Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 8

End of the Road


It’s exposition week for Torchwood! After last week’s virtually standalone episode which seemed to do little more than touch on the main plot, this week it was answer after answer in an episode which veered from occasional action through character development to mountains of infodumps. Still, at least some answers were finally forthcoming.

Chief expositor was Nana Visitor as Olivia Colasanto – as it turned out, the granddaughter of Jack’s ex Angelo, who this week was found to have lived this long by virtue of a sensible lifestyle and no immortality particularly. While it’s great to see Nana Visitor in anything, Olivia wasn’t given any kind of character as such; her function was simply to spew information as to what was happening, how it had happened, and who did it. This barrage of exposition came so thick and fast in the early part of the episode that my sleep-fogged brain had a hard time taking it all in.

Among the salient points that I did manage to discern were that Jack isn’t actually responsible for the Miracle – he just gave the rotating triangle people the idea for it, which seems like a bit of a swizz given all the hints dropped previously. And the rotating triangle people now have names – Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines. Three weird names, to be sure, and a pain to type over and over again, which may be why they’re usually referred to simply as The Families; you can almost hear the capital letters in the dialogue. Angelo wasn’t working with them, because they don’t like the gays. That’s not unusual for people in the late 20s, though it did seem incongruous that their properly contextual homophobia wasn’t matched by any equally period-accurate racism – there weren’t that many rich black people accepted so casually in society at that point. Which, if nothing else, should make them easier to track down, despite the fact that they’ve managed to wipe their names from the entire internet – perhaps with a virus similar to the one Jack used to erase all references to Torchwood.

Esther, listening in with a phone and a laptop, had the fun task of transcribing the infodump while Googling everything that came up in it. She really is turning into this show’s Chloe O’Brian, albeit without the endearing lack of social graces. Unfortunately for her, this meant that she had to endure the indignity of having a gun shoved in her face by Dennis Nedry Friedkin as Wayne Knight made a welcome return. After a succession of single episode guest shots, it’s refreshing when a character actually turns out to be more than a gimmicky cameo, and Knight’s trademark sweating panic was nicely consistent with the out-of-his-depth character we’d seen previously.

This all turned out to be due to a fantastically elaborate scheme by Rex, of all people, a man who hasn’t previously displayed much aptitude for anything beyond surly anger. Apparently his ‘careless’ phone call to express his condolences to Vera’s brother was actually part of a masterplan by which, when the time was right, he would bring Friedkin and his betrayals to book using the magic contact lenses – which begs the question of exactly when he got Gwen to give them to him and why she then seemed so surprised that he was using them. Perhaps Torchwood have lots of them, but if so that was a detail missing from the general flood of exposition. Additionally, the ones Rex was using seem to have a microphone built into them somewhere, as Wayne Knight’s distinctive voice was transmitted to the monitors watched by Jack and co, rather than the usual lipreading software/bland expressionless voice combo.

But we can forgive these little questions about detail and be thankful for the arrival of John De Lancie as CIA head honcho Allen Shapiro. De Lancie toned down the massive excesses of camp we’d come to expect from his years in Star Trek (or perhaps it just seemed that way because he was standing near John Barrowman), but this was still recognisably the guy who played Q in the same room as the woman who played Major Kira, which was kind of cool. It’s just a shame that he immediately bundled her out of the room before they’d had a chance to exchange more than about two lines. Still, Nana Visitor had spewed all the exposition required, and with no further function in the narrative, Olivia was conveniently blown up when Friedkin carried out the rotating triangle people The Families’ last instruction. They’re presumably no more dead than the guy who was blown up in part one, but their exploded state pretty much rules out any question of Visitor and Knight popping up in any future episodes.

The episode did seem a little unbalanced as this brief flurry of action and excitement was over with by about halfway through, at which point we got acres more character development as our heroes cogitated on the mountain of exposition they’d just heard. And took time to catch us all up on the well-being – or not – of their families. The trouble with this is that I don’t really care about them. A little family background for your characters goes a long way – as we saw in Children of Earth, it’s possible to give your heroes families that are only slightly involved in the action, without overloading the narrative to the extent that the thriller keeps pausing to catch us up on the soap opera.

And so it did here. While the revelation that you can ‘volunteer’ for the category 1 burning procedure (along with your children, somewhat improbably) was chilling, I really don’t particularly give two hoots about Esther’s sister, and think far too much time has been spent on her. She’s not a particularly convincing character, and she could have served the same plot functions in about a quarter of the time. Gwen’s morale-boosting chat with Rhys and her mum was nice, but really served no particular purpose other than to remind us that Wales was still there. At least Rex didn’t take time for a heartfelt chat to his dad, though given the general indulgence to script flabbiness of this kind, that was rather a surprise. As it is, if we don’t see Rex’s dad again, I’d say that scene between them in episode four was another bit of unnecessary padding that could have been cut to make this series overall as lean and fast-paced as Children of Earth was.

