For many of us, Torchwood: Miracle Day was a disappointment.
Too baggy and too sprawling a journey of ten weeks, it felt like a drunken meander through various high-octane scenarios. And, like many a drunken meander, it began with ill-judged certainty, became directionless before leading to violence, then ultimately left us scratching our heads, questioning whether any of it was real.
However, revisiting it in the company of lead writer, Russell T Davies, who introduces all ten episodes on this box set and appears on two commentaries and two behind the scenes features, the intent behind the piece feels clearer.
When it comes to structuring his work, Davies’ mantra is ‘Follow where the story takes you’, even when to do so means rejecting conventional writers’ (and fan) wisdom about narrative structure. In this case, as Davies reminds us on the commentaries, the plot demands that the characters are oblivious to the provenance of the Miracle, and can only be given the crucial clues that lead them to Shanghai and Buenos Aires in Episodes 8 and 9, before the ensuing final showdown.
If you’re a viewer who expects a Chekhov’s gun in Episode 1, the approach will frustrate you, as it creates an explanation-heavy Episode 10, and means that certain promising plot strands are abandoned as the characters globetrot their way towards the finale.
It’s not quite picaresque. It’s more pick’n’mix. But it does have the advantage of suggesting a world that is in crisis: where cultish philosophies are picked up and abandoned; where the Final Solution of effective genocide by incineration is hit upon in Episode 5; where the media exalts and then emasculates its new messiahs, and where the best efforts of government agencies are undermined by the machinations of a familial elite.
At least that’s the plan.
The trouble is: such a summary of Miracle Day makes it sound a more thrilling watch than it actually is.
Torchwood has always been defiantly its own mongrel beast: a combination of high-camp melodrama, political thriller and lurid sci-fi romp, which resists easy categorisation. But in Miracle Day, this approach works against it, creating a drama that, in seeking to go anywhere, ultimately goes nowhere fast.
Somewhere, in the midst of all this, is a powerful drama that explores such ideas as the abandonment of faith in an age that has no need of a heaven. But that other elusive drama has a precision which this version of Miracle Day lacks.
The plot may demand a circuitous structure, and Davies is right to follow his instincts, because they serve him well. But, as viewers, we are trained in storytelling where connections are made, where sub-plots are integrated, and where foreshadowing pays off. In denying us these things, the programme obliges us to engage differently with the thriller form and to put the journey before the destination.
It makes for a frustrating watch, and it’s hard not to conclude that Miracle Day exists better in the ideas than the execution.
Extras: ‘Hello faithful viewer’. Just hearing those words spoken by RTD and executive producer, Julie Gardner, on the two episode commentaries reminds us of how much their warm and self-critical voices are missed from the worlds of Doctor Who.
And they’re intriguing episode commentaries, too, giving us a glimpse of an early Miracle Day, storylined over thirteen episodes with the help of Chris Chibnall, and including such things as the death of Sergeant Andy and what Davies refers to as ‘the chicken sequence’: a succession of scenes where Esther walks through the city while the people around her seek salvation in church and oblivion from drink, or test the limits of their immortality by playing chicken with the traffic. Davies misses this sequence. From the sound of it, we do too.
Elsewhere on the four-disc set, you’ll find two behind-the-scenes Torchwood Declassified features, one of which is exclusively devoted to the many effects sequences, as well as episode introductions to all ten episodes from Davies and John Barrowman.
Of the two, Davies shows the greater restraint, managing to tease without need of hyperbole. Barrowman, however, is pure showman, telling us that we’re gonna love to hate Oswald Danes, and generally hyping up the story in the manner of a man who considers himself to be on the fastest rollercoaster ride in the world.
Rounding off the set is the Web of Lies motion comic spin-off and character profiles of the principal players, featuring interviews with many of the main cast members, as well as producer Brian Minchin.
These are nice to have, but inessential, and if you do return to the extras, it won’t be for these fillers. It will be to hear again the critical reflections of Russell and Julie.
Released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 14th November 2011 by 2entertain.
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