Torchwood: Miracle Day 1 "The New World" Review
When death itself comes to a halt, the whole world faces its greatest danger yet. CIA agent Rex Matheson has only one clue - Torchwood.
Torchwood airs on Friday nights at 10PM on STARZ. In a bizarre marketing move, the BBC will air the episodes the following Thursday nights, with the cable channel's naughty bits cut and replaced with longer character bits.
As the BBC airings will have approximately 5 or so minutes of different material each week, I will try to update these reviews if I can, so check back this weekend for more Torchwood talk!
UPDATE: There are no noticeable differences in the US and UK versions of Episode One. However, the UK did get an extended trailer for the rest of the season, and things look pretty good!
For those new to the concept, Torchwood has always fundamentally been the story of two characters, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). There have been other characters in the cast, but Jack and Gwen are essentially the Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Torchwood's Kiss. Torchwood itself is an organization originally set up by Queen Victoria to monitor and defend the realm from the machinations of The Doctor. However, over time it evolved into a group devoted to monitoring and controlling the flotsam and jetsam that falls to Earth through the space/time rift that exists on the site in Wales where their headquarters, The Hub, was built.
Captain Jack didn't leap onto the screen in Torchwood from out of the ether, though. He first appeared in the 2006 Hugo Award winning Doctor Who adventure "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" (episodes 27/1.09 & 27/1.10). This decidedly creepy two-part episode (written by current Doctor Who Mastermind, Steven Moffat) was set during the Blitz and introduced Captain Jack as a mysterious foil for The Doctor.
Jack began as an omni-sexual, time-traveling con-man from the 51st Century, but stayed on as an additional companion to Christopher Eccleston's Doctor, alongside Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) until the conclusion of the season, another two-part adventure, "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways". It was here, fending off a Dalek invasion of Earth, that Jack is killed.
However, Rose, infused with the Time Votex at the heart of the Tardis, brings him back to life while also defeating the Daleks practically single-handedly. Jack's resurrection coincides with the death and regeneration of the Ninth Doctor into Doctor Number Ten, played by David Tennant.
Man, I loved that opening return season.
In 2006, Russell T. Davies, the man responsible for bringing Doctor Who back to the airwaves, reworked a concept he had played around with before the DW revival, originally titled Excalibur. It was a science-fiction/crime drama in the style of the American Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.
Because Torchwood (an anagram for Doctor Who, by the way) would be airing after 9 pm, Davies was able to take the show places that Doctor Who couldn't go. It was more violent, and more sexual, and ended up becoming a huge ratings hit, while the reviews were more mixed.
There was an uneven quality to that first season. While there were quite a few good episodes, when they were bad, they were staggeringly bad. One only has to mention the word "Cyberwoman" to elicit groans and facepalms. Although, to be quite honest, it climaxed with a half-naked Cyberwoman battling a CG pterodactyl, so how bad could it really be?
It has a place in my heart.
The season served as the introduction for the real heart of the show, Gwen Cooper, a police woman who stumbles across the mysterious group, Torchwood, and ends up becoming a part of the team. Along with Captain Jack and Gwen, Torchwood was manned by Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), the medical officer and Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), the computer specialist. "Administrative" duties were performed by Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), the resident chauffeur, butler, and cook. During this season it was revealed that Rose's regeneration of Jack had made him functionally immortal. Whenever he was killed, he would quickly spring back to life, fully healed.
One of the things that really stuck in the craw of large parts of the vocal online audience was the fact that none of the characters were especially likeable that first season. Owen, in particular, was a rather odious beast who at one point was actually "borrowing" some Torchwood tech to "seduce" sexual partners. Sure it could technically be considered rape if you stopped to think about, but it was treated more like a bit of mischief than anything heinous.
And when Gwen found herself slipping into a seedy affair with Owen, behind the back of her longtime boyfriend Rhys (Kai Owen), again, vocal online audiences didn't take it very well; Especially when Gwen finally confessed to him about her infidelities, but then slipped him an amnesia pill so he wouldn't remember any of it.
Personally, I found the characters to be fresh and exciting that first season. There was an unpredictability to them and while there was the standard (for television) insertion of sex and violence in the name of "mature content", I never had a problem with it. I loved watching a science fiction show where the characters actually interacted and had urges that usually get whitewashed out of science fiction – especially television sci-fi.
But when the show returned, we saw the effect of that vocal online bitching and moaning.
The second season began with Jack missing. He had been spending some time in the three-part 29th/3rd season finale of Doctor Who, taking on The Master (John Simm). It was here that Jack revealed that after being abandoned by The Doctor in "The Parting of Ways", he traveled back in time to 1869 via his vortex manipulator, where he was recruited by that era's Torchwood and proceeded to await his reunion with The Doctor over a century later.
