Reviews

'Torchwood: Miracle Day': Wherein Life without Death Becomes Unbearable

The Torchwood crew is back with a bigger budget and even more star-power -- it's just a shame that budget's not applied towards a story that's worthwhile.


Torchwood

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Mekhi Phifer, Alexa Havins, Bill Pullman, Wayne Knight
Network: Starz
UK Release Date: 2011-11-14
US Release Date: 2012-04-03
Amazon

Torchwood has come a very, very long way since its inception as the "adult" spinoff of Russell T. Davies' revitalized Doctor Who. While Torchwood's first season ran into the same problems that most "monster-of-the-week" type shows do in their initial stages, it really found its footing with its second season, probing territory that was thematically darker (what it means to really be dead, animal cruelty, re-assessing losing a loved one in the family) instead of just merely provocative (sex, drugs, violence, more sex). The first season did hit a few notable highs (particularly in its stand-out episode "Countrycide"), and the second still had some stumbles ("From Out of the Rain" -- which truly did feel like a tossed-off Doctor Who episode), but overall, it was a pleasure to see the show's quality getting better over time.

The game completely changed, however, with the five-part miniseries Children of Earth. The show didn't just go dark: it went pitch-black scary, featuring a plotline that explored the terrors of government in times of crisis just as well as it did an impending alien invasion that managed to control our children, making them speak all in unison worldwide. Beloved characters were lost, characters' families got caught up in the show's terrifying plight, and charming omni-sexual leader Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) had to sacrifice one of his own family members in order to save the world (couple in the fact that he's immortal and can't die and you realize why he carries several lifetimes worth of regrets with him).

Even when the show got a bit ridiculous (which it certainly did during a certain forklift-aided escape attempt), it remained unquestionably powerful throughout, asking a lot of really tough questions and showing just how thought-provoking (as well as adrenaline-surging) television sci-fi could be at times. It was not only Torchwood's unquestioned high-point -- it's damn near close to being considered a television landmark.

It shouldn't be too surprising that when it came to talk about a follow-up, Davies was aiming for bigger and better. Thus, Torchwood: Miracle Day closely mirrors Children of Earth by making the whole series revolve around one highly unusual mystery, although this time out, he doubles the series' length, where a full ten episodes are given this explosive treatment instead of a mere five. Additionally, this season was produced in conjunction with the Starz Network in the US, thereby injecting a bit of Hollywood cash into the production, as the network seemed to be really hell-bent on making this a new American sci-fi standard-bearer. It's a bit strange -- shortly before the show aired, a DVD box set cumbersomely titled The Complete Original U.K. Series was released, implying that Miracle Day only sort of had a connection to the show's original run, despite the fact that it very much continues the plot continuity -- but bringing in big names like Mekhi Phifer and Bill Pullman certainly gives a bit of glamor to the proceedings.

That said, no matter how much money and star-power is thrown on the screen, it only really matters if the material that's being treated is of the same caliber as Torchwood's previous highs -- and in that respect, Miracle Day truly disappoints.

Things start off interestingly enough: as the world watches the execution of convicted pedophile/murderer Oswald Danes (Pullman), things take a turn for the worse when his lethal injection goes horribly awry, his convulsions causing an immediate halt to the proceedings -- he should've already died. Suddenly we discover that within a 24 hour time period, absolutely no one dies. The word "Torchwood" briefly flares up on the CIA computer terminals, but then is shortly defeated, perplexing desk worker Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins, having come a long way from All My Children). She also is dealing with the fact that strong-headed CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) just barely got in a fatal car crash, wherein lots of copper tubing impaled him in the chest (in a scene almost identical to the opening few minutes of the 2005 Neil Marshall film The Descent). Shockingly, Rex too has managed to survive. This mysterious 24 hour period of perpetual life is dubbed "Miracle Day" by the media -- and then it keeps going.

People keep on living, even when they should be dead. A rather graphic (and well-done) scene wherein an "autopsy" is held for a man who tried to kill Jack via suicide bomb, the remnants of his body charred black, smeared flesh all over a large metal table. His charred head, however, still shows consciousness. Jack recommends completely disconnecting the head and yet... the man continues to speak and live. Jack, however, retains a bruise -- something he's never had before, due to his immortal status. It's revealed that he himself is now mortal -- the world has somehow switched itself. Before long, he rounds up surviving Torchwood member Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) to try and solve this bizarre mystery.

