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“Torchwood: Miracle Day,” Episode 1: “The New World” Review (SPOILERS)

by on July 11, 2011

After I watched Torchwood’s third series, the 5-part event collectively known as “Children of Earth,” I called it a “sci-fi 24.” This was a long way from the hit-and-mostly-miss first two series, which were almost exclusively monster-of-the-week stories and misguided attempts at grown-up sex and violence.  What “Children of Earth” did so beautifully was take the alien invasion format and show how it affects people in a very human way.  The newest series, the ten-part “Miracle Day,” is following the same format but putting it on a global scale instead of merely a British one.  The central conceit, that everyone in the entire world stops dying, is interesting enough on its own, but the first episode discusses the ramifications of such a phenomenon while wrapping it into a mystery (likely conspiracy) story. Just what is causing everyone in the world to remain alive even when they shouldn’t? That’s for another episode. What “Miracle Day: The New World” tells is that only Torchwood can figure it out.

In the episode’s opening scene, we’re introduced to easily the most interesting new character in the form of Oswald Danes, played by Bill Pullman.  He is being put to death for the unrepentant rape and murder of a little girl, immediately making him the least sympathetic person in the entire universe. As we see him strapped to the table and the lethal injection administered. He then begins a horrific series of death throes that don’t end when they ought to. A later scene between Danes and a Governor’s representative explains that, legally, he WAS executed and has fulfilled his sentence. Now I bet the jury wishes they’d sentenced him to life.  Pullman’s performance is chilling and his character offers a very definite antithesis to those proclaiming the new found global immortality is a blessing.

We also meet CIA agents Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond, who inexplicably has received an e-mail about Torchwood, only to have it wiped moments later.  Rex is only starting to get annoyed at the Torchwood talk when he gets in a car accident and pieces of steel crash through the windshield, impaling him. Good thing it’s Miracle Day, so now he can be alive in horrible, agonizing pain. Matheson is not a very nice guy either, as in his opening moments, he gleefully cheers a colleague’s wife’s terminal illness, thus allowing him to be unavailable for a cushy promotion.  He spends the bulk of the episode conducting an investigation from a hospital bed.

Esther, meanwhile, is fulfilling the role of the audience surrogate as she investigates Torchwood and runs into the mysterious Captain Jack Harkness (Barrowmaaaaaaaaan!) who saves her from a mysterious assassin, then drugs her into forgetting what happened, much like what happened to Gwen Cooper in the first episode of series one.  We know very little about her as a character, save that she appears to be a “good” person who just genuinely wants to get to the truth. Knowing the kind of writer Russell T. Davies is, Drummond will surely have an interesting personal tale of her own. Or at least I hope she does.

Jack Harkness has been living in the United States in what looks like an abandoned housing project.  He’s tried to keep people from asking questions about Torchwood, but isn’t doing a very good job.  While at the CIA archives, he saves Esther from a guy strapped to a bomb, who blows himself up after Jack shoots him. Jack and Esther fling themselves out window to escape the blast and we learn for the first time that Jack’s healing factor isn’t working anymore.  He then pretends to be in the FBI in order to gain access to the blowed-up assassin’s autopsy. Yes, even though there’s not much left of him, he’s still alive.  Jack suggests they try removing the head, which still doesn’t stop him ticking. These aren’t zombies, they’re just undying.

And what of Gwen Cooper? She has secluded herself to the remote Welsh coast with her husband, Rhys, and their infant daughter.  Despite the peaceful life, she lives in constant fear that someone will come looking for her because of her Torchwood past.  They would have remained there if not for news that her father has had a heart attack.  Gwen and family return to Cardiff to see him and learn of Miracle Day. For anyone asking what the real problem with not dying is, it is fully explained in a scene between Gwen and PC (now Sgt.) Andy Davidson: In four months of no one dying, Earth’s societies will collapse from lack of food and overpopulation. And if no one EVER dies, that will be quite a bad thing, I think you’ll agree.

While I did really enjoy this episode, there were a couple things I didn’t particularly like. First, I really actively disliked the character of Rex Matheson, played by Mekhi Phifer.  I appreciate layered and complex characters, but I really didn’t know where he was coming from, aside from just wanting to know about Miracle Day because of his own should-have-died experience. The sequence where he goes to the UK to find Gwen is particularly eye-rolling, though not because of his character exactly.  It was just silly to have the conversation between Matheson and Drummond on the phone the way it did, essentially skipping all time when he wasn’t on the phone. There’s even the obligatory, “Where were we?” line, which was jokey and not in keeping with the tone of the episode. I also thought that, while the climactic action sequence on the beach was exciting, the special effects of the guns firing and the flaming helicopter were quite poor. Certainly miss The Mill on that one.

In general, though, I was highly engaged in the plight of a world where no one can die. I’m particularly interested to see what happens with Oswald Danes, as such an evil character being put in a position of ever-living is quite frightening.  There’s also the realization that Jack, it seems, is now the ONLY person in the world who CAN die.  This is my prediction for the ultimate conspiracy of the series: since it’s clear that some alien (or just clandestine) entity is behind changing people, I think the entire thing was just a way to find a way to kill Jack Harkness.  Let’s see how soon I’m proven wrong.

“The New World” raises a very real question about the nature of existence. Earth needs death to function properly. It’s a vital part of the cycle and most people fear it entirely. It might end up being even more frightening to have to keep living in an ever-worsening world. I hope this sci-fi 24 keeps it up for the whole ten episodes.

-Kanderson enjoys your TWITTER followship