Neo’s written on essay on TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY (series 4).
Why did the season feel like it was plotted for five episodes, when it was actually plotted for thirteen? Was going to America an iterative move forward, or a misstep? What kind of social commentary was at play? And just how involved was Chris Chibnall?
Plus a ranking of the ten episodes!
Every television series of TORCHWOOD got promoted. It was promoted from BBC3 to BBC2 after the clumsy yet intoxicating first series became the most successful drama in that channel’s history, and it was promoted from BBC2 to BBC1 after the well-oiled second series gained a larger audience. So, after the resounding success of CHILDREN OF EARTH, its applauded five-night event, where was there for the show go? Where else but…America?
Showrunner Russell T Davies had finished his enormously successful run on DOCTOR WHO with David Tennant, and so he (along with producers Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter) was sent off to find new successes in BBC coproductions with American studios. The first of what were to be multiple projects was what was initially reported as a reboot of TORCHWOOD, but was in truth a fourth series (albeit a substantially reinvented series, courting new viewers), coproduced with the premium cable channel Starz. While RTD (Davies) made it a stricture that the show would continue to have some scenes set in the United Kingdom, and that for such scenes all exterior shots (at the very least) would be filmed in the UK itself for authenticity, the bulk of the new series was set in America, made in America, and filled with new American lead characters. One of those new lead characters was none other than Bill Pullman, perhaps the most iconic fictional American president, and the series was peppered with cameos and minor roles from all manner of recognisable American actors. The show seemed giddy about the sort of legitimisation its new budget and pedigree afforded it.
Reinvention was the critical concept for the ‘newly legitimised’ series, for RTD, the characters of the show, and of course the new form and concept of the show itself. Murray Gold’s score frequently employed trendy rock-style guitar effects, new cameras were used, and the first few episodes go for a grander sense of framing, using wide angle lenses and finally actually looking pristinely high-definition in the way the shaky earlier series (the first series being the BBC’s very first drama to be done in high definition, no less) never did. With CHILDREN OF EARTH having been such a success both in terms of the ratings and critical reception, RTD returned to the writer’s room format that series had been mostly broken in.
New American writers were sought out, including Jane Espenson, a prominent writer on the sort of Joss Whedon shows that had inspired TORCHWOOD in the first place. She detailed the process in a blog post released while the series was airing:
‘The plan was that we would meet as a group only briefly, and then we would all be working individually on our episodes. But the group was having so much success – and fun – shaping the overall season and collaborating on the stories, that we ended up extending the room work by several weeks.’
Chris Chibnall, the man who performed head writer duties on the show’s first two series (essentially the effective showrunner much of the time) was also involved in early sessions that sought out a focus for the new series. In an interview released two years after the series had finished, by which time its fairly uniform negative reception was well-entrenched, he said:
‘I did a bit of very early storylining with Russell 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.‘
What Chibnall outlines there in many ways provides a reason the show had to go to America at some point. Were the strengths of the first three series predicated on the novelty of doing American tropes in Wales? Is that all the first series happened upon, in its madcap frenzy to see what sort of a show it could be? Is ‘CSI: Cardiff’ the measure of the show? In TORCHWOOD’s first series, the penultimate episode was the first to really focus on Jack as a character, and it brought him to the setting the character was birthed in, where we first saw him on DOCTOR WHO, to demonstrate the ways in which he’d changed since then, to shine a light on his new purpose and validity. Actually taking the show to America, and having it be partially written by writers who’d worked on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and THE X-FILES and so on, it proved a chance to test out if there was some essential magic and unique flavour and merit to the show that made it worthwhile beyond just being a transatlantic transposition. Of course, the hiccup there was that MIRACLE DAY was not another season in that more procedural, case-of-the-week mould of the show’s first two series. It was, like CHILDREN OF EARTH, broken in a writer’s room, and conceived of as the one mega-story told across a season.
(spoilers for MIRACLE DAY below)
Given that structure, MIRACLE DAY provided less chance to test out an inherent unique style and worth to the show than a more episodic season would have. And even if it were structured like the show’s first two seasons, the majority of MIRACLE DAY’s episodes were written by American writers, particularly Jane Espenson, who seemed to act as a sort of de facto head writer (perhaps similarly to how Chris Chibnall had for the earlier seasons), rewriting other writer’s work and so on. Given how slim the show’s cast had become after many major character deaths, and how unique TORCHWOOD writers like Catherine Tregenna, Peter J. Hammond, and even Chibnall himself did not end up writing episodes of the new season, the question of how much ‘inherent TORCHWOOD spirit’ there was actually in the production is worth pondering. RTD wrote the premiere, and co-wrote the finale, to MIRACLE DAY. John Fay wrote the penultimate episodes to both CHILDREN OF EARTH and MIRACLE DAY. The Americans Jane Espenson, John Shiban, Jim Gray, Doris Egan, and Ryan Scott filled out the rest of the writer’s room.
