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Torchwood: Miracle Day recap 04×02 – “Rendition”

Note: this is only mildly spoilery, but proceed with caution. Also, there may be a slight delay on posting of episode 3’s recap, as I’ll be at SDCC next week. Hopefully the prospect of Torchwood/Doctor Who panel tidbits will suffice.

“Rendition,” is a slightly claustrophobic episode. Most of the action takes place in closed systems. An airplane, CIA headquarters at Langely, a TV studio, or conference-rooms. There is seduction and betrayal afoot, and this episode is more about slotting the puzzle pieces into place, than it is about revealing very much. Dr. Juarez (Arlene Tur) begins to see further implications of immortality for the human population, while we’re introduced to Jilly Kitzinger ( Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) a PR rep for a pharmaceutical company who is also very interested in Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman).

Meanwhile, Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) is about to become embroiled in complications arising from her connection with Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer,) thanks to Mr. Friedkin (Wayne Knight) and Rex’s former colleague and lover, Lyn (Dichen Lachman).

Phifer seems to be hitting his stride, as the alpha-male battle between Matheson and Harkness rings both funny and true. Matheson isn’t a protege or a lover (yet?) and in this post-456 world, he’s got the upper hand.

The script by Doris Egan telegraphs some of the plot points a little too heavily, but the cast is given plenty of zingers: (mildly spoilery)

Lyn: If you’re the best England’s got to offer, then God help you.

Gwen Cooper: I’m Welsh.

Eve Myles nails the line to the wall, and it’s a pleasure to watch. I’m also very impressed by the way Lauren Ambrose invests the words, “I disagree,” with a sort of charming menace. Jilly Kitzinger may be the devil’s handmaiden or something altogether unknown, but Ambrose makes the glossy-brittle sheen of this PR-girl as thoroughly chilling as Pullman’s pedophile-murderer.

I’m pleased to say that John Barrowman’s performance as Jack Harkness, although he doesn’t have as much dialogue as TW fans are probably expecting, is still running on all 8 cylinders. There’s more gravitas, less telegraphed angst and while Jack may be part of the larger mystery, there’s absolutely no sense that the mystery is about him. The power imbalance, new dynamics, and yes: his maybe-mortality, have made Jack Harkness vulnerable and interesting again.

The biggest weakness in this episode, as in episode 1, is Havins performance as Esther Drummond. I don’t know if the writers are trying too hard to make her the new audience’s proxy or if Havins is turning in a bland and drippy performance, but Esther is too eager to please, too whingy and childlike for my tastes. This is a character who is supposed to be in a position of interpreting intelligence data with confidence, yet we’re shown nothing of that spark in her personality.

“Rendition,” is an episode that ratchets the tension up a notch, but where we’re still learning the players, where the web is still being woven and we’re making the discoveries along with the characters. I’d been trying to put my finger on the biggest difference between TW: MD and previous series, and it is simply: the Torchwood team is as much in the dark as the audience. It’s another layer of redefining Torchwood’s narrative for a new audience. That sense of being slightly off-kilter is slightly frustrating and incredibly intriguing.

The previews of Episode 3, “Dead of Night” seem to indicate that we’ll be getting some answers to the questions being asked by the characters and veiwers, very soon.

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Torchwood: Miracle Day Recap: Ep 04×01 The New World

Warning: Here be spoilers by the dozen.

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The New World is about a new reality. We’re first introduced to pedophile-child murderer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) as he’s about to be executed for his crimes. Meanwhile, analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) and CIA officer Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) are puzzling out why and how someone would bypass security and email a single word to station chiefs, “Torchwood.”

That’s when everything changes. Danes’ execution is carried out, Matheson is in a fatal car crash. Except they don’t die. No one does. No one can.

“Miracle day,” creates a new world and a new mystery that seems like something right up Torchwood’s street. Except there is no Torchwood. The last time we saw Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles,) he was leaving the planet after the death of his lover and she was pregnant. Now Gwen and husband Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) are living in the wilds of Wales with baby daughter Anwen, and answer the door with an arsenal at their fingertips.

