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Torchwood: Miracle Day – The New World (Review)

In a way, Torchwood: Miracle Day is a miracle itself. It’s a sign of just how far Russell T. Davies has brought Doctor Who, to the point where one of the franchise’s spin-offs could be an international co-production between America and the United Kingdom. Sure, Starz is hardly the best and brightest of American networks, but it’s no small accomplishment on the part of Davies.

America has been something of a promised land for the franchise since the eighties, when John Nathan Turner would spend considerable time and money visiting American fan conventions or casting multinational companions or even arranging international co-financing or to air The Five Doctors first in international territories. None of those examples really took, and most of America only really knew the franchise through PBS airings of the Tom Baker era.

Jack's back...

Jack’s back…

Davies did a lot of work to bring Doctor Who to America. That work really came to fruition during the Steven Moffat era, with a massive opening two-parter set in 1970’s America and the use of Utah as a crucial location. Massive visits to Comic Con became an annual ritual for the show, its producers and performers. The Day of the Doctor will be broadcast live around the world at the same time, no small accomplishment.

While it’s undoubtedly on a much smaller scale, it is nice that Miracle Day affords Davies a chance to be part of this expansion – spearheading his own project that directly intersects with American television. Starz is hardly Fox, the network that Davies originally pitched to, but it is a significant achievement, and a lot of Miracle Day is best understood as an opportunity for the franchise “to go American.”

Defying classification...

Defying classification…

To be clear, Miracle Day has problems. It has lots of problems, quite a few of which are evidenced here and more of which become apparent during the show’s next episode. For one thing, it’s quite clear that, for all Davies has an in-depth understanding of American pop culture, he doesn’t quite understand the way the country works itself. Much like the appearance of a “President Elect” in The Sound of Drums, the Oswald Danes subplot completely muddles an understanding of how American laws or politics work.

To be fair, Davies can brush over this due to plot expedience or the unique status quo of this ten-part series, but it points to some underlying problems. In translating Torchwood to an American setting, he’s really just shifting it to American popular culture. Miracle Day isn’t about “America meets Wales” so much as it’s about “Torchwood meets 24.” It’s not so much about introducing Gwen and Jack to America, it’s about translating plot elements from one convention to another.

A little tied up...

A little tied up…

For example, Rex seems less like a character and more like a collection of American stereotypes. On flying to Britain, his primary demand is “give me a gun”, as if he feels naked without it. “What, you mean Wales is separate?” he asks over the phone, as if unaware that Great Britain is made up of multiple countries. (He underscores this by comparing Wales to “New Jersey”, another American pop culture staple.) “Wait a minute, I’ve got to pay for this bridge?” he protests as he approaches a toll booth, forgetting that toll bridges exist in major American cities – including, to use the example he just cited, the George Washington Bridge over Hudson River between New York City and New Jersey.

Indeed, Davies seems to tacitly and playfully acknowledge the fact that this is less about culture shock between America and Wales, and more about what might be termed “pop culture shock.” Rex is introduced talking about how a character named “Reynolds” has been shifted out of the way by unfortunate family circumstance, freeing up a position that Rex wants. Given that actor Mekhi Phifer had just finished playing a character named Reynolds on the American television show Lie to Me, it all seems rather cheeky – drawing the audience’s attention to the fact that this is an American actor moving from one show another.

Get to the choppa!

Get to the choppa!

In fact, you can see the 24 elements at play here. Davies originally pitched Miracle Day to Fox, and you can see that his plot really panders to that niche. 24 had been a massive success for Fox, perfectly capturing the raw post-9/11 zeitgeist in a manner that was occasionally uncomfortable to watch. It was such a cult hit that it is even being resurrected for a twelve-episode miniseries, there’s constant murmurings about a movie that will likely never be made, and guest star Anil Kapoor has also managed to spin off his own Indian version of the show.

24 ended in 2010, after eight years on television. You can see that Davies is clearly pitching Miracle Day towards filling that gap in Fox’s schedule. The CIA are major players, working out of a very stylish high-tech office set. Omnipresent surveillance is accepted as an unquestioned reality of modern living. Rex is able to eavesdrop on a top-secret hospital meeting from his bed using the hospital’s internal security system. He can requisition phone records internationally with ease. Rendition reveals that he can requisition people just as well.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

Even the storytelling conventions are similar. There’s an evil conspiracy operating inside the Agency and spreading insidiously to all walks of life. Anybody could be a traitor or a mole! Nobody can be trusted! Post-9/11 iconography is freely referenced, right down to a suicide bomb attack on Jack in this opening episode. The villainous conspiracy is almost inevitably the work of a bunch of rich and privileged white people.