Episodic sci-fi adventuring, or alien/supernatural sex comedy/drama, or whatever else best describes the first two series of the show is not the sum of TORCHWOOD however. Much like reinvention and change is a core part of DOCTOR WHO, it became a hallmark element of TORCHWOOD too, at least between EXIT WOUNDS, CHILDREN OF EARTH, and MIRACLE DAY itself (and I would argue the first series operated more as a show trying on different hats than the more uniform sci-fi procedure of the second series). As far as reinvention and experiments go, however, MIRACLE DAY’s was by most metrics a failure. It wasn’t received particularly warmly critically, the fan consensus is very widely negative, and the nature of moving to a premium cable channel like Starz (and delaying UK airing of episodes by a week) saw viewership shrink as well. The season was absolutely rife with filler, with the very second episode a ludicrously transparent airborne waste of time, to the point where it’s become a semi-accepted fan consensus that the season was initially plotted to be five episodes, before having to be stretched out because of the demands of Starz or some such.
That is entirely false, and in actual fact the season was initially plotted out to be thirteen episodes. In the home release commentary for THE BLOOD LINE, Julie Gardner expands on how that initial conception had an entirely different finale; ‘when it was a thirteen-part series there was a whole episode virtually that was the coda episode of people dying, and how it changes the world‘, and RTD describes that ‘in [his] favourite version, then the Blessing went into reverse in episode thirteen, it started killing everyone, that was fantastic, and they literally were having to drop a nuke on Shanghai and things like that, there was no way of stopping it, and its sort of malign influence was spreading edge out in a circle a millimetre at a time, but would never stop, would cover the entire world, and if you stood in that field you were dead…ooh it was good, that’. Besides that finale being painfully reminiscent of the similarly wrongfooted mechanism of the demon Abaddon and his shadow in TORCHWOOD’s very first finale, this longer conception of the series shows that the aimlessness of MIRACLE DAY as it was broadcast was not a case of a diamond being dulled and stretched out into floppy incoherence, but something more inbuilt and inherent than that.
There’s certainly some strong character material in the season, particularly in how Jack regresses to a more performative, partying state after the death of Ianto in CHILDREN OF EARTH, in how seriously Gwen takes her family, but the American characters are shakier. The concept of Oswald Danes makes sense, a kind of satire on the lunatic American news cycle, on celebrity paedophiles, but the connective tissue of how exactly he enchants America – and how he then falls out of favour – is nearly entirely absent, which basically renders the character as a series of disconnected setpieces of varying quality. His perversion of a narrative-centring moment in the finale, where he howls despicably evil designs as he effectively saves Jack and Gwen, is a neat bit of manipulated response to Jack prodding at his essential smallness in the world. He sometimes touches on interesting religious aspects that perhaps RTD would have drilled into more had he been more involved in the series, like conceptualising the Miracle as a second Great Leap Forward. But for most of the season he just feels like Bill Pullman doing a good job of chewing the scenery, but in a character with little purpose, ambling around at the edges of the narrative. Gwen saying he’s ‘the first time in my life I’ve met a monster’ rings particularly false as far as her character’s experiences go, but her scenes on a drive with Jack in the seventh episode are the best acting in the series, as her and Jack make plain the limits of their friendship.
The issue with Gwen and Jack’s new friends, Rex and Esther, are that they completely fail to transcend the stock trope nature of their characters. Naoko Mori and especially Burn Gorman were able to undercut the similarly stock nature of their characters, Naoko bringing an idiosyncratic vive and keenly painful sense of vulnerability to Tosh, and Burn bringing a enigmatic, strange masculinity that refused to fit neatly into the secondary-male role he by all rights should have sat in. Rex, as a character, kind of works based off the caustic banter with Jack, and off the essential enjoyability of competence porn characters, but Esther completely fails to rise above the meek tech support role type of role. Rex’s ending, evoking AIDS imagery and acting as some strange kind of karmic rejoinder to his casual homphobia throughout the series as the invasion of Jack’s blood in him ‘infects’ him with some new form of what RTD calls ‘Blessing-supported immortality’, works as a sort of ironic beat, but the cliffhanger nature of it reframes the series in even more unsatisfying terms than its otherwise pallid ending would have anyway. The reasons RTD returned to the UK and didn’t continue an American form of TORCHWOOD were personal, but the lack of televised follow-up nevertheless came across as an unfortunate consequence of the essential failures of the season. TORCHWOOD died another death, but like Rex, it would outlive it – just in a very different form.
