Torchwood–What kind of Day has it been?

MiracleDay

So here’s a plot synopsis for you. Death decides to give up the day job, and fairly soon, the world notices that nobody’s dying. Everyone thinks that’s pretty great. Until the hospitals start to fill up with horribly injured people who should be dead, but have to live on instead in unspeakable agony. The medical profession, horrified, must try and find some way of reversing the effect.

Sound familiar? It should, but it’s not the plot of Torchwood: Miracle Day. That’s a 2002 Twilight Zone episode called One Night at Mercy, which stars Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as a depressed Death (“It started in about the mid-1300s. You know, the Black Plague.”) who ups and quits, and deals with how a young doctor persuades him to go back to work despite the fact that it means his own death. Now, there’s nothing wrong with re-using a good idea; Doctor Who does it all the time. But the thing about One Night at Mercy is that it covers the same premise as Miracle Day, and implicitly deals with many of the same effects that Russell T Davies seemed so interested in exploring. And it does so, with admirable economy, in 25 minutes. Russell, on the other hand, took 10 hours to do it – and that’s just the start of what was wrong with this season of Torchwood.

But to be even-handed, let’s start with the good stuff – and there was some, no matter what the internet haters think. I thought this was a pretty badly constructed drama as a whole, but it was still entertaining enough to hold my interest for ten weeks. The suspension of death is an interesting premise, even if it has been done before – and for all I know, the Twilight Zone episode is just one of many examples, it’s just the one that sprung to mind. It allowed for some enjoyably gruesome scenes, starting with the ‘live autopsy’ in part one, through the ‘head turned backwards’ CIA assassin, the wince making probing of Rex’s chest wound and the existential horror of burning people to ashes when they can’t die. Russell was plainly interested in exploring the effects of the scenario, even if only in throwaway lines about having to redefine murder. That said, I think some of his hypotheses about the Malthusian population explosion may have been a little off the mark, and I question whether infections would run rampant quite so easily – surely with the host organism unable to die, the infecting agent would eventually be defeated by the body’s immune system? Still, I’m no expert, and from what I hear, Russell did have quite a lot of advice from professional medicos in the writing process.

Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to have any advice from script editors. What made Children of Earth such a taut thriller was the total lack of any extraneous material that didn’t drive the plot forward. Russell’s laudable desire to explore the various ramifications of the lack of death made for a surplus of interesting ideas chucked in as though they were  meant to be major plot points, only to be abandoned by the next episode. What happened to the cult of the Soulless? That was an interesting idea, given some prominence then never mentioned again. Or the ‘45 Club’ of people jumping from 45th floors to get as near death as possible? Why did we have to spend so much time not caring about Esther’s loopy sister, when her storyline was forgotten about for many episodes then casually resolved in one shot at Esther’s funeral? OK, I know Esther’s concern for her sister is what gave away the heroes to the conspiracy, but that could have been just as easily achieved without spending so much time on her. And speaking of relatives, why introduce a dramatically portentous fraught relationship between Rex and his dad in part four and then never show or even mention him again?

Some would argue, with a little validity, that these touches gave a needed depth to the new characters, in much the way introducing Ianto’s family did in Children of Earth. But in that story, Ianto’s family turned out to have an integral role in the storyline, whereas giving so much screentime to characters who have nothing to do beyond make one appearance then be quickly forgotten about smacks of padding. As did the subplot about Tea Party politician Ellis Hartley Monroe and her campaign to segregate the ‘dead’. At least that wasn’t entirely forgotten about as the Holocaust re-enactment got underway, but it was something of a waste to introduce a character as nasty (if one-dimensional) as Monroe, then kill her off in the same episode and have her entirely forgotten about. I mean, come on – Mare Winningham is a multi-award winning actress, surely she could have been kept around as an identifiable bad guy to personify the government?

