Thursday, September 15, 2011

Still Waiting for a Miracle: Final Thoughts About Torchwood: Miracle Day

Miracle Day presents some interesting story ideas that aren't developed to a satisfying conclusion. It is a collection of widely dispersed brilliant scenes in search of a cohesive miniseries.













Like the 10 episodes of Miracle Day, my comments—written in the hours after I watched “The Blood Line” but posted after the episode’s U.K. broadcast—span a wide range of topics and may seem largely disjointed. As a Torchwood fan since the first season and a Captain Jack fan since 2005, I realize that my reactions are biased and not those of the target audience, those new to Torchwood. Aiming for new viewers is understandably necessary for Starz in particular to gain ratings and subscribers, but that strategy left me dissatisfied with Miracle Day’s plot and character development. I was unhappy with some plot developments in Children of Earth, but I still watch the excellent Day 1 again and again and share Children of Earth with students in my university classes. I won’t do either with Miracle Day, despite some wonderfully written and acted individual scenes.

What I liked:

1.The Redemption of Jack

Jack Harkness will never be a traditional hero, but he becomes far less of a dark hero with his redemption by the end of Miracle Day. Scenes illustrating the redemption of Jack portray him with Christ-like imagery (in “Immortal Sins” and “The Blood Line”), which is always going to be controversial, given everything Jack has done in his many lives. Jack has served the Torchwood story as a savior/sacrifice many times, and the theme of betrayal, both implicit and explicit, is especially strong in his character’s depiction in Miracle Day. Although not everyone may like to see Jack forgiven, much less redeemed, for some pretty dark actions, I like the idea that at least Jack has been emotionally and psychologically (perhaps “spiritually”) healed and can now move on. Angsty, guilt-ridden Jack is necessary at times, but he’s no fun. Yet this is the Jack that new viewers first come to know, without knowing exactly why he feels the occasional need to mention Ianto or the Doctor. He seems like a fallen leader, but new viewers haven't seen--and don't get to see--Jack as a leader in this miniseries. Maybe the Jack that older fans (like me) enjoyed in previous stories will now be able to return.

2. “Immortal Sins”

“Immortal Sins”—my favorite episode—brings back loving, tender Jack, as well as naughty rogue Jack, who seems more con man than Torchwood operative in this backstory. He poignantly tries to find a companion of his own. Perhaps this impulse reflects his desire to become as “good” as he (then) thinks the Doctor is. This episode shows Jack as he is meant to be—controversial, dangerous, even betrayed. He is not and should never be a typical hero character. He probably should never lead Torchwood. He should be an elusive rogue who beguiles us with his capacity to love but horrifies as well as intrigues us with his dark side, which is why "Immortal Sins" is my top episode in Miracle Day.

3. Especially the car scene in “Immortal Sins”

Jack’s and Gwen’s confrontation is probably the only Miracle Day scene I’ll replay far too many times. Gwen tells Jack, “At the end, I finally understand you.” So did I, Gwen, and that alone was worth Miracle Day. Well written, well acted, tightly paced, this scene has everything—friendship, love, betrayal, and manipulation, along with bondage!

4. Jack’s immortality

Captain Jack regains his immortality and, hope springs eternal, he will live in Doctor Who or Torchwood stories, whether canon or fanon, for a long time to come. Jack is one of the best characters to come along in SF, especially when he can work as a free agent or with an entourage of likable, diverse, equally dysfunctional characters. His role as a consultant who occasionally drops the Doctor’s name into a conversation isn’t nearly as interesting, but what’s the point of immortality if you don’t have the time to learn from your missteps and do something different next time?

5. Rhys and Andy

These characters had some fantastic moments that proved the actors who play them can do far more than they have been previously given. Whether playfully painting a wall, reining in Gwen’s desire to run off with Torchwood, or begging for more time with his dying father-in-law, Kai Owen’s Rhys is marvelous. His humor and deft touch lighten scenes appropriately and provide that proverbial breath of fresh air amid the heavy drama. Rhys’ compassion in the charnel (ware)house provides the right gravitas and dignity to a scene that could have been just about another death. Kudos to Tom Price, too. I especially applaud a scene in “The Blood Line” in which Andy holds the hand of a friendless, dying girl so that she isn't alone in her final moments. Price used his body language and expression to convey all that Andy felt, giving the scene depth and emphasizing that the power of a human connection doesn’t always require a lot of exposition.

