Every week I wax lyrical about how much I like Rex and every week I look at other reviews and find myself to be in an ever shrinking group. I’ve got a natural fondness for assholes, but I think my soft spot for Rex is due to the fact that I never particularly liked the original Torchwood crew. Whilst I have issues with John Barrowman’s acting (highlighted this week by both another floundering monologue and the hilarious piece of theatrical acting when Jack set off the fire alarm) my issue is more with the way the characters are written than either Barrowman’s or Eve Myles’ performances. As presented the original Torchwood crew are incompetent assholes, who kind of floundered onto the solutions to most of their problems and coasted on an ‘it’ll do’ sort of attitude. But the show also goes to pain to highlight the ‘specialness’ of the characters, in particular Gwen Cooper who has slowly become more and more ‘Mary Sue’ like as the series has progressed. As such I found myself empathising far more with Rex’s irritation with his new colleagues than I probably should have. I think Rex as a character is supposed to be a personification of the government, or at least people’s perceptions of the government. Capable but heartless, and dogmatic to a fault. I get that Rex is supposed to be an anti-hero, and at times an antagonist, but I find him to be a pragmatist rather than an actual foil. He just seems to be voicing the issues I have with how Torchwood operates as a whole, calling them out on their bullshit. For example in this episode the show was trying to make us feel bad for Esther as Rex continually screamed at her whilst on mission. However within the context of the show, and the mission itself, it seemed perfectly reasonable for Rex to be angry at someone for compromising their security. Especially when she actually did compromise their security and imperilled both Gwen and Jack.
It is even more reasonable when you consider that his heart has been literally, and figuratively, torn to pieces by a metal pipe (and his dad, in the figurative sense).
One of the issues I have with the show is that it seems to be separating the nature of Miracle Day from the needs of the plot. So about 20% of each episode is taken up by Dr. Juarez growling about the new healthcare paradigm whilst the other 80% of each episode is a standard sci-fi thriller where people are generally incapacitated as they normally would be. In this episode we had Jack run past a guy who had been throttled, but who was very much STILL alive, and Rex take out a hit man by shooting him a few times, with the hit man just slumping into unconsciousness. This sort of stuff wouldn’t bother me, if the show hadn’t gone out of its way last week to explain that people aren’t just not dying, they’re living through trauma which should have put them down for the count. What makes it so frustrating is that the show-runners are obviously proud of the thought they’ve put into Miracle Day, but it’s apparent that they weren’t able to figure out how to make a deathless world dramatically viable. Whilst there’s an occasional moment of brilliant body-horror, the eyeball in the car-wreckage this week was pretty spectacular; it feels like Miracle Day is something that happened to other people. Even Rex, who should be a walking reality check, only rarely registers the fact that he was impaled and isn’t healing properly. As it stands it feels like we’re watching three separate shows, with the Torchwood team investigating some deep-seated conspiracy, Oswald Danes politicking like no-one’s business whilst Dr. Vera Juarez demands some ethical medical care. The few moments these plotlines intersect feels more like a crossover event than parallel storylines.
To its credit ‘Escape to L.A.’ actually felt like an honest to goodness episode of TV, with goals and objectives and a clear, if unsubtly handled, thematic base. ‘Rendition’ and ‘Dead of Night’ both felt like they were trying to maintain a little of the propulsive energy of the first episode, this episode got down to business and carved out a niche for itself. Having clear objectives and a clear through line for the plot’s episode did wonders for the pacing, with the episode moving on at a fair old clip even as it straddled its three core elements. I must admit when Miracle Day was initially announced this is the sort of thing I expected, with the event serving as a background for more insular episodes, and it’s pleasing to see the show settle down into a rhythm of sorts. The stuff involving the Torchwood team and their mission was particularly diverting this week and it’s great to see Myles and Barrowman have a little fun with their characters. As I mentioned earlier I have issues with both Gwen Cooper and Jack Harkness, but Eve Myles and John Barrowman are a great double act and their natural chemistry often paves over the cutesiness of the characters. It was actually nice to see the team working together and carrying out a successful mission, albeit a mission where half the team got knocked unconscious and captured. But this is Torchwood we’re talking about and in the grand scheme of things their success today was like something out of Oceans 11.
