Thoughts on Torchwood – Miracle Day

American

Originally I had hoped to review each episode of Miracle Day, but my work schedule prohibited it.  There just wasn’t enough time in the week.  However, I have decided to put my thoughts out there up through episode seven because it would seem much of the opinion of the series is negative.  And while I think Miracle Day is far from perfect, I personally enjoy the story so far and am excited to see Miracle Day as part of the British science fiction tradition.

Not American

Now, I realize some people will take issue with that last sentiment.  One complaint about Miracle Day is that the show is “too American.”  I disagree.  This week I have been watching episodes of the Channel Four series Sci-Fi UK.  This show aired in the mid-90s and celebrated Britain’s contributions to the science fiction genre.  The show covered H.G. Wells, Frankenstein and its various incarnations, Doctor Who, Gerry Anderson, Nigel Kneale, and many more.  And I must say that if I take anything away from the British contribution to science fiction, it is that the British bring a lot of thought-provoking material to the mix.  Now let me be clear, I’m focusing mainly on television and film.  American science fiction is alive and well in book form, but our contributions to television and film are primarily CGI and spectacle.  America’s contribution to television and film science fiction has been forever altered by Star Wars, which was visual escapism.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the original Star Wars trilogy, but I enjoy it for world-building not for thought-provoking drama.  When it comes to science fiction, I want the thought-provoking drama, which is why I have gravitated toward British science fiction.  And I still classify Miracle Day as distinctly British, not because it has scenes in Wales, but because it is conceptual drama(1).  When Americans attempt conceptual drama, it tends to come off as preachy.  We Americans are not known for our subtlety.

Thought-provoking political drama

Conceptual drama was what I loved about Children of Earth.  Sure, CoE was bleak and depressing, but it held up a lens to British government (and I think, by extrapolation, governments in general), and really showed how the hallowed halls of legislation are filled with people who would work to save their own backsides in much the same way the unwashed masses would.  In fact, CoE went so far as to suggest that the unwashed masses would help one another more since they were in the act of living together rather than being separate from one another.  For me, CoE was Torchwood delivering on its promise of being “adult” Doctor Who(2).

On that thought, episode seven is the first to actively reference The Doctor in this new Torchwood story.  I didn’t expect the reference.  But what made me most intrigued by it is the suggestion that Captain Jack is forever trying to be The Doctor and failing.  Here is the wonderful irony in the Doctor Who / Torchwood conceit.  In Doctor Who we are told that The Doctor makes us better, that by following The Doctor’s example, we will become better people and usher in a better society.  Then Torchwood comes along and shows us a man who is actively attempting to be The Doctor, and continually getting people killed or setting up some great threat that will manifest decades later.  If anything, Torchwood seems to be suggesting that any attempt to be The Doctor means you will die a martyrs death.  Or perhaps it merely suggests that Captain Jack is too self-centered to be The Doctor for any real length of time.  I wonder if there is any commentary on fandom here.

"I blew it up so we can leave this plotline behind and move on to other stuff."

Back to Miracle Day, if I were to lay a major flaw at its feet, I would say it is too long and spread over too much time.  Children of Earth was tight and it had the feeling of a major event since it was aired over five consecutive nights.  Miracle Day, I believe, is suffering from stretching the story over ten weeks.  I think we are witnessing a bit of padding and the story would be enhanced by trimming it down to five or six episodes.  The current format may be dictated by the American market, but we are in the summer months, so I would think Starz could take the risk on consecutive nights.  BBC America did with some success.  Regardless, the story, as is, is it a bit too loose and rambling, sometimes repetitive.  It could use some tightening.

[The following section removed at request of the Edwardian Adventurer coherency council, citing Section 14b, Sub-Paragraph 7: “Any observations not meeting achieving a coherency rating of BB.4 are subject to revision or deletion.”]

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Jack learns the hard way why time travelers should never date their companions.

With the most-recent episode (seven), I feel like we have finished with the filler and are moving forward toward the conclusion.  Some major pieces were given shape, and indications are that the threat may not be as alien as originally theorized.  But at the heart of the miracle, would seem to lie the very human emotions of love and rejection.  Again, Jack, by attempting to play The Doctor, hurts those around him.  Jack, on some level, seems to enjoy playing the part of the mysterious traveler with no ties.  And yet, he is still human and longs for relationships.  Jack is like the obsessive fan who attempts to imitate his fictional idol.  Jack is constantly pretending to be something he isn’t, as strongly sign-posted in a conversation with Gwen, when both parties threaten to kill one another for their own ends.  Gwen mentions that she thinks she knows Jack better in this moment than she ever did.  And I think this is key.  Jack has never been more transparent than he was in this moment.  He admitted, with his threat, that he is not The Doctor, no matter how hard he pretends he is.

In conclusion, I think Miracle Day is a good trial-launch of the Starz-BBC Worldwide partnership.  I like that the show is still dealing with conceptual issues rather than monster-of-the-week.  I love the addition of Rex Matheson as a brash, arrogant, know-it-all.  Basically, an American.  I love the mystery and the humor.  In short, I think Miracle Day is a good relaunch of Torchwood.

(1)I am not, however, arguing that Cymru Who is falling into this same tradition. The current incarnation of Doctor Who has many British traits (eccentricity, British colloquialisms, etc.), but it is quite wrapped up in special effects and spectacle. The way Stephen Moffatt has plotted series six screams spectacle, it is style over substance. It may be fun, it may be entertaining, but it is hardly conceptual or thought-provoking. If anything, it continues to illustrate that Doctor Who is a microcosm of the history of television and, with its current incarnation, it illustrates that American television dominates the Western market. Cymru Who is British television putting its own spin on American style.

