The following is a mostly spoiler-free review.
I have never been a fan of Jane Espenson. She’s written for a lot of science fiction TV shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Battlestar Galactica (the new one). She has shone occasionally, as in the brilliant Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode, “Conversations With Dead People“; though I suspect her co-writers reined in her tendency to write sloppy, over-emoting fan fiction. (Sorry, Jane, that’s how I feel.) When I learned she would be the show runner for Caprica, it was one more reason not to watch that now cancelled show.
And when I learned that Jane was to be one of the key writers bringing Torchwood to American TV, I truly despaired. To her credit, Jane has regularly been posting behind-the-scenes comments about the production of Torchwood on AfterElton.com. (The site takes an interest because Torchwood is one of those few big budget shows that features an openly gay man –John Barrowman– as the lead.) But reading her observations about what the writers and producers seemed to value most caused me to worry further…. it was starting to sound increasingly like… well, the best term is still “fan fiction.” I trust you will know what I mean by that.
Now, I was not a fan of the first season of the very successful Dr Who spin-off, as evidenced in this review. Despite the undeniable charm of the show’s lead, the self-defined omnisexual Captain Jack Harkness, an immortal human who used to be one of the Doctor’s traveling companions, the show was self-obsessed and precious. But things got much better in the second season.
And, in the third season… whoa, Nelly! Torchwood: Children of Earth, the 3rd season’s limited mini-series style run, was an unabashed masterpiece. I have declared proudly and loudly that it was the finest bit of televised science fiction I’ve seen in years, perhaps even decades.
One of Torchwood‘s appeals is its courage to kill of main characters and to think big. At the end of Children of Earth, the team was all but massacred, and its heroes had committed unspeakable crimes. Where could they possibly take the show next?
America was the answer. Moving from BBC to the Starz network in the USA meant more money, a new international flavour, and an attempt to broaden Torchwood‘s audience to the prized US demographic. This meant playing with some of the show’s iconography, moving it from charming Cardiff to various international locations, though mostly focusing on the USA. And it meant adding an army of American co-stars, including delicious cameos from faces from other science fiction cult shows, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and The X-files.
Torchwood: Miracle Day was a 10 part outing that saw the team tackle its biggest challenge yet. While Children of Earth focused on the creepy global phenomenon of all of Earth’s children “stopping” for no reason, Miracle Day tackled the big question: what happens if no one can die? That’s right. On one fine afternoon, “the miracle” happened, and all human beings found themselves to be immortal… just like Captain Jack. But unlike Jack, we regular humans can still be injured. We can be burnt or decapitated… but we go on living. It’s a special kind of horrific hell.
And what about Jack? Well, he’s now the only mortal man on the planet.
Miracle Day purports to tell the tale of how the “miracle” happened and why, and what the team must do to set the world right again. But where it gets everything right is in its courage to consider all the possible ramifications of sudden immortality. Will there be enough food? Can drug companies produce enough pain killers for all of us who must now persist in agony? If no one dies, how quickly will the Earth be overrun with humans (moreso than it presently is). What about those who are terminally ill and cannot care for themselves, but who refuse to die? How can we care for such people?
The dimensions of, and solutions to, these concerns are truly horrifying, as is the show’s accurate portrayal of the popular reaction. Much like in Children of Earth, head writer Russel Davies seems to have a knack for seeing the subtle, realistic and dark side of otherwise good people. We all think it’s wrong to burn people alive, for example; but Davies rightly presents a scenario in which, very quickly, citizens would accept such a practice as a regular and justifiable occurrence.
So without revealing too many plot points, let’s break down the good and bad of Miracle Day. First, the good:
- The premise is simply fantastic. This is what science fiction is supposed to be about!
- No one is safe. You just don’t know which of your favourite characters might get knocked off in any given episode.
- The actors were all seasoned and competent.
- The mystery of the “miracle” unwound in an intriguing fashion that keeps you coming back for more.
And the bad:
- Like most Torchwood offerings, there is just way too much overacting and over-emoting. I’m a fan of John Barrowman’s portrayal of Jack Harkness, but Barrowman needs to turn it down sometimes. I’ve seens clips of him doing the drag queen thing, and there’s a touch of that in almost every scene he’s in. There’s not a lot of subtlty in anyone’s performance, and sometimes it caused me to turn away in embarassment.
- My favourite character was killed off fairly early. I won’t tell you who that was, but you can probably guess.
- I know that Russel Davies was trying to say something profound by having the child-killer Oswald Danes play such a prominent role in this show; but for the life of me, I don’t know what it was. I think I’d feel better about Danes if his behaviour had been consistent and if his path were more clear. As it was, his entire subplot felt like filler.
- Indeed, several complete episodes were filler-like. This whole series could have been wrapped up, like Children of Earth, in 5 or 6 episodes.
- The last couple of minutes of the ending: cheesy and not worthy of Torchwood‘s legacy.
- The resolution to the great mystery was ultimately disappointing. Russel Davies as a history of preferring the deus ex machina ending, letting his characters flush out the quality of his tales. Well, the characters were insufficient to the task, I’m sorry to say.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, Miracle Day was disappointing. But it was also ambitious and entertaining. For something that I got for free on TV, I don’t think I wasted my time by watching it. In fact, several of the themes and concepts will linger with me for months, if not years; and, really, that is the defining characteristic of any good entertainment product.
For many of us, the tragedy of Miracle Day is how it failed to surpass, or at least equal, the transcendence of Children of Earth. I blame clumsy pacing and poor direction, and way too many pointless plot mis-directions and wasted subplots. I fear that Miracle Day‘s stumbles may spell the death of the show in its entirety.
But for me, I always feel that a top notch concept and base story trumps everything: acting, special effects, direction, etc. (Hey, I’m a Babylon 5 fan. That should tell you something.) So I will probably re-watch Miracle Day at some point, to look for the hidden bits of wisdom and foreshadowing. However, if you’ve never before seen Torchwood, I implore you to begin with Children of Earth.
I’ll leave you with one last observation. There are three important and cryptic names that pop up in Miracle Day: Ablemarch, Costerdane and Frines. There was some limited hysteria on the internet when someone pointed out that those names can be rearranged to spell, “Ian and Barbara Chesterton.” You see, in Doctor Who‘s original incarnation, the Chestertons were his first traveling companions. And as was mentioned in The Sarah Jane Adventures, the Chestertons appear to be unaging. This revelation made Russel Davies appear truly long-planning. The problem with this analysis is that the letters of “Ablemarch, Costerdane, Frines” can NOT be rearranged to spell “Ian and Barbara Chesterton.”
The lesson: the internet is filled with morons.
PS. There’s a good review of Miracle Day over at io9.