Russell T. Davies has returned to the miniseries format of Torchwood: Children of Earth. Fanbase issues aside (see my thoughts, here), it’s a format that works. Rather than constantly inventing a new alien-of-the-week, Davies has created a circumstance that gives him a blank canvas to address big questions.

If no one can die, how long will our resources last? If no one can die, how long will people suffer? If no one can die, how long before it’s the only thing we pray for?

Havins’ Esther Drummond, a plucky CIA analyst who doesn’t know when to stop asking questions, serves as the audience proxy in much the same way Eve Myles did in the first episode of Torchwood. She’s saddled with far too much stilted expository dialogue and action, not to mention inappropriate shoes. While Myle’s immediately established Gwen as stubborn and humane, Esther is vague and a little drippy. (Note to costumers: I don’t care how tiny the actress is, character-appropriate costuming matters. CIA analysts don’t dig around archives in five-inch stilettos.)

There are a lot of echoes to “Everything Changes”, including the inevitable use of retcon when Esther first meets Jack: The explanation of Torchwood’s origin and function, the inevitable discussion of photos which show a man who looks just like him.

Esther: “Is he your father?”
Jack: “I suppose he must be.”

In a story that hinges on the fact that no one can die, Davies has created a little wrinkle: Jack appears to be mortal. He can be injured, maybe even die.

TW: MD is not for the squeamish. There’s quite a bit of body horror, from Danes’ execution and Matheson’s impalement, to a man who attempted to kill Jack by strapping a bomb to his chest and whose charred remains are still conscious. When Jack inquires whether a body could still survive if the head were cut off, the answer is pretty gruesome. That scene also contains two delightful continuity nods: Jack poses as, “Owen Harper, FBI,” and while gruesome, it does explain The Face of Boe a little bit more, when the severed head’s eyes open. There’s also a truly chilling performance from Bill Pullman. Oswald Danes crimes are heinous, and the stone-cold rationality he displays while demanding to be released, since his sentence was carried out, is frightening. Whether Danes is an adversary they’ll have to fight, or will become the moral compromise our heroes have to make, remains to be seen. Pullman made my skin crawl, and I can give no higher praise.

Mekhi Phifer spends most of the episode in a hospital bed, but Rex Matheson is still a bit of an enigma. Establishing that he’s a cocky bastard, and ultimately driven and capable, is all we get in this first episode. Arlene Tur’s Dr. Vera Juarez is an interesting link between Rex, Esther and Jack and I’m hoping we’ll see more of her as the season progresses. Phifer also gets one of the best lines in the episode while crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, “It’s like the British equivalent of New Jersey.”

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Tom Price returns as Sgt. Andy, and he and Kai Owen’s Rhys provide grounding presences for both Gwen and the audience. This is still the Torchwood we know and love, with a bit of an American spin. As for that spin, it fits Torchwood like a glove. While the incongruity of action heroes based beneath the Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff was part of Torchwood’s charm, (and still is,) the slightly glossier, faster pacing of its Americanization doesn’t hurt it in the slightest. We get Gwen Cooper being a Badass Mother, putting earmuffs on Anwen before shooting at a helicopter, and taking up a rocket launcher when it gives chase.

Myles and Barrowman don’t get as much screen time as the new kids on the block, but every second matters. No longer a newbie or even a veteran, this is Gwen Cooper the survivor of Torchwood. Whether it’s the influence of the team of writers on “Miracle Day”, new directors, or simply being outside the environment of BBC Cardiff, Barrowman has stepped up his game. Jack Harkness is still attractive and charismatic, but he’s also not nearly as brash and cocky as we’re used to seeing him. He’s not in charge anymore, he doesn’t have the resources he’s had in the past, and now he’s facing the double-edged sword of his own mortality, just as the rest of the world is facing one of immortality. Seeing Barrowman and Myles together is the cherry on top of TNW. It’s not a perfect episode, but it does what it needs to do: it establishes both the plot of this season, and the Torchwood universe for new viewers, while drawing all the characters together and reuniting Jack and Gwen. There are nice touches on the political and legal environment in a post-9/11 world, (or, post-456,) and we know there are big questions and struggles ahead, as Matheson has Gwen, Jack, Rhys and Anwen taken into custody for rendition.

What happens next? I don’t know, but I want to find out.

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