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What was Wrong (and right) with Torchwood: Miracle Day

Posted: 16/09/11 16:17

Torchwood has had its ups and downs from the very beginning. In its first two years, it struggled to shrug off the teatime adventure reputation of its progenitor Doctor Who by giving its viewers what it thought they wanted: sex and violence in equal measure. People who stuck with Captain Jack and his team were then rewarded with Children of Earth, a five-part miniseries which brought the Torchwood franchise to a wider mainstream audience.

It was in Children of Earth that the Torchwood finally found its feet, managing to tell one compelling story over multiple instalments rather than the episodic monster-of-the-week format that had preceded it. It also established the show as a more adult alternative to Doctor Who, not merely by broadcasting post-watershed content, but by taking its sci-fi concept and letting it play out through the perspectives of "real world" characters like Peter Capaldi's civil servant and Cush Jumbo's political intern.

It is obvious that this fourth run, Miracle Day, has done its best to repeat the success of Children of Earth by sticking with one core storyline (everyone stops dying) and watching the consequences affect everything from healthcare to the worldwide economy. This time around Torchwood was a joint production between the BBC and the American network Starz, something which built hype among expectant fans: Hollywood actors! A bigger budget with which to tell Russell T Davies' story! But sadly, something seemed to get lost in translation.

While the "global immortality" concept seemed ideally suited to a miniseries, a longer, ten episode run was decided. As most of the original cast had been killed off, a new team of incredibly broad American characters were written in to pad out the cast and presumably act as surrogates for novice viewers in the US. The opening episode was arguably the strongest of the entire season, wasting no time in introducing the Miracle phenomenon and suggesting what the implications could be for modern society.

This was where Miracle Day showed potential: by showing the collision of the ordinary with the extraordinary. Even the reintroduction of Torchwood mainstays Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper made for enjoyable viewing, although I maintain that Miracle Day could have worked as a standalone sci-fi series. It was in the second episode that viewers began to suspect what they would slowly and resentfully realise over the next nine weeks - that one intriguing concept is not enough to sustain a ten long hours.

It wasn't as if there weren't other interesting elements in the mix; it was just that Torchwood insisted on continually sacrificing them. Remember those masked cultists who vanished after one episode? In retrospect they were probably only thought up in order to provide a few creepy, iconic images for the ad campaigns, that's how little they mattered to the plot. And what about poor Dr Vera? Her perspective was arguably one of the more fascinating in the series, but as soon as she had fulfilled her exposition purposes, she went up in smoke. Instead of exploring the new world they had created, the show's creators devoted more and more screen time to cardboard cut-out characters like Rex and Esther.

Not to mention, of course, the inexplicable Oswald Danes, who was made so utterly repellent by actor Bill Pullman that it was almost as if he belonged in another show altogether. His rise to fame was a bizarre storyline in itself, but those final episodes? I can't imagine a single viewer would have enjoyed watching the heroes of the show reluctantly join forces with a child killer. I get that his final speech was to hammer home the point that, even in sacrificing himself he was still utterly beyond redemption, but I found it entirely unnecessary. We have been told, a number of times over the last ten weeks, that this man is a villain. Which highlights another problem with Miracle Day; the tendency to forgo all subtlety and tell rather than show. And when Torchwood does show something, it is usually Captain Jack's bum-cheeks.

Captain Jack. The sidekick who proved so popular he got his own spin-off. Fans wanted more of him when he first appeared back in the rebooted Doctor Who, but those same individuals may well be reconsidering after this series. Maybe it's because Jack has become indistinguishable from John Barrowman and his Saturday Night television persona. Maybe it's because one finds it harder and harder to suspend disbelief at a rather obviously botoxed actor portraying a character who is meant to be ageless. Or perhaps it is simply because the character has devolved into an oversexed, unlikeable cipher, equal parts cocksure swagger and writer's wish fulfilment.

With each passing episode, it was as if the team behind Torchwood: Miracle Day were contriving to come up with ways to make Jack essential to the plot, or at the very least get his clothes off, neither of which panned out very successfully. Viewers were subjected to a corny hour of Jack seducing an Italian immigrant in a softcore gay porn version of the 1920s, even though that entire episode was reduced to a minor plot point the week after. I think the writers need to learn that while it is definitely a good thing to represent different sexualities on television, this involves more than simply giving John Barrowman a scene with a strategically placed bed sheet and a double entendre.

But almost certainly the biggest obstacle to Torchwood's success is that lately, we've been spoiled. Children of Earth would have been hard enough to top in the first place, and it doesn't help that in the two years between that series and Miracle Day, Steven Moffat took over the reins on parent show Doctor Who and immediately set about telling a complex and increasingly serialised science fiction story. Doctor Who has become darker, both in theme and content, than previously thought appropriate for a family show, and subsequently, Torchwood's "adult" sensibilities seem almost juvenile by comparison.

And when it comes to the Torchwood finale, with its magical rocky crevice, shoddy effects, deus ex machina and shameless twist ending, well, the less said the better. Although if that last scene was an attempt to prove to audiences that the franchise still has legs, I have just one suggestion: more Jilly Kitzinger please.

 
 
 

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