Torchwood: Miracle Day E9 “The Gathering”

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Here’s another review I’ve been holding off writing for a while. In the case of Torchwood: Miracle Day, after seeing the first episode I thought I should give it a chance to settle down, find its feet and then write about it again when it found its stride. Unfortunately, having now reached the penultimate episode in the run, I’ve been forced to concede: that was no “settling in”. That really was/is the show’s stride.

It was always clear that this was going to be a bit of a slow burner, but what I hadn’t appreciated was that it had been placed on a flame-retardant surface as well. Throughout the last two months, save for the helicopter chase in episode 1, the damn thing has consistently refused to do anything but smoulder and there’s been no chance of fire let alone fireworks from it.

Now this is not actually necessarily a bad thing. The show is clearly trying to do something rather different from the usual TV science fiction fare and is seeking to produce something that has intelligent, quality writing centred about some high concept abstract ideas, and just because it’s not delivering thrills and spills is by no means necessarily a failure on its part. I respect its ambition and what it has achieved, and I’ve certainly found the series watchable and intriguing unlike many viewers and fans who have increasingly become frustrated and come to loath it. But that the same time, I can’t say I get hugely excited about it, either.

One thing – and I noted this in my review of episode 1 in July – is a problem with the central premise: that no one dies. This doesn’t feel like a ‘threat’ (doesn’t everyone want to live for ever? Actually, I don’t, but maybe I’m just weird) and moreover isn’t a threat you can fight or do anything about in the physical sense. With little consistent momentum to finding out who or what is behind this (if anyone) we’ve been left to battle a succession of middle-ranking faceless bureaucrats that might neatly show the banality of evil in real life but which are curiously unsatisfying when they’re quickly disposed of and everyone moves on to the next layer of middle management. Even now, at the end of episode 9, when the big threat is presumably nominally revealed, it remains something so huge and abstract and unchallengable that we’re still lacking something satisfying from the show.

Instead, I think that the show is convinced that it is doing something Really Profound, Meaningful and Shocking the whole time. The trouble is that it isn’t. It’s actually being rather thuddingly obvious. When we got to the big reveal about what the camps, categorisations and the ovens were for at the end of episode 5 I doubt anyone was surprised. Most of us had got to that plot development about two episodes earlier, so it wasn’t shocking at all.

The show’s principle problem is that it actually ducks the difficult stuff and ironically takes a too-easy line of it. By irresistibly equating the camps, ovens and hiding of Cat 1 patients by the heroes with similar Nazi-era atrocities, the show shortcuts any discussion, any hint of grey in the moral context: you know immediately who is good and who is evil, full stop. It doesn’t help that until episode 9 there has been very little sense of social or economic collapse portrayed as a result of Miracle Day, which made all the outrageous over-the-top political/military response seem wildly disproportionate to an abstract threat. The summer riots in London looked more like a threat to world order than Miracle Day did for the first eight episodes, making the actions of governments, politicians and PhiCorp simply look like the moment had been well prepared for and everyone was rubbing their hands with glee that they now got to enact their long-standing nefarious plans. Honestly, dub in a bit of Ming the Merciless cackling, or a Bond villain stroking a white cat, and you couldn’t have made it any more black and white.

The more difficult path would have been to accurately chronicle the collapse in detail (as opposed to the evil plans enacted) and put the heroes into a position where they have to decide: if not the categorisation and the ovens, then what? Stand by and watch society completely disintegrate? Ban people having babies to control the population? (Ban sex, just to be safe?) What to do with those who are suffering? Should people be allowed to choose to volunteer for a good roasting? How much would people actually put up with and go along with? Just how do you tackle this problem without resorting to ‘evil’ one way or another and becoming tainted yourself?

Think I’m asking too much for a TV show to do in an hour’s entertainment? Maybe I am. I suspect so, actually. But you know what, I didn’t put the programme into this scenario and make it to try and be an intelligent, adult, high concept take on science fiction. It volunteered – no, it shoulder-charged its way through and forced itself into this position. Having done so it needed to then deliver, and for all its good intentions and ambitions and ideals, and quality writing, production and acting, it’s ultimately ended up ducking the task it set itself – and I think that’s the root of the frustration that has driven many viewers off.

At least there’s been much to enjoy among the casting, which has included genre favourites such as Nana Visitor, John de Lancie, C. Thomas Howell, Ernie Hudson and Wayne Knight. For my money though, the best guest performance was that of Mare Winningham, best known as the drippy stepmother of the drippy Meredith in the drippy Grey’s Anatomy – but here astoundingly, jaw-dropping horrific as the crazed right-wing bigot (think Sarah Palin raised to the power of a hundred steroids) in episode 4 who ends up somewhat crushed by the weight of her own political expectations. In the main cast, the big surprise is that Eve Myles has pretty much owned the series and blasted everyone else – even Hollywood stars – off the screen. Bill Pullman has had a delightful time going over the top as Oswald, and I’ve adored every too-scarce moment of Lauren Ambrose’s screen time vamping it up as Jilly. By contrast, Mekhi Phifer has been disappointingly generic and John Barrowman bizarrely subdued in what you would expect would be his element.

At the end of the (miracle) day, then, we have Torchwood: Curate’s Egg. There’s an awful lot of good stuff here, but there’s a flaw running right down its centre that’s proven a stubborn obstacle to the programme as a whole succeeding as it wanted and needed to. Personally I’m pleased they made the attempt and have appreciated the ride, while at the same time I hope that any future production teams going down this path learn from the problems and manage to sidestep them better next time by.

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