When a show’s been good, I’m always a bit apprehensive about a new series. John Cleese famously ended Fawlty Towers after just 12 episodes, while it was still good. Regrettably few other shows demonstrate that restraint. When a great show runs out of juice and the characters become tired and flat I always feel there’s a danger of contaminating what made it good originally. Torchwood is a bit odd in that respect. The last series, Children of Earth, was besides being a superbly structured story , the most harrowing piece of dramatic television I’d seen in over a decade. But prior to that it had been… well, to be blunt about it, dire (poor plotting, feeble characterisation and clunky dialogue). Certainly a mixed bag.
So while I welcome the show’s return in Torchwood: Miracle Day, I was hoping it wouldn’t spoil its immediate predecessor too much. (Indeed I almost watched Children of Earth again so I could enjoy it unsullied, just in case, but I decided that despite having bought the Bluray I lack the emotional stamina to view it.)
Miracle Day shares with the long story serial format of Children of Earth rather than the individual story format used previously (albeit with 10 weekly instalments rather than five nightly episodes). And it is also driven by a BIG concept, in this case no-one dying, explored in depth over the run of the show.
It’s also the first ever BBC Worldwide production, being made with money from the Starz network in the US who have the right to premier it (it went out last Friday over the pond). Torchwood therefore has a slightly bizarre pedigree, having first aired on BBC 3 (series 1), BBC 2 (series 2), BBC 1 (series 3) and Starz (series 4). All this means that most of the viewers for Miracle Day are new to the show. And also that a lot of it is set in the US.
So a lot is new, including the characters at the forefront of this opening episode, through whose eyes Torchwood is seen. Bill Pullman is a pedophile and murderer (so not terribly sympathetic!) Mekhi Phifer and Alexa Havins are CIA, the former being fairly unsympathetic too. He’s deeply self-centred and driven, but it’s a great performance and he makes the most of it (he has a great line in self-pity, making being made to pay the Severn Bridge toll a tribulation on a par with being killed and resurrected to endure constant pain).
But there’s a surprising amount of continuity too, with references to the 456, Owen Harper, and Jack’s immortality. It’s not clear whether the 456 references are throwaway lines or indicative of their return, but they do not intrude on the plot. It’s only the reference to Jack’s immortality, which clearly is related to the central concept, where no allowances are made for new viewers. Retcon also makes its irritating return (I’m not sure whether I hate it because of it’s irksomely self-referential name, distaste at the notion of forced amnesia or because it’s such a clumsy story device since we have no way of knowing which bits of memory the character retains). And despite the influx of US money and the new locations, there’s still a lot of welshness: not just Gwen, Rhys and PC Andy, but Gwen’s family, shots of Cardiff and of the coast (the Old Rectory, Rhossili – thanks @JohnGreenaway). It’s nice having PC Andy back too, he was great, although Rhys was perhaps a little disappointingly myopic in his attitude to the global situation after previous developments. Above all, after everything that transpired in the last series, John Barrowman is hitting precisely the right tone with Captain Jack. His reappearance is written perfectly, too, just enough explanation to motivate a return to Earth, without unnecessary exposition of the aftermath and its effect on him. Gwen’s baby is brilliant, too; hanging on to mother while she shoots at the helicopter she’s just too perfect. (My enjoyment is only slightly tempered by apprehension occasioned by the cruelty to infant characters that RTD has shown he is capable of).
It makes for an unusual but rather successful mix. The swish US locations, high production values and cash-guzzling explosions make it reminiscent of other glossy and slick US imports, whilst all-Welsh scenes of a family reunion around a hospital bed feel like typical Russell T. Davies series and very, very British. It’s also a great mix of clever, funny, and utterly gruesome – in one scene, the one in the morgue, all at once. Despite the retcon, this is a very solid return. I’m looking forward to Rendition immensely.
NB. This is based on seeing the US edit, which is around five minutes shorter than the UK version but contains some material the UK edit doesn’t. When I’ve seen the UK version, I’ll add any differences I notice. Or hopefully someone else will do a proper forensic comparison that I can link to.
Update: I didn’t notice any differences, and indeed one of the show’s writers has suggested that contrary to RTD’s suggestion of unique UK and US edits, the UK version is identical save for 13 seconds cut from two episodes.