As I begin to write this review, I cannot help feeling almost at a complete loss for words (those that know me best will, of course, find this very hard to believe, but they will also know that, like good old Abe Lincoln, I cannot tell a lie, so they’ll have to take my word for it). It has certainly been an odd series of the critically acclaimed Doctor Who spin-off. Seemingly gone are the days of chasing aliens through the streets of Cardiff which were a staple of its first two series (2006 – 2008); gone is the unknown alien threat to the whole of humanity which was the overarching story of Torchwood: Children of Earth (2009): indeed, in the light of what came before, Torchwood: Miracle Day (2011), the fourth instalment in the Torchwood chronology, at many points, seems rather lacking.
I was, admittedly, rather worried when I heard that Torchwood was to be given an all-new American makeover for its fourth series. Yes, as Russell T. Davies pointed out, the main character has been American since the beginning (first appearing in Doctor Who’s 2005 episode ‘The Empty Child’ opposite Christopher Eccleston and continuing as a companion through to the first series finale, ‘The Parting of the Ways’). He is one of the show’s most popular characters; even those who don’t know Torchwood know Jack from his return appearances with David Tennant in Doctor Who’s 2007 story ‘Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords’, as well as 2008’s ‘The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End’ and 2010’s ‘The End of Time’ But it was not that which worried me: American films and TV are great in their own right, but completely different to what is made in the UK. The biggest worry I had was that Davies would try and tailor it to its new American audience, forgetting all about the loyal fans at home.
I will admit to being entirely disheartened when the first episode of the new series (‘The New World’) first aired on BBC One. It seemed that all my fears had been concerned. As anybody who knows me well enough will undoubtedly be aware, I hate sci-fi, except for Doctor Who, which I feel proves just how special that programme is. In fact, along with many of my friends and acquaintances, my enjoyment of the show almost verges on the borderline of an obsession. No-one knows the difference between Daleks Sec and Caan better than I; mention ‘the Rani’, ‘the Terileptils’, ‘Androzani Minor’ et al, and I will probably be one of the few who knows exactly what you’re harping on about. But what I think the main pull of Doctor Who always has been how English it always seemed to be. No other country could have pulled off the concept of a lonely man with two hearts who can regenerate whenever he is killed (but only a maximum of twelve times) travelling about time and space in an old blue 1960s police box quite as well as we have.
And then Torchwood came along – not quite the great family show that Doctor Who is but a fun, action-packed, adult-oriented Welsh sci-fi drama! Awesome!
And then the Americans got their hands on it, and my fears seemed to have been confirmed.
On the evening of Thursday 14th July 2011, one solid view was sent out across Facebook by the vast majority of my fellow viewers: what had they done? Torchwood’s debut American episode was an abysmal cesspit of chaos. It contained all the elements of the great American action movies – car chases, explosions, gunfights, shooting down helicopters on Welsh beaches and a convicted paedophilic child murderer (Oswald Danes, played by Independence Day’s Bill Pullman) being executed by lethal injection in its first five minutes. Unfortunately, it all seemed rather poorly handled, with more show than substance.
Of course, it’s not all as straightforward as it seems, because as soon as Oswald is given that nasty little drug, the miracle of the title kicks in and the poor man is saved from his fate.
But even that can’t save the first instalment. We all knew everyone on Earth would become immortal even before the first episode aired.We knew Pullman would be in it from start to finish. There was just no shock factor. And so, by the end of the first hour, as old favourites Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Miles) and Reese Williams (Kai Owen) stand at Roald Dahl Plass, the site of the titular Torchwood 3 hub of the past three much-loved series, with new regular, CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), announcing which much undue bravado that he is renditioning the entire Torchwood team to the United States, what do we have? A shabby introduction to something we will have to sit through for another nine hours in total if we actually want to follow the story. And, of course, a misleading three-minute long next-time trailer which implies that LOTS will happen next time.
Unfortunately, that was just a trailer for the entire series. We’ll have to wait a long time if we want any answers.
Of course, being the hard-core enthusiast I am, I decided to give the episode the benefit of the doubt. Surely it was just beginner’s nerves? Episode 2 would undoubtedly be an improvement.
And it was (albeit only marginally). The next part, ‘Rendition’, is spent entirely on a plane with Gwen successfully gathering together the ingredients for an antidote to arsenic poisoning by shouting at people. All that happens back on the ground during their lengthy flight is Danes, now a free man, breaking down live on television and expressing his regret at the death of the girl he killed, unrealistically gaining him some sympathy with the viewers of the show. But then he’s approached by PR agent Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), who offers to represent this new celebrity. He refuses, but we will be seeing a lot more of her later, so you can safely say that episode 2 moves the story forward by about a centimetre. But hey, at least it moves forward, right? Right?
