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Torchwood: Miracle Day Episode One Review

By on July 11, 2011

Torchwood: Miracle Day made it’s big American debut on Starz on Friday. The series has experienced a meteoric rise in popularity since its days as a niche show on BBC 3 in 2006.  With a new bigger budget and the potential to tap into a huge audience State side, big things are expected of Torchwood’s latest incarnation, Miracle Day.

So how did the season opener measure up?  Chevron One offers an in depth review and analysis.  (Expect spoilers if you haven’t watched yet.)

Episode One opens with the execution of one Oswald Danes, pedophile and murderer.  (Just like Torchwood to shatter our expectations of a comfort zone straight off the bat.) Or attempted execution to be precise.  Danes inexplicably manages to survive lethal injection and we learn that other people around the world are also cheating death in the same manner.  Age related maladies, accidents and injuries continue to pile up around the globe with intensive care units soon overflowing into hospital corridors.  It soon becomes clear that not one person has died in the last 24 hours.

Initial celebration of this ‘Miracle Day’ quickly gives way to the realization that if nobody dies, the world’s population will continue to expand to such a point that it will implode on itself.  There are just four months before the world’s population starves to death.

Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes

Bill Pullman turns in an unnerving performance as the halting, laconic, dead-eyed Danes.  It’s a far cry from another scifi outing of his, Independence Day, in which he played the warm-hearted, clean cut president of the United States.  Playing a role like Danes must be a difficult thing for an actor, and Pullman succeeds in thoroughly creeping out the audience in every scene he’s in.  It must be noted though that Pullman’s Oswald Danes is absent for much of the opener with the exception of a couple of key scenes.  His purpose in future episodes is unclear at this point.  However, it must be assumed that creator and producer Russell T. Davis and executive producer Gina Gardner would not attract a name actor like Pullman unless they intended to put him to good use.

Much of the content of the first episode centers on CIA team mates Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins).  Events kick off with Drummond receiving a mysterious e-mail with the word ‘Torchwood’ in it.  She tries to convince Matheson to take an interest in investigating who or what Torchwood might represent, but he is non-comittal.

When Matheson himself becomes a victim in a car accident that should have killed him but doesn’t, his interest is piqued – especially when it is discovered that the transmission date and time of the email coincides with that of the first death-survivor, one Oswald Danes.

As Rex and Esther dig deeper into Torchwood, ex-Torchwood member Gwen (Eve Myles), husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and their baby daughter see their carefully maintained seclusion come under threat.   It is at this point in the story that longtime Torchwood leader Jack Harkness makes his presence felt.  He has returned to Earth, but something is subtly different in him.  Somehow, Jack has become mortal.  Struggling to come to terms with his new found frailty, he nonetheless manages to initially thwart the CIA’s efforts to expose Gwen and her family to danger, even going so far as to erase Esther’s memory of the data she has collected on Gwen and himself.

It soon becomes obvious that the CIA are not the only ones searching for Gwen and Torchwood.  A fiery finale sees Rex, Jack and Gwen working together to bring down a mysterious attack helicopter sent to neutralize Gwen.  Rex then seizes control and promptly arrests the newly reunited Torchwood team.  The episode ends on uneasy terms for all concerned.

Miracle Day is a joint US/UK collaboration that should imbue Torchwood with a truly international flavor. Instead, there is a sense of a great big balancing act being performed, as if the production team were painfully aware of the need to integrate old and new audience members as well as British and American audiences.  The result manages to be both self conscious and protrusive at times.  It’s not helped by the ‘wink winking’ at the existing Torchwood audience and ultimately serves to considerably slow the pace of what should have been a truly explosive season opener.  I am hoping that episode two will dispense with the perceived need to spoon feed the American audience while placating the British at the same time.

Mekhi Phifer as CIA Agent Rex Matheson

The character of CIA agent Rex Matheson is another cocktail of insoluble elements. When we meet him first we are introduced to a self-serving and ambitious individual, gloating over the news that a colleague’s wife has contracted terminal cancer, meaning he will likely be promoted in his place.  Later, following his accident, Matheson becomes selflessly devoted to the Miracle Day cause, even endangering his recovery in his quest to track down Gwen.  But it is perhaps Matheson’s ‘comedic’ moments which hit the most discordant note, involving struggles with his crutches and his wheelchair, and some fairly flat observational humor such as  “I had to pay for a bridge!” and “Wales is crazy!”  Rex is at his most compelling when he plays it straight as a resourceful, single-minded, somewhat ruthless CIA agent.

Special mention must be made of Eve Myles’ portrayal of Gwen Cooper.  Davies and Gardner really know how to put across a strong female protagonist that women can identify with.  Gwen is smart, tough and emotionally strong.  Yet we catch glimpses of weakness, doubt and insecurity and the potential for bad mistakes.  Myles’ Gwen comes across as very human.  We believe she is up for the challenge but we doubt she knows it herself.

Perhaps the one element of Torchwood that has not changed all that much is Jack Harkness himself.  Sporting the same overcoat, (which I hear was streamlined to make it less uncomfortable while filming under the California sun) the same enigmatic presence and the same warmth and humor, Captain Jack is Torchwood’s lynchpin.  I’m glad to see an attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ where his character is concerned.

Miracle Day must also be commended for starting with a strong and engaging scifi story.  It’s disheartening to see the number of new genre shows that fail at this most crucial outset and Torchwood is to be commended for its originality and entertainment value in that respect.  If some kinks can be ironed out, Miracle Day could prove solid entertainment over the course of its ten episode run.