“Everything has its time and everything dies.”
If ever a line of dialogue encapsulated the ethos of an entire era, those words, from the episode The End Of The World, probably sum up most succinctly what Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who was all about. An almost five-year long meditation on grief, loss and loneliness masquerading as a frothy, Saturday night slice of escapism, Davies’ Who stands as one of the finest examples of populist storytelling during the last decade.
And then there was Torchwood.
Until its third series, when the show was reformatted as a five-part, self-contained BBC One serial, it would be fair to say that the ‘adult’ Who spin-off – fronted by John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper – had been something of a mixed bag.
However, the brilliantly executed Torchwood: Children Of Earth changed all that. Clearly designed as an ending (of sorts) for the show, the serial’s intense, Nigel Kneale-style chills enthralled viewers, delivering both stellar ratings and the series’ first real wave of critical praise. It seemed that, finally, Torchwood had stepped out of the shadow of its parent show. With both Davies and fellow exec producer Julie Gardner moving to the USA to take up positions with BBC Worldwide Productions, it wasn’t long before a fourth run of the series was commissioned.
However, this time, while there would be a significant uptick in the show’s budget, there would also be a US premium cable channel as a co-production partner, and a shift in location from Britain to America. The fruit of this co-production deal is Torchwood: Miracle Day, which, while delivering a more lavish production than previous incarnations of the show, doesn’t manage to maintain the quality of Children Of Earth.
Which isn’t to say that Miracle Day is without merit, far from it, but it does feel like many of the lessons learned during Children Of Earth haven’t quite made the journey across the Atlantic intact. Seemingly conceived as something approaching both a franchise reboot and a continuation, Miracle Day follows the intriguing central idea of what happens to human society when everyone on Earth mysteriously stops dying.
However, intriguing ideas don’t necessarily make for engaging drama, and one of the main issues Miracle Day faces right from the start is that the Torchwood team is ‘fighting’ something (the absence of death) that is essentially intangible.
That being the case, how do you then make this seemingly amorphous idea both present and threatening?
In all honesty, I’m not sure whether Davies and his team ever come up with an effective answer to this and, as a result, the first few episodes are full of scenes bombarding us with facts about how dangerous this ‘miracle’ is for the world.
Repeatedly, we’re informed that people aren’t dying, intensive care units are overflowing, the world faces imminent resource collapse inside four months… and yet none of it makes the slightest impression. However, what does make an impression is the sight of a virtually barbecued ‘corpse’ that’s somehow still alive, a CIA agent surviving impalement on a metal pole, and a convicted paedophile surviving lethal injection.
Unfortunately, all three of those images appear in the first episode, and there’s very little in the following nine hours that comes close to achieving a similar, visceral impact. Another problem, especially in the first half of the series, is that by relocating the show to America, Davies is forced to spend an inordinate amount of time having to re-establish the basis of Torchwood, both as a concept and a group of characters.
As a result, the first episode is split in a number of different directions and never really comes together in a particularly satisfying manner. Certainly there are some effective set pieces and striking moments in the episode, but it almost feels like the checklist of story and series requirements has robbed Davies’ writing of its usual rhythm and clarity.
He’s certainly not helped by the distinctively different tone and execution of the material shot in Wales as opposed to that shot by the American crews. This is at its most apparent during the first episode, where the ratio of Welsh and US scenes is roughly 50-50.
The scenes in Wales, shot by a production team who’ve worked on the show since the start, feel like they belong in Torchwood. In contrast, the American-shot material has a look and feel that is both broader and more generic. This lessens as the season progresses, but it’s noticeable in certain scenes and even draws comment from both Davies and Gardner in the accompanying DVD commentary.
Despite the issues that recur during the first half of the series, there are definite high points. Myles (alongside Kai Owen as husband Rhys) is on top form throughout, while Barrowman, although somewhat more peripheral in the first few episodes, delivers some of his finest material as the show finds its feet in the second half of the season.
Of the American cast, both Mekhi Phifer as CIA agent Rex Matheson, Arlene Tur as Dr Vera Jurez and Alexa Havins as CIA analyst Esther Drummond give strong performances, which manage to be both distinctive and complementary to those given by Barrowman and Myles. Faring slightly less well, though still offering strong support, are Bill Pullman and Lauren Ambrose as the oddly matched pairing of paedophile Oswald Danes and PR girl Jilly Kitzinger.
While these two characters never fully deliver on the promise of their early appearances, Pullman and Ambrose are never less than fully committed in their performances and always deliver something more interesting than you’d expect.
However, despite the fun of their performances, it’s actually when Oswald and Jilly are sidelined during episodes seven and eight that the story and the show itself really starts to shift into focus.
Episode seven in particular, which is set in both the 1920s and 2011, contains John Barrowman and Eve Myles’ finest performances in the show. Both a touching love story and a savage indictment of both Jack and Gwen, it’s arguably as strong an episode as Torchwood has ever delivered. Ironically, it’s also the one episode in the series that overtly embraces the show’s connection to Doctor Who and that broader universe, a connection that at times it seems almost embarrassed to admit.
Although episode eight is something of a ‘bottle show’, it still manages to introduce both John De Lancie’s enjoyably rude CIA chief and move most of the story pieces into place as the show hurtles towards its finale.
And it’s in those final two episodes that the series finally manages to find some sort of balance in this new transatlantic context. Unlike the choppiness of episode one, in these last episodes the cutting between story strands set in Wales, Latin America and Shanghai is seamless, with the tone, performances and look of the show blending together perfectly.
As for where the story goes in these final two hours, there have been many complaints about both the cause of the miracle and its solution and, while it may infuriate some, I found it to be an effective and honest conclusion to the story.
Certainly the ultimate end of the series, which ends on one of Davies’ patented “What? What?!? What?!?” notes, is both cheeky and just a touch silly, but it leaves room for future adventures featuring the Torchwood team.
As I said at the start of this review: “Everything has its time and everything dies.” However, in the weird and wonderful world of Russell T Davies, the one caveat to that statement appears to be Torchwood.
Because of that, don’t bet against the show making one more comeback somewhere down the line.
The DVD extras for Miracle Day are of variable quality. Torchwood: Web Of Lies is the complete ‘motion comic’ which was released online in the US as a companion to the show. It’s perhaps most notable for featuring former Buffy actress Eliza Dushku as the main voice artist.
In addition, there are brief character intros for new viewers, one-minute introductions for each episode by Davies and Barrowman and a seven-minute selection of deleted scenes.
Of more interest is a 30-minute Making of… documentary which is entertaining, but fairly unrevealing as it mainly focuses on the Welsh shoot that occurred early in the production schedule. Similarly, the special effects featurette takes an all too brief look behind the scenes of how certain key sequences were executed.
Despite the somewhat lackluster quality of the other extras, the commentary tracks attached to both the first and final episodes of the series are another matter entirely. Featuring both Davies and Gardner, the two tracks find the normally upbeat production duo in a far more critical and reflective mood than we’re used to.
Hinting at numerous production problems along the way, Davies and Gardner prod and poke at aspects of the finished episodes that they aren’t too keen on, while openly questioning their own decisions and those of the execs above them. Essential listening.
You can rent or buy Torchwood: Miracle Day at Blockbuster.co.uk.