Why Torchwood: Miracle Day Sucked
So we’re a week on from the finale, we can finally get some distance and reflect on if this season of Torchwood was really that bad. Turns out it was. It’s sad because at the halfway point I was ready to defend it. I watched the first eight episodes over one weekend and so the pacing problems were obviously there but didn’t really hit affect me half as much as people watching it with a week between each episode. But then it went so badly wrong and gave us an ending that betrayed the whole show. Here’s my analysis of exactly why this was bad television.
Character development: there was none. Seriously. Look at every character’s first and last appearances in the show. They’re exactly the same. No-one changed. Maybe, just maybe, Oswald Danes changed a bit, but the show never let us in his head. We never knew what was real and what was fake. His character veered from one place to another every week. Less a character journey, more a character spider-diagram.
Esther Drummond: the exception to the above rule. She changed. She grew up. It was kind of hokey and obvious: nervous researcher slowly becomes confident field-agent, it’s not setting the world alight as a concept. But at least it was there. So of course, she gets shot and killed. Because god-forbid we have more than one strong female character on a Russell T Davies show. She doesn’t even get to die any sort of heroic death. She’s just cast aside. Imagine how much more interesting the next series of Torchwood would be if she was the one that ended up immortal.
The acting: the main characters were all fairly wooden – we know Barrowman and Myles are a little wooden but Mekhi Phifer is generally decent but was the most shocking of the lot in his portrayal of Rex. It didn’t help that the show kept introducing decent actors before killing off their characters a few episodes or even minutes later. The wonderful Nana Visitor gets about three minutes of screen time before getting blown up, and John de Lancie’s character lights up the screen and makes the show actually feel alive for an episode an a half before he’s… blown up.
The ‘Britishness’: producing a British show with US locations and money. Sounds okay in theory, in practice we get US-style seriousness peppered with hammy British ridiculousness from the two leads. On its own one can just about deal with how silly Torchwood can be. That sense of fun seems to be an all-pervading part of British drama, for better or for worse. But dropped into the middle of a US cable show it just feels embarrassing.
The science: no-one dies, but why is no-one dying? It’s the crux of the show, and early on we get a glimpse at what sounds like proper science-fiction. Morphic fields are real and an area of science that we currently don’t fully comprehend, something ripe for exploration. Then they discover the device under Angelo’s bed and it all starts to seem very interesting. Then it turns out no-one is dying because of a giant magic creature that lives in the earth and ate Jack’s blood. Sorry what?
The politics: if you read any reviews of Children of Earth, the scenes in the cabinet office dealing with how the government react to the whole thing, making tough but selfish choices, are highlighted as one of the best parts. On the surface, Miracle Day is perfect for doing something similar. It’s a crisis, how are they going to deal with it? And this time there’s a chance to feature that sort of thing on an international scale with the UK-US connection. And they don’t bother. The classification system gets introduced but we never see the horrendous discussions that must have taken place to bring in that and the camps.
The medicine: some of the best parts of the early episodes are when Dr Juarez is attending the medical conferences, and they discuss the consequences of what’s happening, how medicine has to change and so on. None of this ever reflects on the plot, but it’s moments of interest and speculation that show how good the show could have been. And then one episode she turns up at the conference centre, only to be told they’re over. She looks disappointed, and so were we. Apparently they used them to work out the classification system, but somehow we missed all that.
The irrelevant episodes: there’s an entire flashback episode featuring Jack in 1927, and introducing who we assume will be an important character. Not the best episode, but I could live with it. But then that character is killed off in the next episode, the device he was protecting is talked about for a bit, Jack nicks part of it and it’s never mentioned again. It has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Which means that the flashback episode was there solely to establish that in 1927 Jack died infront of three people and they watched him come back to life.
The failure of the arc: taking the previous point even further, nothing comes together at all. The camps are introduced, fought against and then accepted later on after a time-jump. The Oswald and Kitzinger stories both go absolutely nowhere at all. The Angelo thing has no point. The morphic field angle is dropped. There’s no effort made to tie it all together. Why not let the fact that Oswald was the first ‘survivor’ matter? Why not have the camps and ovens be a part of the story, perhaps the still living souls of the people burned affect the morphic field or something. Anything. Just have a story arc that actually ties itself together. We don’t even learn the motivations of the people behind it – they want to create a new world but it’s never really explained how they’re going to do that.
The missed opportunity: Russell T Davies got given ten hours and a huge budget with basically free-reign to do what he wanted. There isn’t a writer in television that wouldn’t jump at a chance to do that. And we get this. Something that can’t even hang together consistently over ten hours. And it’s such a good concept too – people stop dying. And the show even tells us what that would mean and the problems it would create, but doesn’t bother to show us. It should have been brilliant but it wasn’t. Worse than that, it was actively bad. It tore up the TV rule-book on mini-series and character development but instead of being a radical re-invention it just looked like Davies had no clue what he was doing.
I have a fairly high tolerance for bad TV, but Miracle Day was just so irredeemably, objectively awful that it should be university syllabuses as an example of what not to do. Wake me up if Moffat ever takes over this show as well.