Now, I’m torn.
On one hand I absolutely loved this episode in isolation, on the other hand as the seventh part of a ten part story it is massively frustrating. It is akin to when Lost, in the run up to its ultimate finale gave us a long form flashback to the youth of Jacob. Like that episode ‘Immortal Sins’ gave us a lot of information about the mythology of the story, but also like that story ‘Immortal Sins’ felt horribly placed within the overall narrative. At this point the narrative should be racing along and this episode felt like a complete pit-stop. It goes into the horrible overall construction of Miracle Day. If the show existed as ten self-contained episodes with a tertiary narrative link then episodes like this would feel far more natural, but it doesn’t and so this episode feels more like a speed-bump.
But I’m going to accentuate the positive and talk about the stuff I liked rather than reiterating my complaints about how undynamic this long-form story has become. One of the things I love in fiction is the idea of long-form time travel. The trials and tribulations of being an immortal and having to deal with those consequences is just fascinating to me, even if these type of stories ultimately break down into ‘my loved one has grown old, whilst Queen drones on in the background’ montages. As such the occasional flashes to Captain Jack’s past are always fascinating to me, largely because Jack is both a man out of time and a man experiencing the long version of history. The difference between Jack and someone like the Doctor is that Jack has to deal with the consequences of his action and ultimately has to accept that he’s ultimately alone. The Doctor, by his nature, only tends to deal with the first hand consequences of his presence (usually the people or things trying to kill him/the earth/his companions/time itself) whilst Jack has to stagnate and wallow in his mistakes.
One of the similarities between the Doctor and Jack is their complete inability to control their impulses or live by any kind of temporal rules. As such both men almost violently contrast with the time-periods they find themselves in. Once again the Doctor, by his rather temporary nature, can justifiably get away with but it’s always amusing to see Jack’s 23rd Century libido waltzing around the early twentieth century. Where the two men again differed, at least in terms of the modern series of Doctor Who, was how they viewed their compatriots. The Doctor needs his companions both as friends and as a series of checks and balances. They’re there to keep him sane and to ground him. Jack meanwhile views his companions as momentary distractions, they’re the kind of people who can hold his attention temporarily but his real devotion is to himself, and to the Doctor for whom he’s abandoned his compatriots for at least twice.
It is because of this, and because Torchwood is the ‘grimdark’ version of Doctor Who, that Jack spends most of his time being betrayed by the people he associates with. As such when this opened with a flashback to 1920s New York and Captain Harkness making a connection with a young Italian immigrant I could almost see the betrayal coming. The fact that the episode played the relationship between Jack and Angelo Colasanto, the previously mentioned immigrant, so thoroughly came as something of a surprise. In the thirty or forty minutes we spent with Jack and Angelo we found a Jack who had made the kind of connection he never really had with the Torchwood team, barring Ianto and I’m still convinced their relationship was based around Jack wanting a butler rather than a life-partner. In fact the episode played out like a companion introduction in Doctor Who, with Angelo all wide eyed and malleable and Jack beaming with the promise of future adventures. It was telling that this had a few overt references to Doctor Who, and I believe a reference to the kid-centric spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures, as the episode was trying to definitely draw a parallel between Jack and Angelo and The Doctor and his companions.
What intrigued me about this episode was that it worked so spectacularly well, but its basic construction was a car-trip and a flashback. As such the strength of the episode largely laid in its character work and Jane Espenson’s script got right to the rotten core of both Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper. Jack is an easy character to give shades to, because he has consistently been shown as largely self-interested and willing to be a complete asshole at a moment’s notice. Sure he has his hero moments, but they’re few and far between compared to his more morally nebulous moments. Gwen Cooper has however often been portrayed as the strident moral core of Torchwood, doing what could be classed as the emotionally right thing even if it wasn’t the most logical thing. One of the big elements of Season 2 was her butting heads with Jack on a few occasions over how to handle a situation. Despite being somewhat bull headed and reactionary we’ve always had Gwen as an audience identification figure, even if the audience didn’t want to be lumped in with her.
As such the conversation between Jack and Gwen, as she drove him to his death, was perhaps the first time we ever had an explicitly negative portrayal of Gwen. With Gwen’s bullheadedness being viewed as a fault rather than a virtue and Gwen revealing to Jack how she viewed the deaths of her colleagues as proof of her own specialness. Espenson’s always been good at this kind of conflicted character beats and it’s refreshing to have the show actually calling out Gwen’s actions. Espenson’s sharp, and at times pleasingly caustic script, was really backed up by the direction by Gwyneth Horder-Payton. Horder-Payton managed to really make the scenes set in 1927 have a distinct feel and visual style without just relying on the sepia-filter. Whilst I think the visual style was possibly based on The Godfather Part II, I was more consistently reminded of Leone’s work from Once Upon A Time In America. In fact it was this direction which made Jack’s ultimate betrayal work so well. As it stands Jack can resurrect from any fatal blow, so the fact that the episode made Jack’s continual death and rebirth cycle so hellish and visceral was largely down to Barrowman’s performance and Horder-Payton’s direction.
Less successful was Murray Gold’s music. Now I actually enjoy Gold’s scoring for Doctor Who, for the most part anyways, and often appreciated his overzealous orchestrations. It’s big and brash and loud, but Doctor Who sometimes needed the energy of Gold’s infectious score to maintain momentum. Gold’s work for Miracle Day has thus far been fairly indistinct and largely discreet, this episode however his score seemed to be almost working against the episode. Indeed the booming piece of music which kicked in when Jack was talking about the Doctor seemed to almost drown out the scene itself and the episode was full of similar moments of incongruous scoring. I actually really liked the work of Ben Foster, a protégé of Gold’s, on the first three seasons of Torchwood giving the show a unique sound which set it apart from Doctor Who. His music had a different energy and feel to it and even it’s more bombastic moments (like Captain Jack’s hilariously over-the-top theme*) felt like they were part of Torchwood’s identity. In comparison the music for Miracle Day has largely been fairly innocuous and at times an actual impediment to a sequence (Oswald Danes’ speech a fortnight ago felt like it was competing with the backing track at times).
Speaking of which, I’m finding it all kinds of peculiar that for two weeks running we’ve not seen hide nor hair of Oswald Danes. At the moment he’s the one character who actually seems to have a functioning narrative arc in the show and it seems odd he’s been left on the side lines for so long. Still with the final introduction of what I assume to be the actual villains of the thing (I did love how the three mobsters or whatever already had a special secret handshake worked out to consumate their on-the-fly deal) this episode has the peculiar quality of feeling like a beginning more than a continuation of an existing story. It feels like the setup to a two or three part finale that an episodic show might have done. But whilst the narrative didn’t move forward too much, I actually feel like Miracle Day has got far surer footing at this point that it has at any point in its run.
*One of my favourite bits of Doctor Who trivia is that Ben Foster wrote Captain Jack’s theme with the unsung lyrics “here he comes in a ruddy great tractor”.