Speaking of the government, Miracle Day gave Russell an opportunity to get political again, something which, while laudable, is rarely a good idea in his case. His intentions are always good, and in the best tradition of Doctor Who’s liberal tendencies, but he’s not good at making pointed, incisive political comment in a script. Remember the promise in The End of Time that Barack Obama had ‘found a solution’ to the Recession? Well, if he’s found the ‘Start Economic Growth’ button in the White House, I’ve seen no evidence of it yet.

The trouble with starting to make specific comments about politics in a script is that it’s easy to be broadbrush and simplistic. This is by no means limited just to Russell; not everyone can write something as pointed and relevant as Drop the Dead Donkey or The Thick of It. Still, while I thought the two-tier US healthcare depiction in the overflow camps was relatively well-done, Gwen’s righteous indignation at Phicorp having ‘privatised’ UK healthcare seemed a bit too easy a target. I don’t want market forces running the NHS either, but  as Richard comments on his Millennium Dome blog, plenty of countries manage to incorporate private organisations into state healthcare without becoming the cesspit of greed and self-interest represented by the US system. It’s almost as if Russell has just read in the left wing press that ‘private=bad’, a simplification every bit as moronic as the right wing press’ assertion that the heroic market forces will always save the day unless interfered with by that meddling State.

The US/UK comparison is one that did seem central to a lot of opinions of the show. There seem to have been relatively few who enjoyed it with reservations; most either loved it or hated it. Among those who hated it, one of the most common complaints was that “it isn’t really Torchwood any more”. True, the quirky Welsh setting of the original series was what differentiated it from all the other X Files wannabes out there, but Wales wasn’t forgotten about this year (even if it did have to be recreated in Los Angeles studios most of the time). The parochial Welsh dialogue and quirky Welsh minor characters were still very much in evidence – that ear for Welsh speech being one of Russell’s better contributions.

And yes, the show didn’t have many of the original Torchwood hallmarks. But let’s remember that these were pretty much all wiped out over the last two seasons anyway, so even a wholly British return would have been a very different show. Season 2 saw the end of Tosh and Owen, and Children of Earth found Ianto, the Hub and even (thankfully) the ‘Torchwoodmobile’ following them into oblivion. By the end of Children of Earth, in fact, the only hallmarks of the original show left were Captain Jack, Gwen and Rhys.

But here, the show did seem to make a real misstep. Firstly, Jack was, for most of the first two thirds of the season, very much in the background of what many see as his show. As noted on the oncoming hope blog, it wasn’t until the Jack-centric 7th episode that he came to the foreground; the rest of the time he was just a slightly more mysterious member of a not entirely successful ensemble. He was at least a little less broody than in early seasons of Torchwood (although the glee that he displayed as he suggested cutting off that living corpse’s head seemed a little uncharacteristic), and John Barrowman gave a consistently good performance. In fact, I’d say that in parts 7 and 8, he actually veered into ‘good acting’ territory rather than just, basically, playing John Barrowman. While I’ve always thought he gave a good, charismatic performance as Captain Jack, it’s rare that the part has required him to actually act very much; the death of Ianto was one such occasion, and here we saw him portraying believably deep emotion in his interactions with Angelo both in the past and present.

Having said that though, Jack seemed more like Barrowman than usual in one respect – rather than being ‘omnisexual’, he was just gay this year. True, he mentioned previous trysts with women and referred to having been a parent. But in his first depiction of onscreen steamy sex scenes (which I’m still not sure were a good idea for a character with a large following of children) were exclusively with guys, and even when flirting it was men only for him. Given his past history, I would have expected him to at least flirt with Stuart Owens’ mistress, rather than offer to “drink Appletinis and bitch about men”. It seems odd that a US network like Starz would be so unflinching in portraying homosexuality; given the lack of it on mainstream TV, it was perhaps a bit courageous of them not to try and dilute it into bisexuality. All well and good, but Jack’s meant to be bisexual!

Gwen at least was more consistent with her usual self, though even here I think her occasional unlikely transformations into some kind of action heroine were a little unconvincing. But Eve Myles did well, I thought, being given most of the lines of righteous anger and moral outrage. Some people thought that made her seem irritatingly whiny this year, but fair’s fair – she’s always been the moral conscience of the show, and it’s not something you can say has only just started. She couldn’t even have a steamy affair without constantly beating herself up about it in the first season.