The Death of Death
In promoting the series, RTD said ‘the whole point of TORCHWOOD stories now is to take a science-fiction element, a concept, and to drop it into the middle of a society, the middle of us in the western world to see who we’d become then’. What did the concept of the Miracle – humans suddenly gaining immortality – offer, to that end? While there’s a deeper thematic point to be made about the Miracle, the more apparent social commentary is on healthcare. The cultural divide of the series as it intercuts between segments in Wales and the USA offer commentary when we see how the ‘modules’, the burning camps are operated in each nation. The Americans are by-and-large unaware of what happens in them, with soldiers being denied clarifications, and a general sense of bureaucratic mess covering it up. The British modules are organised, called ‘burn units’ with a grim humour, and operated with a wilful ignorance drawing on vague references to superiors making the rules. Oswald Danes goes from initially arguing all healthcare should be free, to smoothly ‘clarifying that he meant access to healthcare should be free, i.e. there should be no need for prescriptions. He’s flat-out told by his public relations manager that ‘I got you these essays by John Maynard Keynes. You’ve got interviews about fixing the economy tomorrow. Mostly you’ll just call for more deregulation and a resumption of burning’.
Those examples are all well and good, but they’re few and far between in a series that spends infinitely more time on CIA runarounds than it does on any sort of actual examination on the human element of this newfound immortality, on what the actual lived experience is like for those so ill and ‘inconvenient that governments burn them alive to get rid of them. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short scene where the character of Dr. Vera Juarez reverses and reinvents the entire process of triage, and there are some similar scenes interested in how the actual process of healthcare would be affected by the Miracle in the second and third episodes, but the series quickly gets to the point where it’s all burnings, where Vera herself is burned, and where it all becomes higher stakes happenings like conspiracies and moles and explosions and whatnot. At one point, Vera actually says ‘we don’t deserve this Miracle’, as if what the series seemed to quite clearly portray as a twisted endpoint of the anti-euthanasia, death-pathologising attitudes people hold as they avoid the very natural and human factor and experience of death. What was the point of the Miracle, if the show is more interested in conspiracy runarounds – which can be generated by any matter of narrative starting point – instead of more specific commentary on life and death?
The same can be said of food shortages, and other issues a worldwide lack of death would cause. Such issues are brought up frequently in newsreader montages, and get a moment of highlight at the beginning of the penultimate episode, where Gwen steals supplies to herself sell to others in the neighbourhood, but, as with the experience of the immortally sick, are generally treated as abstractions. Stakes, rather than story. Before the title of TORCHWOOD: MIRACLE DAY had been decided upon, Starz suggested the title of TORCHWOOD: THE DEATH OF DEATH. As far as treatment of the topic goes, that feels fairly accurate.
Seven Hours and Fifty-Five Minutes
Most of the season is set up like a mystery narrative. The first episode casts Torchwood, Jack and Gwen themselves, as the mystery, a sleek bit of reorinteering to raise intrigue as to how the characters have developed since CHILDREN OF EARTH, as well as introduce the characters to new viewers. The first nine episodes of the series, all seven hours and fifty-five minutes of them, treat the Miracle itself as a mystery. Why did it happen? What caused it? What does it mean? Well, in the home release commentary for the premiere, RTD clarifies ‘it’s a very odd series in that – and I love it for its oddness, I genuinely love it for its oddness – it’s because this has been done invisibly be people who are out of reach, and have made themselves invisible, the whole drama has to treat the Families and the Blessing and the Miracle as invisible. And normally, the normal way of telling this is to cut to a powerful boardroom full of men in black suits going “ha ha, the Miracle has been successful, the Blessing will stay hidden”, you know? And all that sort of stuff. And we just sort of said “if you do that, then you’re going to make Torchwood, and the CIA, and the whole world look stupid”. It’s like the entire drama is actually based around the fact that they can’t work out what’s going on, and it takes until episode nine for everyone to be in the right position for them to get the clues. It literally takes that long. If it doesn’t take that long, then the whole thing hasn’t been believably hidden. So it’s a very big risk….so you need nine weeks of exposition to get to that point’.
