I don't intend to spend every review of Miracle Day talking about Children of Earth, I really don't. But there are some points of comparison worth mentioning in the early going, and one struck me forcibly (ow) while I was watching the new series' second episode, "Rendition." The biggest strength Earth had going for it was time. Earlier Torchwood storylines could suffer from a lack of room to explore, and it's something that occasionally struck Doctor Who's single part eps as well. There's a tremendous amount of energy, even in the worst episodes (like, oh, "Cyberwoman," which managed to make a fight between a beautiful woman in psuedo-Robocop fetish gear and a pterodactyl seem predictable and trite), because there's a rush to get everything in, and because Davies really, really loves his big emotional moments. The build to those moments wasn't always that well-thought out, but the moments themselves could still be effective. When they weren't, though, the whole show fell apart. To use a an over-used critical phrase, it became a parody of itself.
Children of Earth was still full of those moments. It wouldn't be a Davies show if it wasn't (which isn't to say he's the only TV writer who uses this kind of structure, of course). But what made it work better, in addition to generally smarter writing as a whole, was that five episodes on one story-line meant more time to tell that particular story. There were various subplots and maybe a few more characters than usual, but there were still more minutes and hours than usual, which meant those characters could breathe a little, and that there was room to explore all the implications and possibilities of the main plot-hook. And on the other hand, five hours wasn't too long. The pacing stay at a basic level of intensity from beginning to end, so that even if things did get a little silly or unrealistic, there was such a rush to get everything in before the finish line that it was easy not to sweat the small stuff.
Miracle Day has the advantage of additional time, but ten episodes is quite a bit more than five, and one of the major concerns the new series will have to deal with is how wisely it uses that extra time. It's too early to tell with any certainty, but "Rendition" does manage to largely maintain the momentum that was such a hallmark of Earth, while still indicating that having twice as much room to play doesn't necessarily mean getting twice as much done. In terms of plot, the two most important events of "Rendition" are Jack, Gwen, and Rex arriving in the States, and Esther discovering back at CIA headquarters that she and Rex have been framed and set-up for expulsion and possible arrest. Other stuff happens, and much of it is very cool, but those two events right there are the meat of the episode. And neither really provides us with much information that we don't already have.
Davies covers for this by two indirectly connected setpieces: in the first, a CIA agent (Dichen Lachman, previously of Dollhouse; it's nice to see her here, but she's largely wasted) poisons Jack on the flight over the Atlantic, and in the second, Esther has to sneak out of the CIA building before anyone realizes she's doing it. The Esther sequence, while it's something we've seen before, is arguably the tenser of the two, because it takes less time to play out, and because there's no real way of knowing if she'll escape. Jack's poisoning takes longer, and isn't quite as nail-biting. It's still effective; while it's a safe bet to say the show won't kill Jack off this early in the run, he is suddenly mortal now, a piece of information that everyone on the show takes as writ now, and shows get suspense out of threatening main characters all the time. Besides, the solution to the arsenic poisoning--Rex calls Dr. Juarez, who essentially crowd sources an antidote from a panel of doctors who had been dealing with the Immortality Crisis--is fun to watch. But it goes on for a while, and we're clearly supposed to be emotionally invested in the outcome beyond simply wanting Jack not to die. It gets strained by the end, especially considering that half the people involved (the flight crew) aren't characters we're likely to see again. Plus, Gwen's big "I'm Welsh" moment was corny as hell. I like her, and she makes a fun bad-ass, but the only way this (as well as her "Welcome to Torchwood" line at the end of the episode) could draw any more attention to itself is if an "APPLAUSE" sign lit up the moment Gwen's fist hit poor Dichen's face.
