David Chute reviews the second installment of the BBC/Starz SF mini-series Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Even better than the first, episode two set a much faster pace, hop-scotching between subplots unfolding simultaneously on two continents and on a trans-Atlantic airliner jetting between them.
This adrenaline rush of entertainment seems to be a direct result of the way in which creator Russell T. Davies chose to Americanize the show, a development that some British fans are already whining about. They couldn’t be more wrong. This mid-Atlantic cross-pollenization is the best thing that’s ever happened to TV’s most eccentric great show.
Whether by design or simply because the this sort of things is in the air, now, the intrepid Yanks that Davies created to round out the central cast bear a distinct resemblance to 24’s Jack Bauer and Chloe O’Brian, duplicating not only their ferocious energy levels and one-jump-ahead ingenuity but also the sense, in their relationship, of a personal bond that transcends even patriotism. When Mekhi Phifer’s Rex Matheson and Alexa Havens’ Esther Drummond realize that sudden inexplicable deposits in their bank accounts are part of a high level plot to frame them as Chinese spies because of their interest in Torchwood, and go off the reservation, their intuitive teamwork is immensely gratifying, amounting almost to a flashback to the glory days for fans of 24. (Seinfeld’s Newman, Wayne Knight, is the most visible evil of the lurking suits, tapping his betrayals into a computer behind a wall of glass.)
As comrades in arms for the Torchwood Institute’s Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), Rex and Esther seem to be ready for anything, as they would have to be to drive in a layered plot that includes a sustained slapstick suspense sequence in which the team races to McGruber an antidote to arsenic poisoning out of chemicals that can be found on a plane. The episode hurtles along, but it hangs together, and a distinctive sense of nightmarish strangeness is beginning to accumulate. The startling final image is a grisly sight gag worthy of Philip Kaufman’s underrated 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
We learned a couple of new things: that of all the creatures on earth, it is only human beings who can no longer die. Even the great apes, our closest evolutionary relatives, can still expire. And while human tissue can no longer die, it continues to age, leading a scientist at an emergency conference to recall the Greek myth of Tithonus, who was granted eternal life but not eternal youth and shriveled down to the size of a cicada– a reference we are not likely to encounter on many other television programs, on either side of the pond.
And where before there were none, two theories were offered in “Rendition,” neither particularly persuasive. A walk-on scientist at an emergency medical summit drops the S-word, “singularity,” while Captain Jack, admittedly somewhat the worse for wear, urges his CIA counterpart to look into “morphic fields, Sheldrake’s theory,” referencing one of the daffier dead-ends in the annals of pseudo-science – but one that feels just right in this context, a ready-made superstructure for the brainy, darkly-satiric science fiction that T:MD seems to be morphing into.