In the commentary for the finale, he says ‘the whole thing, the reason that they take ten hours to find out what’s going on, ’cause there’s no Time Lord, there’s no TARDIS, there’s no special knowledge…it has to take this long, because there’s no Time Lord there….I keep loving the odd structure of this, even though we’re saying this before transmission and I expect it will have driven people mad. All the exposition at the end! It’s like it’s literally bottom-heavy, you wait and wait and wait…but everything is answered, I think you do get an answer, but it’s the cheekiest format you could have done….it just wilfully does the opposite…it literally says “no one knows who’s done this, and that’s the rule we’re going to stick through, all the way through to the end”‘.
I question whether probing the question of when to start a drama, and what a DOCTOR WHO-esque plot would be like isolated from DOCTOR WHO (something CHILDREN OF EARTH made a point of doing) was the best angle for the American launch of TORCHWOOD. There was so much inherent to the concept of the Miracle itself that would’ve been interesting explore, but instead the series seems structured more like an exercise in how many episodes before a climax is it appropriate to start a television series. The bizarre feeling of the finale, so separate to the rest of the series, seems clearer not just as a result of RTD – whose hand was noticeably absent in several of the season’s scripts, leading to noticeable continuity errors at times – writing it, but also that it was a generative point the rest of the show had essentially been a prequel to. That point falls into a tradition of RTD’s that felt painfully in appropriate for this story, that of riffing off Illumanti-esque organisations, New World Order conspiracies and so on (as in ALIENS OF LONDON | WORLD WAR THREE, THE LONG GAME, BAD WOLF | THE PARTING OF THE WAYS, YEARS AND YEARS, etc.). It’s not just that one of final scenes of the season is a cliffhanger tease of the conspiratorial Three Families having an even bigger plan to enact, but that ascribing the Miracle and the many societal abscesses it exposed to an ungrounded conspiracy trope robs the efficacy of any social commentary it was actually attempting.
The Old World
On that note, it’s actually a member of the Three Families that brings the main theme of the season into clarity, when in the finale she says, in response to Gwen pointing out the post-Miracle world was having ruinous effects upon the poor, ‘That’s the way the world works. Now, we’re just making it official’. Oswald’s former public relations manager agrees – ‘Listen, you can bleed your liberal heart all over the place, but are you really going to tell me the world was working before? Because I have worked for the rich and the powerful and the obese. I have stared into the high end of Western society and let me tell you, it is like shovelling an open sewer’.
This idea, that the rot and inequality in society is so systemic, so deep-set, that even an event as transformative as the Miracle wouldn’t change it, that it would instead only exacerbate the failings already present, that’s full of potential. The season works best when it fits into that theme, like the slow reveal of the burning concentration camps, or even how Jack’s personal miracle of immortality brings on gay panic, Catholic guilt, group violation, and so on. Where the season iterates from CHILDREN OF EARTH (and, bizarrely, even some of RTD’s later work) is in its scepticism over how sustainably the sort of inhumanities at play in the series can be resisted in the system as is. Jack believes releasing footage of the camps will galvanise resistance, but Gwen is a relatively solitary figure in how she destroys a concentration camp. Politicians mumble about pausing the camps, but they effectively continue on as normal, and Rex chastises Jack for thinking mere footage would transformatively change things. Gwen and Rhys are horrified by their unknowing complicity when he drives people to what they learn are the burning concentration camps in episode five, but by episode nine, the recession and governmental crackdowns, they willingly have him take that same job for desperately-needed income (‘When they first opened the camps, we all protested. Second time, we’re all too busy looking after ourselves.’ / ‘Aye. All part of the plan to wear us down.’). The Miracle can transcend life and death, but it can’t transcend capitalism.
Rex points out that governments will ‘start with the Category Ones, the ones who can’t protest. Then they’ll go on to convicted felons or illegal immigrants, hell, anyone we just don’t like, because everybody gets sick, which means one day everybody ends up here. Those ovens are waiting for all of us‘. That categorisation system – category three for the healthy, category two for the able but permanently injured, category one for those unable to sustainably function, and category zero for those deemed punishable enough to be burnt alive like a category one – works because it’s about mundane process, human corruption, systemic ruin, and so on. Ernie Hudson’s character tells Jack that ‘The true face of evil [is the system itself]. Precisely. If the schemes and conspiracies are being plotted, then they must be seen only as patterns, waves, shifts that are either too small or too vast to be perceived. Someone is playing the system right across planet Earth with infinite grace, beyond any one person’s sight. No, I’m sorry, Captain, but PhiCorp isn’t controlling this. Profiting, yes, but this is part of a much larger design way beyond any of us‘.
