TV John Caughie author of the excellent BFI Classics volume about The Edge of Darkness has this to say on the subject of The Edge of Darkness: “US/UK co-production, which can so often lead to a bland, mid-Atlantic ‘international style’, a flattening out of cultural differences and representational styles, in this instance produced a layering of performances, deploying rather than defusing a creative tension that mirrors exactly the tension between a public service and a commercial aethetic.” If ever there was a way to describe Torchwood’s Miracle Day, it’s the exact opposite of this sentence.
Admittedly, John Shiban’s The Middle Men is by far the most watchable episode of the series so far, but by now the poor creative decisions which have dogged the series since day one, sorry The New World, have festered in step with Rex’s wound. In plotting and designing this series, Russell T Davies has attempted to produce what he thinks a US show should be like and in doing so has diluted his own unique style in the process. He’s watched 24 and the like and attempted to bend Torchwood into that image. In which case we must compare it to the like and chiselling away next to it’s nearest cousins, Fringe or Numbers, it’s barely workman-like.
Granted, those shows churn out twenty-odd episodes per year, amortise their budget by setting their stories in familiar standing sets and have the space to develop their characters over a longer period, but having watched just eight episodes of Fringe so far, whose central mystery, The Pattern, is at least echoed in Miracle Day and shares a figure with an unhinged hero with past he conveniently can’t always remember, JJ Abrams’ show has an effortlessness to it, an ease of watching and although it’s true not every set up is entirely original, it has the decency to note, in dialogue, the inherent repetatitiveness in their weekly explorations.
What made Torchwood work, on the rare occasions when it did work, was that it transplanted the approach of those shows, investigators into the unknown, into a very British or more specifically very urban Welsh setting. It’s that incongruity which drove it onward, why the CSI Cardiff joke worked in Everything Changes, that juxtaposition. We saw glimpses of it again tonight in the Cardiff concentration camp, the conversation between Gwen and not a doctor, Eve’s wild disapproving eyes unable to cope with the lack of humanity in the bag of mostly water passing judgement on her Dad’s continued existence.
The scenes within the camps in the US simply didn’t have that power. Partly it’s because of the bizarre performances and casting of Jobel and Tasambeker whose mere existence meant that nothing happening within a few rels of them could be taken seriously, but mostly it’s because it feels like the show creaking to fit what’s expected of it in the US setting, with the rescuing of captured operatives against sunkist settings weary meanderings along a well trodden trail. Whilst there's some initial satisfaction in seeing Esther "cat one" Jobel (in footwear William Emms would be proud of), ennui quickly sets in as we have to endure the same fight over again with the same predictable outcome.
The problem is, the question of what is and isn't Torchwood, and weirdly what constitutes quality television can’t be separated along geographical lines. Jack’s manipulating of Owens’s secretary with the subsequent fake hostage situation saw a return of C of E’s ability to upend our expectations and the ensuing conversation between the Captain and Winston Zeddemore in which PhiCorp was revealed to a part of a much larger system, whilst a kind of narrative bed trick in which one lady of mystery is replaced by another does imply that the overall story is heading somewhere, even if “The Blessing” suggests it's grasping towards a somewhat different C of E.
So really what we’re seeing again in The Middle Men is a situation in which the show loses cohesion the further away from the original Torchwood characters and the direct investigation of Miracle Day it goes. Still neither Mekhi Phifer or Alexa Havins seem to know where to pitch their performances which only increases the disconnect that they’re in the same show as Kai Owen who somehow manages to embrace the pantomime whilst still seeming totally real. It's impossible not to groan on hearing Gwen will be flying back to the US because it’s clear that Thys's story would be parked off screen again, along with the beating heart of original Torchwood.