Monday, April 02, 2012

Torchwood: Miracle Day Blu-ray review

Here I am, in the unenviable position of having to defend the fourth season/series of Torchwood, also known as Miracle Day, not out of a sense of duty, but because I was genuinely enthralled by its story arc (twice – last year upon its broadcast on Starz, and now again on Blu-ray). “But Ross…it’s a Doctor Who spinoff. No wonder you love it. How can your opinion on the subject be even remotely objective?” That might be sort of true if not for one thing: I never felt similarly inclined to champion The Sarah Jane Adventures, which starred freakin’ Elisabeth Sladen, and detailed the further adventures of my favorite Who companion ever. Captain Jack Harkness - though I appreciate, nay, adore numerous aspects of his character - isn’t even in my Top Ten.

Miracle Day, as I understand it, was loathed by more fans than it was tolerated. Hasn’t this always been the case with Torchwood? People always seem to be so wronged by this series, as if it’s gone out of its way to attack them personally. Even Children of Earth, arguably the jewel in its crown, had its detractors – mostly those who couldn’t bear to see Ianto killed off. Russell T Davies allegedly got death threats over that one, the poor man. These are the same people who refer to the first two seasons as the “real” Torchwood, yet everything that comes after warrants no reference at all. Still others would argue that Children of Earth was the only decent thing ever produced under the franchise name. The real truth, it seems, is that there is no real Torchwood. The series is like Russell T Davies’ personal narrative playground, to do with as he pleases, with whomever he pleases, as the revolving talent roster (both in front of and behind the camera) seems to suggest. Miracle Day further proves that it’s an ongoing experimental work in progress, as it once again offers up storytelling that’s quite unlike all that’s come before.

(l-r) Mekhi Phifer, John Barrowman, Kai Owen & Eve Myles
Miracle Day is the most audacious series of scripts the show has yet rolled out, but the problem with audacity is that, if one isn’t game for it, it tends to leave one at best uncomfortable or at worst dismissive. There are moments in Miracle Day that’ll have viewers shifting in their seats, and many more that those same viewers will fluff off as laughable. The premise, for those few of you who are unaware, is that one day, all of a sudden and without explanation, nobody on Earth dies. Then another day goes by, and the same thing happens. And so forth, and so on. This is dubbed “the miracle.” The first six of its ten episodes are an exploration of humanity’s reaction to this brand of immortality. Davies says on a commentary track here that much of the idea was to explore the way mankind would overreact to such a scenario, which, if taken into account, might put a considerably different spin on the events. Either way, as Torchwood is wont to show us, humanity comes off looking ugly and self-absorbed. Give humanity immortality, and they’ll immediately find ways to kill themselves or one another. There’s a grim, joking outlook to much of the proceedings, but that’s only when it isn’t offering up genuinely horrific material. Miracle Day puts knots of various types in my stomach, and that’s why I love it, flaws and all.   

And there are flaws. It’s never discussed or mentioned how the miracle affects life on planet Earth outside of mankind. How about plants and animals? Surely they, too, should play a huge role in the proceedings? Alas, we never find that out. The concept is potentially so vast, that the season could have taken twice as much time to explore the idea and still come up short. The oft-tossed about notion that ten episodes was too long a time to tell this story is, dare I say it, horseshit. Many viewers will immediately want to know why the miracle is happening, but the answer to that isn’t revealed until Episode 10. This is likely part of the reason folks started tuning out en masse when the series was broadcast last summer; for many viewers it was simply taking too long to find out why all of this madness was happening, and the myriad red herrings along the way were probably frustrating. Misguided though this line of thinking is, it nevertheless, as of late, seems to be a real problem. (See also AMC’s The Killing.) Blu-ray or DVD alleviates this problem. You don’t need ten weeks. You just need ten hours.

Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes & Lauren Ambrose as Jilly Kitzinger
The character of Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) is one such red herring. Since the series doesn’t have a villain proper until the eleventh hour (or the tenth, as the case may be), it gives us pedophile Danes as a through line substitute (mind you, this narrative contains many other “short-term” villains along the way). Danes was the first high profile figure to escape death, and has since used the entire situation to his benefit. The idea of Oswald is maybe a good one, but the execution of the character less so, and even after two viewings I’m not sure if this is because of Pullman’s performance, or because of how the character was (or rather wasn’t) written. For the first couple episodes, Pullman is mesmerizing, playing the character with tics and vocal inflections that are quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen the actor do before. However the gimmick becomes stale, and we care less and less about his story as the show marches on (he probably should’ve been written out halfway through the season, but no, he’s there, unwanted, ‘til the very end).

There’s other stuff the season probably gets wrong, and certainly in tone it shifts wildly all over the place from one episode to the next, but as is always the case (or at least always my case) with Torchwood, it gets more right than wrong. It’s the journey that makes Miracle Day alternately fun and horrifiying, not the destination. That’s why even if the finale feels a little off, or maybe doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, or, alternately, is perhaps too damn convenient, I’m not inclined to bash those aspects. Its divisiveness is exactly what makes this must see sci-fi TV. This is a story that’s about the ride, and first time viewers need to know, going in, that it's simply not about what happens at the end.

