Ah, Torchwood. Doctor Who’s big brother, the one who drinks beer and smokes tabs, stays up late and swears, chases men and women alike. The mature one, if you will, who has that charming naughty streak. And now it’s back with series four. Miracle Day; bigger, bolder, brighter – produced in conjunction with American TV corporation Starz.
Before I discuss the season opener, I’d like to tell you about my love/hate relationship with Torchwood.
The series was launched in 2006 and, as an adult Doctor Who fan, I anticipated much and was disappointed. Yet I watched every episode of that series, and bought the DVD (very cheaply, I must say). Why? Well, although much of it didn’t work for me, deep within the sometimes unnecessary swearing, sex and violence, lurked a lofty ebullience; the series was endowed with the warmth and enthusiasm that always shines through the writing of Russell T Davies.
Torchwood moved from BBC3 to BBC2 for its second series, a major promotion for a genre show. I watched the first five minutes of the first episode: from what I can remember there were lots of bangs and crashes, a car chase, a man with a fish head and an old granny saying “fucking Torchwood”. Remote found, TV off, eyes shut, asleep. I gave up, didn’t watch another episode. Series 2 came and went, with barely a flicker on my radar.
Months later, I was fortunate to be at a screenwriting conference where writer James Moran gave a live commentary on his episode Sleeper. While James provided a witty insight into the writing process, I began to appreciate Torchwood for what it was intended to be. Like I say, beneath the bluff and bluster, under the sometimes shoddy effects, there’s that heart of gold beating steadily away.
Summer 2009, and Torchwood was shown on five consecutive nights, event TV under the name of Children of Earth. Intrigued (well, more like stunned at the audacity to highly expose the show) I sat down to watch. It started well enough, but improved so much that by the end I was sat there with my mouth open and nothing to say. Well-written, wonderfully-acted, here was the Torchwood I’d always hoped for; a superb concept, filled with gripping drama and high emotions. And how creepy were those aliens? The most sinister, disturbing sight on TV for a long time. Excellent.
My hopes are now high. I know Torchwood can deliver enough to satisfy my capacity for criticism. There’s now a vast canvas on which to paint the tale, more money to spend on special effects and a cast that includes Bill Pullman. All bodes well; following Children of Earth, I’m expecting much, although experience tells me to prepare myself for the spectre of disappointment.
So, given all this, how does the first episode of Miracle Day fare? Well, it’s a mixed bag, I’m afraid. There are flashes of brilliance and moments of downright stupidity, especially considering this is made for an adult audience; disbelief can only be suspended so much. How inept must the trained assassins be if they can miss a house with an RPG fired from a helicopter, sending the missile through a window, across a landing, then out the other window? Worse is the almost laughable scene when CIA agent Rex Matheson pulls out the plugs, gets out of bed and leaves his hospital room; while staggering through the hospital, he takes a random bottle of pills from a trolley and downs them like they’re Sanatogen. I can only hope his CIA skills – the ones that enable him to make it to the hospital exit unstopped, get a taxi that he doesn’t have to pay for, board a plane to the UK, be given a gun in a presentation by some high-ranking English policeman, then drive to Wales while having a conversation on his phone – also enable him to identify pain-killers from their taste.
Any first episode needs to set the scene and show the players, and this one does it very well. We start with an execution, the lethal injection of rapist and killer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman). It’s a grisly affair, with lots of twitching and shaking, only Danes doesn’t die. Here’s our concept; people the world over (we know it’s the entire world, as we’re shown lots of news channels) are refusing to die, no matter what their cause of death should be. Agent Matheson is another case; while driving at night (on his phone again) he collides with a truck carrying Big Iron Spikes that aren’t tied on very well. They go through his windscreen and his chest, pinning him to his seat. But, like Danes, Matheson refuses to die. Instead, prompted by his younger female colleague, Esther Drummond, Matheson heads to Wales in search of Gwen Cooper.
Esther is intrigued by the name Torchwood, now that all records of its existence have been erased. Even the librarian at the hall of records (a cross between the X-Files vault and the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark) knows this; he’s even kind enough to tell Esther that all the Torchwood records have been taken. If it wasn’t top secret, I assume the janitor would have known. Here, plucky Esther encounters Captain Jack Harkness and a would-be assassin. There’s a big explosion, but Jack and Esther escape by diving into a convenient fountain. They bond for a moment, then Jack erases her memory, Men In Black style.