Meanwhile Oswald Danes and Jilly Kitzinger continue to be entertaining but mystifying. I may have been reaching last week when searching for a connection between the Soulless and Danes, but that’s only because I really have no idea what’s going on with the character. I get that Danes is now a celebrity, and he’s embracing this celebrity due to the fact he can’t be accepted in normal society, but I don’t get why he’s a celebrity. His fame felt flash in the pan, but the show keeps pushing him as a genuine person of interest. It doesn’t help that he’s embroiled in the super-conspiracy of the show which is now starting to get a little exhausting. Conspiracies in particular are a TV cliché I could do without. The problem is that conspiracies are usually mystery boxes where the solution to the main mystery is a roomful of middle-aged rich dudes. They’re also fantastically perhaps the anti-thesis of excitement, with your main villain reduced to a voice and an obscure logo for the majority of the run-time. Essentially all that conspiracies do is create a false sense of mystery and disconnect the audience from the antagonist of the show. RTD has always been a fan of long-form mysteries and as such I expect the revelation of the conspiracy to be held off until the last possible moment and there to be a thousand cryptic allusions to what they are. The thing is I’d gladly give up the joy of the mystery in favour of actually having a clear idea of the scale of the threat. Because at the moment the conspiracy seems to be far reaching, but no-one seems to know much about it.
Aside from the stuff with the conspiracy I actually found the Danes stuff to be uniformly great this episode. Pullman still seems to be struggling in getting to the core of Danes, but little moments like his glee in breaking the seals of plastic bottles really helped to sell the idea of Danes as someone still getting used to his freedom. What was great though was his address to the quarantined living dead, where we got to see Pullman channelling a little of President Whitmore. Aside from literally coming out of nowhere the ‘Dead is Dead’ stuff was perhaps the most interesting element of the episode, even if it did seem to get resolved a little too easy. I hope that the ‘Dead is Dead’ stuff continues on as a recurring theme and isn’t a concept used purely to galvanise Danes. Whilst Danes was great it was also interesting to see a little of Kitzinger’s human side. Up until this point Lauren Ambrose, who I swear I only just realised was Claire from Six Feet Under, was perhaps a little too broad with her Machiavellian scheming contrasted by Ambrose’s penchant for exaggerated physical movement. It helped to create a larger than life character, but it was also hard to get an actual read on the characters thought process. As such it was nice to get a little peek behind the veneer today and it was interesting to find out that Kitzinger was just as uneasy about working with Danes as everyone else, despite her sharkish initial pursuit of him.
This week’s direction, despite being a little on the nose, was definitely a step-up as well with my favourite moment being the aftermath of Rex’s rescue. The characters were essentially huddled in front of a white wall, marred by an artistic dash of blood, which I took as a visual reference to Tenebrae by the great Dario Argento. Compared to the rather anaemic direction last week this episode was full of pep and great shot compositions. In fact I feel that some of the shots, like the subject shot of Esther’s sister, may perhaps have been a little too arty. I was actually thrown a little by the hemmed in composition accompanying Esther’s visit to her sister, the subjective shot of her sister surrounded by blue-walls seeming almost unreal. But even if all of the shots didn’t work it was nice to see the show experimenting. It was just kind of fun to have an episode of a TV show which seemed to be gleefully homaging the visuals of DePalma, Kubrick and Argento.
I’m hoping that this is how the season is going to progress for at least the next few episodes, just because it’s nice to see the show have a sense of purpose. The show still has a lot of issues (the Hit Man waxing lyrical about his masters was a horrible ‘TV’ moment) but there’s a reflexive tendency for the show to lampshade its own shortcomings which makes me hope that it’ll pick up as it goes on.