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Torchwood: Miracle Day – Rendition (Review)

Rendition serves as a demonstration of the flaws with Torchwood: Miracle Day. While some of those flaws – the flaws inherent to the production between the BBC and Starz, the difficulty with scale – were built into The New World, Rendition hits upon quite a few more. Most obviously, it’s an entire episode dedicated to filler. Pretty much the only plot line that advances in a meaningful way is that involving Oswald Danes. Otherwise, Rendition feels like a bit of a holding pattern, a time-wasting exercise designed to pad out the season to ten episodes.

Dead on arrival?

Dead on arrival?

Miracle Day is a big idea. “What if death took a holiday?” is a fascinating thought experiment, and the implications are absolutely massive. To be fair, Rendition touches on these ideas. We get a subplot involving Juarez meeting with a bunch of other doctors and scientists to consider the ramifications and implications of this strange new status quo. Even the fundamental rules of triage have to change to account for the changed laws of biology.

“All our reflexes are wrong,” Juarez instructs her fellow medics and doctors. “Even the worst injured aren’t going to die. We need to do it backwards. Reverse it. We’re desperate for beds, treat minor injuries first. If you can get somebody out in ten minutes, get them out.” There are lots of other little niggling ideas that branch off from the fact that people can’t die. “The human race has become germ incubators,” Juarez declares, just before she realises that the demand for palliative care will increase substantially.

Injecting some excitement?

Injecting some excitement?

Similarly, we get a nice introductory scene at the CIA as that institution tries to deal with the fallout from “the Miracle”, trying to figure out what the absence of death might mean to geopolitics. “The idea you can’t kill your enemies has an inflammatory effect in some quarters,” we’re told. “The word from Rwanda is a Hutu village was destroyed, men, women and children, brains bashed with hammers, then thrown into a pit and bulldozed over.”

However, there comes a point where it’s almost impossible to try to extrapolate the outcome of something as profound and fundamental as this. “Yesterday I handed in a report to Alan noting that 80% of India is Hindu and that reincarnation was no longer on the table,” one analyst reports. “Nothing to keep people’s behaviour in check, so I predicted the likely outcome was war with Pakistan. This morning, the Indian Prime Minister announces his desire to reconcile with Pakistan, saying if they have one life, they have to make it count. Who can predict this? It’s never happened before.”

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

In a way, this feels like a bit of a cop-out, as if the show is trying to justify how the world can remain in something approaching a normal and recognisable condition. After all, if India nuked Pakistan, that would have profound implications beyond even Miracle Day and perhaps might even disturb Steven Moffat’s concurrent work on Doctor Who. Or, more likely, force Moffat to clearly contradict Miracle Day in a manner more explicit than the fifth and sixth seasons’ “let’s spend less time on Earth and act as if everything is normal” already does.

Still, despite a sense that the show is tempering the fallout from this massive game-changing event in order to keep events grounded in a world that viewers might recognise, these scenes are still interesting. They demonstrate that some amount of thought and care has gone into the logistics of this new world order, and that “the Miracle” is more than just a convenient plot device for Jack and Gwen to investigate.

Dark Knight...

Dark Knight…

However, these scenes and arguments feel strangely academic, and disconnected from the show’s more major characters. Juarez is involved, but she is not anywhere near as central to Miracle Day as the characters trapped on the plane or even Oswald Danes. Indeed, even the conference of scientists drawn together to figure out what is going on are eventually drawn into the primary plot of Rendition“fun and hijinks (and poison!) on a plane!”

Because the amount of time we spend with Jack and Gwen and Rex here feels consciously like padding. It’s designed to eat up an hour of screentime without moving the plot forward an inch. What more does the audience know at the end of it? That there’s a CIA conspiracy? That Jack and Gwen are being targeted for assassination? That Torchwood is on top of the hit list of the season’s mysterious bad guys?

Plane sailing?

Plane sailing?

All that Rendition accomplishes for these three main characters – from a plotting point of view – is to force Rex to work outside the agency with Jack and Gwen, and it’s hardly the most efficient way of accomplishing that goal. Other than that, it feels like an attempt to extend the narrative a bit, to give Miracle Day a bit more room before it delves into the season’s actual story arc.

