BBC Video // 2011 // 530 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 11th, 2012
Death is not an option.
The Doctor Who spinoff series Torchwood comes to America via a partnership with the BBC and Starz Media for Miracle Day, a fourth season/series that left a lot of the show's fans scratching their heads. Did the show finally drop the ball completely? And is it America's fault?
A CIA agent, Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer, 8 Mile), is in a horrible car accident that should kill him. A convicted child murderer named Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman, Zero Effect), is executed via lethal injection -- well, almost. Actually, neither Rex nor Oswald Danes die. In fact, no one is dying anywhere in the world. Is it a miracle? A curse? Something else?
Enter Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, De-Lovely), immortal time traveler and leader of the now-defunct Torchwood squad, a top secret organization devoted to investigating and battling supernatural forces. Captain Jack, who has been rendered the last mortal man on Earth by the "miracle," enlists the aid of his former Torchwood partner, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles, Merlin), now a wife and mother living in Wales, to investigate and hopefully put a stop to this new phenomenon of deathlessness. As the world continues to get overcrowded and the government begins to institute fascist policies, the new Torchwood team -- which includes Jack, Gwen, Rex and CIA analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins, When in Rome) -- uncovers conspiracies, corruption and ancient technology in their efforts to bring death back to the world.
Here's the good news about Torchwood: Miracle Day up front: it is not, as once believed, an American "remake" of the BBC series. It is, instead, the fourth season of the show, picking up where the last series, Children of Earth, left off. It is also an exercise in frustration. It's a pretty good season that shows signs of greatness, introduces such interesting ideas and has moments of such greatness that it can be heartbreaking when its full potential goes unrealized. The central premise of the season -- that suddenly there is no more death in the world -- is fairly ingenious, and, for a while, creator Russell T. Davies and company go about exploring the ramifications of such an occurrence. This is when Miracle Day is at its best. Like Lost, it's great at setup but has more difficulty with execution -- or, more accurately, it has a habit of raising questions its mostly unable to answer. Still, for the first several episodes as ideas are introduced and we're made to wonder what the hell is really going on, the season is pretty terrific.
Ultimately, though, there are too many different ideas at work in Miracle Day, as though Davies had all these things he wanted to accomplish and points he wanted to make and so he just crammed them all in, without regard as to whether or not they were what was best for the story. Bill Pullman plays a child murderer who fails to be executed (because no one can die) and subsequently has to be freed, paving the way for him to become some sort of media darling and modern day prophet. Then all of that gets dropped. There are pointed attacks at pharmaceutical companies, the media and the financial industry. There is metaphysical silliness. There are WWII parables. Stories of family strife and tragic romances. Don't get me wrong -- all of these could make for compelling television, and I'd rather a show try to do too much than too little. But Miracle Day loses control of its own narrative at a certain point, failing to tie together all of the disparate elements into a cohesive whole. It's Idea Soup.
Moving to the U.S. adds very little to the series (though the season is pretty global, even if cities like Shanghai are represented by nothing more than a warehouse and all of the characters referencing the fact that they are, indeed, in Shanghai); ditto for the concept of the "reunited Torchwood," which is referenced throughout the series. Gwen alludes to tragedy in Torchwood's history and is reluctant to start up with Captain Jack again now that she is a mother, but, like so many other plot elements of Miracle Day, it only ever amounts to lip service. Davies clearly liked these ideas, but only suggests them through dialogue -- none of it ever achieves much thematic weight through character action. It's as though he believes that saying the thing is the same as being the thing, and that's just not the case.
Part of the reason that the "newly reformed Torchwood" angle doesn't work is because the inclusion of the new American characters Rex and Esther adds very little to the show, since a) they're often cut off from Jack and Gwen, meaning the group dynamic changes very little and new relationships aren't really developed and b) there just isn't anything to them as characters. Rex is a determined G-man and that's about it; even the fate he may or may not be facing (established in the first moments of the first episode) never really informs him as a character. The same goes for Esther, who exists mostly to sit behind a computer and be the "baby" of the group -- the young girl that everyone worries about. Some attempt is made to flesh her character out by giving her some family drama (her sister is an unfit mother), but, like so many of the plot threads introduced throughout the season, nothing ever really comes of it.
The season is not without its high points, though, and anyone new to the show should hopefully find enough to like that he or she will be converted to fandom. Eve Myles' Gwen, long the heart of the show, continues to be the best character; while not all of her arcs pay off, it's great to see her given a whole lot to lose and undergo the transformation into full-on badass. Her interplay with Captain Jack is a lot of fun, too; even in the face of total annihilation, the two characters share a laugh together that's totally genuine and natural and, best of all, earned. One episode, "Immortal Sins," (written by the great Jane Espenson of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Battlestar Galactica fame), is probably the best of the entire season, telling what is essentially a long flashback about one of Captain Jack's past love affairs. It is sad and beautiful and compelling, and probably the only episode of the 10 that bothers to explore Jack as a character. But here's the problem: it's made to seem as if it's going to completely reframe the story and provide the solutions that the characters need for the back half of the season. And while it does lead into a few minor plot developments for one more episode, it gets pretty much dropped like a lot of the other stuff that's good in the season.
Even if you're not crazy about the direction the season goes, Torchwood: Miracle Day looks great in high def. The 10 episodes are spread out over four discs, all presented in a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer in 1080i HD (which is not uncommon for BBC releases). Everything is bright and clear and clean, showcasing plenty of fine detail and solid black levels throughout. Some of the BBC releases have been a bit sketchy in the past, but there are no problems here. The DTS-HD audio track is solid, keeping the dialogue clear and audible and packing the right amount of power when appropriate; it can be a bit on the busy side at times, but it gets the job done. There's a decent amount of bonus features included in the set, but not many that really demand a look. Each episode comes with a video intro from creator Russell T. Davies and John Barrowman that border on annoying; they set up what can be expected from each episode; while they mostly avoid spoilers, why is this even necessary? Making it worse is that they can't be skipped using the "chapter selection" function, which is the only way to watch the shows (there is no "Play episode" function, only a "play all" and chapter stops). Davies and producer Judy Gardner supply commentary tracks on the first and last episodes of the season, which are quick and energetic and reasonably informative, but strictly for devoted fans.
Also included are a handful of rough form deleted scenes, a 30 minute behind the scenes piece, some brief featurettes focusing on each of the major characters (no Esther, though) and a look at the show's special effects, which (like a lot of BBC productions) range from passable to terrible.
Longtime fans of Torchwood are probably going to be disappointed by Miracle Day, but anyone who's new to the show will definitely be hooked. Consider it a gateway season -- one that will undoubtedly convince new viewers to go back and check out the original BBC seasons. That can't be a bad thing, right?
It's a mess, but there's still a lot to like. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080i)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 530 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Intros
* Deleted Scenes
* Character Profiles
* Motion Comic
* Starz Official Site
* BBC Official Site