The soap opera part that did work, though, was a genuinely touching scene with Jack finally facing up to his former lover, trying to explain to the comatose Angelo how he felt. It was well-written dialogue – as Jane Espenson co-wrote this episode, I’d say this scene was hers – delivered surprisingly well by John Barrowman. It’s nice to be reminded every once in a while that he can actually be rather a fine actor. His rueful speech to Angelo also featured a fanboy-pleasing reference to Ianto Jones, which seemed also to underline that while Jack may now be several thousand years old, he’s only ever genuinely fallen for these two people. Perhaps behind all the rampant shagging, he’s a man of considerable depth after all…

But the plot kicked back to action as Angelo died. Yes, actually died – as our heroes later discovered, he had a handy bit of alien tech – probably nicked from the ruins of the Torchwood Hub – hidden under his bed, a ‘null field’ generator that neutralised what now seems conclusively to be a ‘morphic field’ used to create the Miracle. Cue Shapiro eagerly wanting to nip it off to CIA HQ for some analysis, and Jack’s now-familiar “humanity isn’t ready for this technology” speech – that part really did feel like the Torchwood of old. I’m not sure the ‘comic’ business about the null field making their conspiring inaudible really worked, mind.

So that part of the plot climaxed with Rex and Esther helping Jack to nick the vital bit of the null field generator, during which Jack was unfortunately shot, and now seems incapable of helping out. It was a curiously static episode in terms of setting, with basically only two locations – our heroes spent the entire time in Angelo’s luxurious mansion, but to enliven the proceedings they were intercut with what Oswald and Jilly were getting up to in, basically, a hotel room and a corridor.

Mind you, it was good to see Oswald and Jilly again after two episodes away. I’ve become inexplicably fond of Bill Pullman’s totally non-naturalistic, oddly mannered performance as Oswald, and he was in fine form this week, his delivery peppered with strangely placed pauses and veering from stuttering unconfidence to sudden outbursts of psychotic rage. It’s still not clear what function in the overall narrative Oswald has – unless it’s as a kind of moral barometer by which to judge everybody else’s actions – but if we have to have unnecessary padding and character moments, at least Oswald and Jilly’s are entertaining.

It was a kind of black comedy as Oswald tried rather improbably to reform himself into a normal human being by means of hiring a prostitute just for her ‘company’, and it was like watching a classic farce waiting for the inevitable moment when that was all going to end in tears. But the comedy went out the window as Oswald finally turned on Jilly, and actually gave her what looked like a really nasty punch in the mouth. It was a bleakly convincing bit of violence that served to underline how truly nasty Oswald is, but also to reinforce Jilly’s ‘ruthless bitch’ persona. She’s not one to be crossed easily, and her ranting threats to Oswald as he walked off had the convincing ring of Piers Morgan threatening someone with a long lens.

Not that she seems likely to make good on her threats though – the not entirely unexpected reappearance of the mysterious, hunky young guy from the Families took her off at a tangent by offering her a job and shooting that nice young CIA agent who was pretending to be her intern. And while our heroes are – sort of – back in the CIA’s good graces, it was hardly a surprise to discover that Friedkin wasn’t The Families’ only CIA mole. With 24 a clear influence on parts of this, that was exactly the kind of ‘twist’ we’d become familiar with after eight increasingly improbable years of following Jack Bauer around.

So, another episode that very much encapsulated Miracle Day’s strengths and weaknesses – some good character development, a bit of action, masses and masses of exposition, but none of it particularly well balanced out, either within the episode or the story overall. Nana Visitor seemed rather wasted as a non-character whose only function was to deliver concentrated information, but John De Lancie was on fine form as Shapiro. And the Oswald/Jilly storyline is still entertaining, but its payoff to the main narrative had better be good to justify so much time having been spent on it over the series as a whole. The conspiracy stuff got a nice real world beat as we discovered that The Families were responsible for the economic collapse of 2008, along with the information that, in Miracle Day world, Greece and Ireland are about to default on their national debts and send the global economy into freefall. Mind you, with current events, this seemed uncomfortably close to reality.

Only two more episodes to go, which may be a relief to some and a shame to others. I’m finding it hard to have strong feelings either way though – this is a generally entertaining and intriguing show, but its script flabbiness and uneven structure have made it far from compulsive viewing. Fortunately, though, tonight sees the return of a show I genuinely do love, even if it is currently causing a similar love/hate reaction among fanboys. Yes, Doctor Who is back tonight! Which means much more writing on this blog as I try to keep up with reviewing that and Torchwood each week. Stay tuned…

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