And Rhys, thankfully, was still Rhys – a believable everybloke in much the same style as Doctor Who’s Rory Williams. Like Rory, lots of people seem to think Rhys is just a buffoon who allows his wife to constantly emasculate him. But I disagree; again like Rory, Rhys is the anchor to the real world for the show, a character we can see ourselves in the way that he reacts. And – again like Rory – it doesn’t stop him from being genuinely heroic. Having pretty much joined the team proper in Children of Earth, he was here to be seen helping Gwen infiltrate the overflow camps and driving a truck through a hail of bullets. All credit to Kai Owen for making this as believable as his ‘ordinary guy’ schtick when lending moral support to Gwen’s family.

The new characters, unfortunately, were not so successful. Rex was the major offender here, I’m afraid. I’ve seen Mekhi Phifer in a number of things before – Dawn of the Dead, 8 Mile etc – and he’s always been a believable, likeable onscreen presence. Perhaps it was something to do with the writing here, but he seemed to be gurning and chewing his way through a surprisingly one-dimensional portrayal of a guy who really wasn’t very likeable anyway. It didn’t help that when we first met Rex he seemed to be gloating about a colleague’s wife having cancer; and his perpetual reminders to the rest of the team of how much more professional he was than them quickly became a major irritant. If anything, he managed to beat out the season one version of Owen Harper as ‘most annoying character’. The only good thing about this was that it gave us all a chance to relish it when Jack wound him up.

By contrast, Esther was less annoying but unfortunately not remotely memorable. Her heavily signalled transition from deskbound dormouse to action hero never really materialised; in fact, my abiding memory of her as a character was the end of episode 8, as she drove an unconscious Jack away while screaming. “I don’t know what to do!” By the end, she seemed little more than a cardboard adjunct to Rex, which made it hard to care about the ‘shock’ moment when she was shot. Despite a perfectly good performance from Alexa Havins, I don’t think anyone’s going to be putting up any shrines to Esther.

The best new character was Dr Vera Juarez. Arlene Tur made her a believably harried medical professional with a conscience, and it was refreshing to see a character smoking cigarettes without being a major villain. She also managed to be believable and likeable without having to be saddled with several dead-end plots regarding her family, showing that a soap opera background for a character is not a strict necessity. This meant that it genuinely was a bit of a shock that she got burned alive in episode 5 – a twist that worked precisely because she was such a good character, but sadly means that she won’t be back if the show is – unlike Rex, unfortunately.

The other two regulars can’t really be discussed separately – they formed a good double act throughout the series that, like so many other subplots, sadly turned out to be a misdirection or a dead end. Lauren Ambrose was sensational as Jilly Kitzinger, portraying a soulless corporate shark with just the right amount of wicked glee, and with a much-commented on excess of lipstick. If the show comes back, so presumably will she – which almost makes up for not following up on the “better run faster” recurring line and letting her escape the Shanghai explosion in that seemingly tacked on coda.

Oswald Danes, on the other hand, didn’t seem quite so successful as a character. As I’ve mentioned previously, it seems bizarre to have one of your major characters be a murdering paedophile without that fact having some specific relevance to the story you’re trying to tell, but Russell managed it here. While his verbal sparring with Jilly was among the highlights of the show, his ultimate revelation as a virtual irrelevance made it hard to see the point of him. It didn’t help that Bill Pullman portrayed him in one of the most bizarre acting styles I’ve ever seen. It was all about oddly placed… pauses… and sudden DRAMATIC emphasis for no easily fathomable reason. In fact, after his appearance in episode one, I actually looked him up on Wikipedia to see if he’d had a stroke recently. But no, he’d actually made the choice that this was how Oswald should be portrayed. Memorable perhaps, but for all the wrong reasons.

