The best part of Torchwood has always been its decidedly different approach to sci-fi, from its immortal, omni-sexual rogue of a hero, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), to the often immoral nature of its twisty plots, which have ranged from countryside cannibalism to the dreaded consequences of resurrection gloves and secret Cyberwoman love affairs. And despite the campy flair brought to the show by creator Russell T Davies (who rebooted Doctor Who with a similar, but more light-handed, panache), Torchwood has maintained its darker nature by killing off series regulars on a regular basis. Last season, titled Children of Earth, perfected this formula with a condensed five-episode adventure that pitted Jack’s alien-investigating team, Torchwood, against the entire world (all of Earth’s children were used as leverage), and ended with Jack sacrificing his grandson to save the planet.
At first, Miracle Day, seems to be following this stakes-raising formula. The opening shot introduces us to a murderous pedophile, Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), as the prison staff gives him a lethal injection. He offers no apology, leaving the news anchors who provide much of this episode’s exposition to remind us of his chilling testimony: “She should’ve run faster.” Our expectations are further piqued when Oswald then refuses to die…along with every other human on the planet, like C.I.A. agent Rex Matherson (Mekhi Phifer), who, despite being impaled in an auto accident while on the phone with his analyst counterpart, Esther (Alexa Havins), continues to live. What at first appears to be a miracle, however, turns out to be a nightmare: Malthusian disasters from overpopulation are fast approaching, morphic fields wielded by an evil pharmaceutical company are possibly to blame for this unsought “immortality,” and humans are still aging. (The show nods to its Greek sources by namedropping Tithonus.)
Miracle Day seems like a miracle at first too, what with its clever central mystery that plays against expectations (solve the unmurder of every human on the planet) and the long overdue return of the show itself. Stretched into a 10-part maxi-series, the episodes are slow and unsatisfying on their own, though the moral questions they raise about life and the need for death are pushing the plot in an exciting direction. Unfortunately, the path chosen by the writers relies far too heavily on ridiculous contrivances and chatty, troublesome characters, so while the overall concept keeps you invested, the actual day-to-day action is a letdown.
In a memorably awful scene from the first episode, Rex clamors out of his hospital bed, downs a bottle of painkillers, steals a crutch, stumbles into a cab, gets to the airport, flies to the U.K., crosses into Wales (comparing the toll bridge to similar bullshit between New York and New Jersey), and passes out at the doorstep of Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the only surviving human member of Torchwood, and her husband, Rhys (Kai Owen). He does all this, mind you, while on the phone with Esther—an act of exposition that is ironically necessary by dint of the fact that his actions make no sense unless they’re explicitly explained as they occur. (Note that once he gets off the phone, his next act—arresting and extraditing Jack and Gwen to the U.S., leaving Rhys and Gwen’s child behind—is a wholly irrational one.)
These early episodes are tonally unbalanced: Flashbacks and small-talk-filled scenes poke fun at the show’s conventions, particularly along the U.S./U.K. divide of its fans (“They’re called chips here, not crisps; ATMs, not cash-points”), but they do so at the expense of plot. This extends to the acting too, for while Myles and Barrowman have the benefit of 30 or so episodes of character-building history behind them, Phifer’s Rex is shallowly presented as a hyper-aggressive bulldog, and Havins, as the all-too-innocent Esther, is an utter blank. Former (dead) Torchwood members like Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Owen (Burn Gorman) brought unique skills to the team (diplomacy and medicine, for instance) and had selfish and sometimes sinister reasons for sticking around. It’s obvious from the wooden line readings delivered by the team’s new doctor, Vera, that the actress playing this role (Arlene Tur) has no idea what she’s doing there. The same goes for Lauren Ambrose, who’s supposed to be a shifty PR representative, but instead comes across as an overenthusiastic older version of her character from Six Feet Under. Meanwhile, Pullman, the elder statesman of the cast, brings such subtlety and deliberation to his soft-spoken and coldly intelligent turn as the villain that he appears to be on a different program entirely.
Then again, the basic premise of a Torchwood episode involves the gang getting into worse and worse trouble, only to eventually bail itself out, and there’s enough of a solid premise here to suggest the makings of a thrilling back half to the season, once all the players are set in motion, that is. (Did I mention that Jack, in a twist of fate, is now the only mortal on the planet?) But right now, amid all the red herrings (innocent elderly tourists or evil agency spies?) and cutout villains (Wayne Knight, in a role so generic you’ll wish Rubicon was still on), the show’s just one giant tease. Those sad, white-masked cultists who call themselves “The Soulless” make for good shots in an advertisement, but they add nothing to the plot, and even the liberal use of bazookas in the first episode can’t mask the lack of substance behind their use. The chilling threat of Miracle Day involves a power strong enough to “force people into life,” and one can only hope that in future installments, Davies and company are smart enough to realize that they shouldn’t try to force square actors into circular plots.