Torchwood: Miracle Day — Redefining heroism for the Whoniverse

I finished Torchwood: Miracle Day last night, and I find myself more satisfied by the idea of it, than with the series itself. Honestly, that’s largely a matter of pacing. Children of Earth had particularly stellar pacing, and Miracle Day did not.

A lot of that, especially in early episodes, was the by-product of having to introduce the show to a whole new audience. But even then, I thought most of the slowed down pacing was less committed to helping us understand Jack and Gwen and the idea of Torchwood and more to the creeping horror of the Miracle. This would have been perfectly fine, it if weren’t a relatively simple concept to grasp, one that would have been more terrifying, immediate and less distracting in its allegory, at high speed.

But a five or seven episode Miracle Day would have been a different animal, one that could never have contained Jane Espensen’s brilliant episode 7. And let us be clear, I’m not a fan of the episode for the gay romance or Barrowman’s ass (which is, I think, a criticism that gets lobbed, not entirely fairly, but not entirely unfairly either at a lot of fandom and at a lot of female viewers in particular); I’m a fan of the episode for its inherent Romanticism and its narrative about loss — two central traits of the larger Whoniverse which appeared with a poetry in Miracle Day in a way that they actually didn’t in Children of Earth, despite that being the stronger of the two series.

Without episode 7, Miracle Day would also not be a story about Jack. It’s the knitting to his arc, one which many people in fandom have been writing very eloquently about coming full circle in this series (please post links if you’ve got them). Certainly, as one of those fans with a deep commitment to the Face of Boe story, to see Jack finish this series with his immortality intact and a real sense of peace and wonder with the world again, I was relieved. I was also satisfied, when Gwen shoots him to prevent him from being a suicide.

Giving up one’s life for the cause is, essentially, how heroism is defined in the Whoniverse. Jack, when we first meet him, is mortal, screws some stuff up, and is ultimately willing to give up his life to fix it. He doesn’t. Then, later, when he’s willing to give up his life to save his friends, something intervenes and he becomes immortal, robbing this con-man who had become a better man of the ability to execute on heroism as defined by the Whoniverse. This has dogged him through each and every one of his failures across the programs; all he can do is sacrifice others, and that is, we are told, the act of a coward.

When Gwen steps up to be complicit in the death he has volunteered for, she is not just expressing love for Jack, and helping (seemingly) to return to him his heroism. She is actively altering the structure of what it means to be a hero in the Whoniverse; she is taking the gun out of Adelaide Brooks’s (“Waters of Mars”) hand and saying she doesn’t have to do the right thing alone. Gwen, in letting her father go and in being willing to kill her friend, who she loves once again, tells us that maybe Jack was not a coward when Ianto died and perhaps, unsettlingly, not a monster when he sacrificed Steven.

These are some pretty fascinating and powerful ideas, littered across an intriguing landscape filled with atheistic play with religious metaphor (something I don’t think Russel T. Davies could avoid if he tried), that culminate in Jack, whose life was in many ways made smaller by his immortality (he wound up confined this this earth full of its restrictive morals about love and sex), witnessing it possibly make someone else’s life (Rex’s) larger.

Miracle Day is, in its parting shots, a return to the wonder that was Torchwood in the largely monster-of-the-week incarnation that defined its first two seasons.

But satisfying in my brain, and satisfying in front of my eyes are two different things, sadly. And of all the series, this may be the one I am the least likely to rewatch in its entirety for anything other than scholarly purposes. Aside from finding its pacing off-puttingly awkward, its attempt to unify the original show’s queer sensibility with a perception of American masculinity and viciousness was at best inexplicable and extraneous and, at worst, arbitrarily offensive.

On the other hand, I still hope there is more. I will always want to follow Jack’s story, because Jack’s story is always. I want more detail and elegance around the Families and the idea of their plan as Writing the Story.

Finally, Jilly Kitzinger? Most fun villain, EVER.

