Torchwood Miracle Day, Episode Two: A Rickety Rendition?
Advance publicity sells Miracle Day as ‘high concept’ Torchwood; as a philosophical and societal exploration of what it means that (almost) nobody can die. But after the matter-of-fact introduction of ‘Miracle Day’ as a media meme last time, episode two plays this aspect of the series for televisual gimmicks like Dichen Lachman’s dodgy CGI fate, and as fleeting asides (germ incubation; Pakistan and India; the fate of Tithonus). You get the feeling that there was a writers’ room competition to come up with the coolest new thing about deathless humanity, and that there was a checklist of freakish non-deaths to incorporate each week. Perhaps the accumulation of such detail aids with fictional world-building, cumulatively building a sense of the radically off-kilter and the ontologically wrong, but it doesn’t (yet) add up to a coherent narrative. As a result, ‘Rendition’ feels like a grab bag of ideas in search of a through-line. Doris Egan’s screenplay involves Captain Jack being saved by a list of odd ingredients mixed together to make the chemical EDTA, and it’s hard not to see this combinatory logic as emblematic for the episode itself which feels, similarly, like an exercise in mad admixture. Though he was writing of Casablanca rather than Torchwood, Umberto Eco once defined cult status as resulting from a “glorious ricketiness” of intertextual proliferation, and this has a rickety glory all of its own.
What relative coherence ‘Rendition’ does possess results pretty much from the generic tropes of the conspiracy/spy thriller. We get the villainous boss working for shady paymasters; the misguided pawn; and, eventually, a band of renegades teaming up to take on Unseen Powers. “Welcome to Torchwood”, Gwen announces at episode’s end, but “welcome to a generic action thriller” might have been more apposite.
And what’s so maddening about this melange of ontological insecurity and generic familiarity is how unbelievable it all ends up becoming. I can suspend my disbelief in order to go with the ‘high concept’ premise – that comes with the SF territory – but then I have to find it plausible that Esther is tipped off to murky goings-on by her bank phoning ever so promptly to discuss her newfound wealth. This seems like an incredibly strained plot device, its narrative mechanics glaringly standing out. I have to believe that Oswald Danes can mimetically win over tearful TV viewers with his own teary apology, in a sequence that seems almost ostentatiously implausible (and which also highlights the difficulties of star casting; I keep thinking ‘hey, it’s Bill Pullman doing exaggerated acting and nobody dared tell him to tone it down’, rendering the character of Oswald pretty much non-existent). I have to believe in a Flight Attendant who says “I knew my diabetes would come in handy one day”, as he produces a hypodermic that the storyline needs at just that moment. I have to believe in Rex Matheson, a figure so blatantly set up to be disliked that you just know he’s ‘going to go on a journey’ to basic, decent humanity in time for episode ten.
Miracle Day is a brilliant idea for redefining what it means to be human – and a brilliant story machine for creating a distinctive, terrifying fictional world – that’s shackled here to airport-thriller banality and landed with more lumpen riffs on US versus Welsh identity (this must also have been in the writers’ room checklist, hence Jack’s specific request for a cola, and the business about Esther failing to have a “big SUV” and instead driving a Mini; on this basis, of course, old-style Torchwood would have been more American than these Americans). National identity is equated with brands and with consumer culture… just as, it seems, New Humanity is about to be defined and enslaved by its need to consume painkillers-as-products. Is the drugs industry this series’ target, or is there a massive switcheroo yet to come?
Mention of PhiCorp, Rex’s need for meds, and Jilly Kitzinger’s apparent representation of big-business pharmaceuticals all look set to kick Miracle Day to the next level, where perhaps it will finally start to coalesce and cohere. But for now, it’s a resolutely rickety affair. Torchwood 1.0 always was tonally muddled, mind you, combining references to Splott and Cardiff’s real-world geography with B-movie renderings of Doctor Who monsters, pet dinosaurs, and shagging and swearing. Its continuity (or, rather, discontinuity) was remarkably fluid, as characters seemed to lurch from one relationship or psychology to another, depending on that week’s requirements, and as Torchwood was variously a secret organisation or recognised by locals. What’s surprising, in a way, is that for all its co-production budget, and its use of the US writing system, this incarnation is still so marked by “glorious ricketiness” wrapped in the as-yet-unconvincing shell of a conspiracy thriller, and shrouded in implausibility. Oh, yes, and with the added bonus of the single best use of the word “bullshit” seen in recent TV drama.