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.
My favorite thing about "The Gathering," the next-to-last episode of "Torchwood: Miracle Day" was that it took place two months after the end of the previous episode. It was almost as though the show's writers realized how many corners they'd written themselves into and how ludicrous the story had gotten, and decided to detonate a nuclear warhead designed to let everybody start over.
There are occasional nods to how the previous episode ended -– with Esther and Jack running from the CIA while Rex prepared to go undercover -– but for the most part, the whole thing takes place far enough away from those events that the show can just do whatever it wants.
On the other hand, this also means a certain devil-may-care sloppiness. How did Jack end up hanging out with Gwen and Rhys in Wales, after we left him last week bleeding out in the back of Esther's car? Well, uh, there are these guys, see, and they can smuggle anyone overseas -- even Oswald Danes, as it turns out. (Everybody's favorite criminal pops up in Gwen's house as well, in a moment that might have felt like a fun "bad guy joins up with the good guys" moment had Oswald's character not been so thoroughly botched.) What's Jilly been doing all this time? She's been waiting for instructions about how to proceed, and it's convenient that she gets those instructions the same day the Torchwood gang starts to put two and two together, so both story lines move forward at roughly the same speed.
After last week’s episode of “Torchwood” went out of its way to reconceive the entire storyline of the season so far and give it a much more personal hook into Captain Jack’s backstory, this week's episode immediately started going through the motions that have made this season so dreary. Political commentary that doesn’t make a lot of sense? It was there. The American characters doing stupid, dunderheaded things to drive the plot forward? That was there, too. Oswald Danes being a character that makes no sense? You’d better believe there was plenty of that. And then when we seemingly got the first big, key piece in the puzzle of just why everybody’s been made immortal? It turned out that the ... big ... metal thingy in the floor of Angelo’s mansion was generating a morphic field (which is this show’s preferred form of techno-babble) that nullified the effects of the Miracle for reasons that are yet unclear.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “Immortal Sins,” by far the best episode of this season of “Torchwood,” mostly leaves all of the new characters behind in favor of spending quality time with Jack and Gwen. Jack’s always been the mysterious man at the center of “Torchwood,” the guy whose whole existence is something we humans can’t even begin to comprehend. And Gwen’s always been our eyes into this world (with all of the shots from her point of view in this episode, this becomes quite literally true). These are two characters we’ve been following since the beginning of the show (and Jack for longer than that, given his “Doctor Who” roots), so we’re naturally more invested in them than Esther or Rex or Oswald. But they’re also just better characters than those new characters, people who are more sharply drawn, more interesting and more compelling to watch.
Earlier this week, Drew Westen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that argued, in effect, that President Obama needed to use his bully pulpit more effectively to advance liberal causes, that he’d ceded too much ground to conservative forces in the House of Representatives and no longer appeared to stand for much of anything. Shortly after the piece’s publication, any number of blogs rebutted Westen’s central point, arguing that all of the fancy speeches in the world wouldn’t change the mind of people who effectively wanted to limit Obama’s presidency to one term and didn’t care how they accomplished that goal. (Here's the New Republic's Jonathan Chait, saying just that.) Obviously, an episode recap of a science-fiction show on Starz is probably not the best place to put an end to this debate, but “Torchwood: Miracle Day” is inadvertently dramatizing this argument, completely by accident.
Well, I’ll give “Torchwood” some props for this: I didn’t see it coming that the “modules” at all of the overflow camps were actually ovens, used to burn the living dead alive. I have absolutely no idea where Russell T. Davies and company are heading with this revelation, but it was a twist that was unexpected and yet completely obvious once it was revealed. In other words, it was the best kind of reveal, and “Miracle Day” has had too few of those throughout its run so far.
Here’s a new rule for TV producers: You don’t waste Mare Winningham. The Oscar-nominated actress turned up in tonight’s “Torchwood” as a "tea party" activist who gets drawn into the whole debate over Miracle Day (with her slogan “Dead Is Dead”), and the show had utterly no idea what to do with her, using her as the latest convenient plot point designed to push Oswald Danes into a new position within the storyline. Granted, the way she left the story was pretty great (and we’ll talk about it in a bit), but her actual character was a stereotype of a conservative activist and someone who didn’t really make a lot of sense within the narrative, arriving as suddenly as she did.
