We are now six episodes down, four more to go in this new series of BBC’s Doctor Who spin-off, now co-produced Stateside with Starz, and despite being past the halfway point, Torchwood: Miracle Day remains a baffling experience, not so much in terms of the mystery behind the central conceit, rather “What were the producers thinking?”.
Now I’ve never been a fan of Torchwood. I watched the odd episode in the first two series and just thought it was a bizarre mish-mash of CBBC plotting with HBO sex and violence. However, with the 5-part Children of Earth mini-series, it seemed Russell T. Davies, Julie Gardner, et al had upped their game, making the most of its alien invasion plot, bringing in Peter Capaldi for some much-needed class, and managing to be tight, focused and action-packed thanks to the condensed run of episodes. Of course, it was still prone to silliness and some muddy plotting, but it seemed the worst of Torchwood’s overwrought emotion, naffness and immaturity was behind it. That was until Miracle Day.
Unfortunately, any hopes that by transferring the action to the USA, with extra budget and ‘name’ stars, would see the show make an attempt to compete with the big American geek shows were entirely misguided. The problems begin with the set-up – all of a sudden, death becomes impossible. Everyone who would have ordinarily died keeps on living, and from that point on, the population keeps growing and growing. Only the previously immortal Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) can now die, so it is up to the previously disbanded Torchwood to reform and discover the cause of the ‘miracle’.
It’s a wide-ranging earth-shattering concept, with vast implications, questioning every aspect of humanity. Sadly, we have to follow Torchwood through it, who come across as the most smug, annoying group of supposed ‘defenders of the earth’ since Captain Planet’s posse of elemental ring-wielding teens. Some male writers admit to having trouble writing female characters. The same difficulties can be found with some female writers for men. It seems the writers of Torchwood have no idea how to write for human beings. With the amount of shagging, arguing, joking and incompetence the team find themselves in, it’s amazing they ever get any work done – it all just seems to exist as a poor attempt to flesh them out as individuals, but it’s cack-handed shorthand for three-dimensionality that isn’t there.
Helpfully, we do still get the surviving members of Torchwood who have had several series to develop a backstory, but are unfortunately just as irritating as ever. Captain Jack still appears to be just a vessel to shamelessly crowbar in cock-hungry winks and smirks when he’s not running around looking endlessly pleased with himself. Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is supposed to be the grounded normal one, but she flits between “I’m mad I am!” goofiness and misappropriated badassness that never sits right.
Our two new recruits are CIA agents Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). Phifer looks a little lost for the most part, clearly trying his best to deal with the ropey dialogue and ham-fisted bursts of rage, but his efforts are sadly misplaced, whereas Esther is just useless. Okay, so she’s playing the whole caught-up-in-this-mess angle, unprepared and underequipped for the task, but they couldn’t have found a drippier wet blanket to join their gang if they tried. Her ‘big moment’ so far has been ‘accidentally’ sectioning her sister, forcing her kids into care, and then getting really upset about it, leading her to compromise their VERY IMPORTANT MISSION by crying all the way through it.
Only Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose as the cynical and manipulative PR guru and Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes emerge with anything like a shred of dignity, being that they got the juiciest roles. And though Pullman manages to capture a slimy menace as a child molester and murderer, that he is allowed to be released from prison having survived his death sentence just because of some vague legal threat, only to become revered as something approaching a demi-god, is a few too leaps of logic one can cope with. Guest stars such as Wayne Knight and former Ghostbuster and fellow Shark Attack series veteran (alongside Barrowman) Ernie Hudson pop up, but it’s mostly a sorry bunch. Except for perhaps couldn’t-give-a-shit office worker Rachel, who in a handful of scenes has become one of the most rounded characters purely because she acts like a real person and not some gross blundering caricature (great job, Liz Jenkins).
We do get hints of sects and groups formed in the wake of mankind’s immortality and the reactions of governments, politicians and world leaders (through typical lazy news-report exposition), but the bulk of the series is just Torchwood pissing about, peppered with infantile attempts at executing Mission: Impossible-style break-ins and break-outs. It’s hard to know where really to begin with the absurd plotting, while wild tonal shifts exist between individual shots, let alone whole scenes. It would be useful if there was a little logo at the bottom of the screen to indicate whether what you are watching was meant to be silly or serious.
One particular sequence involving an argument between a doctor and the incredibly hammy manager of a death camp started with a debate about unhygienic laundry facilities and ended with the manager shooting her several times while an onlooking soldier squealed and whimpered. It was the most manic escalation of drama I’ve seen compressed into 30 seconds. In last night’s episode, the same guy (who looks like he has a rubber head and teeth operated by the animatronic department from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie) then attempts to cover up the crime by activating red alert, and when queried on the missing doctor’s whereabouts, indicated that not only had she left without telling anyone but said he was doing an incredibly good job, delivered with all the believability of D-grade student forging an A+ on their test scores.
At the end of the episode, all Torchwood’s work trying to uncover the truth of these death camps is brushed aside by the US government as being just a necessary act to understandably dispose of the effectively dead, making Torchwood seem just like a band of ineffectual self-centred terrorists, who’s idea of ‘searching for the truth’ is literally displayed as “SEARCHING: THE TRUTH” on their hi-tech computer screen. And next week’s episode suggests it’s not going to get any better.
With Miracle Day, Torchwood has officially reached its nadir – and this from a show which offered us the spectacle of a Cyberlady covered in barbecue sauce being attacked by a pterodactyl while her boyfriend cried. There’s so much wrong with it, pointing the finger at any one individual is churlish, but while Russell T. Davies is clearly not responsible for everything, he must have surely watched each episode, said “Yes, that’s exactly what we want”, and let it be shown. Torchwood’s only real use now is to serve as a reminder of what a bad Doctor Who episode is like, as since Steven Moffatt took over, they seem to have all but dried up. Funny that.