I think Torchwood only works in extremes. It has to be either gloriously bonkers (or ingloriously if you prefer) as in parts of the first 2 series or all intense and gritty as in Children of Earth. Let it be a fun romp or let it be intense drama but make it one or the other. Although I generally enjoyed the first episode of Miracle Day, I’m already getting the sense that it’s falling between the two stools.
Take the character of Rex, the CIA agent. His whole performance in dragging himself across the Atlantic could best be described as just wacky enough to remove any sense of tension but not wacky enough to give it the virtue of comic relief. His journey from bed to Wales seemed to be played for laughs, as if it should have been speeded up and set to a track of Benny Hill music. Yet it was comical rather than amusing and I don’t think it was intended to be. Given the tales of British preview audiences howling with laughter at the Severn Bridge gags, what does RTD ply these audiences with? Laughing gas? Illuminated signs around the theatre flashing “Piss Yourselves Laughing Now”?
There were silly little things here and there. Rex escaping from the hospital despite the efforts of a doctor in a pencil skirt and vertiginous stilettos was ridiculous. I’ve no objection to the high camp but this just came across as someone getting the tone wrong.
Things were much better in the Welsh scenes, though Eve Myles could do with turning the dial right down on the wide-eyed ham. I confess that I sniggered involuntarily (and I don’t think I was mean to) when her mobile phone in the drawer started ringing and she instantly went into wide-eyed panic mode. Even more so than at the sound of the knock on the door which was understandable.
There were some tell-tale signs of what we’ve learned of RTD’s writing style from The Writer’s Tale. If you find yourself at a plotting or timetabling impasse, grit your teeth, close your eyes, think of Wales and chuck in any old thing. Take the retconning resolved within seconds of Esther returning to her office to find herself presented with a fat file on everything Torchwoody by a friend who had a friend in the office that had just confiscated all files on Torchwood. Helpfully removing any sense of urgent secrecy and any point to the retconning. What about Gwen’s hideaway cottage being conveniently located at the end of the Severn Bridge? I can understand the need to cut to the chase but Rex was having a phone conversation with Esther at the time, the final sentence of which began with him on the Severn Bridge and ended with him drawing up on the cliff above the cottage.
I didn’t like the helicopter crash scene at all. Not because I have any objection to big action sequences for the sake of it (this is Torchwood in America, after all) but because it felt tacked on for ratings when it could so easily have been tied right into the story. What’s the theme of this series? No-one dies. So, for the sake of a cheap line where Gwen can say “we’re Torchwood” (where we’re presumably meant to punch the air), we’re asked to ignore the completely overlooked point that the crew in that helicopter were all burning alive and would continue to burn alive because they couldn’t die. I expected that surely that scene would end with the sounds of the crew screaming in the flames – drama upon drama upon drama – but no. It ends with Jack and Gwen standing wide-legged watching the flames and grinning at each other.
That aside, there were some fine elements to it all. The Bill Pullman scenes were the best of all. His creepy interview with the governor’s aide brought to mind some of the best of the tone and mood of Children of Earth and I was hopeful that this augured well for the rest of the episode. Kai Owen as Rhys, Tom Price as Sergeant Andy and Gwen’s parents brought a welcome sense of reality to the whole story by dint of not overacting at all.
Those elements were few and far between unfortunately and I always find myself coming back to the root of what stops me taking Torchwood seriously, John Barrowman. I like the guy a lot but the unspoken truth is that he cannot act (ooh look, I just spoke it). That’s not necessarily a handicap because the weird thing about John Barrowman/Captain Jack is that he’s terrible in Torchwood but wonderful in Doctor Who. In Series One (2005) of New Who he was one of the best things around and made a great trio in the TARDIS with Rose and the Doctor. Then along came Torchwood and I thought: ooh I don’t like Captain Jack as much as I thought I would. Then along came Utopia and I thought that JB and the character were on top form again. Make him a supporting character in a show which revolves around the far bigger character of the Doctor and his cheeky wisecracking conman works fine. But put him in a show which has to revolve around him and where he’s required to be grim and morose and he’s just not got the acting ability to carry it off. I cannot take seriously all those silent close-ups on his face while he’s doing intense and moody because he doesn’t have the face for it. It’s too smoothly matinee idol and doesn’t carry a vast range of expressions. There are also signs that they intend to continue to use his silhouette in his long coat as an iconic image in this series. It was used when Esther first met him in the archive and there was a shot of him at the end of a corridor in the series trailer. That worked well in something like School Reunion where Sarah is backing away from the TARDIS and the camera shows the shape of the Doctor standing behind her, all long coat and spread legs. Why does anyone ever stand like that, by the way? It’s not a natural way to stand unless perhaps you’re on the deck of a ship in a storm. It just screams: I’m standing like this in the hope of making an impression. Anyway, to get back to the point, that worked in School Reunion because you knew that inside that coat was David Tennant who can do the moody silent close-ups in his sleep and has the acting chops to make you go eeeeeek in anticipation of what’s to come.
The strongest and most promising part of the whole show looks to be the most original – the reversal of the rules of death. Fingers crossed that it turns out to have a decent resolution. Jacks’ immortality was always a problem in earlier series of Torchwood. Unless it was handled in an original way such as Jack’s burial alive or the attempts of the baddies to kill him in Children of Earth, it was always a tension dampener knowing that he was never going to die. I worry that, if the reversal of his immortality is going to turn out to be critical to the plot of Miracle Day, they won’t be able to avoid explaining how he came to be immortal which will take Torchwood out of reality and into fairy tales.
I did approve of RTD keeping some things almost wholly in the dark. Like the much promised amusing misunderstandings between Wales and America which he skillfully excised almost completely from this opening episode. Always keep them wanting more. However, if the few snippets which slipped through are anything to go by, then we’re in for a comedy treat. What’s a road bridge doing in this country? (chortles growing louder). Wait a minute, it’s also a toll bridge, what craziness is this? (guffaws coming thick and fast by now) Bridges? Tolls? Wales is insane! (I fell off the sofa in helpless laughter at this point).
I hope that this was just an unsettled introductory episode and am hoping for great things in the rest of the series. But that’s a hope based on Children of Earth rather than any confidence in this opener. Nor did the long Coming Soon in This Series trailer which the BBC stuck on the end of tonight’s episode fill me with hope. It had to be the blandest promise of thrills to come I’ve ever seen. Repeated shots of doctors pointing out that no-one is dying. Brief random snatches of meaningless dialogue. And thank you so much, BBC, for telling us pretty much what Oswald Daynes’ character ends up doing. That’s so much more satisfying than waiting to see it revealed through a developing drama.