The dust has settled on the first half of the 6th season (or season 32 or 33?) on Doctor Who and the reaction from the fan community has been mixed. Some of us felt the half-season was a mistake, while a large portion of fans were absolutely delighted with the big twist at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War.” All in all I’m inclined to agree with Emily Asher-Perrin insofar as the half-season of Doctor Who lacked some of the old-school adventure of previous seasons. But taking it one step further, as much as I enjoyed the new Who season week-to-week, it felt less and less like science fiction and more like a bunch of confusing Doctor Who stuff.
But elsewhere in the Who universe, spin-off Torchwood is gearing up for a comeback, and in my opinion, will probably deliver in ways Doctor Who didn’t. In short, it will be more cohesive and satisfying than the recent offering from the show that sired it.
Consistency was the biggest problem in this most recent season of Doctor Who. While the Moffat two-parter at the beginning of the season was spectacular, the third episode was absolutely stale. And yes, while the Gaiman episode was fun and self-referential to a lot of Doctor Who material, it brought yet another tonal sensibility to a very short and crowed set of stories. Imagine reading a short story collection with one story written by Ernest Hemingway, another by Anne Rice, one by Conan Doyle and then another unknown writer comes in at the end of the collection and tries to reconcile all of the events and characters into a cohesive theme. While entertaining, it’s kind of a mess.
While Torchwood: Miracle Day will have numerous scribes, including Jane Espenson, Russell T. Davies will still helm the entire enterprise. More importantly, it will be telling one story, focusing on one science fictional premise and seeing that premise through to some sort of conclusion. The best Torchwood episodes succeeded at feeling big by being small. Compared with some of the universe-ending problems the Doctor has faced over the years, the whole Children of Earth stuff is small potatoes. But for us, it was made to feel like a really big deal. Miracle Day looks poised to do something similar. It’s asking a basic science fiction question: what if everyone stopped dying? What would happen? And then over the course of ten episodes, we’ll get to see all of this play out. We know Davies is capable of this kind of thing, because he did it with Children of Earth.
By all accounts, Children of Earth surprised everyone in terms of its ratings. And though this is a pretty blithe assertion, I think it has something to do with the quality of the writing. Further, despite the fact that it was an ongoing story, Children of Earth wasn’t confusing. Even if you missed the first episode, or even the second episode, the basic premise would help you understand what was going on. Even if you didn’t understand Captain Jack, or Torchwood, you’d be able to infer a lot of what was going on.
And despite all of its charm, this isn’t really possible on Doctor Who right now. It’s so convoluted and confusing, that even hardcore fans aren’t exactly sure what’s going on, who’s flesh and who isn’t or who the hell the Headless Monks are. But why should fans care if something is confusing or not? Why should we be interested in the Torchwood team playing second fiddle to an easy-to-understand storyline? Well, sometimes simple stories are just simple, other times they’re elegant. Children of Earth was just that. A story that rewarded fans of the Whoinverse and Torchwood in specific, but also was a great science fiction event in its own right. As much as I loved “The Doctor’s Wife” it would mean absolutely nothing to anyone who wasn’t a fan. And the best sci-fi on TV should always be able to do a little bit of both.
The themes of Miracle Day are also promising. The notion of death and mortality are central to much of science fiction. As I’ve pointed out recently, Gary Shteyngart explores this theme in Super Sad True Love Story and everything from Mary Shelley on has had preoccupation with death and the science fictional ways death can be challenged. Captain Jack is a great character in this regard, even more tragically immortal than a vampire or Macleod from Highlander. He doesn’t really have a purpose like vampires or highlanders; he doesn’t need to drink blood or chop heads off. He’s an accidental immortal, a whoops of the universe. So, he had to come up with his own purpose, his own ethical code. This is far more human and relatable than a mythical immortal. It also puts him in a cool position for this specific conflict, with an entire Earth becoming like Captain Jack. Already we can imagine the ways in which our little brains will meditate on these ideas.
Science fiction is always fun when it’s about the big ideas being experienced by relatable characters. I’d argue Gwen is more relatable and interesting than a lot of science fiction characters on television. Jack meanwhile is flawed, strange and charming. Drop these people into a gritty science fictional conflict on Earth and I think you’ve got something far more compelling than Headless Monks and fake-out babies made of goo.
Of course, I could be wrong, and Miracle Day could be a mess. But personally, I suspect Torchwood is getting better with age. What do you think?
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. Despite his extreme stances, he likes ALL of this stuff.