The times when Miracle Days works are the times when it becomes really focused on a specific issue. In particular, it takes a simple concept as "no one can die" and actually portrays things in a realistic fashion: because people can't die, need for painkillers and drugs goes up drastically. People that should be dead from fatal diseases are now carrying them everywhere, causing the government to create "overflow" camps for the sick and wounded because hospitals are stretched to the brink. New classifications are given for people: Category 3 (living well), Category 2 (injured, but still functioning), and Category 1 (without 100 percent brain function/as close to death as can be). Suicidal people join the "45 Club" because they feel that the lack of consciousness from jumping off a building 45 stories or taller is as close to death as they can come.

These are all powerful, well-considered themes, but once Oswald Danes begins his rise as a spokesperson for the people looking to make sense of these troubled times, following his own public act of apologetic contrition, things get a bit wobbly. His rise to fame is curious, and, weirdly, doesn't actually manifest to all that much in the grand scheme of things. Even as mysterious figures guide his rise to prominence, his PR agent, Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) is portrayed a two-dimensional she-devil who's in it only for the influence and power (oddly harkening back to Faye Dunaway's ratings-hungry Diana Christiensen in Network, but without the same emotional gravitas) -- a large but astonishingly unsubstantial role given to a good actress who simply can't find the grounding for it.

Thus, Miracle Day ultimately suffers from Russell T. Davies' largest fault as writer: his penchant for the melodramatic. While having Gwen walk through her house with a baby in one hand a firearm in the other (firing at a helicopter outside, no less) is certainly an arresting image, it's also ridiculous; doubly so when coupled with Rex breaking into the home of his commanding CIA officer (played by Wayne Knight in what turns out to be a largely thankless role) and firing a gun near his ear making him go half-deaf later on in the series. Makes you wonder if Gwen cared at all about her child's hearing.

Additionally, the large "conspiracy" that ties everything together is left floundering by the end, as there has never been a greater example of a "rushed ending" than the Miracle Day finalé. We get resolution within the last ten minutes, but things are smooshed together so much that when we get to the series' final moment, we're left with something that's not as much a cliffhanger as it is an open end that doesn't resolve much of anything (and the less said about Danes' final words, which are disgusting in light of his faux-heroism, the better). This shows just how poor the series was at planning things out to begin with, which is why things feel unresolved and anti-climactic by the time we see the final credits sequence.

It's sad to think that the series' emotional high-point comes as soon as the fifth episode, wherein Rex's doctor friend (Arlene Tur, in a great role) investigates one of these overflow camps to discover what is really going on. The episode's conclusion is shocking and powerful in a way that the finalé very much isn't, showing how when the show focused on a very simple topic (the way the government was handling the population overflow), everything clicks. The more and more it got into decades-long-conspiracy/shadowy organization territory, the less and less of a pull it ultimately has.

The DVD set itself is equally disappointing, starting with how every single episode has a video introduction by both John Barrowman and Russell T. Davies. Although these introductions are less than a minute long, they are terrible: "Get ready, as you will not believe what is about to happen next ..." seems to be the prevailing train of thoughts on these, the show's star and creator acting as the hype-men for their own product instead of letting it stand by itself. And it doesn't matter if you select an individual episode or you do a play-all -- these introductions appear either way (they are, thankfully, skippable).

The behind-the-scenes and FX documentaries are pretty standard, the character profiles largely useless, and the 30-minute "Web of Lies" motion comic is absolutely dreadful, using the same Flash-grade animation that made the Doctor Who: Infinite Quest DVD such a pain to sit through, everything looking herky-jerky and awkward, all while featuring a short story that features no emotional through-line to speak of (and the voice acting sometimes feels like it was recorded over a phone call at times, Eve Myles in particular hits the microphone's limiter more than a few times).

Ultimately, for all of the goodwill that Torchwood has built up over the years, it ultimately squanders it with Miracle Day, taking a really great concept and destroying it by adding in more than the series could possibly fit in a coherent fashion. While Miracle Day isn't bad in and of itself, it does leave much to be desired. If we are lucky enough to get any Torchwood after this, let's hope it reigns in its excesses and gets back to what made it so great in the first place.

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