To be fair, it’s not a bad way of padding. Miracle Day is clearly influenced by 24, and the third season of 24 featured an episode with a very similar plot to Rendition. Jack Bauer found himself being flown to another country in the custody of an opponent, and found himself fighting to stay alive over the course of the flight. The hour was relatively disconnected from the rest of the plot – serving as a necessary time-out that allowed Jack to get from the United States to Mexico. (There was a similar hour taken for the trip back.)

Don't sweat it...

Don’t sweat it…

However, it was also one of the strongest hours of the first half of 24‘s troubled third season. It was a relatively intimate and personal episode, allowing Jack to deal with a much more immediate problem than an impending terrorist attack or the threat of biological warfare. Unfortunately, Rendition doesn’t work nearly so well, for many of the same reasons. Rendition seems to have been constructed as a relatively stand-alone breather episode making room for more character focus. That doesn’t really work as the second episode of the season.

It draws attention to the fact that Miracle Day really takes up a lot more room than it has to. It’s easy to imagine a clean five-episode cut of the series that would be brimming with ideas tightly-packed into carefully constructed episodes. Miracle Day doesn’t lend itself to the rigid “day-for-day” structure that Children of Earth used, but there’s a similar amount of story to be told, an almost equivalent amount of ground to cover.

Jacked up...

Jacked up…

To be fair, it’s hard to objectively measure the amount of space needed to tell a given story. How do you quantify that? Indeed, the problems with Miracle Day aren’t really to do with the show’s length so much as how Davies chose to fill up the space that wasn’t explicitly devoted to the central story. You could conceivably extend that story out by adding layers and characters, but Miracle Day doesn’t do that. It really seems like Miracle Day decided to extend the arc by trying to be more episodic.

Watching Miracle Day, it’s striking how episodic the plots are. In Rendition, we have fifty-five minutes of Jack and Gwen getting to the United States. In Immortal Sins, we have a flashback adventure featuring Jack. There are elements that tie into the larger plot, but there seems to be a strong preference for stories that can be quite cleanly broken down and delineated from one another, especially in contrast to the stronger and tighter sense of continuity within Children of Earth.

Holding the line...

Holding the line…

Still, Rendition affords the show a chance to reflect on its lead character. Similar to his portrayal of Rose Tyler in Turn Left, Davies seems to be suggesting that Jack Harkness is himself a surrogate for the Doctor. Like Rose, there’s a sense that Jack has been inspired by the Doctor enough to take up his role and functions. An immortal wanderer, Jack finds himself stepping in to save the world, and Rendition stops just short of making direct comparisons, but they’re implicit.

As an aside, it’s interesting that the companions of the Ninth Doctor – the version of the Doctor that Davies seems to have identified as fundamentally broken in Journey’s End – are the ones who really elevate themselves. Martha might work with U.N.I.T. and offer important support functions, but Rose and Jack have both crossed time and space to save the planet almost single-handed.

Needling Jack...

Needling Jack…

This comparison is particularly obvious in Miracle Day, thanks to the fact that all but one of the supporting cast have been killed. Jack is no longer leading a fringe paramilitary force. He’s a traveler with a female companion out to save the world. The fact that Gwen is the Torchwood supporting cast member with the strongest ties to Doctor Who, with Myles having appeared in The Unquiet Dead, only further supports this observation.

Rendition lays on the comparisons between Jack and the Doctor quite thick and fast. “When you turn up, it always goes wrong,” Gwen admonishes Jack, a sentiment that many supporting character harbour for Davies’ Doctor. Similarly, there’s a sense that Jack is less-than-diligent and quite capable of missing the smaller moments. “What took you so long?” Gwen demands. “We had to nearly explode before you turned up?”

Oswald that ends... wald?

Oswald that ends… wald?

