Captain Jack Harkness. I’ve often wondered what his role in Torchwood actually was. In Doctor Who his role was simple to define, he was the man of action. Doctor Who in its many incarnations has relied on an external, recurring, character to essentially do the heavy lifting when action was concerned. The Doctor was generally a pacifist, intellectual sort, who would often come up against enemies he’d have to take up arms against. In the old series it was generally The Brigadier who would be there to deliver martial justice to whatever aliens the Doctor couldn’t reason with, in the new series Captain Jack was essentially The Brigadier 2.0 in purpose. If you actually watch any of the Doctor Who episodes featuring Captain Jack the character seems to exist solely to shoot things. Hell, in ‘Last of the Time Lords’ the character exists solely to shoot a control panel.
As dumb muscle Captain Jack is effective, and John Barrowman brings enough charm and persona to make the simple character type really work. As I said last week I often feel like Barrowman is far better as part of an ensemble than as a dramatic lead and Doctor Who allows him to easily slot into the existing team dynamics largely because he fills a very specific purpose. In Torchwood Jack wasn’t nearly as clearly defined. In Season One he was a brooding, dislocated father figure. Generally found perched on the rooftops of Cardiff like a low rent Batman, Captain Jack was essentially far more interested in meeting back up with the Doctor than anything else. In Season Two he had a far sunnier disposition, despite having been tortured for a year in the previous season of Doctor Who, and took something of a step back. In this season he was essentially the team-dad, with the other members of Torchwood becoming the centre of attention. In ‘Children of Earth’ he essentially acted as a pseudo-Doctor, with his knowledge and expertise being routinely compromised by obfuscating bureaucrats. He even had to make a Doctorish sacrifice at the end of that season.
The problem is that whilst Jack is consistently angsty his reasons for angst are consistently being switched around:
● In Season 1 of Doctor Who he’s dark and troubled because of the two years of his memory that were taken from him by the Time Agency.
● In Season 1 of Torchwood he’s dark and troubled because of the fact he got made immortal and dumped on a crappy space station in a ‘Days of Future Past’ type future.
● In Season 3 of Doctor Who he’s dark and troubled because Rose Tyler is in an alternate dimension and the Doctor keeps running away from him.
● In Season 2 of Torchwood he’s dark and troubled because he misses his, hitherto unmentioned, baby brother.
● In Season 3 of Torchwood he’s dark and troubled because being immortal means watching his, hitherto unmentioned, daughter slowly age past him. This was also one of the first times that Jack being immortal actually seemed to have any impact on him. I half expected ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ to slowly fade up as the plaintive scenes between Jack, his daughter, and his son to be ex-grandchild played out.
The problem with this is that it made Jack seem kind of inconsistent and in turn made Torchwood itself feel kind of inconsistent. It also meant that Barrowman, who was perfect playing an intergalactic version of James Bond, had to keep tangling with material that was a) kind of messy and b) beyond him. Then again some of the material he was given to work with couldn’t have been saved by Laurence Olivier. The other major problem is that Jack only seems to get upset by things when the plot demands it. As such Jack is the kind of character who has massive emotional reactions to every event in his life, but can take being buried alive for two millennia in his stride. As such Torchwood as a show tended to falter when the its focus fell on Jack, and it’s why the show genuinely improved as it became more team orientated in Season 2 and bigger in scope in ‘Children of Earth’.
‘Miracle Day’ thankfully seems content to work with a far more expansive cast than Torchwood has had before with Jack part of the overall ensemble rather than the ‘star’ of the show. In particular Jack and Gwen’s interaction with Rex suggest a great new team dynamic. Jack and Rex in particular are a great odd couple and it’s going to be interesting to see Jack’s moral impassiveness clash with Rex’s black and white morality. Rex once again got the lion’s share of great lines, his perpetual crankiness and general loose-cannon vibe contrasting nicely with the more chipper Jack and Gwen. Even ancillary characters like tech-support girl Esther, murderous paedophile Oswald Danes and professional medical exposition dispenser Dr. Vera Juarez got definable shining moments in this episode.
Esther, admittedly, does seem to be saddled with Lois Habiba’s plotline from ‘Children of Earth’ but both Danes and Juarez seem to be expanding the overall scope of the series whilst maintaining momentum with the main plot. Danes and Juarez even seem to moving towards a plot convergence of sorts with new character Jilly Kitzinger, a Public Relations Agent played with a sort of maniacal glee by Lauren Ambrose, encroaching on both their plotlines. This wealth of characters is helping to flesh out the world of Miracle Day whilst keeping the individual character stories pleasingly focused. RTD does have a tendency to go big in his writing, but the sprawling nature of the story seems to be curtailing that tendency.
However compared to the previous episode I couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed by the machinations of the plot. The first episode tore into the concept of the series voraciously, barely pausing for breath and constantly adding new levels of danger whilst maintaining a sense of pace. This episode at times felt like a bottle episode and I couldn’t help but think of the prolonged flight to the USA as something of a holding pattern for the storyline. The problem with serialised storytelling is the maintenance of momentum and whilst Rendition was full of great moments it felt positively sloth like compared to last week’s outing.
But let’s accentuate the positive. Whilst Rex was my favourite part of this episode I did like Gwen getting a chance to take charge. Like Jack, her role within Torchwood was never really consistent and she sort of drifted between being the all-out lead of the show some weeks to being an ancillary victim other weeks. Whilst I had some issues with some of her more audience baiting moments (the pause, presumably for applause and whooping, after declaring she was Welsh but before lamping the evil CIA agent was a painful example) I thought she took charge in a way that seemed consistent with her background. There was something of a fan reaction against Gwen in the first few seasons due to how she was portrayed as being practically perfect in every way, and whilst her becoming an amateur chemist at 70,000 ft. could feed into that notion of her being a flawless character I actually liked how slipshod the entire process was. Eve Myles has got a great talent for comedy and her reactions and timing during that entire sequence made it genuinely fun to watch. This is good, because it wasn’t particularly tense. Jack’s immortality, combined with the ambiguity around his current status, rendered the threat rather limp and as such the sequence was largely academic rather than genuinely tense. What it did serve as was a way for the new-Torchwood team to coalesce into one group and as a way to create some witty banter. Myles, Barrowman, and Phifer have great chemistry together and it was a joy watching the characters essentially bounce off each other.
Meanwhile the Oswald Danes story continues to be interesting but vaguely disaffected. Pullman dialled the sleaze back a little this week, but still managed to allow a little edge to poke through as he played the penitent man asking for forgiveness. I’m still unsure of how Danes fits into the overall story, other than as an emblem for what Miracle Day represents, but it’s nice to see Pullman really sink his teeth into a role.
In fact aside from a general slack feeling to the pacing my only real issue this week was with the effects themselves. Compared to the horrors of last week, bomb victims and neck shots alike, the CGI visage of a CIA agent with a broken neck seemed oddly subdued. Conceptually the image worked, and I loved the sight gag of Jack and Gwen’s reaction to her, but the rather uninspiring CGI cheapened the whole thing. In fact compared to last week’s episode the episode seemed a little flat and garish looking, lacking the assured direction of Bharat Nalluri (a house director in Britain who was responsible for setting the style and tone of shows such as Life on Mars, Spooks and Hustle) the episode just felt kind of inert. Billy Giehart, who directed this episode and the next two episodes to come, is no stranger to TV direction so I’m hoping that he settles down into the role for the next few episodes and the finale.