Season Premiere: Torchwood: Miracle Day – “The New World”

“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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Season Premiere: Torchwood: Miracle Day – “The New World”

  1. Tausif Khan

    Between Gwen’s husband and Linden’s fiancee on The Killing we might be looking at a new stereotyping of the so-called “Mr. Mom” role some men are now playing now that women are starting to join the work force in equal numbers in which the gender role historically intended for females is now in an unnuanced fashion being foisted on males as real males fight against their domestication (“manxiety” TM James Poneiwozik if you will). This move can be considered equally anti-feminist as it assumes that a certain group of people should inhabit certain gender roles and that these roles are not meant to be shared.

  2. Tausif Khan

    *This move- stereotyping of Mr. Mom.

    While we are talking about stereotyping we can also discuss a similar topic in typecasting. The one thing that Dollhouse taught me about Enver Gjokaj is that he or the characters he plays are not inherently sweet jolly fellows (see his portrayal of Reed Diamond playing the role of Laurence Dominic or playing a war hardened father fighting a tech war in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles). After having seen him act on Dollhouse I am confident he can play any role (even naughty school girl- see Kiki dance club version- they got it on the first take but kept on going because he was so good.)

    I am happy that the American CIA focuses on a female agent and the sign of stability and dedication to his job is embodied in an African American agent. I also like that the death row inmate is played by a vicious killer who has presidential appearance in that he is slightly greying at the temples (and he played a president in Independence Day).

  3. Tausif Khan

    “Now, officially being co-produced by an American cable channel, Torchwood is an interesting case study for these types of arrangements”

    Myles, what are examples of others?

  4. Tausif Khan

    “high-class version of “Driving on the Right? That’s Crazy!””

    This scene was horribly done for another reason. When my parents and I go to Bangladesh from America they don’t drive because Bangladesh is also a country that drives on the right side of the road and it is to disorienting to drive like that after having recently driving in America. He should have used public transportation.

  5. Tausif Khan

    “I would say that Phifer seems to be playing the character a bit more broadly than is necessary.”

    Phifer has primarily been a movie actor, correct? It might be just him transitioning between media. I was watching something where an actor was saying that movie actors struggle with television acting a little bit because in a movie they already know the beginning middle and end of the story and in turn more about the character and where their character’s arc is going to go whereas in television is left open. The actor being interviewed said that this made television acting more freeing.

  6. Tausif Khan

    The things that I thought was weird was the rhythms of the story and the language. British programing to me has a very different rhythm than American programming more like softly undulating wave then fist slamming (action sequences to draw attention and keep people interested through exposition- rocket launch scene felt American, but the CIA scene exploring Torchwood very slow and expansive with exposition felt more british where I believe action would be emphasized in American action show more miracle day talk and emergencies with Phifer speeding off to investigate the incident).

    What is weird is that some of the language that Phifer was speaking was so british I could have sworn he put on a british accent in one scene. The best example I can give is when Phifer says, “Here comes my ride” in American English he would have said “Here’s my ride” too many words in Phifer’s actual dialogue. Davies does have an American production staff I saw Kelly A. Manners and Skip Schoolnik. I know Jane Espenson is on his writing staff. Therefore it is not like he is writing without an American English presence on his show.

  7. Tausif Khan

    I prefer the British sensibility just to make it clear.

  8. Bruce from Missouri

    Just in case you don’t know, the “Retcon drug” is an old wink to the audience that goes back to the first episode of series 1.

    • David Burns

      I also enjoyed when Jack used the alias Dr. Owen Harper to attend the autopsy in the hospital. Can’t wait to spot more inside references.

  9. Gigi

    Meh,

    Didn’t love the episode, probably because I spent most of it wondering if there was a shortage of ugly overbearing Americans on TV and thus Torchwood suddenly required some. I also miss Ianto.

    I’ll give it another episode or two and if it doesn’t redeem itself, you Americans can have it.

  10. David Burns

    As a Yank who “discovered” and became a great fan of Torchwood this year, I must admit that I enjoyed the absence of American influence in the previous series. I agree with Myles’s comment that Children of Earth dealt with a global phenomenon from the POV of the British. However America’s co-opting within the plot stands for the larger one involving the overall production of the series. The show tended to exhibit more trademarks of American television production than in the past. The pacing at times was very fast with a number of jump cuts. Also not every action sequence has to end in an explosion. For a minute I thought that Michael Bay had snuck onto the set. They blew up the CIA archives, they put an RPG through the Old Rectory in Rhossili, Gwen stood up in the back up a jeep to blow up a helocopter. Big booms just for the sake of big booms. I think they blew more stuff up in this one episode than all the other episodes combined. Granted blowing up the Hub in Children of Earth served an important plot device; Torchwood was put on the run and would have to solve the crisis without the luxury of their collection of artifacts and technology. I guess it is to be expected that the first inclination anyone would have when given a boatload of money for production would be, “Let’s see, what can we blow up?”.

    As for Mekhi Phifer, he spent six years as Dr. Pratt on the show E.R. so he is no stranger to serialized televsion and long character arcs. His character on E.R. was also brash and headstrong; a man of action so to speak. I think the series is headed for your typical “culture clash” archtype contrasting the guns blazing, “I’ve go to do something” nature of American characters (ala Jack Bauer from 24) versus the more thoughtful planning of how Torchwood handles things. Albeit things have gotten a little turned upside down out of the gate. Whereas Jack was more reckless and apt to jump into the fray due to his immortality, I would expect that he will be challenged by his vulnerability at some point and perhaps even failing to act as a hero would. One thing that I love about the show is the moral ambiguity of the characters. On several occasions Jack has taken the “long view” and sacrifed the welfare of innocent people (i.e., Small Worlds in Series 1, Adrift in Series 2, Children of Earth) including his own grandson. Americans generally have a distaste for such shades of grey in their storytelling. Most perfer the good guys to wear white and the bad guys to wear black; and good guys always win the end. Jack has always won in the past but the losses continue to take its toll on him. Tosh and Owen were lost at the end of Series 2 and he lost Ianto in Series 3. I anticipate that Oswald Danes as reprehensible as he is will hold some clues and offer the moral ambiguity I have come to expect from Russell T Davies.

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