Meanwhile, Gwen, husband Rhys and their son are in hiding in Wales, living off the land. There’s not a leather jacket in sight, but the visit of two ramblers causes the couple to open their weapons cupboard (a pantry of shotguns and grenades) just in case. They return to civilisation in order to visit Gwen’s sick father; he’s had two major heart attacks and - in a nice twist – wonders if he should be alive or dead. Gwen’s emotional investment is sealed here, and while this is obviously a job for Torchwood, Rhys doesn’t want her to get involved. We know, of course, she will be. It would be a short show otherwise.
Back in the USA, Jack visits the hospital where, posing as FBI agent Owen Harper, he watches the autopsy of the assassin who was blow up at the library. It’s a gory moment, as there’s not much left of this man, and it’s genuinely disturbing as, despite the head being removed, the eyes look towards the doctors. At his hideout, Jack begins to realise that, while everyone else is immortal, he can die…
Esther has been given the last remaining paper records of Torchwood and, working with the bed-ridden Rex (on his phone again, this time in a hospital, although I guess the effect on life support machines is irrelevant now) establishes the whereabouts of Gwen. As mentioned earlier, Rex heads to Wales, where the helicopter gunship is only moments behind. Jack arrives to save the day, a plan which involves attempting to evade a helicopter by driving a jeep across the flattest part of the Welsh coast (looked good, but wouldn’t the hills have been better?). Gwen, back in Torchwood mode with her leather jacket on, blows up the gunship with a rocket launcher of her own. Torchwood are re-united, but Rex has called the police. They’re all under arrest. Danes, however, has been released…
Ok, I admit I’m being flippant and possibly harsh, but this is fiction aimed at an intelligent, adult audience. Sure, we’re prepared for it to be fantastical (it’s sci-fi, after all), but the boat really is pushed out too far at times. So, yes, I’m disappointed. We have a brilliant premise, which has great potential, as yet frustratingly unrealised.
Bill Pullman plays Danes like Hannibal Lecter without the charm. He’s intelligent, knows the law inside out (which a clever man on death row would), and manipulates all concerned to engineer his own freedom. He’s a true villain, a man who claims that his twelve year old victim “should have run faster”. Still, there are a couple of moments when he looks more comical than frightening; heavy eyes and a slack jaw do not a monster make. Although his expression did make me wonder if the lethal drugs are still in his system. Hmmm…
I’m still to be convinced about our two CIA agents. As naive young female and grizzled veteran male, they both conform to expectations and, possibly, cliche. It’s through the eyes of Esther that any new viewers will learn about Torchwood, and we need to be able to empathise with her, warm to her like we did with a certain Dana Scully. Hopefully, this will come in time. Rex feels like he’s going to be a typical tough guy, a foil who will see the error of his ways and turn to Torchwood later. Fair enough, but how many times have we seen that in TV?
Although Gwen’s transformation from gardening mother to leather-jacketed gun-toting Torchwood agent is inevitable, Eve Myles plays it well. There’s humour and warmth in her relationship with Rhys and while the moments with her father are somewhat protracted, they remain emotional. The scenes in Wales jar with those in the USA, but they need to in order to highlight the different cultures. Watching Gwen shoot a gun through the window while holding her baby (I swear the kid is grinning) is outrageous, yet entertaining, an image usurped from John Woo’s Hard Boiled.
And, of course, Jack’s back. Following the events of Children of Earth (which I won’t discuss here, but if you haven’t seen it, go watch now!), he’s a darker and mysterious figure, his humour somewhat subdued. It’ll be interesting to see how being mortal will effect Jack’s relationships and actions. Jack gave me the biggest laugh of the episode, using a drug called Retcon to erase Esther’s memory.
As a first episode, then, this does work. Despite my concerns, I found it to be enjoyable enough, an entertaining almost-hour of TV. For everything that made me cringe, there was something to appreciate; I just don’t want to cringe so often. The scene is now set, so hopefully we can get on with the story. Fortunately, any new viewers haven’t been bombarded with twists and turns, making do with the simple premise: why aren’t people dying and what does Torchwood have to do with it? I’m sure the intrigue will grow as the series continues; it has to last for ten episodes, and will need to maintain its pace.
So, Torchwood. It’s done it again. I know what I want, but my expectations aren’t met. Yet, I maintain my faith in Russell T Davies and his writing team. I’ve seen what can be done, and I’m sure the series will get better. Here we have a decent, yet flawed, re-introduction to characters and the whys and wherefores of their existence. I’m hoping for some good story-telling to come, but watching Torchwood is like taking a bumpy ride.
Come on, Torchwood. It’s time to deliver, and be all you can be.
Torchwood; Miracle Day begins on BBC1 in the UK on 14th July. In-depth episode reviews will appear in Starburst Magazine shortly after transmission.