Monday, September 19, 2011

TV Review: Torchwood: Miracle Day

I think it's fair to say that that the overall reception for Torchwood: Miracle Day has been mixed. From watching varied strands of social media over the last 10 weeks I've seen a lot of criticism, a bit of vitriol, and some defense, but on the whole it's received a much colder response than Children of Earth, only some of which is down to the increased expectation from it's "big move" to the US. I am mindful of one comment I read though, which wisely pointed out that watching a show just to "hate on it" is pretty dumb, so bearing in mind that I watched the whole thing, and am hopefully not "pretty dumb", it can't have been a total dead loss.

Right?

I think my main emotional response to Miracle Day is one of frustration, and to go into that, I think we need to cover the history of Torchwood as a whole, as it's pretty odd in it's own right. A spin-off of Russell T Davies' years on Doctor Who, and built around a character originally created by that shows current showrunner, Torchwood was pitched out originally as a sort of Doctor Who After Dark, where they could do the darker and more adult storylines that they couldn't on a show going out at 7pm on a saturday afternoon. Torchwood Series 1 largely got the "adult" part without the "mature", so we got a lot of sex and swearing and violence but not a lot of the dark, complex themes that should go with them. Series two was a lot better, slicker, better balanced, less gratuitous and let the characters become more defined before brutally offing some of them. And then we had Children of Earth, which neatly bypassed any problems with it's plotting by being a slickly efficient thriller following one story of it's shortened run.

So you'd think that Children of Earth was the model that they'd want to follow, but it turns out that Torchwood isn't the sort of show that likes to repeat itself. With US co-production, a ton of new writing talent, new cast and new locations, this promised to be a bigger and better version of what had gone before. And it's core idea - that "The Miracle" happens, and everyone on Earth stops dying all at once - is a strong one. Unfortunately it manages to squander a lot of that, for reasons I don't quite understand, but will try and breifly mull on here.

First, the good - mostly the first few episodes as the Miracle takes hold and the world starts to spiral out of control. There is a classic Sci-Fi technique here of taking real problems (in this case over-population and resource scarcity) and making them immediate, and you get some excellent stuff about hospitals in crisis, disease control problems and the like, not to mention some of the real horror of people just not dying. The new characters are start out looking interesting and diverse with interesting looking paths through the opening storylines....and then it all sort of bogs down and never recovers.

There is a point I'm finding it hard to put by finger on, but its about the time the only really likable new character gets killed by a heavy-handed Nazi Germany analogy. when Miracle Day stops being about The Miracle and starts being a vaguely SF-themed conspiracy thriller against shadowy cabals trying to take over the world. And thats where it all starts to go a bit wrong. I mean, we clearly needed some sort of antagonist, and some sort of explanation, but shadowy cabals trying to take over the world are massively less interesting than the dilemmas and problems of a world spiralling to collapse because no-one dies. And the show just drops all it's former plot-lines in favour of the new ones, as if half-way through the scripting process they just had a better idea (maybe they did?) and have the least famous Ghostbuster drop in to let us know that all that work the team had already done is pretty much irrelevant.

Essentially the show drops it's early storylines completely and starts new, less interesting ones. I suspect it's supposed to be the old bait'n'switch, except that they like it so much they do it again with Jack's the old boyfriend plot by having the powerful secret group with alien technology that he set up be different to the powerful secret group with alien technology that tour heroes are after. Mind you he was hugely set up over one episode then him and all his people were dead half-way through the next so it was a bit of a waste of time really. Unless you like badly written period romantic subplots but I'm not a big fan of them either.

Speaking of being dead its an odd choice to have a world where no-one can die and just keep blowing people up so they are effectively dead. Seems like a tailor made situation for unstoppable, recurring villains, but maybe thats just me.

OK, I don't want to get too negative but really Torchwood: Miracle Day really suffers from too many niggles that just build up as you watch it. There are some great ideas, some individually good scenes, a couple of barnstorming performances, especially from John De Lancie towards the end of the series. The real problem I think is that it's all too long; at the same length as Children of Earth it would tear along like rollercoaster TV and all would be well. But it doesn't, and that pacing is at the heart of it's issues. This is the fourth series of this show and I can't help but feel it should know what it wants to be by now and that it shouldn't suffer from these sorts of problems....