6. The beach scene in "The New World"

It's fast and furious. It has rocket launchers, massive explosions, Rhossili Bay, Captain Jack driving a getaway jeep, and the happiest baby ever! It's over the top, unbelievable, and exciting! It's--dare I say--fun! Yeah, I'd be smirking, too, Jack/John. I had as much fun watching it as you did filming it.

What I disliked:

1. Episodes’ loss of focus (and loss of characters)

As another of my favorite BBC-depicted characters, Sherlock, complains, “Bored. Bored. BORED.” I metaphorically shot the wall during many scenes. I often couldn't see the point, even in retrospect, of individual scenes or characters as I pieced together clues about the miracle (and this I confess as a LOST fan familiar with clue gathering). So much of the time I just didn’t care, or when I cared, I tried not to care too much because, as the Ninth Doctor often said, “everything dies.” Everything, everyone, everywhere—in Miracle Day, the only new characters I liked, Esther Drummond and Vera Juarez, perish, leaving me with fewer people to root for. I really thought Esther was going to make it to the final credits, but no. She couldn’t survive the last 10 minutes. I became desensitized to character death to the point that nothing shocked me, and the number of explosions, shootings, and immolations just became, frankly, boring.

2. The story’s unrealized potential

I mourn the missed opportunities of what could have been 1) an interesting medical drama with SF overtones (even if no aliens were involved), 2) a creepy apocalyptic tale of what happens to an immortalized world, or 3) a Captain Jack story in which his past, yet again, returns to haunt not only him but everyone he touches. Pick one. Any of the three had a good deal of potential that could have been developed in 10 or fewer hours. Also, I’d have liked to have seen more done with the Soulless or the Blessing, two visually interesting and potentially thought-provoking concepts. All those global questions worth serious consideration that were raised in the first few episodes vanished as the plot went on, and on, and on. Although the many plot threads did become more clearly interwoven during the final episodes concerning the families and the Blessing, I’m still trying to unravel a few knots and stitch together some ragged holes.

3. An unclear series identity

Torchwood needs to decide what it wants to be now that it’s reportedly all grown up. I still observed lots of growing pains, resulting in episodes with wildly uneven tone from scene to scene. The final scenes with the Blessing in “The Blood Line” didn’t bother me much. After all, they return Torchwood to the familiar highly dramatic, a bit over the top climax, with some very human touches--typically entertaining, old-style Torchwood denouement. What did bother me was the slapstick humor used in "Rendition"'s scene of Jack’s poisoning, a tonal anomaly in the rather serious first episodes that tried to establish the urgency of the "miracle." Dark humor is one thing. Hysterically ripping up cables to make an antidote is another (as is re-using Jack’s Nostrovite makeup to make us realize how ill he is).

4. “Immortal Sins” as a stand-alone episode

“Immortal Sins” is, for better or worse, a stand-alone episode. As much as I enjoyed the concepts and much of their execution (although I got the point during Jack’s first execution and didn’t need to see quite so much blood), I was troubled that “Immortal Sins” doesn’t easily mesh with other episodes. It does lead to the Blessing and revelations about the miracle, but the episode takes the scenic route to clues. However, this episode was the most compelling to watch, simply because Jack is a compelling character who can carry an episode on his own. Too often in Miracle Day he was sidelined as a backseat driver or advisor. Unfortunately, I can’t even show this episode as part of a class discussion about Jack as an SF character—like the BBC, I would have to cut scenes and probably receive many complaints about graphic content. I like to watch Starz in my living room, but watching it in a classroom of teenagers would be difficult, personally and professionally.

5. Talking heads

Explication, explication, EXPLICATION. Although Miracle Day’s story resulted in 10 drawn-out episodes, the plot alternately meanders among or skips over important on-screen developments, which then are explicated by a talking head. A rousing speech here or there is expected and, if done well, applauded. Most often, however, show me instead of talk to me about it.

