WARNING! AS I REALISE PEOPLE IN THE UK MAY BE LOOKING AT THIS BLOG FOR THE DOCTOR WHO POSTS ALSO, BEAR IN MIND THAT THIS REVIEW IS OF THE US SHOWING OF TORCHWOOD EPISODE 9, WHICH HASN’T BEEN ON UK TV YET, SO MAJOR SPOILERS!
“61 days into the Great Depression…”
And just like that, in its endgame two episodes, Miracle Day has shifted the narrative speed into hyperdrive. After weeks of ponderously navigating the murky waters of the plot and showing us in painstaking, often tedious detail every aspect of what’s going on, we’ve suddenly leaped forward to “Two Months Later” and in the interim, all sorts of things have been happening.
Firstly, the financial collapse so topically alluded to last week has obviously happened. It occurred to me watching this episode that the references to “the Great Depression” are in voiceover only, as were, if I recall, last week’s radio bulletins about Greece and Ireland defaulting on their national debts. All of which made me wonder whether this was a bit of topicality inserted at a late stage to capitalise on real world events that have happened since production was complete. Either that, or Russell T Davies is clairvoyant…
Be that as it may, the Depression fits very well into the scary new post-Miracle world. It also gives new momentum to the Government sanctioned Holocaust re-enactment of the “overflow camps”. My friend Richard, on his Millennium Dome blog review of episode 5, has expressed scepticism at the speed with which humanity hurtled to this point, which I must say I share. But a financial collapse really does recall the conditions which propitiated the original Holocaust, and this week’s insertion of, effectively, house-searching Gestapo agents was a rather less in your face reference to it than actually showing us the crematoria in action.
Certainly Ian Hughes as Mr Finch looked and acted the part as a modern day Welsh Herr Flick. Actually, it could be said that casting someone who looked – and was dressed – very much as a stereotypical Gestapo man is a bit lazy, but it’s a neat shorthand for who he is and what he’s doing, which is the kind of narrative economy the show’s been sorely in need of during its rather overlength run. With Gwen’s father hidden behind a board in the cellar like a latterday Anne Frank, Finch’s sojourns downstairs were genuinely tense (though I’m sceptical that even Apple can develop a thermographic imaging app for the iPhone). Nonetheless, his callous rejoinder to Gwen’s comment that her dad was still warm – “he’s about to get a whole lot warmer” – was genuinely chilling, in keeping with exactly what you could imagine the real Gestapo saying.
Outside of the UK’s fast development into a police state, though, there was a lot going on here to do with the main plot. Gwen, it seems, has been busy since the CIA deported her from the US last week. In the intervening two months, she’s set herself up as a one-woman ram-raiding black market for Swansea residents scared to go to the doctor for painkillers lest they be classified as category one. Besides doing that, and helping her mother to hide her father from the authorities, she’s also found time to set up some kind of lifeline by which she was able to smuggle Jack and Esther, not to mention (presumably without her actual knowledge) Oswald Danes into the UK.
The narrative economy of this skipping forward of the story not only gives the series a much-needed sense of vigour in the mode of Children of Earth, it also allows for real surprises to be spun in a way that’s generally been lacking this year. I was genuinely surprised when Oswald turned up at the Cooper house in Swansea, precisely because we hadn’t been shown in mind-numbing detail how he got there. One minute he was running away from Jilly, the next time we see him, he’s in Wales! It was noticeable that, as he was hiding his face from the cute young surveillance guy, it might not have been Bill Pullman himself in the exterior shots. But I’m guessing they really did fly him to Wales for those scenes in the Coopers’ kitchen – it would be cheaper to do that than fly the rest of the cast out to LA.
After the rather tokenistic depiction of Wales in recent episodes, it was refreshing to have an entire episode that pretty much centred on the UK. For that, and for the narrative zip this week, I would assume we have to thank Liverpool-born writer John Fay, who scripted the episode of Children of Earth that was most chilling, as remarked on in Richard’s blog entry linked to above – the one that centred on the Cabinet meeting discussing how best to capitulate to the aliens’ demands. As the only Torchwood old hand writing this series except for Russell, he’s given us the episode that most resembles – in tone and style as well as setting – the Torchwood of old.
