Fumbled details betray ‘Torchwood’ high concept

July 14, 2011, 12:59 a.m.
Fumbled details betray ‘Torchwood’ high concept
Courtesy of BBC

This year’s “Torchwood” is going to be an interesting beast. The show has had a shaky history since its inception: when it first spun off from “Doctor Who,” it was envisioned as “‘Doctor Who’ for adults,” but its attempts to be “adult” for its own sake made the show more immature than the source material (the second episode, for example, featured an alien that possessed a woman and absorbed energy from having sex with random men). Though it improved slowly throughout the run, it wasn’t until two years ago, with the five-episode mini-series “Children of Earth” that it finally found its footing with a story that was not only mature but also compelling. Now, for the fourth season, subtitled “Miracle Day,” American network Starz is footing the bill and providing some Yankee sensibility.

Like “Children of Earth” before it, “Miracle Day” abandons the monster-of-the-week format the first two seasons used in favor of an overarching high concept: what if everyone on Earth stopped dying? It’s an interesting idea, with some terrifying ramifications, most of which would be even more terrifying if the show weren’t so direct about them. For some reason, the new (and so far uninteresting) characters introduced for American audiences – Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond, two CIA agents – need almost every plot point spelled out for them, aided by a cast of characters that seems perfectly willing to state the obvious for their benefit.

But even if he could be more subtle about it, it’s gratifying to see showrunner Russell T. Davies take the concept so seriously, tackling it from all the angles. Amid concerns about the resulting explosive population growth and whether or not a prisoner on death row who survived execution can be freed, there’s a great moment when Gwen Cooper, one of the three characters to survive the entire run of the show, is talked out of investigating the miracle by her husband when he says their newborn daughter could live forever (although naturally, it doesn’t last very long).

Despite claims from Davies that every effort has been made to make the show accessible to a new audience, I couldn’t help but try to envision what I would be thinking if I hadn’t seen the past three seasons. Gwen’s extreme paranoia makes her seem more like a former prisoner than an employee of Torchwood Institute until it’s finally pointed out that she is the latter, and it’s entirely inconsistent with how she appeared in the epilogue of “Children of Earth.” Captain Jack Harkness’ immortality is never directly pointed out, even when he and Gwen are actively discussing it, so the fact that his injuries aren’t healing doesn’t mean anything to someone new to the show. These are the things that the writers should have been spelling out for new viewers, not the plot points that were right in front of their faces. By trying to please old fans while easing in the new, the writers made concessions that end up hurting both groups. Hopefully these are just growing pains that will go away after the first couple episodes.

After I watched this premiere, I went back and watched the beginning of “Children of Earth” to see how it compared. It’s clear this season is an entirely different show than it was before, and not just because now it’s American. With twice as many episodes, the writers have much more room to breathe, but this could be as much its downfall as its salvation. The premiere lacks the tight writing and the punch that helped save the show from the brink of cancellation two years ago. While the high concept could easily outdo that of “Children of Earth,” it will take some careful maneuvering to make sure the rest of the season remains compelling to both new viewers and old.

Watch “Torchwood” Fridays at 10 p.m. on Starz.

Login or create an account