It feels safe enough to guess that the rest of Miracle Day is going to follow these lines: a handful of big sequences to get the tension high, while the rest of the episode is spent filling in the edges with character beats and exploration of the show's hook. Here, the edges are taken up by Oswald Danes. The rapist/murderer/presumed jaywalker remains opaque, although Pullman's performance is less mustache-twirling this time around. He goes on a news show, and when the interviewer (who is not much of an actor; some of the secondary actors playing Americans aren't so hot) asks him if he has any regrets about what he's done, Oswald breaks down and sobs "I'm sorry" over and over again. It's almost certainly a ploy on Oswald's part to try and get the world to stop hating him, but he makes a very good job of it, and ploy or not, the question remains: what kind of psychotic child killer has enough of a grasp on public relations, and enough control over his own psychosis, to make this kind of play? It could just be a case of the show wanting an effective villain, but I hope it's something more, because otherwise, there's not much reason for Oswald to be around.
The Oswald segments of "Rendition" work well when Pullman is doing his thing, and not quite so well when the episode cuts to people watching the Oswald interview and feeling sympathy for him. The emotions here don't always land well, and the show's vision of American government (well, the CIA) lacks the semi-authenticity of the British government scenes in Earth. Which makes it troubling, then, that the new series seems so intent in sticking to Earth's format. There's another big threat, and once again, a government agency has dedicated itself to wiping Torchwood off the map, for reasons which remain unclear; once again, Jack is the big target; and once again, there's a friendly, slightly naive young woman working in the government agency who realizes what's going on and wants to help. Hopefully the series will open up more as it gets further in, but for right now, its sticking close to the old script, and that could become more of a problem down the road.
Which isn't to say this is a bad episode. It had my attention throughout, and I suspect some of my criticisms (like all those "APPLAUSE" beats) are just endemic to how this show works. If you want to enjoy Torchwood, you've just got to take those moments, and hope that there's enough darkness to justify the light. We haven't quite gotten there yet, but one of the strongest aspects of this episode is the way the characters continue to explore the ramifications of world-wide immortality. Dr. Juarez gets involved with a panel of doctors discussing potential problems, and a new one that comes up this week is the potential health crisis all those warm bodies lying around in hospital beds not dying could cause. As well, Juarez realizes that the biggest commodity in this post-mortality world is pain-killers; people aren't dying, but they also aren't getting better, and "quality of life" is going to be a major concern when illness just go on getting worse.
We also get two new cast additions this week: Wayne Knight (who has a character name, but will always be Wayne Knight to me), as Esther and Rex's duplicitous boss, and Lauren Ambrose as Jill Kitzinger, an extremely aggressive public relations agent. Both characters have agendas we don't quite understand yet, but of the two, only Jill really interests me. Knight is clearly a part of a machine, and while Jill mentions a "boss" during a conversation with Juarez near the end of the episode, she seems more of a freelancer type. Ambrose's performance is a wee bit over the top, and I could see that being a sticking point for some people. It works for me right now--she can be irritating, but the character is irritating by design, and there's more than enough self-awareness in what she's doing to raise the right sort of questions. Like, why is she so interested in working for Oswald Danes and Dr. Juarez? And what company does she work for, exactly?
Some of the novelty of the concept has worn off in "Rendition," but it's still exciting, and the more we learn about the complications that Miracle Day will cause, the more dire our heroes circumstances seem. By the end of the episode, Jack and Gwen are in the US, with a CIA that wants them dead, and a rogue (and crazy) agent and his assistant as their only friends. Torchwood works best when it plays on the edge, when its moments of joy are balanced by horrifyingly serious peril. So far, the peril isn't quite immediate enough to hold the series together completely, but from the sound of it, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. And the end of the world is the best thing that could happen to a show like this.
- I didn't mention this in the review, but there is a way you could kill Jack off and not be done with the character forever. Given his propensity to regenerate from the most awful damage imaginable, he could die at any point while Miracle Day is running, and then just get rebooted once Gwen and the others find a way to reverse the effect. Although that cuts down on the tension, so I doubt they'll go that way. On the other hand, it's worth remembering that anyone who gets mortally wounded during Miracle Day is going to die the moment mortality returns to Earth. The CIA agent with a broken neck is a goner (and while the concept is great, I'm not sure how well the execution comes off in the effects). So is Rex. Life-or-death struggles still have consequences. They just don't have immediate consequences, and you can bet Davies will find some way to exploit this down the line.
- "It's either you or the big gay steward, and my money's on you." "I'm not gay."