Saturday, 9 July 2011

Review: TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY – "The New World"

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Russell T. Davies just about manages to transfer Torchwood to America without repeating the mistakes of the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, although it's touch and go in places. Miracle Day is a ten-part reversal of Children Of Men's premise, where death itself becomes an impossibility and the world faces a four-month countdown to catastrophe as the population booms. It's the fourth series of the Who spin-off, but broadly accessible to newcomers by virtue of having so many American characters themselves unaware of Torchwood's existence and history. This premiere is largely successful at what it aims to achieve, blessed with a simple but stimulating idea to explore, although there occasions when British fans may be rolling their eyes at some cheesy/nonsensical moments (such as a brief phone conversation that somehow lasts a car journey from London to Cardiff), but in general "The New World" was effective and entertaining set-up.

In the months since the Children Of Earth miniseries concluded, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) has taken the baffling decision to live a reclusive lifestyle in a beachfront cottage with husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and their baby, but is inevitably pulled back into action to help investigate the so-called "Miracle Day". The phenomenon in question being the sudden, inexplicable inability of humans to die, demonstrated by the unsuccessful lethal injection of convicted paedophile Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), and CIA Agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) surviving being impaled by steel rods in a car accident. Curiously, at times this episode felt more like the story of inquisitive CIA Watch analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), given how Rex spends the majority of the episode in a hospital bed, dashing hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) doesn't appear until almost halfway through, and Gwen dances on the sidelines for awhile.

The concerns of most fans will be in seeing how well Davies has managed to transfer Torchwood's tone and personality to a (mostly) American context, and the answer is fairly well, but not comfortably. It's too early to tell if the show's risqué attitude has survived the Atlantic crossing, but this certainly wasn't an episode that sacrificed Torchwood's ideals and instead bombarded us with action set-pieces. In fact, beyond a climactic helicopter chase on a Welsh beach (involving a bazooka), the spectacle is restrained and the "Americanisation" only noticeable through the predominantly US casting and the quality of production standards—that even having a British director in Bharat Nalluri can't tune-out. And why should anyone want to? The show is slicker in some ways, but just as unintentionally amusing whenever it presents Gwen as a leather-clad bad-ass. In a strange way, the occasional clumsiness of "The new World" is a welcome reminder this is still the show we know and love (with caveats).

The new characters aren't very interesting just yet, and I'm particularly concerned about Mekhi Phifer, who spends most of this hour giving a performance similar to watching a young Danny Glover go through heroine withdrawal. Given the fact he's supposed to be the show's big new American lead, it's noticeable how poorly he's introduced and utilized, as Davies is clearly more comfortable writing for Jack and Gwen than any of his invented newcomers. The only unqualified success is Bill Pullman as creepy Oswald Danes; a character who's hypnotically repellent and gets the best dialogue to chew on. I'm already broadly aware of where his character's headed over the weeks, and I look forward to seeing how he develops from this intriguing introduction.

Perhaps the best aspect of "The New World" was simply having time to ruminate on the repercussions of a world without death. In one startling sequence, doctors gather around the body of a bombing victim who's now little more than a burned, mangled splat on a table—yet still alive to blink and groan at the living horror he's going through. Even when his head's severed from his body by snipping through what's left of his neck, the man's suffering persists. It was a horrific and unsettling moment, but simply the most visual example of the problems and abominations that will become commonplace. I'm sure Miracle Day will have great fun speculating about a world where there are suddenly billions of immortal people, many of whom will become trapped in a circumstance where they're begging for death to become an option again.

Overall, "The New World" worked because the high concept is so rich and fascinating, and it's good fun to see Cap'n Jack and Gwen back on our-screens after a few years away (even if the latter remains markedly irritating), but I'm not sure this idea will be able to sustain nine more hours. Children Of Earth didn't even justify five, and despite the fact Miracle Day's a global problem teeming with new characters, something tells me the mid-season episodes could be a problem to get through. The fact Russell T. Davies' plotting is by far his weakest skill, and so few of his episodes conclude plausibly, also has me concerned Miracle Day won't reward a ten-week commitment. However, on the strength of this opener, ignoring some of its sillier moments, I'm interested to see exactly where the story's headed.

written by Russell T. Davies / directed by Bharat Nalluri / 8 July 2011 / Starz