24 is an interesting choice for a show aimed at an American audience. Davies was heavily influenced by American television in resurrecting Doctor Who. He opted for forty-five minute episodes with occasional two-part adventures. Most of his storytelling was relatively episodic, with occasional recurring motifs or arcs. Davies’ seasons of Doctor Who often seemed more tightly untied by underlying themes than by plot or character elements.

The be all and Gwen'd all...

The be all and Gwen’d all…

However, in terms of philosophy and structure and tone, Davies has always been most strongly influenced by the work of creators like Joss Whedon. Watching the early years of Torchwood, it seemed like Davies was modelling that spin-off on Whedon’s own Buffy spin-off Angel, right down to the decision to recruit actor James Marsters to help cement the show following a rocky start. For Miracle Day, Davies went one-step further and recruited write Jane Espenson, who served as a writer and producer on Buffy.

Davies is very comfortable in that particular niche – scrappy underdog anti-authoritarian heroes. For all that Torchwood is defined here as “an Institute” with all the vague legal definitions that you’d expect, Jack’s operation never seemed particularly accountable or official. Torchwood is really just about a bunch of outsiders who got tasked with doing an important job because all the more qualified people were brutally murdered in a season finalé of Doctor Who. The employees of Torchwood have more in common with the Scooby Gang than the staff of CTU.

Gunning for the American market...

Gunning for the American market…

Which creates a weird dissonance, not unlike that strange feeling you might get while watching Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Davies doesn’t really seem too sympathetic to official bodies and government authority, and that shines through here. Some of Davies’ Doctor Who work could be pointedly opposed to American foreign policy, most notably Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion or President Winters in The Sound of Drums. As such, Miracle Day puts Davies in the strange position of having to write a decidedly American show where the privacy-invading state-sanctioned secret police are the good guys.

As much as Davies can write around this by implicating the CIA in a vast conspiracy, there’s still a strange sense of discomfort here, as if Davies isn’t quite sure how to write Rex. We get more jaded references to America throwing its political clout around, and acting like it’s a lawful authority on British soil, and Miracle Day suffers from the sense that Davies is really trying to bite his tongue to keep the production partners happy.

Bombing along...

Bombing along…

Whereas Children of Earth featured a compelling subplot set within a fictional British government with an obvious stand-in for Gordon Brown, Miracle Day feels curiously detached from that level of political bite. Like the arrival of the 456 in Children of Earth, the Miracle here really works best as an opportunity to explore how far the state is obligated to the individual. In Children of Earth, we saw that the government was happy to sacrifice other people’s children, while here the villains are a bunch of stereotypical industrialists. Sure, we get a fictional head of the CIA, but no glimpse at the discussions going on at the White House or the U.N.

This will become a bigger problem as we go. Miracle Day has an absolutely wonderful basic idea. It’s a very clever high concept, rather like Children of Earth. All of a sudden, nobody dies. And that changes anything. It’s like a grim and bitter tribute to Davies’ successor writing Doctor Who. Just this once – and every day afterwards – everybody lives. Ha! It’s a world of possibility right there. How much would change if that happened?

What threat has Davies cooked up?

What threat has Davies cooked up?

In one of the best sequences of the show, the true extent of the miracle is revealed as the CIA examines the burnt remains of a suicide bomber. It’s a great visual. As the more literal-minded members of the audience ponder how his brain is reacting without lungs to process the oxygen, the rest of the viewers take in a rather stunning demonstration of just how fundamental a shift this is. Of course, Miracle Day attracts a lot of flack for being more mystical than pseudo-scientific, but I think that’s perfectly fair.

For one thing, Davies’ Doctor Who was hardly hard science. Jack’s immortality is explained as a result of his being “a fixed point” in time, for example. While Torchwood typically grapples with alien threats, it also confronts more abstract fears. The first season closed with End of Days, featuring a decidedly demonic villain named “Abaddon.” Out of the Rain featured movies coming to life. Just because these are given the faintest hint of a scientific explanation does not make them any less fantastical.

Rhys is in pieces...

