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'Torchwood' recap: All over, with lots of shouting

September 10, 2011 |  8:00 am

Torchwood: Miracle Day

If there were a dictionary entry for “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” then a picture of the finale for “Torchwood: Miracle Day” would probably have to be right next to it. It’s not that the episode was absolutely atrocious or anything. Indeed, on the surface, it was one of the more exciting hours of this very disappointing season of television. But once you start to dig beneath that surface, the whole thing falls apart much more quickly than usual. It looks and sounds like a big season finale, full of tough choices and characters making ultimate sacrifices, but in the end it’s just a bunch of people yelling loudly and banging trash can lids together, not a grand ending to a grand tale.

It’s stereotypical for fans to complain about how lame the answers are at the end of a story like this. That’s because there’s no way to satisfactorily answer some of these questions. When you ask the question “What could make everyone on Earth immortal?” the answer is either going to be completely predictable (aliens!) or kind of stupid (there’s a giant crack running all the way through the Earth between Shanghai and Buenos Aires, and it’s somehow a thinking entity that forms the core of the planet or something). But if you care enough about the characters going through that journey then you’ll go along with some silly answers, so long as what happens has a sufficiently moving effect on those characters.

Look at this another way: The answers offered up by “Lost” in its final season were often very, very stupid on a pure level of whether they made sense. But for some viewers -- myself included -- the journey of Jack and Locke and Sawyer had been interesting enough that we were willing to go along with silly answers if they ran alongside good character arcs. For other viewers the characters were always secondary to the mysteries, and that meant that when the mysteries had unsatisfactory answers (as they almost had to), the experience was rather crushing. They had gotten involved in a story with no real payoff, just a bunch of vague half-answers and shoulder shrugs.

That’s where “Torchwood: Miracle Day” falls apart for me. The only characters I feel the slightest bit of emotion toward are Jack and Gwen, and I was fairly certain neither was in all that much danger. Gwen is the show’s conscience, so it can’t very well kill her, and there probably isn’t a “Torchwood” without Capt. Jack Harkness. Furthermore, it was very difficult to give either of those characters much to sacrifice. The series tried to give Gwen something worth puzzling over, as she realized that reversing the effects of the Miracle would effectively kill her beloved father, but for all the show talked about how much Gwen loved her dad, I never was as attached to him as I was to her. The problem was that after the events of “Children Of Earth,” the show simply didn’t have any other characters to sacrifice that would have the same effect, unless it decided to kill off Rhys or (much worse) Gwen’s child. So it was stuck trying to create tension and tough choices without actually having the fuel to do so.

Theoretically, though, this should have been easy, what with all the new characters. The problem was that it was just that much harder to invest in Esther, Rex, Vera (remember her?) or Oswald. The only new character worth writing home about was Jilly, and that was more or less because she was delightfully evil and played by Lauren Ambrose, who was having a lot of fun. In terms of actually sympathetic new characters, there just wasn’t anybody, which made the one big, emotional moment of the finale -- Esther’s death -- kind of a dud.

There’s obviously a version of the show where Rex’s decision to pour his blood (which was actually Jack’s blood … don’t ask) into the giant chasm, knowing it would kill Esther, made audiences bawl their eyes out. But that wasn’t the case here at all. Esther was simply a plot device, someone the writers used when they needed something to go wrong or when they needed the story to move in a certain direction. Rex was no better and kind of a jerk, honestly, so when his life seemed to be in jeopardy, I was even less moved. And when the episode ended with the revelation that Rex, like Jack, is apparently immortal now? Well, that was just irritating. This is to say nothing of Oswald, perhaps the single worst new character of the summer TV season.

The biggest problem with “Miracle Day,” ultimately, is that the premise wrote checks the execution couldn’t cash. The idea of a worldwide mystery about just why everybody abruptly turned immortal is a good one, but the actual process of solving that mystery was unspeakably dull and filled with red herrings that didn’t amount to anything. For instance: Angelo’s story line was undoubtedly moving, but it ultimately had so little to do with anything else that it was obviously a way to kill time before the final two episodes. There were moments of excitement here and there -- like Rhys realizing Buenos Aires and Shanghai are right across from each other -- but the majority of the mystery-solving was a bore, and the central mystery wasn’t terribly well defined either. So people remain alive, but if they’re gravely injured enough, brain function ceases, and if they’re burned up, they cease to be? How is that immortality? And why did people with really bad injuries get up and wander around in early episodes, only to become “Category 1” later on?

“Miracle Day” is obviously made by people who have interesting ideas and lots to say. But it’s also a show that bit off way more than it could chew. Just the central idea could have easily fueled a cool 10-episode story. But that idea had to be mixed with unsubtle politics, largely pointless side trips, and new characters that never took off. In the end, for all the shouting and forced excitement, there was nothing human at the core of “Miracle Day.” The best works of Russell T. Davies may be messy and too ambitious, but they also have a recognizably emotional core. “Miracle Day” strived to find that center at all times, but it always fell just short.

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-- Todd VanDerWerf

Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) narrowly escape the bomb blast taking out the Families’ Blessing facility. Credit: Starz.

 

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