s 24, Queer as Folk or Scooby Doo.

Some will claim the American element is what undermined this run, but that would be unfair. The additional budget and broader geography doesn’t hurt Torchwood in the least, opening up a smorgasbord of greater possibilities as the cast are scattered across the planet. No, the fatal blow is purely a creative weakness and one wonders – even with the somewhat unfathomable ‘the-world‘s-now-returned-to-normal‘ epilogue tacked on to its finale – if Torchwood has sadly outlived its remit.

4/10

John Mosby

Check our other Doctor Who and Torchwood reviews here

Discussion

One thought on “Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day (spoilers included)

  1. Well written (and analysed), although somewhat bleak commentary, John. I think overall you’re probably right – TW has, in this season, largely failed to live up to its early promise but I think you’re wrong about the cause of all this. Sorry to say this but I think this is an inevitable consequence of a once great British TV scifi drama crossing the pond – it may have gained in terms of budget, locations, high powered action sequences (especially re: the helicopter scenes) but its become distinctly Americanised in the process and what we are left with is a show with lower production values and potentially exciting plot twists being watered down to suit the tastes of the American market. The should never have left Cardiff!

    Posted by leedsjon1 | September 16, 2011, 11:02 pm

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