Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 3

Dead of Night

DeadOfNight

Right then, here’s all that sex we were promised, apparently crammed into one episode as if to make up for the lack of it in the last two. Torchwood has always had a rather adolescent desire to show how ‘grown up’ it all is, and in the first series at least, this seemed to consist of all the team having sex left right and centre, their sexuality changing from week to week as the plot demanded. At least Miracle Day has been consistent there so far; Jack went to bed with a guy, and Rex with Dr Vera, though the latter did seem to smack of plot convenience. There’d never been anything approaching chemistry between them before this, but a bit of shagging and she’s all ready to infiltrate shady drug company Phicorp on behalf of Torchwood. James Bond would be proud of Rex’s ‘shag and recruit’ skills.

Mind you, with events starting to move on – we discovered that Phicorp had been stockpiling painkillers because they knew the Miracle was coming, a new cult of ‘the Soulless’ has emerged and murder as a crime no longer exists – it seemed a bit of an odd time for Jack to suddenly dive into a convenient gay bar and randomly go on the pull. It’s as if Mulder was about to uncover the Smoking Man’s agenda, but decided a quick break with his porn collection was suddenly more pressing.

Still, the sex scenes were interestingly interwoven, presumably to keep both straight and gay audiences happy. And it is of course the first time we’ve seen Jack himself get down to some explicit rumpy pumpy, with Russell T Davies previously having decreed that, even in Torchwood, a regular Doctor Who character shouldn’t be seen to be doing the deed. That philosophy seems to persist at the BBC though; it’s become a bit of minor showbiz news that the British showing won’t include – at least in as much detail – Jack’s random shag. John Barrowman’s been in a bit of a tizz about that, insisting that the scene isn’t gratuitous but vital to the plot. While the Rex/Vera hookup does have this argument in favour of it (just), I’m not seeing any plot advancement in Jack finally being seen to put his money where his mouth is (so to speak). Maybe it will all become clear in later episodes. Perhaps the cute barman is actually an alien being…

Speaking of which, are aliens actually going to come into it this time? Besides the sex, there was some genuine plot advancement going on. The discovery that Phicorp (which sounds a bit like ‘Pfizer’ funnily enough) knew about the Miracle beforehand and are linked to ditzy but dubious PR lady Jilly Kitzinger, not to mention the CIA and Oswald Danes, makes this start to look like an entirely human conspiracy. We’re roughly a third of the way into this now, and by that point in Children of Earth, we already knew for sure that it was the work of aliens. Here, all we’ve had are some murmurs that the Miracle couldn’t have been worked by any technology on Earth, and Jack’s continuing babble about ‘morphic fields’ (an odd scientific philosophy espoused by biochemist Rupert Sheldrake that sounds suspiciously like The Force out of Star Wars). I suppose there’s also that nifty red cellphone the team nicked from Dennis Nedry Friedkin, which has a screen that shows a mysterious rotating triangle. Triangles are pretty alien, right?

So, no aliens yet, but things are starting to move along a bit, if at a rather leisurely pace. The team’s investigation into Phicorp’s mysterious warehouse was a nice scene, with the Raiders of the Lost Ark/X Files revelation of acres of shelves packed with painkillers. “Bigger on the inside,” says Jack sagely, though I don’t think he meant it literally – I’d be surprised if all of this has been caused by the Time Lords. Elsewhere, after an encounter with some rather violent police officers, Jilly Kitzinger has finally got her claws into Oswald Danes. Oswald’s clearly important – he seems to be the first to experience the Miracle, and now he’s hooked up with Phicorp. Jack, unfathomably, has already worked out that Oswald is significant, leading to an electric confrontation between the two in a TV station green room – all the more electric because we can’t quite work out why Oswald seems so important to Jack. All right, they’ve both caused the death of a child, but Jack at least is genuinely repentant, while Oswald chillingly reveals that all his crocodile tears are fake and, far from regretting it, he considers the murder his greatest moment. It was a well done scene, though I still can’t get used to Bill Pullman’s peculiar delivery, all slurred words and oddly placed pauses. Perhaps he’s in training to play Rupert Murdoch.