But the episode “Escape to L.A.” had its fair share of problems in addition to Winningham, and chief among them is the growing sense that this story has bitten off more than it can chew. Think of it this way: The world has undergone a miraculous event wherein no one can die. There are lots of pros and cons to that development, but they’re turning out to be mostly cons. The story, somehow, is simultaneously not focused enough on the characters, who still feel sketchy and ill-formed (that visit between Rex and his father felt like it dropped in from another show entirely), and not focused enough on the grand, worldwide story of how no one can die. There are plenty of weird conspiracy theories, theories that get a boost in the episode, but there’s been precious little sense of the camera pulling out and dealing with the world as it struggles to bear this new burden.
With every week it’s on the air, "Torchwood: Miracle Day" continues to expand its scope. In "Dead of Night," the reach of the show’s story gets even larger as the writers begin to draw connections between all of the characters we’ve met so far and a mysterious (probably evil) drug company named Phicorp. (If I were naming a drug company that, I’d definitely spell it Pficor.) Phicorp puts Oswald Danes on the payroll, and he starts talking on TV about how the government has failed us, and we should trust companies like Phicorp to help us out of this "never dying" jam we’ve gotten ourselves into. The company was more than ready for Miracle Day, with drugs stockpiled all over. They’re also the people employing Jilly Kitzinger, and they’ve been making overtures to Vera about helping her get painkillers to the undying who need them. Clearly, they’ve got a lot of tentacles.
But Phicorp was pretty much the one big development in this episode. If the last two episodes kept the tension humming along, then this was an episode in which things mostly cooled down and coasted for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there wasn’t much else slotted in to get through the hour. There were some stabs at character development -– Rex and Vera hooked up, pretty much randomly -– and some nice, soulful, "Captain Jack realizes he could die!" moments, but there wasn’t much of a throughline here for us to hang onto. Once Torchwood found the Phicorp connection, the entire episode became about uncovering more and more dastardly Phicorp deeds. This meant lots and lots of exposition, and exposition isn’t something this show does terribly well.
Take, for instance, the first time that Phicorp comes up. Just the name and the fact that they’re stockpiling drugs would probably be enough to tip us off as to the fact that, y’know, this is an international drug conglomerate. But Gwen has to tell us that they’re all over the world, and the other characters have to react as if they don’t already know that, and on and on. Plus, all of the scenes with Phicorp fell into a predictable pattern, where representatives of the company (mostly Jilly) would say things that were clearly evil and terrifying but then say they weren’t trying to be evil or terrifying. Knowing "Torchwood," Phicorp could be a very elaborate red herring (though one that allows Russell T. Davies and his writers to make some awkward political commentary), but it's so central to this episode that if it is, this one ends up being a bit of a wash.
As mentioned last week, I don’t really buy that the people of the United States would be so enthralled by Oswald Danes’ press tour, no matter how sad he seems when he apologizes. And this week took that to an even greater limit, as he took to the airwaves to advocate for companies giving away free drugs and apparently became such a revered figure that one woman waited outside just to see him, then asked Jack (who’d just gotten beat up by Phicorp goons) if he’d gotten to touch Danes. Creepy, to be sure, but the show plays the Danes character so all over the place that it’s hard to get a bead on him. In one scene, he’s on the run from local bums and police officers who want him dead (even if they can’t kill him), and in another, he’s laying it on thick about how he killed that little girl all those years ago. The first scene obviously wants us to sympathize with his predicament; the second asks us to find him an irredeemable monster. It’s a hard balance to pull off in any case, and I don’t think "Torchwood" is pulling it off just yet. Or maybe Bill Pullman doesn’t have the right blend of charisma and danger for a part like this. (Imagine, for example, Michael C. Hall in this part, and I think you have an idea of what I’m talking about. Not that Hall was available, of course.)
The episode’s midsection was where it was flabbiest. All of that business about poems about death and the various characters either hooking up or finally making contact with their loved ones (as Gwen did with Rhys and their daughter) was meant to be moving, but it ended up a little flat. It made sense for later in the episode that Rex and Vera had hooked up (since it gave her stronger motivation to work with Torchwood), but in the moment, it seemed ludicrously convenient. (Plus, he can perform sexually with a hole through his heart? I have my doubts!) And although I always enjoy seeing Jack’s pansexual pursuits, this one didn’t really add much to the story that we didn’t already know. Only seeing poor old Rhys (holding the baby too low) added much to the episode.