It does still retain an international flavour, though, and thankfully this week that wasn’t just limited to the US and the UK. Over at CIA HQ in Langley, Rex was hard at work trying to track down paper records of Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines, while seemingly unaware that Charlotte Willis was busily recreating the shifty actions of every mole ever seen in 24’s CTU – suddenly looking worried, disappearing from her desk to make furtive phone calls, being surprisingly defeatist about the chances of tracking down the relevant information. To give him credit, Rex has at least worked out that there is a mole, but I question his spook credentials that he can’t work out who it is.
Nonetheless, Rex did manage, via a ridiculously convoluted bit of research, to ascertain that one of the Families’ original conspirators had gone to ground in Buenos Aires. As a side note, given the century spanning nature of this conspiracy, it’s ever harder to reconcile it with the Doctor Who universe in which Torchwood is supposedly set; were the Families never inconvenienced by events like Dalek invasions? Still, be that as it may, the Buenos Aires link gave us another country to spin into the web – or perhaps I should say another country for the production team to dress LA up to look like.
LA was also dressed up to resemble Shanghai, a plot thread which, unlike many others, is actually being followed up. Shanghai, it seems, is part of the “specific geography” referred to earlier in the story. It’s also the location of “the Blessing”, as Jilly discovered when the Families’ hunky young representative dispatched her there with a one-way ticket and a new name. Jilly’s trip is characterised by a series of meetings with mysterious people who drop cryptic hints then tell her that she’ll never see them again – Fay has obviously picked up this trick from John Shiban’s X Files experiences. Finally, Jilly bumps into Frances Fisher – best known as Kate Winslet’s mum in Titanic, fact fans – who’s credited in the cast list as “Mother Colasanto”, implying that Angelo’s family had more to do with everything than we’d previously been led to believe. Apparently still playing Mrs Bukater – well, acting in the same style, anyway – Fisher took Jilly to see the Blessing.
And Gods alone know what it is. It looks like two rotating pink pillars, accompanied by gravity-defying flying bits. The Families may be human, but it’s beginning to look like this is the genuinely extra-terrestrial component of the story. Apparently it’s trying to communicate, and it can drive you mad. It also may run through the centre of the entire planet, like the words in a stick of Blackpool rock; something which Rhys, of all people, figures out with the aid of a conveniently available inflatable globe which shows him that Shanghai and Buenos Aires are precisely opposite each other on the Earth’s surface.
Oswald too has figured out that something odd’s up (to put it mildly) and thanks to him our heroes make a roundabout link to Shanghai. He refers to Jilly’s laptop mentioning ‘”Harry Bosco”, which according to Esther was the name of a CIA agent who routinely misinformed the American public about the Vietnam war by mistranslating Viet Cong transmissions for the US news media. I was intrigued by this, so I googled it (well, it works for Jack), but found no reference to Harry Bosco (if that’s how it’s spelled). I did, however, find reference to just such an alleged CIA project called Operation Mockingbird, set up by Allen Dulles in the 40s and apparently active up till the 90s, which placed CIA operatives in influential positions throughout the media, and may have been responsible for Ronald Reagan’s acting career, among other things. Scary, real-world stuff.
Off our guys pop, then, Rex and Esther to Buenos Aires and Jack, Gwen and Oswald to Shanghai. It’s another telling example of this episode’s narrative economy that we don’t spend an hour showing how they got there; they simply arrive in the scene after they say they’re going, as we can take it as read that they have the means. Esther’s taken many bags of Jack’s blood, which will be handy as we discover that it will roll, like the blood samples in Carpenter’s The Thing, in the general direction of The Blessing. This does give cause for worry about Jack; presumably, if he gets too close to The Blessing, this effect will cause him to get dragged into it!
So it’s finally all coming together. Jilly, the Families, our heroes, Oswald, all are converging on Shanghai to find The Blessing, and presumably, the long-delayed resolution to the plot. I appreciate that Russell T Davies was bound to make this series ten episodes long (and apparently it was originally intended to be even longer!), but the structuring of this episode showed how the story could have worked so much better, like Children of Earth, as a high-octane, cleverly structured five part story rather than the lumbering behemoth we were presented with. Next week, though, it all comes to a head and so Russell’s back for the first time since episode one on scripting duties – albeit with Jane Espenson’s capable help. I’ve carped many times in my Doctor Who reviews about Russell’s inability to write satisfying story endings, but Children of Earth was one of a few occasions when he managed just that. Let’s hope he can pull it off again.