Generally more successful were the roster of one-episode-only, stunt cast guest stars. John De Lancie was a highlight as CIA chief Shapiro, and Daniele Favilli was sweet and likeable as Angelo. It’s always good to see Wayne Knight too, even if for most of us he’ll be forever Dennis Nedry out of Jurassic Park. At least he was consistent; sweaty, shifty CIA mole Friedkin was almost like Nedry all over again. C Thomas Howell was so good as the Families’ sinister assassin that I’d really have liked to see more of him than just one episode, and Mare Winningham managed to extract a believably hateful Tea Partier from the rather one dimensional writing of Ellis Hartley Monroe. Ernie Hudson showed himself to be every bit as good as the other Ghostbusters in the one-scene shot as Phicorp boss Stuart Owens. The only guest star who was a bit of a let down was Nana Visitor; not through any fault of her own, but more because the script had given her no personality beyond functioning as an exposition machine.

If the characters were a bit of a mixed bag, though, the plotting was an absolute mess. The show couldn’t quite seem to decide if it wanted to be a proper serial, like Children of Earth, or an anthology show featuring stories set in a world where no-one can die. This identity crisis made for a very oddly structured story in terms of pacing and momentum, which wasn’t helped by the ‘one-big-guest-star-an-episode’ approach.

The overall plot seemed to move at a snail’s pace for about half the season, not helped by the inclusion of all the dead-end subplots and bits of interesting but irrelevant detail about the situation which kept distracting Russell as though someone had yelled “ooh, look, kittens!” Then it suddenly got moving with the Holocaust re-enactment stuff, although the team’s quest to expose it proved an irrelevance too as the exposure failed to stop it happening – meaning that Dr Vera, the most likeable new character, effectively died for nothing.

Then the plot screeched to a halt for the (admittedly excellent) ‘standalone’ episode Immortal Sins (ep7). Oddly enough, this was the episode that felt most like ‘proper’ Torchwood, with Jack’s 1920s antics being both a romp and then very dark, while Jack and Gwen’s interminable car drive/soul baring framestory recalled a very similar drive in series one episode They Keep Killing Susie. Good though it was, however, it put the brakes on the plot proper while imparting admittedly relevant background that was mostly rather tangential and could have been dealt with far more quickly in a few lines of dialogue. Alternatively, this episode might have been better placed earlier in the series before the overall plot properly gained momentum – it would have been a shame to lose such a good piece entirely. Whichever, it didn’t feel like it worked where it was.

As if to make up for the drip feed of information in the first half of the series, the final three episodes ended up being mostly a nonstop barrage of exposition, in which the plot had to keep pausing for people to explain things to each other at seemingly interminable length. The very last episode seemed to recover something more of a balance between exposition and action, but this was rather undermined by the fact that not only did it not make sense on its own terms, but that a number of the explanations given actually undermined things which had been previously established earlier in the story. A case of ‘learning’ from The X Files again, perhaps, as that show constantly shifted the goalposts of its messy conspiracy story to extend its sell by date. Torchwood had no such excuse, though – this was a story meant to have been economically told over one season.

Overall, there was a lot to like here, and it could, with some heavy script editing, have been a very thrilling, memorable show rather than one that merely entertained while causing frequent impatience. Of its many flaws, the excessive length and obvious padding were probably the worst, and its not surprising that so many internet forums have been expressing a desire to create a tighter ‘fan edit’ of about half the length that would still retain all the relevant parts of the story. The lack of consistent internal logic didn’t help either, though any show that features a drug called ‘retcon’ can presumably fall back on the option of retconning itself in any potential future series – it’ll have to, to at least explain why the Whoniverse is now saddled with the impossible-to-like Rex Matheson as another immortal being. Given Russell’s stated disinterest in doing any more Torchwood, coupled with the generally lukewarm response to this one, I’d be surprised if we did see any more of it, despite internet rumours already circulating that it’ll be back next year. If it is, though, I’ll still watch in the hope that they’ve relearnt all the lessons they seemed to have forgotten this year.