I was hoping for great things in the dialogue with Jane Espenson on writing duties this week, but I have to say I was mostly disappointed. The clumsy British/American slang misunderstandings (chips/crisps, ATM/cashpoint etc) were obviously there to establish a bit of friendly banter between the newly formed team, but instead gave the impression that Gwen had never seen an American film or TV show in her life. I think they do show those, even in Wales.

Still, Jack’s sex scene did yield up a couple of nice lines. The obligatory reference to safe sex (every gay sex scene has to have one to show how responsible we all are) was met with a “what’s the point?” attitude, which gave Jack the excellent rejoinder, “a lifetime of regret just got a whole lot longer”. And we were into “oo-er” territory as Rex complained about Jack nicking his painkillers – “Did you get impaled too?” “You should have seen the other guy”. Perhaps he came so hard he forgot where he was…

We did get some nice character development in Jack’s post-coital phone call to Gwen, which actually was germane to the plot. There’s always been this not-so-subtle subtext that Jack and Gwen are attracted to each other, and this looked like Jack actually trying to admit that to her. This was nicely juxtaposed with her video call to Rhys, as she seemed to just ignore Jack as soon as she saw her husband and her baby. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this particular subplot.

And Esther and Rex are now a proper part of the Torchwood team, much to Rex’s annoyance, since they plainly have nowhere else to go. It’s a shame though that, since a strong introduction, Esther seems to be becoming a bit of a whiner. All right, it’s quite realistic that with everything that’s happening, she’d be so concerned about her sister, but it made her seem pretty ineffectual this week as she barely talked of anything else.

Top marks, character-wise, have to go to Jilly Kitzinger, marvellously portrayed by Lauren Ambrose as someone whose ditzy exterior and bright red lipstick mask a cold, bitchy corporate shark. Unlike Pullman’s weird mannerisms, Ambrose is taking the character to blackly humourous but convincing extremes, and that glamourous look combined with deadly serious intent mark her out as the most fun character here yet.

But it’s all still seeming a bit too leisurely for my taste. Children of Earth, with its five episode runtime, started out at full throttle and never let up; Miracle Day, by contrast, seems to be stuck at a slow idle speed. The longer run time does allow for deeper character development, but without a fast moving plot, that makes it more like a soap opera than a science fiction thriller. It’s maintaining my interest without thrilling me; let’s hope as the series progresses that it moves into a higher gear.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode Two

Rendition

Torchwood: Episode 2; 2011; Rendition

So, with the slam bang opener out of the way, it’s time for Torchwood’s latest story to progress. Which it doesn’t much, in this second part. With Doris Egan on writing duties this week, this episode’s as much about character development as action, and consequently Jack, Gwen and Rex spend the entire hour on a plane to the US engaging in comic relief banter with a cute young air steward who’s definitely not gay (“It was only that one time!”). It’s left to Esther, on the ground at the surprisingly claustrophobic Langley HQ of the CIA, to progress the plot this week, though the plane trip is enlivened by a tensely done poisoning crisis.

That said, there are some interesting plot seeds planted here. Dr Juarez is looking like more of a central character than she did last week, as she recognises the necessity of changing medical protocol in a situation where emergency rooms are filling up with horribly injured people who just won’t die. “We’ll have to restructure the entire healthcare system in this country!”, she declaims. Good luck with that one, the President’s not had much joy with it.

Meanwhile, there’s a conspiracy at the CIA. Given that this is Torchwood, this is hardly a surprise. Someone wants the last of the team expunged, and happily for them, it seems that Jack is now the only person on Earth who can die. Esther finds herself caught up in it when she’s summoned to see her shifty boss Friedkin, who turns out to be Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. Actually, between that role and Officer Don in Third Rock From the Sun, it’s a little difficult to take Wayne Knight seriously in anything, so it’ll be interesting to see how he develops as a credible villain.

Esther, it turns out, is being set up, her clearances revoked and a mysterious $50,000 payment from China deposited in her bank. Cue much 24-style evasive action around CIA corridors as she tries to get out with a stolen ID card and nicks a workmate’s Mini Cooper. I‘m not sure if the Mini is an example of product placement, but it’s nice to see a European car getting a starring role. It also gives Gwen some nice comic lines as Esther meets our heroes at the airport for a getaway – “This escape’s rubbish. I thought all you Americans drove great big SUVs?”