Fortunately, the ending was a bit better, with all of the strands of the various story webs coming together via Phicorp and the Torchwood investigation of same. The sequence where Gwen tried to get all of the information she could from Jilly’s office, even as Jilly was coming back any moment now was pretty solid, and I did like Jack’s confrontation with Oswald (and his goons) at the end. All in all, this was a "putting the pieces in place" kind of episode, and though some of the pieces were moved quite inelegantly -– again, the Rex and Vera hook-up -– much of whether this episode stands out as the start of a decline or a brief hiccup will be determined by where the pieces go from here.
-- Todd VanDerWerff
Photo: Rex (Mekhi Phifer) discovers that the Phicorp drug company may be behind Miracle Day.
'Torchwood' recap: Make a remedy for arsenic poisoning using only the items on this plane, starting... now!
If there’s one thing “Torchwood: Children Of Earth” and now “Torchwood: Miracle Day” are very good at, it’s making the story rocket along at a breakneck pace, until it’s all but impossible to not want to watch the next episode. By the end of “Rendition,” it was all I could do to keep myself from clicking forward immediately to the next episode on my screener, the ending was so exciting. Though I had a few problems with the first half of this episode, the last half – which was all about the various doctors investigating Miracle Day learning some interesting things and the Torchwood team finding itself in a few tight spots – was a lot of fun.
Yeah, yeah, I know. That show was not good. Not at all. It aimed for an epic, TV sci-fi type story, but it fell far short of that for any number of reasons, up to and including poorly-drawn characters, bad plotting, and TV simply being unable to portray something truly global. It was a failure but a fascinating one, the kind of show that teaches you a bit about how talented people can sometimes get it very wrong.
“Torchwood: Miracle Day” rather reminds me of “FlashForward” in a lot of ways. In some ways, it seems like it’s learned the right lessons from that earlier show. In other ways, it feels like it makes the same mistakes. But it’s helped at every step of the way by the fact that at its center are two people who so frequently make “Torchwood” so much fun to watch: Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper.
Russell T. Davies is one of Britain's most influential television writers. He reinvented "Doctor Who," created "Queer as Folk" and "Torchwood," and now brings us "Torchwood: Miracle Day." The fourth installment of the "Doctor Who" spinoff, which premieres on Starz tonight, once again features immortal, time-traveling Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and company, this time trying to save the world by figuring out why no one on Earth is dying.
Davies talked to the L.A. Times about the sci-fi series and his career in television.
What was the inspiration behind "Torchwood: Miracle Day"?
It's kind of a classic story, which is: death takes a holiday. That's an idea we've seen in millions of different "Twilight Zones" and things. I thought we'd build off that classic idea. What if we really took over the whole world for a long length of time? What if it changed society, changed who we are?
I think of "Torchwood" now as a show that, we sort of take situations like this and imagine how the human race would react. We did it with the previous miniseries, "Torchwood: Children of Earth." How far you would go to sacrifice people in order to save yourself? The moral pressure that puts on people. "Miracle Day" attacks the infrastructure of society. Within days, the health service comes under pressure. It's all a domino effect. And it allows for this intriguing thriller to unfold. I'm enormously excited by it.
It must be fun to sort of let your imagination run wild with that idea.
Oh, yes. And it really causes you to think. But the story is set on Earth, so it has certain responsibilities so it has to stay credible. It exists by being a reflection of our society and a comment on our society while still being fun.
You’re known for liking stories done on a big scale. Does it get harder to find ways to top yourself?
It doesn't really. I like the fact that I can afford a helicopter chase now and again. But the real drama is the character moments. That's what I really write well. It's the same for "Torchwood." When you reach Episode 9, there's such punch coming where we reveal the secrets of the show in a very clever way. But it doesn’t always have to be drama on a scale. Intimate moments are just as effective. It's just such a great cast. If you want to give me a scene with Bill Pullman (Oswald Danes) locked in a room with Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), then I would happily write you the best drama in the world. It all comes down to good actors in the end.
Can you talk about how you became a show runner?
I started out working behind the scenes in children's television but always wanted to write. In Britain, we don't have show runners and such, or we didn’t used to. I became a writer in the early '90s, and then by 1999 I wrote "Queer as Folk," which took off around the world and became a Showtime series. That’s when I started to become a writer-producer. And when the BBC people brought back "Doctor Who" in 2005, they asked me to relaunch that show. That's when I became the proper show runner -- one of the first show runners in Britain; we sort of invented the title and its responsibilities from the American model.