21 thoughts on “Torchwood: Miracle Day — Redefining heroism for the Whoniverse”

  1. “Gwen, in letting her father go and in being willing to kill her friend, who she loves once again, tells us that maybe Jack was not a coward when Ianto died and perhaps, unsettlingly, not a monster when he sacrificed Steven.”

    This. Perhaps the most important thing that happens in the whole series, as far as the bigger Jackstory and Torchwood-story goes.

    Also a dress rehearsal of awesome for the Face of Boe’s final sacrifice, which of course had to be in everyone’s minds (would RTD retcon his own canon again?). Agree with most of what you’re saying about the frustrations of this series, but there are moments that are absolute gifts, and this is one of them.

    1. I think, weirdly, even though most people view the FoB thing as a tacked-on afterthought of fannish wackiness from RTD himself, that was my deal-breaker going into this. The FoB narrative had to still be possible, or this wouldn’t work for me, because I do see the FoB story as not only essential to Jack, but essential to the Doctor in general and Ten in specific. If it’s not Jack, it means something else, less tangled and profound.

  2. “Gwen, in letting her father go and in being willing to kill her friend, who she loves once again, tells us that maybe Jack was not a coward when Ianto died and perhaps, unsettlingly, not a monster when he sacrificed Steven.”

    Did people really read those scenes that way? Were we meant to? I never thought of coward or monster in either of those scenes. I like Jack’s ability to detach when necessary as much as I like anything about him. But being somewhat neuro-atypical, I’m aware I may not read things as others do.

    I thought Jilly was the best thing to come out of Miracle Day — though the backstory with Angelo was pretty amazing too. Moreso for the atrocities than for the romance, but still, quite a story. Jack’s own brokenness was heartwrenching — the phone convo with Gwen where she just forgets he’s on the phone charmed me and brought me back to S1 where it seemed like all Jack wanted was to die.

    1. I think so. I think the sacrifice of Steven was pretty much the big non-Ianto bone of contention re MD.

      I know that my own response, while not to consider Jack monstrous for doing was to think that it couldn’t get worse after Day 4, and then after Day 5, to just feel like, because I identify with Jack so much, that I really hated myself.

      So I did feel that MD was answering that specifically, was telling us it was okay to absolve Jack and ourselves, and that some of its poor pacing was the inevitability of a denoument.

    2. I love Jack’s ability to detach–it’s my favorite thing about him. And what solace I find in CoE is that, when the unthinkable had to be done, Jack was able to do it, and avoided spreading the burden of it around to others as much as possible.

      But I’ve never really been in TW fandom, and when I read discussions of the show, regularly come away with the impression that I’m “doing Torchwood wrong” ; )

  3. Must agree: Gwen taking suicide away from Jack, and not just that she’s going to shoot him, but what it means if she shoots him, that is huge. Add to that her comment to Rex that he should get on with the mission? These, above all the frequently clumsy attempts to *tell* us how she has changed, really *shows* how she has changed. She is now hardened, yet there’s not a doubt in my mind, she still has her heart. We didn’t need to see her trashing a hallway or bashing a security guard’s head by yanking his tie. Those, if anything, undermined her. This choice, those words? They made Gwen incredible.

    1. If this is the “Gwenwood” everyone was afraid of, I want more.

      Also, love that the writers still know just how AMAZING she is when it’s just her, alone, speaking into the camera. Myles is a fine, FINE actress who has come into her own with this show, and I can’t wait to see her do more.

        1. “Gwenwood” is what some people who have disliked her character at various points have feared the show would become at various points — with a slight lean towards it being a MD specific dig in the wake of Ianto’s death. Often, misogyny involved.

          1. I’ve liked her, but disliked what her character is, up until MD (and I’m reserving judgement). Probably a hangover from a previous fandom or 2 but I’d had it up to my ears with female law enforcement/investigator characters valued for their empathy (as opposed to, say, competence) … who manage to rack up a high unintentional body count through general (implied as girlish) fecklessness. (that said, in TW, Owen seriously outkills Gwen).