Rhys is in pieces…

Davies constantly reinforces a “fairy tale” motif in these early episodes, suggesting repeatedly that Torchwood is a story. “So the story goes,” one CIA analyst reports. “Anyone who worked for Torchwood was killed in action and they died young.” When Rhys complains about Gwen telling stories to their daughter, Gwen protests, “It’s like a fairytale to her.” It’s almost as if Davies trying to connect thematically with Moffat’s Doctor Who, offering a tip of the hat. Either way, the pseudo-mystical explanation for Miracle Day is hardly unfair, and it’s the only way that makes sense of things like the detached head’s eye movements.

“We’re going to need a new vocabulary,” the CIA’s expert doctor notes as he examines the living remains. There’s a lovely moment of hesitation as the team prepare to conduct a living autopsy – essentially a vivisection – on the living corpse. Nobody says anything, but everybody is deeply unsettled. Even an autopsy is impossible now, which means the rules of medical science and ethics are up for grabs. It’s the only way to know more about what happened, but it’s a rather disturbing method. Indeed, it sets the tone for a lot of what is to follow, and is one of the best scenes of the entire series.

One for the archives...

One for the archives…

However, it hits on one of the biggest problems with Miracle Day. A lot of these massive shifts become nothing more than exposition – throwaway dialogue about Rwanda or China. Our heroes are engaged in a standard adventure quest with slightly different rules. There’s a lot of thought that went into the rules of this new world, but a lot of it is reduced to “tell” rather than “show.” This is understandable, even if it’s disappointing. Because Miracle Day lacks the budget to really capture the scale, and because the show is uninterested in exploring the top-down implications, it renders “the Miracle” as more of an abstract thought-game than a devastating status quo.

That said, I do like the idea that “the Miracle” happened without anybody really noticing – the first that Juarez really heard of anything was a phone call from the mortuary reporting that it had already been happening for 24 hours. It’s a wonderful demonstration of mankind’s ability to completely overlook and miss things – something of a recurring theme on Davies’ Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s suggested that Danes is only notable as the first high-profile example of “the Miracle”, rather than the first true example.

They'll crucify him for this...

They’ll crucify him for this…

Which brings us to Oswald Danes, who is an interesting character – if only because it seems like Davies isn’t quite sure how to write him. A pedophile child murderer, Danes feels like an example of Torchwood‘s attempts to prove just how “adult” it is, in the same way that the first season gave us alien sex monsters and that sort of thing. It’s the kind of thing that Davies could never explicitly do on Doctor Who, and making Danes a central part of Miracle Day runs the risk of seeming a little bit cynical.

This sense of cynicism is compounded by the fact that Danes is introduced in the most clichéd manner possible – he’s doing everything but cackling and hissing at the camera. Indeed, Bill Pullman makes sure that the court footage of Danes features lots of sneering and posturing from Danes. We’re told that Danes is so evil that even “the planned protests against the death penalty haven’t appeared, which isn’t surprising considering the nature of the offense.” A reporter talks about Danes’ “infamous line of defense” for his crime, “She should have run faster.”

A captive audience...

A captive audience…

(Dane’s attitude seems particularly strange when we get to see his skill as a manipulator in action during Rendition. Although his feigned guilt and confession in that press interview is motivated by the reality that there will be “a mob outside [his] door for the rest of [his] life”, it seems strange that he made no such effort for self-preservation during his original trial, instead camping it up like a low-rent Hannibal Lecter.)

All of this feels rather trite, almost cartoonish. While the show gets a much tighter grip on Danes as it goes in, The New World all but gives him an evil twirly mustache. It’s interesting to speculate how much of this was down to network interference. Pullman has intimated that the character’s ultimate fate was at the behest of the network, and it’s easy to imagine the network insisting that Davies make it quite clear from the outset that Danes a very bad man. One imagines the audience would assume that on the basis of his conviction alone, but it’s possible that the network was already wary of potential discomfort among the audience, which had already been voiced in early interviews with Davies.

Back to Earth...

Back to Earth…

Still, Pullman is pretty great in the role, rather ruthlessly playing against his screen persona as “America’s sweetheart.” Pullman is clearly relishing the opportunity to play with his screen persona, and he never gives anything less than his all to the part. When the material is up to Pullman’s standard, such as during Rendition, Danes is one of the most compelling aspects of Miracle Day. Unfortunately, like the rest of the show, the problem is consistency.