Torchwood: Miracle Day, Episode 10

The Blood Line

BloodLine

So, that’s that then. All those answers we’d been working towards for the past 9 episodes, in the end, boiled down to “What is it?” “I don’t know.” As our heroes finally reached the planet straddling pink lined cleft that was The Blessing (already likened elsewhere to a ‘planetary vagina’), you couldn’t help feeling a real sense of anticlimax. Not since the end of Lost have I felt an ending to be so unsatisfactory, though at least with Lost we had six years of involvement with likeable characters to sew up, making up for the lack of resolution to the actual mysteries.

Not that this should be particularly surprising. As I’ve mentioned before, Russell T Davies seems to have a real problem with writing satisfactory endings. It’s the hallmark of a writer who cut his teeth working on neverending soap operas, I suppose; he does characters, dialogue and ongoing plotting very well, but when it comes to wrapping things up, he’s more often than not written himself into a corner. Hence the frequent ‘Davies ex machina’ endings to various Doctor Who seasons, in which, basically, magic is used to extricate our heroes from the insoluble; or even the endings to both series of Queer as Folk – one ends with numerous unresolved storylines, the other with the heroes inexplicably jetting off to the US in a flying Jeep.

It’s also, perhaps, another indicator of how much this series of Torchwood has tried to be like The X Files, a series not renowned for its episodes’ satisfying resolutions. “I know it probably doesn’t have the sense of closure you’re looking for,”says a weary Dana Scully to author Jose Chung in Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’, “but it has more than some of our other cases.” Even by season 3, The X Files had established this trope well enough to be self-referentially mocking about it; Torchwood, sadly, does not have that luxury, and as a result, you’re just left gaping at the screen, saying “But… but…”

To be fair, the episode did entertain if not actually thrill. There was some good character stuff, hardly surprising in a script co-written by Russell T Davies and Jane Espenson; the subplot of Gwen making peace with her dad’s inevitable death was very sensitively handled, and a well-played scene between John Barrowman and Bill Pullman gave real insight into the characters of Captain Jack and Oswald Danes. That scene, in which Jack expressed his admiration for how magnificent humanity would become in the future then gave Oswald a Total Perspective Vortex moment by showing him how small he’d made his life, also served to defuse one of the show’s very real contradictions. If Jack is from the future, surely everything’s bound to turn out ok; after all, he’s seen it. ‘Borrowing’ from 1976 Doctor Who story Pyramids of Mars, the script then has Jack explain that, “the future can be changed. It’s being written right now.” As good an explanation of the paradox as we could hope for, and certainly better than many of the other ‘explanations’ we got this week.

Indeed, nods to Doctor Who were all over the place this week. Perhaps recognising that, given Torchwood is set in the Whoniverse, fanboys would immediately rush to the internet to query how come The Blessing hasn’t intersected with all those other things we know to be lurking beneath the Earth, Russell had Captain Jack specifically mention both the Silurians and the Racnoss as he speculated on what The Blessing could be. A nice moment, to be sure, though some concrete explanation of what it was rather than sub-X Files waffle would have been nicer. Later, Jack referred to the Blessing sites having been sealed up by UNIT; that was another nice nod. Less nice was an unwelcome return of what Russell presumably believes to be much-loved catchphrases from his time on Who. As Rex is shot, Jack gets a chance to annoy like Tennant by saying, “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry”. Followed immediately, as Rex wakes up, by Russell’s default season ending line – “What? What? WHAT?” I think I could have lived without hearing that one again.

But I could have lived with some credible resolution to the plot(s). Ok, so, The Families were trying to gain control of the world by using The Blessing to control when people live or die at their whim. All right, I’ll buy that. Except that, given the century spanning conspiracy we’ve already seen and the pseudo religious fanaticism displayed by The Families’ many catspaws in positions of power, they basically already do control the world. Do they just want more publicity about it? Also, if this is “phase one”, or a “trial run” as Mormon-missionary guy explains to Jilly later, just what are they planning for an encore?  All right, I’ll grant you that this may be a teaser for a subplot in a later series (which may not be entirely welcome given the general reception of this one), but having massively shaken up a world they effectively already control and seemingly virtually own, it’s hard to see what more The Families are hoping for. After all, once you’ve got immortality, everything else falls into place, given time; what else could you need?