When he returned to the team this season, he found that they had kept going without him. Gwen had matured into a natural leader of the group and the episodes had a more uniform feel when it came to their quality of concept, writing, and acting. The vocal online audience found this season more satisfying, as many of the creepier and interesting aspects of the characters were jettisoned, allowing for more relatable, sympathetic, and frankly, bland protagonists.
I was not impressed.
While nearly every episode had at least one great idea hidden in it, there was a sense that they were pandering a little more than they needed to. Plus, crying took the place of fucking as the shorthand to signal "maturity". Blah.
The season was marked by the shifting of characters into more socially acceptable, committed romantic relationships. Gwen got married, Jack and Ianto developed into a serious couple, and Tosh revealed her feelings for Owen. Of course, being the least viewer-friendly character, Owen ended up dead, but still lingered around. Unlike Jack's sexy immortality, Owen was just a dead man walking. Literally.
At least he was given a chance to redeem himself as the season drew to a close. Boring.
The real highlight of the season, though, was the casting of Buffy and Angel alum, James Marsters (Spike), as Captain John Hart, Jack's former partner in crime and lover.
Did I mention that this show is extremely gay-friendly? Well, it is. And it's kind of awesome.
The season ends on a bit of a downer, as Jack is forced to deal with both Captain John and his own long-lost brother, Gray. Added to that, both Tosh and Owen died saving the planet, leaving just Jack, Ianto, and Gwen carrying the mantle of Torchwood.
But all-in-all, it was as much of a success, if moreso, than the first season. The toning down of subversive elements struck a chord with viewers and critics alike (except for me, apparently), and Torchwood really showed the potential to develop into something special. Jack next appeared as a guest star (along with the main cast of The Sarah Jane Adventures) in the two-part Doctor Who Series 30/4 finale, "The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End".
Up until this point, Torchwood was essentially a sci-fi action/adventure show, with an emphasis on the "monster-of-the-week" with the background season-long story-arc approach of its inspirations Buffy and Angel. However, when the BBC was not awarded an increase in license fees, Torchwood (and Doctor Who) faced budget cuts.
Because of these cuts, the new season of Torchwood was cut back from the standard thirteen-episode run to just five. Not only that, while it was shifted to BBC One (from BBC two – and previously BBC three), it was broadcast one episode per night over a single week Mid-Summer. This is typically the graveyard slot for television series, or the place to shunt a show off to die.
Given these limitations, Davies opted to focus the five-episode run on telling a single story, and the result was both critical and ratings gold, yet again.
Torchwood: Children of Earth was a darker and far more serious approach to the Torchwood concept than Davies had attempted with the regular series. There was less of the energetic adventure approach that marked the most enjoyable episodes of the previous seasons and more of a focus on a bleak, pessimistic view of mankind and government in particular.
Children of Earth told the story of the return of an alien race known only as the 456, and their demand that Earth turn over a percentage of our children to them for unknown reasons. If we don't turn over the children, then very bad things will happen. Torchwood intervenes and discovers a secret historical relationship between the 456 and the British Government.
That's not an entirely accurate description, by the way. There are some pretty brutal and disturbing revelations during the course of these five hours and as far as I'm concerned, Children of Earth is one of the strongest examples of serious UK science fiction to be put on television in decades harkening back to the best of the Quatermass adventures. Yes, it's bleak and a bit preoccupied with "issues" (whatever that means, critics), but it is damn fine work by everyone involved.
The stakes are high and steep prices are paid over the course of the story, which took Torchwood from a shag/tear-heavy "monster-of-the-week" show to a shining example of what you can do with the genre on television.
I can't recommend Children of Earth highly enough.
The series ended with Torchwood in a state of disarray that looked fairly permanent with little hope for a fourth season.
And here we are.
As you may have heard, Davies took Torchwood to America in search of funding this time around, and while Fox turned him down, cable channel STARZ jumped at the opportunity to co-produce (with the BBC) a ten-episode series with seriously hard-core science fiction aspirations.
STARZ is primarily known at the moment for a few of interesting and moderately well-received historical melodramas, Pillars of the Earth, Spartacus & Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, and Camelot. Like early HBO, these shows are sometimes most notable for their enthusiastic embrace of violence, sex, and nudity, so I had a bit of apprehension going into this iteration of Torchwood.
Sure, Davies had always been shooting for a more Americanized style of storytelling, and it was really just the budget restrictions that had held back the first two series from really achieving escape velocity, but what would an American co-production bring to the mix?
As it turns out, there was nothing to fear (despite the whining of the internet masses). What we have with the first episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day is nothing short of big-screen action mixed with an extremely satisfying central science fiction concept.
Note the full words being used there. This is science fiction, not sci-fi. This isn't half-baked pulp relying on crazy ideas to cover for the lack of serious thought. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, I enjoy the living shit out of a good crazy-ass sci-fi story and wish there were more of them.
