Friday, 30 September 2011

Torchwood : Miracle Day - a rambling review

In a diversion from the normal crap I come out with I've decided to post some rambling and inconsequential thoughts on the latest Opus of Russell T. Davies. Torchwood Miracle Day.

For those not in the know. Torchwood is a spin-off from the long running UK sci-fi series Doctor Who. Originated and penned by the series producer of the time Russell T. Davies, it was marketed as a more adult and grown-up series than the mostly family friendly Doctor.
The central character being Captain Jack Harkness who originated in the new Doctor who reboot, as a now immortal person who leads a small team of alien investigators, it grew in popularity over it's first 3 series, and also moved channels until the third series premièred as a 5 day event series called Torchwood children of earth on the main BBC one channel, which, though flawed, got generally good reviews, and provided a dramatic, human and dark bit of sci-fi on prime time TV.

Personally - I never watched Torchwood until Children of Earth came on the BBC, and I thought this 3rd series was pretty good, so I was hoping the new series would be pretty good. The series concluded on UK TV a week or two ago, after a 10 week 10 episode run, and, lets say it out front, despite sticking with it to the end I've been disappointed.

Lets start with a bit of background. After the success of the third series The new series was built on Davies attempting to bring the series to the US, and he created it in collaboration with a US producer, and represents a niche UK sci-fi series trying to move into the mainstream. With the relocation to the US, comes a number of american actors, a new style of show, a bigger budget and more episodes for a series. The biggest name of which being Bill Pulman, no stranger to facing aliens, and whole new locations across the US.

So without further adieu - lets get on with the review

The Story
This was the big falling down for me. The initial concept was great, the "No-one dies" concept was a pretty good starting point, and a couple of the early episodes explored the ramifications pretty effectively, along with some decent adult body horror backing it up (especially in the first episode).

However the execution over 10 episodes felt incredibly uneven and ill-paced throughout, after a barnstorming opening episode in which lots of stuff happens rather quickly, our main characters are stuck on a plane not actually doing much, while the deeper ramifications are explored through the doctor character (I've already forgotten her name).
After the first episode the plot development crawls through it's iterations at a snails pace, a neatish actiony bit breaking into some offices, the plot goes back into stasis where it takes 3 episodes to infiltrate and find out what is happening in the overflow camps. This is honestly when I started to get a little bored with the thing and wonder where it is all going.
I also found the reappearance of the Death Camps motif Davies had used before several times to be a bit "what? again?" as he's used them before as plot devices in Children of Earth and in the who episode Turn Left.
Anyway - once the death camps are passed we go into a curious present/past episode involving pretty much Just Gwen and Jack. Frankly this episode jars immensely with as this is where Jacks character morphs into someone who lives at all costs, and is pretty amoral and the relationship with Gwen seems pretty much broken - yet they suddenly are best friends again at the end.

While the two bicker in the present we are treated to a gay romance Jack was in during the 20s in the US.
There's some way overdone love scenes - I was reminded of how out of place the Skywalker/Amidala love scenes felt in star wars - it just broke the entire pace and was overdone. Some tensionless action, and a whole lot of WTF has this to do with anything.

The series picks up a bit for the last 3 episodes IMO, but my caring level was pretty lowish by this point.
Q from star trek turns up with some fun lines as the head of the CIA, a Gruff no-nonsense boss that's a lot of fun actually. There's some decent tension and we finally get a sense of simple fear while Gwen tries to hide her seriously ill dad. That's all pretty well done.
The CIA offices seem to have been lifted direct from "24", and they seem to have carelessly drafted in the mole too, the whole CIA bit does feel a bit too much like 24 to be honest.

The final reveal of the Miracle was a huge "is that it?", I understand it's supposed to be all mysterious and that, but the terror alluded to in the episode where an investigator sees the miracle and jumps of a roof just wasn't there.
Final episode was pretty good, dramatic, tension filled, but it needed to be spectacular to make up for my lost interest personally. It also left to many plot threads hanging (presumably hoping for another series).

The Good
  • I said it earlier, but the root concept was good, if unevenly shown.
  • The switching between US/UK was all right
  • Oswald Danes's character (Bill Pulman) was well played throughout, suitably sinister and greasy. 
  • Likewise the red-headed PR woman was funnily sinister ( forget her name).
  • Likewise the head of CIA character played by John de Lancie was god fun.
  • Was nice to see an epic sci-fi story which didn't really leap to the alien invasion card.
  • There was some flashes of some neat drama, in some episodes. The dramatic character deaths (which appears to be a Torchwood hallmark) were pretty well done, and the bits in wales where Gwen was hiding her dad were properly tense.
The Bad
  • Slow plot
  • Russel T. Davies incredibly unsubtle social commentary. Yes Russ we can see how the financial destruction mirrors the current economy. We see how you think US medical insurance is far less fair than the NHS. We see how you think profiteering drugs companies are evil, and how bad extraordinary rendition is. We don;t really want to be hit over the head with it while waiting for some plot. The best fiction inserts its commentary far more subtly so it doesn't feel preachy in my opinion, this failed at that.
  • Despite Jack claiming his immortality had nothing to do with his blood throughout -it suddenly switches and his blood is incredibly important at the end.
  • The plot with Oswald Danes effectively becoming a cult leader seemed to really go nowhere important. 
  • Similar to the above point, around about the second episode we were hinted at riots, death cults, society collapsing - we really didn't get a good sense of the society outside falling to pieces.
  • As I noted before - death camps again?

Over all
The whole thing was a bit of a let down. There was some neat bits, and some neat characters. Jack and Gwen'c characters were all right, the new Torchwood characters felt a bit lame to me, but were passable in their fashion. It all comes back to the pacing for me. Series like 24 manage to sustain tension across many more episodes than Torchwood by having heavy drama throughout and around each episode, tying it up with a feeling of achievements inbetween. This Russell singularly failed to do.
In the final analysis there was probably enough events and story for a 6 hour mini series. It reminded me of one of those 3 hour films where at the end you think it could easily lose an hour, I think Miracle Day could have easily lost 3-4 episodes with an actual improvement to the end product

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