By episode 3, however, the show does begin to look pretty good. I almost swallow my words as I watch with great enjoyment, although it isn’t long before I begin to get pretty annoyed at the sulky behaviour of new team members Rex and Esther (Alexa Havins). But now they’re all on the run, after having been set up by CIA director Brian Friedkin (Wayne Knight), who has received mysterious orders to eliminate Torchwood. Hasn’t this already been done in Children of Earth, I hear you ask? Well, yes, but it doesn’t actually seem to matter. The show from this point on became watchable, my earlier scepticism washed away. The acting in the episode was pretty good, and plot began to seep into the world. Of course, this is the episode that almost used up the show’s sex quota for the entire fiscal year, with a lengthy gay sex scene and a straight sex scene appearing side by side, but other than the apparent lack of plot relevance to this, it didn’t really detract all that much time from the story, and hey, the producers even got a surreptitious advert for Durex and a safe-sex promotion in there simultaneously (‘Do you have protection?’ ‘Why? Nobody dies anymore.’ ‘That’s not how it works – a lifetime of regret just got a whole lot longer.’ You can almost imagine Barrowman turning towards the camera and nodding with a serious expression at the viewer). Even the rather amusing intoxicated post-coital phone call Jack makes to Gwen didn’t ruin it too much.
Unfortunately, it was after this that it began to seem the 10-part series could have been reduced to 5 or 6 episodes. ‘Escape to L.A.’ shows Esther in the worst possible light, having her jeopardising the entire mission and giving away the whereabouts of our heroes by making a personal call to her sister, and even going to visit her sister’s house (if you were being followed, it stands to reason the obvious place said followers will watch is yours and your families’ houses). The misogyny of the episode was shocking. Torchwood is a show filled with strong female leads, and yet here we have Esther, who is apparently playing the stereotypically emotional, weak, stupid woman which died out (or so we had thought) with the films of the 1970s. Of course, the character does mature as the series progresses, but here her actions are just cringeworthy.
‘The Categories of Life’ was where many reviewers felt the show finally realised its potential: the government are burning category one (as good as dead) people alive, and Gwen’s father is facing the same danger. The final scene, where a major character is burned in a furnace whilst still conscious was a very shocking ending, and made for compelling viewing. The follow-up to the episode, ‘The Middle Men’, built upon the action: here, Miracle Day became compelling viewing.
And then came the major low of the entire series: episode 7, ‘Immortal Sins’. I don’t feel I can even give words to how bad this episode was. It seemed the writers were determined to make the series a nice round 10 episodes and so, instead of going from the episode 6 cliffhanger straight into episode 8 without all the driving and lengthy (yet mostly irrelevant) flashbacks, they just pulled episode 7 out of a hat. Or maybe they just needed an excuse to use the rest of Torchwood’s 2011 sex quota.
And again, like a rollercoaster, after a huge drop it came steadily back up with ‘End of the Road’ where, believe it or not, we actually learned something about what was going on, before shoving the entire explanation onto our plates over the course of ‘The Gathering’ and ‘The Blood Line’. For those who haven’t watched it yet, I won’t give away the ending, but the finale was certainly the highlight of the series, if not one of the best episodes in Torchwood’s history. And the cliffhanger to the season, almost guaranteeing that a fifth series is in the pipeline, is both sinister, shocking, breathtaking, and just a wee bit amusing, but all tinged with the sense of loss and sadness that traditionally is left hanging around at the end of any series of Torchwood.
If I had to sum up the series in one word I would have to say ‘confusing’. Not that the story wasn’t clear, but rather meaning that I am confused as to what I want to say about it. It certainly could have done in a reduction in length, and episodes 2 and 7 could have been cut out entirely. Maybe episodes 1, 3 and 4 could have contained less and been merged into one, and I would say the same for episodes 8 and 9. If that had been done, we’d have been left with a 5-part series like Children of Earth which, let’s face it, only really fell short of the mark by bombarding us with an episode every night of the week.
But, overall, I enjoyed the series. In the end, I suppose, I would have to say it was more enjoyable than Children of Earth, but not as successful as series 1 and quite a long way behind series 2. People with masks; villains with a logo which looks suspiciously like the cover of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon; badass CIA agents – if this new, gritty show is the future of Torchwood, a fifth series would be most welcome. Let’s just hope for a reduction in the amount of pointless episodes which appear to only be useful in filling the gaps in the BBC’s summer schedule (although anything has to be better than yet more repeats of Miranda). And at least we learned that lemonade is flat in American along the way!
Overall verdicts (remembering my word is final):
‘The New World’ = 2/10: complete toilet.
‘Rendition’ = 3/10: toilet, but with added bleach.
‘Dead of Night’ = 7/10: sausages with 97% pork. Mmmmm…
‘Escape to L.A.’ = 4/10: flat lemonade.
‘The Categories of Life’ = 8/10: fizzy lemonade, just like it should be.
‘The Middle Men’ = 8/10: fizzy lemonade, just like it should be.
‘Immortal Sins’ = 1/10: basic sausages – no more than 1% pork.
‘End of the Line’ = 6/10: like crisps – good, but you really want ice cream.
‘The Gathering’ = 9/10: better than ice cream.
‘The Blood Line’ = 10/10: better than ice cream.
Miracle Day = 6.5/10 overall.