But this is something different.
There's an escapist element to the action sequences, yes, but underlying everything is a meditation on mortality and the ethics of how we deal with death and dying. You see, "Miracle Day" is what people are calling the day when death took a holiday. As the show opens, we find that no one has died on the entire planet for the past 24 hours.
But the thing is, what we've got here is not the romantic notion of immortality that we've seen with Jack over the past few series. But it's not the horror-show that we got with Owen in Season Two. Instead, it's somewhere in between.
People are just not dying. No matter how much physical damage their bodies take. No matter how riddled with disease they may be. No matter what. They just continue to live.
Philosophically and ethically, this is one of the biggest concepts a science fiction TV show has ever taken on, and with ten hours to roll out the story, I have high expectations.
The thing that gets me the most excited about this series is how they've approached the writing. They began by spending four weeks working through the complete story before actually writing the scripts. Then the writers chose which episodes they wanted to work on, with those episodes reflecting their particular interests in themes or characters. Once the scripts were finished, but before shooting, the team reworked all the scripts to allow for a tighter feel and greater overall narrative unity.
I expect great things from this approach and was not disappointed with the opening episode. It was written solo by series creator Russell T. Davies, and suffers from his particular weaknesses, most notably the urge to embrace the emotional plot point over the logical one.
A good example of this is the release from prison of convicted pedophile/murderer, Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman). Many online voices have expressed outrage at the idea that Kentucky would release a prisoner of his particular stripe, after his lethal injection proved ineffective. But that sort of bitching is central to a major problem that sci-fi fandom suffers from.
Yeah, it's not an entirely realistic plot point in your mini-series about Death taking a holiday while a con-man from the future fights to figure out if it's some sort of alien plot. It doesn't matter if Kentucky's state government would actually release the man within a day of his death-sentence survival. Davies is about the emotional response, not the logic. The release resonates with a feeling of government ineffectuality and is supposed to push us to question just what Danes' role in the overall story is going to be.
At the moment, he's just a remarkably creepy character, with Pullman doing his best to make you forget he ever played anything as heroic as an American President fighting an alien invasion. His mannerisms and vocal inflections create a sense of unease, and we just have to wait to see what the writers have in store for us.
The main plot, however, is crackerjacks. At the end of Children of Earth it looked like Torchwood was permanently disbanded. Gwen and Rhys were off to have their baby, and Jack was leaving Earth behind. What about Ianto, you ask? Watch the damned show.
We pick up with, as I've said, Death taking a holiday, and US Intelligence Agencies getting a mass email containing only the word "Torchwood". At that very instant, death stops claiming victims. CIA agent (and amoral, selfish son of a bitch) Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) is fatally injured in a car accident, but when his friend, CIA analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) gets to the hospital she finds that he has miraculously survived. Surgeon Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur) informs her that nobody has died in the past 24 hours.
And with that, we're off.
There are a number of exciting and I think quite brilliant bits scattered throughout this premiere episode. Just the image of Gwen opening fire on a black helicopter with her earmuffed baby in one hand, her automatic pistol in the other, was worth the price of admission. As was Jack's enigmatic return in just the nick of time to save Esther.
And if you didn't cringe, in a good way, when the sheet was pulled back to reveal the horribly burnt and mangled, but still alive, body they retrieved from the explosion, then why are you even watching? I loved that Davies didn't flinch from having Jack, and later Gwen, accept almost without question that they were going to have to do bad things to get their job done.
Jack's recommendation that they remove the head of the burnt body to see if that would kill it was cold and disturbing, but a nice touch. As was his use of Owen's name as his cover identity with the CIA. I also enjoyed the big grins that Jack and Gwen shared after shooting down the helicopter that had been chasing them. Yeah, there were people burning up inside the wreckage and they weren't going to die. They were just going to suffer.
But screw them. You mess with the bull and you know what happens. Especially when you've been trying to "murder" the bull's baby. If nobody's dying, then those bastards were trying to mutilate them into submission, so they get what's coming to them. Toss those white hats in the garbage, folks. It's gray hats for everyone!
As with the very first season, Davies has also opted to give us a couple of main characters that are either completely unlikeable (Danes), or just shitty people (Matheson). As one might expect, viewer reaction (the vocal internet viewer, at least) has been visceral and negative. But when it comes right down to it, those voices are asshats.
Warning: Rant commencing.
If you've read my writing on this site before you might have noticed that I have nothing but disdain for sci-fi and comic fandom, especially when it comes to immediate internet fan reaction to creative works. There seems to be an underlying sense of elitism combined with self-loathing to most online fan reactions to just about anything; a sense of embarrassment about our genre that pushes these lifeless voices to stake out hyper-critical and frankly, irrational, dismissals of all but the absolute highest quality work. It's as though only a work that achieves broad mainstream acceptance is good enough and any "flaws" or subversive elements that might seem "weird" or refuse to let a viewer see it as "realistic" is harped upon with sickening enthusiasm.