Meanwhile, Bill Pullman continues to give an oddly mannered performance as Oswald Danes, with a nicely written scene in which he nicks all the food from a TV news hospitality table and discusses the quality of food in prison (“You can always taste the piss.”). Danes is obviously going to be a important, as his tearful apology on live TV brings him Twitter followers, the new indicator of cultural significance. Later, he gets an offer he can refuse from a dodgy looking PR lady played by Lauren Ambrose out of Six Feet Under. She then also turns up to blag a cigarette from Dr Juarez at ‘Washington City Hall’, which looks suspiciously like LA City Hall.

Indeed, the locations in the show are oddly anonymous for a setting as iconic as Washington DC. I haven’t seen a single shot of the Capitol, the White House or the Washington Memorial yet – even The X Files used to show them in second unit establishing shots. My guess is that we’re mainly looking at generic LA locations that can stand in for anything. In fact, Cardiff has had a better showing than DC, with that sequence in the Bay area last week, though ‘Heathrow Airport’ looked rather smaller and less impressive than usual – almost, actually, like Cardiff Airport. Funny, that.

Given that last week Rex got from DC to London quickly enough for Esther to apparently wait on the phone from when he took off until he landed, much emphasis was given this week to the length of the flight he, Jack and Gwen were on. This gave them time to get to know each other a bit, and Jack and Gwen got some nice catchup dialogue – “What do I have to do, nearly blow up before you turn up?” And the desperate scrabble to mix an antidote to the arsenic Jack had been poisoned with was actually rather nicely done, a model of how to achieve a scene of action and tension with only a few people in one small set.

We get a few more gruesome scenes of the consequences when people can’t die, too. There’s nothing quite as nasty as last week’s live autopsy, but the finger-twitching severed arm was amusing, and it was perhaps unintentionally funny to see rogue CIA poisoner Lin (the Terminatrix-like Dichen Lachmann) lurching towards our heroes with her head on backwards.

Continuity-wise, we’ve established for the newbies that Jack is bisexual with mention of an ex boyfriend who used arsenic to make his skin look good, and attention has finally been drawn to how odd it is that Jack still insists on wearing a 1940s RAF uniform. Mind you, he did look strange without it when he donned a raincoat to pretend to be FBI agent ‘Owen Harper’ last week. We’ve also discovered that Jack’s vortex manipulator that he wears on his wrist is capable of monitoring bodily functions like sodium levels – and who knows what else? With the emphasis given to the gizmo this week, it’s obviously going to play an important part somewhere down the line, though no mention has yet been of its ability to transport the user anywhere in time and space. Sensibly, Jack chooses not to impart this information to the CIA.

With Jack spending half the episode poisoned and near death, there wasn’t too much of John Barrowman this week – which some may consider something of a relief – so we spent more time getting to know the new characters. Alexa Havins is excellent as Esther Drummond, who now seems even more like Lois, the government insider from Children of Earth. Arlene Tur is obviously going to play a major role as Dr Vera Juarez, who oddly seems to be the only medical professional able to grasp the ramifications of what’s going on, and Lauren Ambrose is already incredibly shifty as PR shark Jilly Kitzinger. Meanwhile, for those of us who like a bit of eye candy, there were a couple of pretty young men – Finn Wittrock was fun as air steward Danny, and Dr Juarez was aided by a sweet young scientist in a check shirt, played by gay comic actor Jeffery Self. Nice to see that Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who policy of casting at least one cute young guy per episode lives on here.

Two episodes in, and this is progressing quite nicely. With its lengthier, ten episode run time, it doesn’t quite have the dramatic urgency of Children of Earth, but the flipside of that is that we get more time to explore the characters and the what-if scenario. This week seemed to be mostly  further establishing plotlines to come, as last week’s was to establish the main scenario and who Torchwood actually were. There was a bit of action, but nothing to rival last week’s barmy Land Rover/helicopter chase – it actually felt like the show was taking a bit of a breather to sort itself out before getting on with the story proper, and also allowing itself to show the important sense of humour so absent from its first series.

Next week – the first of several episodes this series by Jane Espenson, who I worship as some kind of deity for her work on Buffy, Angel and Battlestar Galactica. I’ll try to be objective…