There’s a sense that Jack is more than just a man, he’s something bigger. The Next Day featured a lot of “fairy tale” talk, providing a nice connection to Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, and Davies has Gwen talk about Jack in decidedly fantastical terms, in a way that evokes Madame du Pompadour’s reflections on life with the Doctor. “I started to think it’d be like some kind of fairy tale,” Gwen confesses. “I’d be an old woman and you’d just turn up out of the blue; visit my granddaughter. I’d be ancient, you’d be exactly the same.” She doesn’t explicitly mention “the slow path”, but it’s similar ground.

We even get some of Davies’ familiar romantic inferences. While there have been inferences of an attraction between Jack and Gwen before, Rendition has Rex pass comment on it in a way that evokes the recurring “married” gag from the fourth season of Davies’ Doctor Who. While Gwen denies any hint of any bond beyond platonic affection, Rex insists, “You two argue like people who are real close.”

Mixing it up a bit...

Mixing it up a bit…

That said, the fact that the entire episode’s climax is lifted directly from The Unicorn and the Wasp also helps to reinforce the comparison. In The Unicorn and the Wasp, the Doctor was poisoned with cyanide and his companion had to frantically search a 1920’s country house for the ingredients to help him synthesise an antidote. Here, Jack is poisoned with cyanide and his companion has to frantically search a jumbo jet for the ingredients to help him synthesise an antidote.

Again, there’s a sense that Miracle Day is struggling with tone a bit here. The “home brew cyanide cure” scene is pure slapstick and farce, but it seems rather at odds with the sombre tone of the rest of the episode. The first two seasons of Torchwood never took themselves too seriously, but they also didn’t feature a child-murdering pedophile as a central character or the upcoming death camps. There’s a strange tonal mismatch which runs through Miracle Day, and Rendition puts Jack and Gwen right at the centre of it.

Not the be all and Gwen(d) all...

Not the be all and Gwen(d) all…

That said, Oswald Danes works a lot better here than he did in The New World. It helps that the script gives Pullman more to do than simply “be evil.” Danes is a completely reprehensible human being, but there’s a sense here that he might be more than just a collection of familiar tropes and clichés. Even before he begins manipulating public sympathy, Rendition gives Danes a nice scene where he gets to outline where he’s coming from and where he’s going, which gives Pullman something to work with.

The Danes subplot is one of the most polarising parts of Miracle Day, and perhaps the part of the plot that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief. Given that the show is set in a world without death, that’s quite an accomplishment. It’s hard to imagine – even with all the outside factors at play here – that a character like Danes could ever be forgiven, let alone so quickly.

Dane-ing compassion...

Dane-ing compassion…

There are cases of celebrities who have faced allegations related child sex abuse and survived with their careers intact (Pete Townsend and Michael Jackson come to mind), but it still seems hard to believe Danes could be redeemed so quickly. The fact that Danes was unrepentant when convicted of the charge makes the immediately public forgiveness seem just a little clumsy and trite.

Of course, Davies is trying to make a case about how fickle public opinion can be, and how rapidly it can turn (gratuitous twitter hash tag reference!), but it still seems a little too much. And, to be fair, the script calls attention to how unbelievable this turn of events is. “Poor bastard,” one CIA analyst offers. “Are you kidding me?” a colleague cuts across, articulating the audience’s viewpoint. “You’re feeling sorry for him?” Ironically, the Danes plot line seems to be playing out too quickly, when everything else seems to be playing out too slowly.

The central idea is fascinating – how skilfully can one lucky sociopath manipulate the court of public opinion and how easily are people led? Davies doesn’t really do subtlety when it comes to social commentary (which is a strength as much as a weakness), so what we end up with is a pedophile who is forgiven after a single interview. While Davies’ directness had a certain charm when wrapped up in the science-fiction setting of Doctor Who episodes like Gridlock or The Long Game, it feels a little heavy-handed in stories set in something approaching the real world. Still, there are good ideas here, and Pullman is doing a great job. Plus, there’s something so wonderfully cynical about the whole “that was a news show – they don’t pay” bit, which seems to hit a lot of what Davies is trying to get at here.

Miracle Day isn’t off to a flawless start. Indeed, the biggest problems with the show are already clear from The New World and Rendition. While the show has some great ideas, some effective sequences and even some nice character work, it’s far from the fully satisfying experience that Children of Earth was.

 

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