(l-r) Alexa Havins (as Esther), Phifer, Myles, Barrowman
Fans worried about involving American money and talent in Torchwood, and the effect it would have on the production. They needn’t have, and clearly Starz knew the show they were getting involved with; if anything, Torchwood is bolder here in its outlook than ever before. It’s bloodier and more violent. It’s as bleak as ever. You want gay sex? An entire episode revolves around Jack’s relationship with a man in 1927, featuring some very graphic sex scenes, and an emotionally engaging storyline to go along with it. (It’s certainly not exploitative just for the sake of it.) The only way the show has been “Americanized” is in its look and location, as there’s no mistaking it’s now being made with American money and equipment, with the bulk of it being shot in L.A. (although much of the story is still set in Wales, and the production did spend three weeks there).  

I’ve become accustomed to believing, over the years, that Torchwood is Captain Jack’s show, and that without John Barrowman, there is no series. With Miracle Day, though, I’m starting to see that maybe that’s not the case, and in fact this concept is even more flexible than I’d previously given it credit for. While new team member Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), with his awesome swagger, might be part of that train of thought, what really led me down this road is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). Miracle Day is far more Eve Myles’ show than it is Barrowman’s. She’s the character who’s grown and learned throughout the entirety of Torchwood, not Jack. She’s always the character who’s got the most to lose, and never more so than in this story arc.

Let’s be honest: John Barrowman isn’t a great actor. He is, however, a great screen presence, and aspects of his personality have been used over the years to help create Jack. On the other hand, Eve Myles is one hell of an actress, and she gets to do stuff with Gwen in Miracle Day that it feels as though she’s been waiting for years to do. Here she’s not someone with whom to fuck, and even Jack learns that. She’s gone far past being the student. She’s his equal, and just as adept at deciphering the cruel way the universe operates as he. On the watch of Miracle Day, Gwen Cooper has become every bit the central figure that Jack Harkness is. If, for whatever unfathomable reason, Barrowman wasn’t available, or no longer wanted to do the show (hey, the thought was prefaced with “unfathomable”), at this point Torchwood could easily continue on with Gwen as the central figure.

Perhaps the most polarizing character in Miracle Day, though, is Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), who, like Oswald, is another surrogate villain, although I wonder if people realize she’s supposed to be this crazy bitch in heels? I mean, you do get that the idea here was to create a camp, over the top villainess, right? Jilly’s a publicist who finds herself thrust in the middle of the miracle madness, and with every step she takes, she finds herself enmeshed deeper in the conspiracy, until finally, at the end, she’s at the very center of it all. I’ve been a fan of Ambrose since her days on Six Feet Under, so I was perhaps predisposed to appreciating her work here, although Claire Fisher Jilly is most certainly not. However, she attacks this role with the same kind of ferocity as she did Claire for five seasons. Unlike Children of Earth, Miracle Day doesn’t end with a complete sense of closure. Although its storyline is tied up nicely, its characters are left dangling, and Jilly is one of them. I don’t pray, but if I did, I’d pray for more Torchwood and more Jilly Kitzinger, because I had so much fun with Miracle Day, and this just simply cannot be the end. Yes, like the best professional entertainers, Russell has left me wanting more.

Blu-ray Extras: This is a crisp, beautiful sounding and looking Blu-ray that to my eyes and ears replicates the experience of watching it in High Def last summer. The star attractions here are probably the two commentary tracks, on the first and last episodes, featuring Davies and Julie Gardner. They’re a reliably fun and informative couple of hours, which cover a great deal of ground and are well worth a listen. Only problem is, they were recorded after only the third episode had aired, so neither of them have any idea that the general public isn’t going to be eating this material up, although Davies confesses that he’s unsure if it’s going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Next up is the bonus web series entitled “Web of Lies,” which is similar in style to one of those animated motion comics. I don’t know exactly how this was presented on the internet, but here all the bits and pieces are edited together into one 30-minute piece. It tells two alternating tales – one in the past with Jack and Gwen, and another set concurrent with Miracle Day, featuring the voice of Eliza Dushku. 

There is also a series of character profiles, a behind-the-scenes special, a special effects featurette, and a short selection of utterly worthless deleted scenes. The most annoying aspect of this set, however, are the intros for each episode featuring Davies and Barrowman talking directly to the camera. These are lowest common denominator type bits, for the dumbest viewers in audience. I can sort of see why they were made for the TV broadcasts (though I'll be damned if I can remember them playing on Starz), but here they're nothing more than an intrusion, taking you out of the drama each and every time. They can be skipped with your remote, yes, but the set should've offered up the option to not play them at all. Your mileage may vary.