(2)I understand that fans of the first two series of Torchwood would loathe CoE and Miracle Day. The format is different and the sense of fun (read: silliness) is almost completely gone. I sympathize, I truly do. However, I would also posit that those early episodes of Torchwood were, despite being filmed in Cardiff, more influenced by American television than British, as has Doctor Who (at least where RTD was concerned). Genre television hasn’t seemed to escape the influence of Joss Whedon, especially when analyzing the effect of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I would say that Buffy is to sci-fi television what Star Wars was to sci-fi movies. It is the model to which many sci-fi producers turn. Just look at how RTD and others involved with Who and Torchwood refer to the shows, how they refer to the characters. We may as well recast the shows as Doctor The Alien Thwarter and Jack, which doesn’t sound as absurd but I was trying to make a reference to Angel and there wasn’t much to work with in the title. I could probably make a stronger case if I could be bothered to watch Buffy, but I had a roommate in college who was obsessed with the show and that obsession has left a very bitter taste in my mouth and sometimes I just wanted to tell him to turn off the bloody television so I could study my psychology homework or at the very least so I could concentrate as I tried to make my way through The English Patient because lord knows it was bad enough having to read it for class, but I certainly can’t retain any information with your Whedon-fest going on three hours a day. And when do you study, anyway, because all I ever see you do is watch television and play computer games?(3)

(3)The fact that I have only seen a few minutes of Buffy is not, in any way going to prevent me from speaking authoritatively on the subject.

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Torchwood Miracle Day Part 1: The New Earth

Written by Russell T. Davies
Directed by Bharat Nalluri

One day, without any warning, no one dies.  They are mortally injured, but they do not die.  At the same time as the last recorded death, the United States CIA receives emails about the defunct Torchwood Institute.

No other image can so perfectly encapsulates Gwen Cooper.

 “The first sign of trouble and you go running off with Captain Jack Bollocks!”

**spoilers**

Going in to this review I have to disclose that I am a Torchwood: Children of Earth fan.  I caught the odd episode of Torchwood prior to Children of Earth, and I just never cared for it.  To me, it seemed the show had the potential to take on topics and investigations that were too “adult” for the Doctor Who family audience.  By “adult”, I mean subject-matter that wouldn’t be safe for a family audience.  I mean darker stories that deal with high-concept drama and explorations of human nature.  What the first two seasons of Torchwood delivered was pointless nudity and sex.  So, I avoided the show until I saw the trailer for Children of Earth, and suddenly all the promise of Torchwood was delivered.  Children of Earth was brilliant, high-concept sci-fi.  The show finally became everything it was capable of being, then it seemed to end.

Well, Torchwood has returned, co-produced by BBC Worldwide and the US Starz network.  While I was excited that Russell T. Davies stated that Miracle Day would have more in common with Children of Earth than with the first two seasons of the show.  But what gave me pause was that I don’t typically trust the premium US cable channels.  I’m not that familiar with Starz, but HBO and Showtime tend to have wonderful production values, great writing and acting, and totally gratuitous scenes of sex and nudity.  My fear was that Starz would be no different and that Miracle Day would combine the best of Children of Earth with the worst of American premium cable.

If the episode I watched on the Starz website is any indication, then so far, Miracle Day is following on in the Children of Earth mold.  There was quite a bit of action, a LOT of exposition for the new audience (although very well-done), and nothing seemed gratuitous or unnecessarily explicit.  There was one scene where we saw an body involved in an explosion, and while that was quite explicit, it also helped progress the plot and mystery.  Honestly, I was quite surprised at the restraint of this episode, and extremely relieved.  Now, this doesn’t mean that what aired is exactly what I watched online (the premium shows occasionally edit the more mature content from their online streams, which seems to give indication that the mature content is what they believe people want the most), or that the show won’t eventually include the more explicit, gratuitous content, but for the time being, I think the show is a great continuation of what started in Children of Earth.

As for the story itself, the each of the lead characters are introduced (and re-introduced) quickly and effectively.  Captain Jack seems to have spent the time since Children of Earth keeping Gwen and Rhys safe and off the radar, their lives only recently in danger as he notices the so-called miracles of no one dying.  Gwen and Rhys are living in rural Wales, attempting to raise their daughter with as little exposure to Gwen’s previous life as possible.  New character Rex Matheson is a noble CIA agent who wants to get to the bottom of the case primarily because he was supposed to die, but didn’t.  This case is intensely personal.  Esther Drummond portrays Matheson’s assistant who seems incredibly devoted to him.  The only character that seems a bit uncertain at the moment is Oswald Danes, an ex-school teacher who raped and murdered a young girl.  While I don’t think his character is unnecessary, at the moment I don’t see how he connects to the primary plot.  But this isn’t due to bad writing.  Quite the contrary, it is a threat that will most-likely be dealt with later.  At this point, everything seems well-plotted.  I look forward to seeing if it maintains the pace and intrigue over the course of ten episodes.  And then there is the question of how the story is resolved, since RTD doesn’t always provide good resolutions.  They tend to be a bit too deus ex machina for my taste.  But as long as he sets it up in advance, I’m usually more forgiving.

Now for speculation.  I’m not sure what to expect from the show at this point.  Sure, the crisis has a lot of potential for exploring high-concept issues such as food, world population, and war.  I also love that the show has confirmed one theory I had going into the show, namely that as every human now seems immortal, Captain Jack is able to be injured which means he may now be able to die.

All in all, this was a great continuation of the elements that drew me to Children of Earth.  I look forward to seeing what Davies and his writing staff do with Miracle Day.