All too often, this hyperbolic hostility is accompanied by a sense that anything concerning sexual behavior outside of common norms or the use of "offensive" language, is damaging and demeaning to us all. This puritanical bullshit helped to drive nails into the coffins of both Caprica and Stargate SGU in particular, which is enough to make me despise most of the worthless slugs who chose to rant and rave about how crap both of those shows were; and however irrational it may be, it colors my reading of online reactions to every new science fiction show that makes it to the airwaves.
The worst part, though, is that it doesn't just color my impression of these "fans". Science Fiction on television is rare and difficult to make work. Any success in this genre requires the support of a dedicated fanbase willing to give a show time to establish its rhythms and get its feet. Word of mouth can make or break a show, influencing those potential viewers who aren't sure about staking out the time to keep watching a new show. The vocal internet "fan" that nitpicks a pilot episode to death without commenting or even acknowledging the potential for growth or the good bits is a traitor to the genre.
The act of getting a television show on the air is, quite frankly, a miracle of timing, orchestration, and production. In order to appeal to the widest range of viewers there is a disgusting level of crow-eating and pandering that has to be done. If a show chooses to follow its own path and actually pay attention to storytelling and the healthy development of character, particularly to characters that challenge and push boundaries of what protagonists are "supposed" to be, we should be lining up give it all the leeway we can afford.
When, as in the case of Torchwood: Miracle Day, we have a show that is devoted to telling a solid ten-part (!!!) story with an amazing core concept, talent both behind and in front of the cameras, interesting characters, and finally a budget to allow them to really cut loose, and internet voices watch the first episode and bitch about the narrative choice of embracing emotional resonance over strict realism, or whine about the likability of one or two of the supporting characters, then those voices are blatantly worthless and should be ridiculed and shamed.
If you thought that this first episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day was boring or not worth watching, then I have to question your critical faculties. Maybe you just want some sort of brainless eye-candy that you can get drunk and laugh at. Maybe you just have no idea what makes a good television show. Maybe you should just watch your ridiculous crap and leave something like this to the grown-up fans.
This isn't True Blood.
A ten-part series that sets out to tell a single story is a commitment. It demands things from the viewer and has certain obligations of its own to maintain. A ten hour movie experience is what we're getting here folks. If you break that down to your average movie-viewing accounting, we've only just seen the equivalent of the first twelve minutes of a traditional two-hour film. The pacing for a ten hour story is not what you might normally expect (those voices saying Children of Earth grabbed them from the first episode seem to forget that it had half the time to grab them, and was the first experiment with longer-form storytelling for this creative team).
For example, Falling Skies is only going to run ten episodes this first season. Each episode is a self-contained unit that moves the overall plot forward, however, there is no endgame. They've already been greenlit for a second season, so the story is built to play out over an indefinite number of episodes. Because of this, every episode has to play out like a mini-movie, with an episodic plot structure, action sequences, and the stringing out of narrative payoffs to keep the viewers coming back for more next week.
Torchwood: Miracle Day is not like that. It is one complete piece. Groundwork must be laid before a payoff can be achieved. Characters have to start off in one place, then move and develop over the course of the finite story. If you think this should play out like True Blood or Falling Skies, you're missing the point. If you bitch about it online, you're just a simpleton.
Were there a few false notes in this first episode? Sure. It wasn't perfect. But Davies is a flawed writer. He has fantastic ideas, but tends to falter when it comes to the execution, relying on emotional reactions to supersede narrative logic sometimes. Did he do that here? Hell, no. This is the opening chapter and the man is laying the groundwork for the writers to come.
I can't remember a series premiere this loaded with possibility. Maybe the first episode of Battlestar Galactica. Maybe the first episode of Lost. But in both those cases, we were dealing with ongoing stories that kept the creators from staying focused on tight, targeted storytelling. They were more concerned with expanding and exploring the worlds in which the stories were being told.
With all that said, this was easily a premiere with the potential to enter the pantheon of the best science fiction shows of the past fifty years. Children of Earth already showed what they can do with this basic narrative approach. I say give them the chance to expand on that before you start badmouthing and turning your backs on it.
Punk ass bitches.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to What Looks Good and Shot for Shot. He currently has little spare time, but in what there is he continues to work on his first novel, tentatively titled Damaged Incorporated. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, sci-fi television, the original Deathlok, Nick Fury, and John Constantine. He can be summed up in three words: Postmodern Anarchist Misanthropy. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.
Got a comment or question about this column?
Leave at message at the Reality Check Message Board.