Danes brings up another issue with Miracle Day – tone. In a strange way, Miracle Day seems like an attempt to create a hybrid of the camp aesthetic from the first two seasons with the grim drama of Children of Earth. This creates a strange dissonance, that is obvious with Dane himself. At some points, he’s just shy of pantomime villainy, while at others he almost seems like a real character with motivation and intelligence. The rest of the show has a similar problem.

Gun baby gun...

Gun baby gun…

Miracle Day itself oscillates wildly between extremes. Even within The New World, we go from stark exposition about the consequences of suspending death, while ending on a gigantic action set piece on a beach in Wales – complete with exploding helicopter and minigun. Children of Earth maintained a pretty sombre tone throughout its run time, dealing with bleak subject matter in a consistent manner. Miracle Day tries to maintain that sense of personal drama, but to mix it up with spectacle set pieces. It doesn’t quite work, and it creates a strange sense that Miracle Day is trying too hard to be everything that Torchwood could ever be, but all at once.

And, yet, there are still some lovely Davies moments here. Davies has a strong grasp of Jack and Gwen, and their voices come through nice and strong. In particular, there’s a very Davies sequence where Gwen visits her father in hospital, only to discover that Gwen’s mother is cut from the same clothe as early Jackie Tyler, Francine Jones or Sylvia Noble. She’s a bullying, bitter and harrassing old woman who has nothing better to do than to disapprove of her daughter’s choices in life.

A blast from the recent past...

Black hawk soon-to-be-down…

Here, Gwen’s mouth makes a remark about the weight of Gwen’s baby, prompting Gwen to curtly respond, “Keep telling her that and by 13 she’ll have a complex.” To be fair to Davies, Jackie developed into her own character over two years on the show, and Francine at least had the best interests of her daughter at heart. Still, it seems like “nagging mother chipping away at daughter’s self-esteem” is one of Davies’ stock character types. It’s hardly the best of archetypes to use so regularly, but it does ensure that The New World still feels like a Davies script.

The New World is a flawed start, one which hints at many of the problems that will plague Miracle Day. At the same time, it does have potential, and a wealth of interesting ideas playing off the central premise. Miracle Day always promised more than it seemed to deliver, but it’s still an interesting chapter in Davies’ work. The New World captures a lot of what is to come, serving as a pretty reliable indicator of what lies ahead.

6 Responses

  1. I wish Davies had gone whole-hog, and scripted M.D. as a parody of 24. It’s almost there.

    • Yep. I think it’d work better, and flow more organically from the “one day at a time” approach of Children of Earth.

      Also: this was not meant to go up. Scheduling mishap. I’ve been meaning to review Torchwood, but never had the time. Keep pushing the reviews I have on the long finger. This one obviously slipped through my last round of pushing.

      • Well, I’m happy for the chance to comment. I read all your stuff, but there’s no sense commenting on what I haven’t seen. 😉

      • Ha! Fair point! I really do have to finish those Torchwood reviews so I can publish them.

  2. “Which creates a weird dissonance, not unlike that strange feeling you might get while watching Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

    You nailed it. I’d never thought of this before, but Russell is so lost in Whedon Imagery here (The bazooka! How dare he!) he’s beginning to lose his own novelty.

    I have another theory, and feel free to shoot it down: I also felt that, while producing Torchwood, Davies was taking the wrong cues from Moffat. Moffat is proudly ADD. He tends to boil a story down to its bones: The set pieces, images, and one-liners he wants people to remember, but with the fat trimmed, because he doesn’t desire or except anyone remembering that stuff anyway. (This was my personal ‘falling’ out with Moffat. He’s too premeditated, too focused on going viral.)

    Davies may have been aiming for the same thing here. The image he wanted to go viral was ‘Gwen squeezes gats while holding a baby.’ And it’s a powerful image. It’s camp, it’s feminist, it’s edgy.

    And it’s wrong, because all you can think of are the ramifications of trading gunfire right next to a baby.

    • That’s a fair point about Moffat, although I think I’d read it in a kinder way. Moffat is less interested in the “fat” of the story because he’s literate enough (and assumes we’re literate enough) that he can brush past that to the stuff that he wants to do. I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t always work. (I think season six is a case in point.) But when it does, I think it works brilliantly. (The Eleventh Hour springs to mind, as does The Big Bang. And even Last Christmas, to get more recent.)

      But it’s a pretty astute observation about the issues with the climax. (And you can tell I wrote this review YEARS ago because I call it Joss Whedon’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., back from the point where the audience assumed he was doing anything more than waving as he passed the writers’ room every morning during the production of Age of Ultron.)

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