Five years ago today, on September 9th 2011, Torchwood left our screens with the last episode of the show's (currently) final season, Miracle Day. In honour of the event, I thought it would be good to take a look at perhaps the least-celebrated part of Torchwood’s uneven run. It’s no secret that I didn’t like the fourth series very much and I have been extremely critical of it before – but it’s not without merit. Yes, Miracle Day suffers because it had to follow the pretty much flawless Children of Earth, but we can't judge it for not being as good as that, we must judge it on its own merits, as you should anything else. As such I thought I would examine what went wrong with Miracle Day and then ask whether it could be redeemed, and how it could be fixed.
First Problem: It’s too long and has too much padding.
Why It’s A Problem: Children of Earth had five episodes. As a result it was forced to keep the narrative tight and focussed. It managed this exquisitely. When the US cable company Starz got hold of Torchwood for its fourth season they initially wanted to greatly expand that episode count, the ten episodes we got was a compromise! Sadly ten was still too many. Having the extended episode count, without the reduced running time to accommodate it, left some empty space for the writers to fill. And fill it they did! As a result we have some of most poorly disguised padding in, quite possibly, the entire history of television. We have new subplots being introduced left, right and centre with several new characters showing up because of this. And all it does is give the miniseries less focus on the story it actually wants (or appears to want) to tell.
How To Fix It: It’s easy to fix this one! All that was needed was to reduce the episode count. We had ten hours for only five (at most) hours of story. It’s unlikely that Starz would have agreed to reduce the episode count so here’s my proposal – Torchwood as per usual, simply with the immortality stuff going on alongside it like a story arc. (Doctor Who was doing The Silence at the same time so why not this too?) This would’ve opened up a whole host of potential to mine that will now, sadly, never be tapped into.
Second Problem: Too many characters.
Why It’s A Problem: With all the filler that I touched upon above it’s not surprising that there’s a VERY large cast list for the miniseries. Of the four leads half are newcomers and these two get more screen time. As well as Rex and Esther stealing the limelight there’s also a whole host of others who show up exclusively to fill the extra time that the writers didn’t know what to do with. While it was good to see a tonne of famous actors from a variety of classic TV shows and movies (with people from the likes of Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Jurrassic Park and more than one version of Star Trek getting a look in, and that’s just for starters), the writers let this get in the way and we didn’t get enough time with the people we were actually watching it for, namely Jack and Gwen.
How To Fix It: Another easy one to fix! (That’s becoming a bit of a theme here…) The simple solution is to reduce the episode count – as I said, this was never gonna happen – so what the writers needed to do was get rid off the needless subplots and endless roll-call of newcomers. I understand that new characters were needed since by this point Torchwood’s original cast of six had been dropped to just two, so obviously new ones were necessary to fill the gaps, but we didn’t need as many as we got! Rex and Esther both hog much of the screen time, but at least in-story there’s justification for it, however several other characters are given much longer than they need. Various agents of “The Family” come and go for various reasons. My proposal then is that the show should’ve reduced the numbers and focussed only on a select few. Take the convicted-pedophile-turned-celebrity Oswald Danes for example. Bill Pullman is absolutely wonderful with a complex character and gets to give a multi-layered performance every time he’s on screen, the story ultimately ending with an act of self-sacrifice to save the world. The writers should’ve taken the more interesting characters like him and focused there, rather than wasting time with annoying or useless characters who show up for only two or three episodes to fill time and pad out the story.
Third Problem: It’s Americanised.
Why It’s A Problem: Miracle Day’s status as a co-production with the US-based Starz is one of the most glaring issues with the miniseries. The fact is that the US company, advertising it as their own “original series” (which is a blatant lie), were out to pander to the American public. The result felt less like Torchwood and more like another season of 24 with added aliens. In place of the quintessentially British charm we were treated to loads of guns, explosions, etc. and it just wasn’t the same anymore. Style had replaced substance. The show’s effective showrunner for series one and series two, Chris Chibnall, puts it best in an interview with Starburst Magazine saying
“I did a bit of very early storylining with Russell [T Davies] on Miracle Day, right at the start, before they pitched it to Fox, before they pitched it to Starz. I think somewhere along the way it sort of lost a little bit of its Torchwood-ness. Whether you like or dislike Torchwood, it has an essence – of madness and cheekiness and sexiness and fun and darkness, those sort of polar facets of what it’s about, of putting those things together – and somehow it lost a bit of that somewhere in the process. When we were first talking about it, it was something a bit bolder, a bit cheekier. It may just come back to the fact that one of the great essences of Torchwood was taking those American tropes and doing them in Wales. And in a way, that’s what made Torchwood so brilliantly odd. Once you put it in California, it becomes more like other shows.”But this is coming from the man whose Torchwood scripts include sex-gas and Cyberwomen, so I’ll let you be the judge on that.
Another complaint of note is the way the story ended with a bafflingly dumb cliffhanger, typical of many American shows where the writers naively assume another season is on the cards without the knowledge that such a thing will happen. What else are The Families planning? Is Rex immortal (like Jack) now? We’ll never know. Though honestly, I don’t mind if we never touch these subject matter again!
How To Fix It: A more difficult one this. I think the key lies early in Chibnall’s comment above where he mentions doing story ideas with Davies “before they pitched it to [America]” – and that’s where the problems were. The other two problems I consider to be the biggest were about the oversaturation of characters and having too many episodes, and both come down to the American influences. The solution then is simple: Don’t pitch it overseas! Surely after the phenomenal success of Children Of Earth the BBC would’ve approved more Torchwood if Davies had asked them? Surely a superfan like Davies would’ve known how much the Americans screwed up Doctor Who when they got hold of it in 1996? In fact, we know for a fact that Davies felt they messed that one up from all the subtle putdowns he litters series one with! I really don’t know what he was thinking when he went overseas, I really don’t!
So there you go, these are the three biggest problems with Miracle Day and how I believe they could have easily been fixed. Alas, nobody at the time was able to foresee how negatively the overwhelming majority of both critics and fans would respond to the final product. The worst part of these issues is that, as we have seen, it wouldn’t have taken too much effort from anyone to fix them, with no shortage of opportunities all the way through the production process to put things right.
The whole thing is a very frustrating watch when you realise just how close they were to making a worthy follow-up to Children Of Earth, yet they couldn’t do that. Not only does it pale in comparison to that, but if we apply the condition I introduced at the outset and judge it simply on its own merits it still fails to be a good piece of television in its own right.
One possible way to view Miracle Day five years on from its initial broadcast is to see it as a failed experiment. As an attempt to co-produce a show with production across two continents it sets an exciting precedent and serves as proof that such a thing is possible. Maybe next time try something new rather than a cult-favourite and then you won’t disappoint so much, hmm? Because at the very least Miracle Day is a competently made miniseries with an interesting premise and one hell of a great cast, it’s just a shame that it failed to deliver on so many other things.
It should come as no surprise that no subsequent fifth season of Torchwood ever materialised. Thankfully in the last year the wonderful geniusses at Big Finish got the rights to it and have continued to produce top quality additions to the Torchwood canon with stories focussing on all aspects of the show’s history, both before series one, during the show's run and after series four. But it’s still not back on TV yet and for that reason Miracle Day will be remembered best as a franchise killer, and it’s not hard to see why.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.