Taken as conspiracy narrative, this feels reductive, but when the other identified ‘middle man’ in that episode is the murderous, misogynistic Colin – an individual evil enabled by the system, the corollary to the systemic evil bypassed by individuals that Ernie Hudson’s speech speaks to – the two-way enabling relationship between both kinds of evil becomes clear. It’s notable that Rex comforts Esther, when she effectively ‘kills’ Colin, with the same logic he used to justify his murder of Vera. How can there be murder, in a world with no death? MIRACLE DAY makes the case that there is corruption deeper set than even morality itself. If only the series had focused more on that, and on the human experience in general, instead of thriller filler.
Part period love story that descends into a gruesome tale of mania, guilty, and the cost of vulnerability, and part a two-hander about two very old friends knowing each other all too well, IMMORTAL SINS is beat-for-beat the strongest outing of the season. It being the episode with the least to do with the season’s central concept is not the best reflection of how the writers handled the Miracle. But for one episode, that didn’t matter. It’s not just its connections to DOCTOR WHO that make the episode feel more connected to the first three TORCHWOOD series, it’s the whole mode of its storytelling. It’s a shame the rest of the season wasn’t strong enough to make it feel like a regression.
THE CATEGORIES OF LIFE
The glossy L.A. setting and mystery narratives of the episode slowly give way to an end stretch where the various inhumanities at play continue escalating to grotesque degrees. It is the best fulfillment of the actual promise and concept of the Miracle all season. When the ending credits theme kicks in during those actual proceedings, the horrors gain a sick sense of finality and inevitability in what’s rightfully one of the season’s most iconic moments.
THE NEW WORLD
RTD’s hand steers the ship a self-assured premiere that boldly asserts the new direction, new format, new soul of the show. It was all so intoxicating, full of wonder and promise here. The aesthetic differences and apparent budget were dizzying. The new concept was grim and fascinating. A gloriously engaging reinvention with more confidence than it perhaps deserved.
THE MIDDLE MEN
Episodes five to seven were the closest MIRACLE DAY ever got to outright working for a stretch. This episode feels focused in a way nearly all the others don’t – not just focused in terms of topic and procedural event of the week, but theme as well. Characters grapple with the amorphous nature of the evils they’re dealing with, but as Gwen asserts in the explosive climax, there’s still only one response to such evils, however they’re born.
Unquestionably a ‘filler episode’, mostly dealing with a needless episodic adventure seeing Jack poisoned on an airplane. But the novelty of the season still glimmers away with promise here, the plane adventure is a self-contained bit of thriller fun, and Vera’s segments dealing with the material shakeups the Miracle has brought to healthcare are some of the season’s stronger stuff.
THE BLOOD LINE
In context of the season, there’s so much of THE BLOOD LINE that’s deeply flawed. But as its own episode, the fact RTD himself (co)wrote it gives it a lot of vive and idiosyncratic purpose. When it pares down the key members of the cast to one or two rooms and just lets the dialogue roll for near half the episode, it sparkles in a way most of the season never did, even at its dodgier junctions. The cliffhanger ending grates, but moments like the climactic Breath sing.
A timeskip into a recession feels very RTD, and while the episode lacks the specificity of his touch, it does feel focused and novel in a way most of the season doesn’t. There’s very much a sense that this did not need an episode though, or at least that if did it would have been better spent on showing the more widespread ramifications of the Miracle two months on, instead of spending so much time in Gwen’s house. Lines like “one family took politics, one family took finance, and only family took media” rankle even in a show that often succeeds in embracing science-fiction camp.
DEAD OF NIGHT
Following up the filler of RENDITION with more filler, DEAD OF NIGHT is primarily a runaround that dolls out a few interesting worldbuilding concepts without doing much with them. But the healthcare focus still feels novel, and the sequence where Jack drunkenly calls Gwen to insist on their undying friendship and prioritising of each other, only for her to unwittingly mute him amidst active family dramas, is one of the season’s best.
ESCAPE TO L.A.
Seeing Jack and Gwen in L.A. is the sort of fun Torchwood crossing over to America promised, and while the Tea Party satire is a little tired, the Oswald material has more sense of focus than it normally does in the season. Still, as an actual episode unto itself, a unit of television, it feels profoundly unnecessary, and the novelty that bore through filler episodes like RENDITION had since worn off. The spy sequences are exceedingly limp as well.
END OF THE ROAD
RTD himself admits this ‘wasn’t our finest hour’. An interminable, plodding runaround, mostly confined to thinking up ways to keep the actors on the same set for an hour. Never did MIRACLE DAY feel more stretched out and running on fumes than here.words