Then there’s the numerous contradictions implicit in the torrents of exposition we were given to explain the nature of The Blessing itself. For a start, there’s the surprisingly laborious means by which our heroes locate it. It’s a neat idea that Jack’s blood rolls towards it (though this presumably means that it has an inherent desire to return humanity to its normal state, despite Jack’s assertion that it’s trying to be kind by granting everyone immortality). But having established that the direction in which the blood rolls must point to The Blessing’s location, why on earth do our heroes than decide the best way to find it is simply to walk in that direction until they encounter something weird? These are supposedly professional intelligence agents (well, Rex keeps telling us that he is, anyway). Have they never heard of triangulation? Simply try the same thing in a different building, plot the two blood rolling directions until they intersect on the map, and hey presto, you’ve got the exact location. Perhaps less dramatically weighty than Gwen’s encounter with the improbably English-fluent old Chinese lady, but so obvious that it made our heroes look a bit silly.

As The Mother and her Buenos Aires counterpart The Cousin (does Russell have something against families in general, or did he just think such cryptic monickers were apropos of the recurring ‘homage’ to The X Files?) defused the tension with their mountains of inconsistent exposition, it became hard to care what was happening. Nonetheless, it became apparent that The Blessing had always been under the Earth (“the most terrestrial threat we’ve ever faced”, Gwen noted sagely), and via the scientifically dubious means of morphic fields had always controlled humanity’s average lifespan. OK, despite the New Age bollocks of morphic fields, I can buy into that within the rules the show has established for itself. But even here, it didn’t have any consistent logic. Given that The Blessing apparently controls the entire population’s lifespans rather than specific individuals, how were The Families planning to achieve the targeted control the Mother referred to? And leaving aside the question of how, despite previous assertions that this was impossible, it used Jack’s blood as a template for immortality, why did The Blessing’s change to humanity affect just him in completely the opposite way, and why was this reversed when humanity became mortal again? No explanations were offered, and by the time it became clear that Rex had caught immortality himself, it was as if Russell had just thrown in the towel as far as contradictions of the show’s internal logic were concerned, and fallen back on “What? What? WHAT?” Let’s be clear about this; I can suspend disbelief in any which way a sci fi or fantasy show demands, providing it’s consistent with the internal logic the show has established for itself. Lost cheated somewhat here by never actually explaining the rules of its universe, but Torchwood clearly has, and retconning them without a damn well-explained reason totally takes the viewer out of the drama.

There was some drama and thrills, but even these were not particularly well-handled. The idea that Rex had used his immortality to absorb all of Jack’s blood, thereby becoming a walking weapon, was a good one (and nicely signalled by Rex’s twinges throughout the episode, as The Blessing tried to drag his new blood towards it). Having established this trump card for our heroes, it was also dramatically rather good that the only way to return humanity to normal was for both Rex and Jack to sacrifice themselves by spewing all their blood towards The Blessing simultaneously. The fact that both were willing to do so (even after Jack’s recent assertion that he still enjoys living and will fight to carry on) was an excellent moment. Unfortunately, it was then totally undermined by the fact that, having made the heroic sacrifice, both were not just ok, but better than ok – immortal, in fact. The hard-hitting, no compromise approach at the end of Children of Earth was totally lacking here; it’s as though, in that show, Jack’s grandson appeared to die but was then shown to be fine. Drama that, in fact, totally pulls its punches.

