Malcolm Hulke or Don Houghton had to find something to keep Jon Pertwee busy

TV Well, that was fifty odd minutes of drama. Another of old Doctor Who’s elements, from way back when stories were many episodes long but still relatively unsophisticated in terms of story, was that writers like Malcolm Hulke or Don Houghton had to find something to keep Jon Pertwee busy during the middle episodes. So there'd be lots shouting, chasing, fighting, moments of charm and being captured but nothing terribly substantial would happen to further the story. Either by accident or design, Torchwood’s Miracle Day has itself fallen into this model and we’re only at episode three.

Typically, Dead of Night's equivalent of Venusian aikido is random sex with strangers or sex with random strangers which is still pretty graphic for all the UK cuts to preserve Barrowman’s dignity and the innocence of children.  Rex and the boring doctor too find solace giving in to their otherwise light flirting. It’s not unknown in genre television for characters to couple when armageddon is upon them, but apparently this corner of the Whoniverse, it’s more important than finding a decent meal. We’re back to the Torchwood of rutting up against a tree in the middle of an emergency (cf, Countrycide).

Instead of being trapped in a cell as per a dozen Pertwees, Torchwood are fugitives again. In a beautifully played scene, Jack and Gwen reminisce over Ianto, a tipsy Harkness letting his latent feelings for Cooper spill over as she is elated to be reunited with her husband via Skype. Esther’s realisation that for all her CIA clearance all her job really entailed was sitting around reading Gawker or Boing Boing. The thank you for noticing scene in which we realise one of the reason the Captain’s interested in Oswald is because he’s let children die himself (cf, Small Worlds, C of E), albeit for apparently more altruistic reasons.

So bits of Jane Espenson's first episode are competently written and they should be given the writer’s pedigree. She has the character’s voices down pat (assuming that’s not just Russell rewriting everything) and the slightly (slightly?) melodramatic tone that leaps from melancholy to pantomime. She’s not a writer (I don’t think) who imprints their own style on a piece. You couldn’t look at this and the Shindig episode of Firefly and know they both by her I don’t think. But it certainly screens more like an episode of Torchwood than last week’s mess and as ever the developing group dynamic is the most compelling element.

Except there’s a suspicion it's all designed to stop the viewer from noticing that not much is actually happening. There's the news about the Phicorp drugs company knowing or even instigating Miracle Day and Oswald’s emergence as an advocate but again the wider implications are all playing out on television screens and amongst colourless scientists. Lots of words spoken but no piercing images or big, unexpected surprises that make us want to watch the next week or keep us thinking about the implications in the hours in between, the candle wielding cult being something of a fair use legislation baiting cliche.

The action scenes are also perfunctory. Pretty girls tricking security guards? Boring doctor attends a Phicorp meeting and lets Gwen in through the backdoor after which we’re subjected to the almost being caught in an office whilst filling a dongle scene which Spooks stopped doing years ago when they realised Alias was doing it funnier and sexier (or something). Both betray an Exec Producer who’s so used to using a sonic screwdriver and psychic paper to get their characters into the next bit of story he’s forgotten how to do that with some novelty in a “real world” setting.

Am I expecting too much? We are only at episode three.  As the BBC Wales announcer suggested during the closing credits, we have a long journey ahead.  But by episode three of Inferno, Pertwee had entered a parallel universe!  It’s not unenjoyable, Lauren Ambrose makes sure of that, and it’s fun to see the call-backs to old friends like the camera contact lenses injecting some of the alien magic which were the best aspects of earlier series. But we (as opposed to the not we) do seem to be back to the point were we’re watching the thing because it’s a Doctor Who spin-off rather than because it’s particularly compelling television.

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