Blu-Ray Review: 'Torchwood: Miracle Day'

Among the many things (good and bad) that the fourth season of Torchwood gives us across the ten episodes that comprise the Miracle Day arc, there's a global crisis involving a sudden outbreak of immortality across the globe, arguments for national healthcare (I think), wrong-footed allusions to the Holocaust, and Bill Pullman as some kind of alpha child killer and sexual predator. Miracle Day starts with a killer sci-fi premise that devolves into a mishmash of elements, couched inside of on-the-nose political arguments played out by characters that really should be cleverer than they behave.

It doesn't all go wrong, though—Miracle Day does have a stellar premise that gives the first few episodes tremendous momentum, even if the resolution to the mystery of global, disastrous immortality leaves a lot to be desired.

****Spoilers ahead****

Miracle Day follows the last series, Children of Earth with the clandestine British unit tasked with investigating bizarre terrestrial and extraterrestrial threats more or less no longer in existence with most members either dead or in hiding. Cop turned Torchwood second-in-command Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) has hunkered down in a seaside shack in Wales with her husband and new baby, while no one knows quite where the team's immortal leader, Captain Jack Harkness has gone in the wake of the events of Children of Earth. In fact, the first couple of episodes are about getting (what's left of) the band back together when some mysterious force is causing death to end around the globe.

People are still getting hurt, getting sick, and getting older, but no one is dying (no matter how catastrophic the damage to their bodies). The doctors, scientists, and bureaucrats start putting their heads together and realize that within months, with no one dying and new babies being born every day, food supplies will be depleted and health care will be stretched beyond its breaking point. This conceit is the strongest part of Miracle Day and deserves a better story than what it ultimately gets.

Much of the action takes place in the U.S. (Miracle Day is a co-production between the BBC and the STARZ network), introducing us to CIA analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) and take charge, no-nonsense, ridiculously-named field agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer). Drummond is convinced there's some connection between "Miracle Day" and the mysterious, seemingly wiped-from-existence Torchwood, while the latter has a more personal stake after being skewered during a drive home and unwilling to resign himself to an eternity of constant pain. Meanwhile, convicted sex offender and child murderer Oswald Danes (Pullman) gets the needle, only to survive it thanks to Miracle Day and getting a release (I'm still not sure I but the pat legal maneuverings that make this possible).

And that's your setup. The first half of the series deals with these characters and the global response to the immortality epidemic as Torchwood's resident immortal, Captain Jack discovers that in a world full of people who can't die, he finally, after centuries, can.

To the series' credit, Miracle Day does a tremendous job ramping up new viewers during the first couple of episodes. While there are allusions to some of the fallen members of the Torchwood team, the story happens in the now and there's a decent amount of exposition organically worked in. We learn pretty quickly that Jack and Gwen are ambivalent about doing anything under the Torchwood banner given how quickly things tend to go sideways on that front, while the collection of side characters including Matheson, Drummond, Danes, an eager, morally flexible PR agent played by Lauren Ambrose, and a doctor played by Arlene Tur who joins the global medical panels to find an explanation for the worldwide life epidemic. And thanks to the ubiquitous news feeds peppered throughout each episode, we get a better sense of the global scope of the problem and how it quickly, implacably disrupts life on Earth.

But once Miracle Day sets up its killer premise, it has two problems, both self-inflicted: first, the writing gets bad by about the halfway point, relying on characters to act foolishly as the plot demands in the midst of a mystery whose resolution is "just some crazy rich people." Second, as you start to unpack the morality of the later chapters in the story alongside the transparent politics of the narrative, Miracle Day is kind of silly and in some cases just grotesque.

To the former, for the first seven or eight episodes, it's obvious to everyone involved that some external force is responsible for Miracle Day, but who or what is it? A triangular logo and voices over phones hint at some person or persons in the shadows with a connection to Jack, while a paper trail makes a convincing connection between the event and the monolithic pharmaceutical company PhiCorp, who, for reasons that still don't make a lot of sense, choose known child rapist and murderer Oswald Danes as the messianic face of "Miracle Day," chosen to woo the crowds and get them to accept their new immortality as a sort of religious event. This skips over the fact that Pullman plays Danes as perpetually twitchy and uncomfortable in his own skin: I couldn't imagine any person following him to the end of the street, much less in some nebulous social movement to legitimize Miracle Day.

It's only in the span of a few weeks that the sick and infirm are categorized and carted off to secure camps. Then the ovens are fired up as the government makes plans to deal with the excess population and possible illness that could arise from having a bunch of festering, non-ambulatory bodies laying around. Miracle Day attempts to make the case that this is necessarily a bad thing with goofy Michael Brown stand-in incinerating a key character to cover up a ridiculous crime. The problem is, the government is kind of right on that score, I think, and even if you disagree, Miracle Day presents it as a stark choice between loading the not-quite-living into the ovens or rebelling against the fascist system (yes, there are characters who say they were "just following orders," yes, it's cheap and easy when it happens).

There's a strain of liberalism that I agree with woven throughout Torchwood that I nonetheless find myself embarrassed by thanks to such heavy-handed storytelling. Another case in point: in one episode, an obvious Sarah Palin stand-in starts to advocate for the internment of all of the sick until they can be categorized. I won't tell you what happens to her later, but it seems disproportionate to the crime of having terrible ideas. Later, Miracle Day indulges in a little Occupy sentiment by making the villains a cabal of fat cats who've been secretly manipulating global social and economic conditions in order to create their vision of the perfect society. At a certain point, it stops being allegory and starts being something on par with the poorly-scripted ramblings of a person who can't see outside of the ideological box they've created for themselves.

And with the exception of the doctor character, most of the heroes are concerned with blowing the lid off of the conspiracy (which is fine, this is action sci-fi TV), but there's no real argument for what Torchwood and company would do if the condition were permanent, what kind of solution they'd propose to the mounting stack of bodies, the sick hungry, and the global crisis that results. A major flaw in the story is that we never really get that perspective or anyone from any quarter really trying to come up with a non-oven related solution to the population boom.

After a while, the story becomes the equivalent of that one person on the train who can not stop telling you about how the secret banking/pharmaceutical conspiracy is out to get you—a rhetorical argument that devolves into paranoid and then wish-fulfilling fantasy. It's Atlas Shrugged for the left: a bunch of ideas which its target audience can stand behind predicated on everyone outside of who you're talking to being portrayed as at worst sociopaths, and at best collaborators.

It not only makes for not-great TV, but it's also exhausting to watch, as well. The story's by Battlestar and Buffy producer Jane Espenson who should know better when it comes to wringing nuance from complicated, politically challenging issues.

And it's a shame, because again, that first chunk of episodes is thrilling stuff.

Picture and Audio Quality

Crisp on the visual front. The video here is at 1080i, but the presumably shot-on-digital presentation looks very, very good here. The audio is more of a mixed bag though, with occasionally low audio for the series dialog while explosions, the copious gunfire, and score are represented quite well.

Special Features

There's plenty here for fans of the series, including audio commentaries, character profiles, a behind-the-scenes feature, deleted scenes, and a special effects feature. One interesting inclusion to make this super new Torchwood-watcher friendly are the iTunes intros before each episode featuring the cast discussing the events so far in the series. However, you're not getting a whole lot more here than you would watching the recap that also runs before the credits of each episode.

Torchwood: Miracle Day is available on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD now.

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