[8 July 2011]
At its core, Torchwood has always been a series about death. During its first three seasons on BBC, immortal hero Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) led his team against extraterrestrial visitors who were often intent on destroying humanity. As a result, Torchwood amassed a staggering death toll, a fact that Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) notes early in the 10-episode new season, subtitled Miracle Day.
But for all the dying going on, Torchwood also is a series about life. During the controversial, critically acclaimed 2009 season, Children of Earth, Torchwood and its team were decimated. And fans were left asking what could possibly survive when the series was “reborn” as a Starz/BBC collaboration. Part of the answer is logistical: the new season offers a primarily new, mostly American cast, U.S. locations (although Wales is featured in the first episode), and, in many ways, a chance for Torchwood to start over.
It’s tricky to entice three possibly disparate audiences to watch Miracle Day. People watched the first two “cult” seasons of Torchwood because it was, like Doctor Who (from which it spun off), very Welsh, sometimes campy, and irreverent science fiction. Audiences who became fans because of the tightly paced, bigger-in-scope Children of Earth liked the gritty international drama fueled by an alien menace. But a third audience is the one most clearly courted by “The New World,” the premiere episode of Miracle Day. As a pilot-of-sorts, this episode makes sense on its own, but also provides some references that only long-time fans will understand. (Listen carefully for “Owen Harper,” and a later episode alludes to the TARDIS.)
That Which Survives
In other words, Torchwood: Miracle Day tries to have it both ways: to be a shiny new series on Starz and a continuation of the previous three seasons. It’s as if Torchwood has packed some nonessential items for the transatlantic flight, but left its original quirkiness at home.
The most effective scenes focus on characters’ interactions, the sorts of moments Torchwood always did well. Miracle Day’s opening scene may be risky if the objective is to entice new viewers from the get-go. The episode begins with the execution of convicted murderer/pedophile Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman, who, with this disturbingly manipulative character, recalls Dennis Hopper). But after this public death doesn’t go as planned, it becomes clear that every person who should have succumbed to physical trauma manages to live—no matter how gruesome the injury.
At this point, CIA colleagues Matheson and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) begin to unravel the mystery of Miracle Day and a now-defunct British agency called Torchwood. New viewers will need the exposition provided about Torchwood’s origins and its sole survivors, Harkness and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). However, the plot slows considerably with the Danes subplot, which contributes little to the main story, concerning the origin of this mysterious “miracle” and Torchwood’s possible involvement.
Early episodes are burdened with providing backstory about Torchwood, but they must also lure the audience into the current medical mystery. The writers have thus “summarized” the series thus far with a few scenes that seem only slightly updated from previous episodes. When, for instance, the new team tries to figure out what caused Miracle Day, they do so in a way that fulfills the series’ initial premise—they’re working “outside the government, beyond the police.” Hiding out, they “borrow” what they can’t buy and use the last of Torchwood’s alien technology to gather information, a scenario and dialogue similar to scenes from Children of Earth.
Of course, many series follow the same episodic format, but Miracle Day promised to be something new and explosive. A Wales Online article last month prefaced an interview with Davies by describing a Torchwood “with more action, more explosions, more sex, more money and a newly-recruited world-renowned blockbuster star among its cast.” Davies noted that the bigger budget, reportedly tripled from the series’ previous season, leads to “more production value, bigger explosions.” At the MIPTV promotional event in Cannes, Barrowman said, “There is so much more we can do with Torchwood now having made the leap to America. It’s going to be even bigger and better.”
Audiences have come to expect such action sequences from U.S. television. One result of the Starz-BBC collaboration is the possibility for Torchwood‘s scriptwriters to make the story larger in scope and flashier in production values. Because, as Barrowman notes during an interview with MIPTV, Torchwood prides itself on being different with each season, the broader story scope and costlier production are next logical steps in the series’ development.
Amid these changes, the series’ constant is Captain Jack. He’s still suffering the deaths of his original team and trying to protect the surprisingly fierce warrior-woman Gwen. This time, however, he is once again mortal, providing him with a renewed understanding of life’s perils. Both charismatic and vulnerable, he’s still wearing his signature military coat (albeit a streamlined version better suited to L.A.’s heat), but he also seems less sure of himself, as evidenced in a late-night phone call to Gwen, and during scenes where he deals with remorse and what ifs.
Who’s in Charge?
During an early confrontation between Matheson and Harkness, Gwen’s former police partner Andy Davison (Tom Price) reminds Jack that Matheson is in charge. “Since when?” the indignant captain asks. Jack is comfortable discussing where Torchwood’s alien tech came from or trying to analyze the “miracle” in light of his interplanetary expertise. In contrast, Matheson is an ambitious CIA agent who understands government protocols and intelligence gathering. Without an obvious alien influence during the first few episodes, Matheson seems better suited to solving a medical problem requiring global interagency cooperation. The ongoing tug-of-war over who’s in charge leads to the galaxy-hopping Captain Jack occasionally looking out of place when Matheson scoffs at his comments about aliens. And indeed, these feel like they belong to a different genre than the investigation taking center stage here.
The conflict may mirror fans’ question whether Miracle Day is more British or more American, though it’s not clear, in a global media universe, that this matters. Perhaps the true miracle is that more Torchwood episodes were made at all, given BBC’s current economic travails. With the Starz-BBC partnership in place, Torchwood has returned, mixing old and new. Captain Jack’s fans hope that he lives a long time so they can enjoy those “bigger” stories Davies so likes to tell.