Russell T Davies likes his dystopias. In fact his tenure on Doctor Who was rife with dystopian visions; Satellite Five at the end of Season 1, The Master’s Earth in Season 3, The Doctor-Less Universe AND a Dalek conquered Earth in Season 4. It seems to be his default setting for big stories; the only problem is that the nature of Doctor Who always made those dystopias seem like the set-up to some huge deus-ex machina. It is hard to watch a children’s TV show in which a super-villain kills a tenth of the world’s population and not start wondering how they’re going to hand-wave several hundred million deaths. As such as soon as RTD starts trotting out his bleak writing and scene-setting I brace myself for the magical cure-all which will make everything better in the last five minutes.
As such when the opening credits faded out and the ‘Two Months Later’ title-card popped up I let out an audible sigh of disappointment. Even though RTD didn’t write this episode, and I’ll talk more about how much I appreciated John Fay’s script later on, you could feel his fingerprints all over it. RTD has always been something of a hands-on show runner, if you ever read his (really genuinely fantastic) book The Writer’s Tale you’ll know just how much input he had in each episode of Doctor Who that was made under his tenure, but at times ‘The Gathering’ felt almost ghost-written by RTD.
Having the action take place two months after the climax of last episode feels like something of a cheat as it was, the final shot of Esther driving a dying Jack across the massive expanse of the American countryside was perhaps the best cliff-hanger the show had thus far managed to create, without the time-jump compromising the growing geo-political tension and replacing it with stock-totalitarianism. Miracle Day has been wildly uneven but I’ve really enjoyed the peripheral details which have conjured up the image of a noose slowly tightening around the world’s neck, it was a nice and subtle descent into chaos and it is a real shame to have that replaced by grim talk of dictators and Nazi-like bureaucrats. Actually having the world collapse around the Torchwood team as they searched for the truth would have been a far more dramatic way of doing things, and at least wouldn’t have seemed as inert as being introduced to this new shitty status-quo in the penultimate episode.
One of my chief criticisms of Miracle Day throughout its entire run has been its false starts. Looking back over my reviews I’ve pinpointed three episodes which felt like soft-reboots of the show, a way to get things back on track and moving. ‘The Gathering’ seems to function as yet another reboot of sorts, with the Torchwood team all in various states of equilibrium and waiting for a catalyst to move the plot along. Gwen Cooper is now a modern day Robin Hood, complete with her own bureaucratic Sheriff of Nottingham, Rex is back working for the CIA whilst Jack and Esther convalesce in Scotland. It’s not a particularly auspicious start to the episode and despite a shadowy figure stalking Gwen’s house ‘The Gathering’s’ first twenty minutes feels oddly dislocated from the overall plot and completely free of any dramatic tension. I mean sure we had Rex coming up with an idea all on his own and following it through to a logical conclusion, but the bulk of the opening act seemed to be focused on Gwen Cooper’s suburban antics. The problem I’ve always had with Torchwood is that I don’t particularly like Gwen Cooper and couldn’t care less about her family issues. Rhys has the occasional moment where his comedy sidekick routine kind of works, but he’s so bumbling and amiably crap that it’s hard to actually view as a character and not an appendage. Her parents meanwhile, aside from one appearance in the second season, are pretty much ciphers. Eve Myles does her best to make the on-going saga of ‘my dead dad’ engaging, but without actual personality or traits it is really difficult to get worked up about the impending incineration of Geraint Cooper.
In fact Miracle Day, despite having had nine hours to do so, has hardly built up any of the peripheral characters. Of the new characters only Rex, Esther, Danes and Jilly have definable personalities, but every other character seems completely defined by the needs of the plot. Occasionally an actor will make something more out a piecemeal role, I’m looking at you John de Lancie, but on the whole the Torchwood team are islands of personality in a sea of tedium. Even the Torchwood team themselves don’t seem all that well defined, we know Jack and Gwen from the previous three season we’ve spent with them, and Rex has carved himself a niche as the asshole of the team, but poor Esther seems to be defined by her mental sister and her general ‘niceness’. Only Danes has had any real meaty character work this season and that had its legs cut out from underneath it today.
Danes sudden reappearance brought to mind a nagging feeling I’ve had about the character since day one. Whilst Jilly was obliged to mention to Danes that he was a scumbag at least once an episode no one ever really seemed to treat Danes how a normal person would treat a man who had been incarcerated for the rape and murder of a child, and by this I mean it was odd that no one treated Danes with complete wild-eyed hostility. Forgive the turn of phrase but it feels odd that Danes has been treated with kid gloves up until this point, especially considering how unabashedly unrepentant he was. I’ve had a hard time getting a bead on Danes character and I think that is because the show has shied away from the one attribute which should solely define him. Danes has drifted from slimy villain, to anti-hero, to anti-villain, and back into anti-hero as the show has gone on and this episode gave him a lot to do. In fact having an audience who actively hated Danes seemed to allow Bill Pullman to really pile on the creepiness.
Pullman has been great as Danes throughout Miracle Day, although I’ve often found him a little genteel. This episode had him practically oozing ill-intentions and really disappearing into the wormy interior of a character like Danes, his oft-hand mention of his skills on the internet making my skin-crawl far more effectively than anything else in the show.
At this point the main antagonists should be the ones…antagonising the Torchwood team but despite a few machinations the Three Families are still peculiarly uninvolved in the storyline. I’m assuming that all of this is going to come to a head next week, but when the first real conflict between the heroes and the chief villain occurs in the 10th hour of a ten hour series then something has gone awry. Having shadowy villains, cloaked in darkness and innuendo, works in a show like Doctor Who because the meta-plot is an after-thought linking together separate narratives. Miracle Day doesn’t have any narrative OTHER than the battle against the Three Families and the show’s continued reticence to use them has rendered them rather inert as actual foes. At this point in Children of Earth we’d been introduced to the nightmarish 456 and had Frobisher as an established anti-villain.
But episode writer John Fay managed to keep the episode interesting, despite the meta-plot still failing to deliver a cohesive story. Fay was initially a writer on the British soaps Brookside and Coronation Street, penning around one hundred and fifty episodes across both series, and the strength of the suburban scenes and simmer of the dialogue in this episode can probably be attributed to his tenure on those shows. There was an energy and vitality to this episode that just hasn’t been there for the majority of Miracle Day’s run, and even if I found a few moments a little difficult to deal with (in particular I loathed how obviously evil and duplicitous the CIA mole was being) the episode really played to the strengths of its ensemble cast and managed to make the episode’s individual mysteries pop with an energy almost completely alien to Miracle Day.
Fay was also heavily involved in Children of Earth, penning episode two and four of the five part show. Fay’s episodes, in particular the fourth, were the highlights of the run largely because of Fay’s great dialogue and how the episode handled several key plot points. The cabinet meeting in episode four, in which the government decided which kids to sacrifice, was perhaps one of the great horror sequences of British TV in 2009 and perfectly captured a banality of evil vibe that Miracle Day has tried to replicate with little success. Next week Russell T Davies and Jane Espenson share writing duties and I am genuinely fascinated in how they are going to wrap things up. Now that we’ve had the Blessing revealed (and forgive me for my childishness, but did anyone else think that the Blessing looked like a planet sized, stone vagina?) we’re past the point of cryptic clues and it will be interesting to see if RTD and Espenson have the content to back it all up.