Revisiting Torchwood: Miracle Day

Andrew's Torchwood look-back reevaluates the often maligned Miracle Day, a series that's far from being without merit...

This feature contains Torchwood spoilers.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a short article, but, as it turns out, I would watch Miracle Day if someone paid me to do it.

Considering the series’ reputation you’d be forgiven for thinking it has no redeeming features (it has), had poor AI (it didn’t), and was critically panned (it wasn’t). Its viewing figures were solid, but unexceptional. Its Audience Appreciation Index scores were firmly in the ‘Good – Excellent’ range, but it is regarded as being overlong, inconsistent and lacking in aliens. So, what does Miracle Day do well? 

It’s best to think of Miracle Day as being another series one for Torchwood. It’s a first attempt, a series that would doubtless improve if given the chance to focus on its successes, as series two did before. The intertron has no time for romantic notions of exploring new territories and expanding horizons, we want commodity and we want it now. 

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The most obvious positives from Miracle Day are its characters: the regulars/survivors are all present and correct, albeit with a surprisingly low-key Captain Jack. If you don’t like them by now, then that isn’t going to change. Just for variety, and because everyone else is dead, Miracle Day introduces us to Rex Matheson (Mekhi Pfifer), Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose) and Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman). 

Mekhi Pfifer is given a much better charismatic dickhead to play than Burn Gorman. In contrast Bill Pullman, Russell T. Davies and his fellow writers really don’t soften how horrible Oswald Danes is at all, all the while setting him up as a new saint via careful deployment of Jilly Kitzinger, the modern Prometheus. 

Kitzinger is happily complicit in the promotion of the miracle via Danes, whom she despises. Outwardly dippy and blathering, suppressing her own feelings to do her job, Jilly is driven by ambition that, if not naked, is definitely performing the dance of the seven veils. The fact that Danes is set up as a figure of benevolence, inspiring almost religious devotion is one of the best aspects of Miracle Day: the media can generate reverence in anyone, even the most loathsome individual whose crimes are widely known to the general public. That Danes’ character is unforgiveable – yet charismatic and captivating  – is an indictment of a media capable of sanitising absolutely anything to further an agenda. 

Rex Matheson’s character also addresses Torchwood’s cheerful disregard for common sense and strategy (we witness plenty of their ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ style of espionage), mainly by telling them that they’re wrong and stupid. Throughout Miracle Day Rex is usually right when he warns people not to do things, but no-one listens to him, because he’s really angry and it’s fun winding him up (and besides he’ll probably shoot at it later). Imagine how much shorter series one and two of Torchwood would have been if Rex been there. 

In Escape to L.A. Esther Drummond (the new Tosh) is proving herself classic Torchwood Agent material: during a top secret mission she makes a highly personal call and is upset when she gets her sister incarcerated and her children placed into foster care. This ever so slightly compromises things. Then Gwen gets a call from Rhys. Textbook. Fortunately Mekhi Pfifer is snarling and on the case: A surly, pill-chugging, cocksure wise-ass with a soft underbelly, Rex is like America: The Guy. 

Miracle Day suffers from following the most popular series of Torchwood. The idea of avoiding an alien big bad and focussing on human exploitation of the paranormal is a sound one. A situation develops where idealism and hope aren’t enough, and people are reduced to living in a world not unlike Stalinist Russia: purges, repression, acceptance. The gamble of doing something different for the series’ underlying mystery doesn’t entirely pay off, but that isn’t to say the concept is bad. Indeed, it’s taking some of the most successful elements from Children of Earth and trying to put a fresh twist on them. 

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The scenes of the British Cabinet trying to establish a procedure for selecting children is just a bunch of people in a room, talking, but put into an impossible position. Miracle Day seems to have been extrapolated from this idea, increased in scale to a point where there is public support for death camps. Whereas the public fought back in Children of Earth, here they are overwhelmed and complicit. The episodes featuring these are where the Biblical scale comes to the fore. New messiahs, new communication channels to preach down, new Jesuses with unwilling PRs. Aliens and villains are a means to an end, plot-wise, like the crop-destroying plague in The Death of Grass. It’s how people react to things that makes them interesting, right? Ideally the plot device will be intrinsically interesting too, but that doesn’t mean it has to come from outer space. 

Also, theoretically, it is considered a plus when science-fiction predicts future events, yeah? 

For example, in the wake of the NHS Bill in the UK and the ongoing Obamacare issues in the States, Miracle Day seems very prescient. There’s a death camp run by the kind of man you expect to see played by Ricky Gervais, a man who snaps and immolates people alive because he can’t handle criticism. There’s a pharmaceutical giant run by whatsisname from Ghostbusters that’s using the situation to sell more drugs and is getting a death-fixated paedophile to act as a spokesman. Extreme, perhaps hyperbolic, yes, but it’s easy to read this as a critique of privatised medicare especially with the benefit of hindsight. 

With the co-production from Starz hoping to win new viewers overseas, we are also treated to another demonstration of how immortality and long-term relationships are awkward bedfellows. Angelo and Jack are in love, and Angelo has received some character development: he is surely going to die. The only surprise is that it’s of old age, and after a Daniel Day-Lewis cosplayer troupe hack Jack up in a basement. A largely self-contained episode, Immortal Sins has a gleeful abandon more akin to something from the original run and demonstrates that the serial can progress while an episode has its own internal story going on. 

At the time of writing, we do not know if Torchwood will return to television. It has been continued in the form of audiobooks and novels in the meantime. If another series is ever made with Starz, more episodes along these lines would be welcomed, although I for one would welcome a series based entirely around Jack, Gwen, Rex and Jilly travelling around in a van solving mysteries. 

Either way, it might give people cause to re-evaluate Miracle Day as a series that is far from being without merit.

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