Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Torchwood Miracle Day Premiere

As at least a handful of people know, the fairly popular Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood, has returned for a fourth season. After 2009's five-part miniseries, Children of Earth, which saw the destruction of yet more Torchwood team members, and Torchwood itself, the new season, titled Miracle Day, will last for ten episodes and take place mainly in the United States.

For some background on the show and a review of Miracle Day's first episode, hit the jump.

In case you're unfamiliar, Torchwood was created directly from storylines featured in the Doctor Who reboot that began in 2005. Captain Jack Harkness is a Time Agent who runs into the Doctor and Rose in the first season, and becomes a companion in the TARDIS until the finale, where he gets killed by a Dalek but then Rose, who had absorbed the Time Vortex of the TARDIS and become eerily omnipotent, brought him back to life. Only she didn't comprehend her power, and Jack Harkness became unkillable. Forever. (Even if you don't follow, trust me: it was pretty awesome.) Harkness would cross paths with the Doctor in his main series a few more times, but Russell T. Davies, the head honcho behind Doc Who, loved the smooth-talking, handsome, man-out-of-time, omnisexual character and decided to give him his own show.

Conceived as a mystery/thriller/action series for adults, in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which Davies is wisely a huge fan on, and he even got famous Buffy scribe Jane Espenson to write 4 out of 10 episodes of Miracle Day) Davies set the groundwork for Torchwood in a Doctor Who episode where Queen Victoria, after meeting the Doctor, exiles him and sets up a British institute to monitor, investigate and defend planet Earth from aliens. Cut to 2006 and Torchwood's first season which was, frankly, awful.

Badly written, cheesy stories, melodrama, overacting--it was pretty difficult to watch and not something I revisited. Season 2 pulled me back because it had another Buffy tie--James Marsters not only guest starred but made out with John Barrowman on screen for awhile, which was enjoyable. I ended up sticking around to watch Martha Jones (another ex-companion of the Doctor) do a few episodes, and then watch everyone die. Because Torchwood is really very fond of killing off their main cast members. Season 2 was much better, but still full of terribly unoriginal plot lines and musings on death and sacrifice. It was almost rude and offensive the way in which they killed their characters, who naturally declare their long, secret (and only recently imagined by the writers) love for each other right before bleeding to death or exploding in a nuclear reactor.

Children of Earth stepped it up a notch, making one large story with multiple arcs. Davies increased the darkness, he increased the importance of Torchwood's work, and yet again he killed 1/3rd of the remaining Torchwood team. The miniseries ended with Torchwood exposed, Jack running off into the cosmos to get over the guilt of his recent heinous, for-the-greater-good actions, and Gwen very preggers and going underground with her hubbie.

Which is where Miracle Day opens. Gwen is living with her husband and child in a lovely farmhouse in Wales in the middle of nowhere. They are cut off from the world and not privy to recent events: namely, that people have stopped dying. A child rapist and murderer's execution fails to work, most unfortunately. A CIA agent in a car accident with a metal pole through his chest doesn't die. Suicides off buildings live, gun shot wounds, explosions, old age--no one on Earth is dying.

First called a Miracle Day, people quickly begin to realize the ramifications. Not only does it alter every definition of human life and philosophy, but the unprecedented population boom occurring every day will overwhelm civilization without months. A cool premise, no? And apparently one that Russell T. Davies had thought of before for a potential Doctor Who storyline, but saved for Captain Jack.

Speaking of whom, Jack makes a suitably shadowy and impressive return when Esther, a CIA agent and partner/assistant to the one from the car crash (Mekhi Phifer) stumbles upon some files about Torchwood and Gwen Cooper. The twist for Jack? When all the world becomes immortal, his own immortality is removed. He can be hurt without healing, and killed without returning.