And then there was Oswald. Bill Pullman was more naturalistic than usual here, but there was no revelation as to why exactly he’d been made out to be so important all the way through the serial’s run. I don’t mind a bit of misdirection, and the dialogue even spelled out earlier how insignificant he really was. But when The Mother dismissively told him that he was an “irrelevant by-product” of The Miracle, again I felt somewhat cheated. After all, if you’re going to have one of your story’s central characters be a murdering paedophile, there’s usually some kind of plot point reason for it, and you’d be expecting to see that at the story’s resolution. What we got here felt, again, like The X Files – and not even good X Files, but the terrible recent movie I Want to Believe, in which Billy Connolly’s psychic priest was, for dramatically spurious reasons, a convicted paedophile. It served no real story purpose there, and neither does it here; in fact it makes one feel a little queasy at having invested so much time in such a nasty character for no particular reason.

Oswald’s ‘heroic’ sacrifice, blowing up himself, The Mother and the pit of The Blessing, was not at all unexpected either. It felt dramatically pat that the character had been on a path of redemption all along, so kudos to whichever writer – my money’s on Jane Espenson – managed to make his ’noble gesture’ consistent with his character, as he looked forward to Hell because “that’s where all the bad little girls go”. So a mixed moment there – I always expected something like that to happen at the end, but I didn’t expect that they’d manage to keep Oswald consistently vile even up to his death. It’s one of the episode’s nicer touches that it can make you muse on how bad people may do the best of things for the worst of reasons.

Also dying this week was John De Lancie’s CIA boss Shapiro, which was a shame; if we must have another season, I would have liked him to have been in it. It wasn’t a particularly well-written part, but De Lancie seized on the character handles he was given to charismatically portray a believable and likeable boss figure in (inevitably) the Walter Skinner style. Great death line too; now that I’ve heard Q out of Star Trek say “oh fuck”, my life seems complete. It also seemed consistent with the (actually fairly believable) earlier portrayal of the CIA as some kind of CTU-like department of incompetents who would not only not spot an incredibly shifty mole, but also completely miss that she’d somehow managed to hide an incredibly powerful bomb in the back of a filing cabinet. Sherlock Holmes these guys aren’t, but they’ve been enjoyable in the same way that Jack Bauer’s compatriots were. And at least shifty mole Charlotte eventually got her comeuppance, through the incredibly contrived last minute data transfer to Rex’s phone (it even zoomed in on her name without him having to touch a thing, as though the phone itself was trying desperately hard to increase the tension).

Actually, Esther’s funeral was like some kind of reunion for all the major characters who’d survived. We saw Esther’s sister, who had rather implausibly been given back custody of her children; but it was a measure of how little I cared about that character’s unnecessary subplot that it took me a few moments to even remember who she was. And Rhys was there too, in LA for the first time – storywise anyway. Contrary to my theories last week, I’ve been told that, barring the exterior shots, all the Welsh material was actually filmed in LA too; so Gwen’s frequent and increasingly irritating phone calls home presumably weren’t charged at international rate. Still, more kudos to the production team for making the sets and costumes convincing enough that I actually believed those interiors were in Wales, a feat not many US TV productions would pull off given the depictions of the UK I’ve seen in the past.

I’ve been quite harsh on this episode, harsher in fact than I have on any of the others despite their perceived flaws. That’s simply because, with this being the end of the story, I can no longer live in hope that the flaws will be explained or ironed out later on. Or perhaps I can; the fact that Russell has left story plots hanging and his main villains uncaught and unpunished presumably means that he, or network co-producer Starz, is hoping for another season. Unfortunately, given this season’s lukewarm reception, I’d be surprised if that happened. That’s actually sort of a shame, because despite the numerous flaws in Miracle Day, it’s never been less than entertaining – for me at least. Despite all the holes I’ve picked in this last episode, even that was entertaining even though simultaneously disappointing; though again, I think Russell had written himself into a corner that was impossible to get out of. But it’s worth remembering that many of us weren’t too impressed with Torchwood’s first season either. After that, though, it gradually realised its potential, and possibly could again. Even with a multitude of flaws, there was much to like here, and I’ll post a short review of the series as a whole at some point. For now, though, unfortunately the best I can say is that this finale entertained without actually satisfying.

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…