“The New World”
July 8th, 2011
It’s a familiar story by now: like a large number of other critics, Torchwood was pretty far off my radar until Children of Earth (which I reviewed here), the show’s third series/season that took the critical world by storm. In fact, I saw Children of Earth before I started watching Doctor Who, so it also stood as my first engagement with Russell T. Davies and the somewhat spirited debate that surrounds his televisual output.
Miracle Day, the subtitle for the show’s fourth series/season (although I guess season might be more apt given that it is aired in the U.S. ahead of its U.K. premiere), comes with a great deal more baggage. While I believe Children of Earth would stand on its own merit, I do think that the element of surprise was part of its appeal two years ago. Not many shows suddenly make a dramatic leap in quality in their third season, and the unique miniseries structure (five parts airing over five days) made for a real sense of “Event” programming that stood out in the crowd. It wasn’t just that Children of Earth was good, it was that it seemed perfectly designed to make a real statement, a statement that creates definite expectations for Miracle Day.
In truth, those expectations are sort of unfair for two reasons. The first is that the show is returning to a weekly format, and a ten-episode format, which means that the pacing of the show will be dramatically different – this isn’t going to come out of the gates with the same swagger, which will likely dampen its impact. The second, meanwhile, is just a matter of hype: thanks to the increased attention created by Starz’s involvement in the production and critical appreciation of Children of Earth, this project has been on the North American cultural radar. Going into tonight’s premiere, I pretty much knew everything that was going to happen, meaning that “edge of your seat” was transformed into a much more passive viewing experience.
This is not to say that “The New World” isn’t good television, or that the show is heading in a weak direction, but there’s just nothing here to really make us sit up and take notice – instead, we’re meant to sit back and enjoy the ride, which does reveal some of the procedural mechanisms that get Miracle Day off and running…or, more accurately, jogging. However, at the same time, there are some questions related to the production of the miniseries that are somewhat intriguing in their deployment here, which is what I want to discuss in relation to tonight’s premiere.
Admittedly, my academic side is fascinated by how the new production agreement between Starz and the BBC is changing the framework of the series. Now, officially being co-produced by an American cable channel, Torchwood is an interesting case study for these types of arrangements, and Russell T. Davies seems to be writing his way into it. While Children of Earth chronicled a worldwide phenomenon, it remained focused on the British response and only dealt with the other nations involved in the abstract: they were active partners in the affair, mind you, but the entire affair was centered around Britain. In Miracle Day, it’s another worldwide phenomenon, but now Davies is interested in how it is being dealt with in the United States, and how a group of British agents are being conscripted to the cause.
There were some comments on Twitter that Oswald Davies’ release from prison represents a gross misunderstanding of the criminal justice system, but I’d argue that we can’t necessarily overlap Davies’ America with our own. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be critical of Davies’ at times heavy-handed portrayal of America – here centered around the overzealous action hero type, Rex (played by Mekhi Pfifer) – but rather that the issue is not accuracy. “The New World” wants to pitch America, or at least Rex, as a selfish and opportunistic force that kidnaps Torchwood for its own devices. When we reach episode’s end, Gwen and Jack are willing to investigate Miracle Day on their own terms (and on their own turf), but Rex has them forcibly extradited in an effort to solve this the American way.
It’s unclear how often this gets hammered on in future episodes (since I do not have screener access), but I think it’s an interesting way of handling the show’s move to America both behind-the-scenes and on camera. For fans of the show, especially those in the U.K., there’s a definite feeling of invasion here: this is especially true in Rex’s trip to the U.K., where the bridge to Wales gets an extended appearance as a sort of high-class version of “Driving on the Right? That’s Crazy!” Meanwhile, for those who live in the U.S., the fact that we start on this side of the Atlantic frames the story in an entirely different light, especially if anyone is new to the series (and thus perhaps less outraged at the notion of Torchwood being co-opted by a CIA agent). While America will be the show’s primary setting, this initial bifurcation of the narrative seems designed to offer each country a sense of ownership over the story being told.
I focus on this issue largely because the rest of it is old news: when Pullman’s casting was announced, the Miracle Day setup was laid out pretty extensively, and Phifer’s role was cast in a fairly public manner which increased awareness of Davies’ plans for the season. I think it’s an interesting premise, and one that gained a bit more nuance as the premiere went on. The fact that Captain Jack has been made mortal, for example, opens the door to the idea that whoever is perpetrating this is in fact targeting Jack on some level, while the scene with the living corpse in the hospital was truly disturbing in a way that made the darker ramifications of Miracle Day more apparent. There’s still a lot of tell rather than show, with population projections and news reports, but scenes like that autopsy made it seem more real, which is important at this stage in the game.
Now, as I am discussing with Jace Lacob on Twitter as I write this, I do think that Rex is sort of problematically unlikeable, to the point where I wonder if Davies isn’t trying to make a character who is a hero in one country and a villain in another. While Lacob has seen more of the series, and thus has a more formed opinion on the matter, I would say that Phifer seems to be playing the character a bit more broadly than is necessary. The way he revels in the idea of getting a promotion based on a woman getting leukemia suggests a redemption narrative, but no one who we see survive miraculously on Miracle Day treats it like a miracle: Bates sees it as a great way to get out of prison, while Rex become hell-bent on figuring out what happened because he doesn’t want to suffer forever. While comparing the characters is overselling Rex’s repugnant nature, I would say that both characters leap too quickly into their post-Miracle Day position, leaving us without any sense of why they’ve taken their current course of action.
Of course, this could all change in the episodes ahead, just as my theory about the co-production bleeding into the narrative could be shaken up in the weeks ahead. Despite all of this, though, I found “The New World” entertaining: the idea is strong enough to sustain some more traditional expositional storytelling, and the way they returned Gwen and Captain Jack to action had just enough mystery to draw in new viewers and just enough serialization to connect with fans. At the very least, I think “The New World” earned Miracle Day a chance to be judged on its own merits – sure, some won’t give it that chance and I’m not even sure it’s unfair not to, but it seems like Davies is going for a very different vibe that will either succeed or fail depending on a whole new set of variables.
Which should make for interesting viewing, if nothing else.
- One reason I theorize Davies wants to make Phifer somewhat unlikeable is that Enver Gjokaj, so strong on Dollhouse, was up for the role and didn’t get it – Phifer isn’t outright awful, but there’s not much nuance there, and I wonder if Gjokaj might have just not fit Davies’ sense of what the role needed to be. I’m more apt to hold Davies accountable for the performance than Phifer, but we’ll see how it evolves (or devolves) as the season goes on.
- Alexa Havins, as the other CIA agent closing in on Torchwood (and who actually has an encounter with Captain Jack that is erased through selective amnesia cleverly termed a ‘retcon’), is fine – character is very thinly sketched out, but she was pretty believable and, well, pretty.
- Nice to see Paul James, who played Calvin on Greek, getting a bit more grownup role here – of course, at the same time, it sort of took me a while to take him seriously, given he’s been in college for four years as far as my brain is concerned.
- I saw some discussion on Twitter about Gwen’s husband as a male take on the shrill wife figure whose only role is to stand in the way of the hero/heroine taking a certain course of action, and I would certainly say that “The New World” fits comfortably into that archetype. That said, I thought some of the stuff with the new family was quite nice, whether it involved a gun-toting father shushing his (adorable) daughter or the idea of past Torchwood stories being used as fairy tales. Some of it worked, just there were moments where it got a bit overbearing.