The ingenuity just about ends there. The premise is good, the twists are fairly satisfying, but for some reason Russell T. Davies just can't write a consistently solid episode anymore. The acting doesn't always help either. Bill Pullman plays the atrocious, monstrous convict who survives lethal injection and then uses the technicalities of his survival to get released. Apparently truly villainous felons look like they've had a stroke and are clearly Southern. Aside from being a repugnant, obligatory "mature" storyline that I have few hopes for, the acting is just difficult to watch. The only thing to look forward to here is Lauren Ambrose's entry next episode as his new PR agent. Big fan of hers (and I saw her in Brooklyn once!)

Mekhi Phifer is probably the most atrocious one. When he's driving in the beginning and discussing a new promotion, you can tell he's happy because he's yelling. When he's in the hospital bed and realizes he should be dead, only he's not, you can tell he's going through some kind of psychological crisis because he starts yelling and thrashing around. When he decides to follow down the link between Miracle Day and Torchwood by going to Wales, you can tell he's dedicated and stubborn because he yells at the hospital staff, Esther on the phone, at his housekeeper Rosita who for some reason meets him at the airport, at the stewardess, at no one in particular when he dislikes Wales, and eventually at Gwen where he promptly collapses from his wounds. The other interesting point is how often he flashes his badge and yells "CIA!" to get his away. I was under the vague impression that the CIA employed covert operatives. In which case we witness him blow his cover to a Doctor, several nurses, a taxi cab driver, and the entire first class section of his flight. All in all this is not what you call a nuanced performance. Mostly it's Mekhi Phifer doing what he does in every role I've ever seen him, but for god's sake, tone it down. Give us a minute off of being annoying and irrational to contemplate possibly liking your character.

Eve Myle's as Gwen is the highlight, even though I never particularly loved her character. And she still does strange faces and shows us she's a slightly eccentric, temperamental Welsh chick by having a screaming match with her husband and then suddenly laughing and kissing. Meh. No, the strength of her character is just that..her strength. She is hardcore when she has to be. In an interview before the premiere I read Eve say something about how in the new season Gwen would be holding her baby in one arm and firing her gun in the other. I thought she was just being symbolic about the tension of a working mother with the twist of the job being violent, dangerous, and supernatural. However there's an actual scene where she cradles her baby and empties a round into a helicopter. It's pretty sweet.

Jack's inevitable surprise return was also good, and the chase scene on the beach at the climax was very enjoyable. But the already established personal relationships, namely between Jack and Gwen, should have been looked at more. They were as close as people could be, their friends all killed around them during their missions, and then separated for many months. Somehow Davies never hits any of these potentially pivotal emotional points in the show right on the head. He kind of gets them, with a good grin shared and the history in the subtext, but there is something missing.

In fact, throughout the show there is something missing consistently. I don't know if it's simply the dialogue and the timing, or if that's just the peculiar thing about Torchwood; one suspects it may never have been a good enough idea, with good enough characters, to be worth making it a show let alone continuing it. It's certainly not even comparable to Doctor Who.

But as passing entertainment, in the company of low expectations, it can certainly be enjoyed. And there is still much to look forward to. Mainly Lauren Ambrose, Jane Espenson, and the possibility of Captain Jack making out with some more dudes.


  1. I have to agree with you on a couple of points. Eve Myles as Gwen is the strongest she has been in any of the Torchwood series. And Mekhi Phifer was pretty weak. It's hard to imagine how someone who spends all of his time blustering made it to any level of power in a covert organization. I keep trying to picture him in Covert Affairs, and just see all the characters rolling their eyes as soon as he starts talking.

    I had a better reaction to Bill Pullman, though. He was appropriately smarmy to me. Time will tell, I can certainly see this going the other way. For now, I am relaxing in to watching this show, and settling in with expectations to enjoy it.

  2. I'm with you on the expectations to enjoy bit. Especially the Espenson episodes. And maybe I should give Pullman another shot--I think I just resent being forced to watch such a repugnant character :-)

    You should read this recap, its hilarious:,1