            Reminds me too much of “As Good As It Gets” description of woman=(man -(reason+accountability))

            It’s possible my problems with Gwen are based in misogyny. I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time (hey, I grew up in the same misogynistic world as everyone else). But I don’t really think they are.

            But as much as I like her (and I do), if JB left Torchwood and the whole thing was lead by Gwen? Not really sure I’d be interested anymore.

            1. Not liking Gwen’s character or not wanting a show all about Gwen is fine (for example, I think MD is the first series where I feel like she and I could get along socially). But the amount of straight women who were like “her very presence is destroying the love between Jack and Ianto” felt epic in fandom at a given point, so, er, yeah.

  4. Agreed on Jilly. Interesting that a season which was so heavy-handed and tell-not-show about other things was content to be subtle and cagey about her. Lauren Ambrose is an amazing actor.

    I was very frustrated that the terrible pacing, among other problems, left Esther’s progression from frequently-blithery to totally-on-it … to the gap between the second-to-last and last episodes. Argh! That would have been a far superior episode to many of the early ones.

    The climactic speech with Gwen at the hellmouth (sorry) was genius.

  5. …so I really should brave the stuff that’s going to freak me out HARD in episode 5 to watch this through?

    I didn’t see Jack’s cowardice in Ianto’s death — I was busy arguing plausibility with the script. I didn’t see monstrousness, exactly, in Jack’s sacrifice of Steven — but the way it was handled mashed a big red button of mine about acknowledging agency, and I was disappointed in him. I loved Ianto because he embodied a certain sort of character I often write, and I’ll ALWAYS miss him.

    But if the series is as satisfying as you say about Jack’s arc, and might give me back my pleasure in the iconic coat… I can look at my knitting during the worst of the ovens.

    1. While the constant discussion of the ovens is graphic, there’s only that one scene of actual burning. I don’t recall episode 7, but definitely, I felt episodes 4 and 5 were the high point of my anger at the series and its handling of its chosen allegory. If you made it this far, it’s worth going farther for the ways in which it redeems itself, but it is, absolutely, more interesting to consider than to watch, although there are some great performances and a few moments of stellar writing in the back half.

      1. No, I wasn’t enthralled enough on my own to keep watching past episode 2 (I am a marginal consumer of television narrative, it doesn’t mesh well with the ways I process sensory information so there has to be something REALLY compelling on screen to keep my attention from wandering to the extent that I lose the plot), and then with what you said about 5, I was all OH HELL NO THIS IS NOT FOR ME, since I declared complete Holocaust overload around 1992, after a childhood and adolescence just FILLED with unavoidable engagement with the topic; but if it’s likely to bring me that much comfort around The Matter Of Jack, I can marshal my attention for the plot and only look away at the worst parts.

        1. If you do nothing else, watch episode 7. It has some intense gore and suffering on Jack’s part, but is very much worth it for the backstory. You could probably, in fact, skip to 7 and just watch from there to the end.

  6. This is the fairest, most useful thing I’ve seen anyone say about Miracle Day. Thank you so much for taking the time to analyze it as a whole, without the picking and choosing so many in fandom seem to want to indulge in.

    I will always want to follow Jack’s story, because Jack’s story is always.

    And this, so much this. Jack is what got me hooked on Doctor Who. Jack is what brought me to Torchwood, and from Torchwood to Whoniverse fanfic. Lack of Jack is what really made the pacing problem in the middle of Miracle Day so evident to me, and Jack is why I will continue watching the show in its every incarnation, regardless of how much RTD’s writing terrifies me. *g*

  7. Completely agree, about Jack and Gwen. I think the turnaround, with Gwen’s willingness to sacrifice Jack is like Jack being able to sacrifice Steven – would he want Steven to grow up in a world where people don’t do what they have to, no matter how terrible it is? (Of course he wanted Steven to grow UP, but I think I make sense in my head.)

    Eve Myles absolutely knocked it out of the park here, and for the record, I’m not watching for Barrowman’s ass, either. His face, though… okay, maybe a little bit. 😉

  8. As someone who enjoyed Miracle Day a lot more than most seem to have, I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful analysis. Thank you!

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