6. Rex

Rex Matheson is the new Jack Harkness. Miracle Day spent far too much time comparing Jack with Rex and developing the latter as an American CIA version of the former. It doesn’t work nearly as well as the writers thought it should. Jack is unique, even if he now has begat another immortal who might, I fear, be poised to take his place in future Torchwood stories (as he has in one of the recently published novels). With the ascension of Rex as an American immortal agent, comfortable with the existence of aliens on earth but better versed in crime-fighting methods, Captain Jack is unnecessary to new Torchwood—at least from a writer’s perspective. No matter how talented Mekhi Phifer is or how much later episodes tried to soften Rex’s abrasive personality, I only have eyes for one immortal—and it’s not Rex.

You might have noticed that my "likes" are very specific, whereas my "dislikes" are broad generalizations. That difference sums up my Miracle Day viewing experience.

Miracle Day ultimately is an interesting international experiment between two powerhouses with wildly divergent audiences and programming histories. The hypothesis that BBC and Starz can gain a wider market share by pooling resources and redirecting a cult series for a mainstream adult audience still should be tested. Experiments are often inconclusive and should be replicated (but maybe not with a hybrid Torchwood).

Don’t misunderstand me—I believe deep in my geeky, SF-loving heart that Torchwood is a worthwhile concept that could still be developed as a viable cult series that ends up making money and earning critical acclaim. As some fans have mentioned, perhaps Torchwood: US could become a separate series from Torchwood: UK, just as each Being Human or Law & Order has a separate cast and different stories, although each series shares the same original concept with its across-the-pond counterpart.

If, however, future Torchwood episodes are vetoed and Captain Jack and company become free agents, here are some other possible spinoffs I’d watch:

Zombie Torchwood (All the dead come back to life, a kind of Walking Dead in Cardiff)

Romcom Rhys (whether as stay-at-home dad or a single parent is up to Gwen and her devotion to Torchwood)

The A-Files (Andy becomes a combo Mulder-Scully-styled paranormal investigator who balances his newly honed police investigation skills with his love for “spooky-do’s”)

Gwen, Warrior Princess—or Road Warrior (Remember the way she looked in leather, on a bike, against a flaming backdrop?)

(Don't laugh at my suggestions. Just look at the number of prequels and miniseries SyFy has generated since Battlestar Galactica's finale.)

If the former Torchwood “team” remains as divided, by temperament or geography, as they have been in Miracle Day, why not let each character play to his or her strengths?

Let me brainstorm one more spinoff idea: Against all odds, the baby TARDIS on Jack’s desk in the Hub survives, just like Gwen’s contact lenses. As it grows up, the TARDIS calls to Jack, who then returns to Cardiff before the two begin a new series of intergalactic adventures (perhaps quite adult—hey, I saw the potential in “The Doctor’s Wife”). More important, they travel the stars, fight some aliens, make love to others, and eventually pop by a huge anniversary party held in the Doctor’s behalf. Now that’s the kind of Miracle I’m looking for.


  1. This season was so disappointing that part of me wishes that the show would die a merciful death.

    But if it doesn’t, here are my 5 wishes for any future series:

  2. I could say a lot about why I thought Miracle Day was just a mess. Really shockingly bad at points, lazy writing, all the plot points left to hang, I mean what was the point of Oswald Danes? What happened to the Soulless? Suddenly at the end they introduced the bankers and a eugenics sub plot? I really didn't like the American thing as well, apart from anything else it showed up how important the Welshness had been, and there was no quirkiness, it was all so dull and worthy, with lots of standing about saying expositiion.

    The writers (or maybe Russell T Davies) in their hubris have left it open for further shows, unlike Children of Earth which was pretty tied up. Yet Children of Earth garnered about 7 million viewers a day. Miracle Day started OK, but dropped viewers to the point of only having about 4 million by the end. The US figures were less than a million. So I don't see why they would continue, but these things often do!!

    The only thing I would be interested in is prequels, set in Cardiff. Or even a Lost Files series, as those radio plays were dead cute, and so much more Torchwood than Miracle Day..