The New World
I’ve been lazy about writing TV reviews since the mid season break in Doctor Who. And for a while I’ve been considering writing another episode by episode series of reviews – I really should have done the excellent Game of Thrones, and still might do the new season of True Blood – though as of tonight that’ll be three episodes in, so I’ll have some catching up to do.
Fortunately, though, it fits in with my tradition of writing Who reviews that I can now do something similar for the much-hyped return of ‘sister’ show, Torchwood. Though that description doesn’t really seem adequate any more. While still nominally a spinoff from Doctor Who, Torchwood’s continuing evolution means that the two shows don’t really seem connected any more. Creator and showrunner of the new series Russell T Davies claims that they still are very much set in the same universe, and it’s not inconceivable that Miracle Day will feature some reference to the time travelling mad man with a box. But Torchwood was always tonally in a weird, fluctuating universe of its own, into which the Doctor would not have fit easily.
Since its inception as an ‘adult’ variant of Doctor Who in the heady, Who-crazed days of 2006, Torchwood has never settled down into its own identity, with each series quite different from the last. Series one was an intentionally ‘dark’, humourless affair, its ‘adult’ nature signalled by masses of gratuitous sex and violence, with swearing shoehorned uncomfortably into the scripts to show how grown up it was. Grown up in the sense of an adolescent boy, anyway, as initial showrunner Chris Chibnall gave an unwilling world classic quotes such as “When was the last time you came so hard you forgot where you were?”. The characters were annoying and hard to like, even the formerly ebullient Captain Jack Harkness, and everyone seemed to be having sex with everyone else, regardless of gender or even species. Despite some intriguing premises, and that quirky Welsh setting, it was never a show I found that enjoyable.
Series two learned some lessons from that, reinjecting some much needed humour and toning down the over the top sex and swearing, though it was as violent as ever. It had a likeable villain in the form of James Marsters’ Captain John Hart, and went about reinventing the regular characters in a way that changed them from being irritating to likeable, even Burn Gorman’s ultra annoying Owen Harper. Notably, it shifted from BBC3 to BBC2, and seemed a little more mainstream as a result.
With the success of that much improved second series, Torchwood found itself changing again – now on BBC1, it was retooled as a much hyped ‘five day television event’ called Children of Earth. Taking a prime post-watershed slot on the main BBC channel with episodes broadcast every weekday, Children of Earth was a massive critical and popular success. The tale of a powerful alien race called ‘the 456’ and their demand for 10% of Earth’s children to take as tortured, drug-producing playthings was a masterful blend of political thriller, action and conspiracy story; compared to a sci fi version of Spooks, it was actually infinitely better than that, with the scenes of the British government discussing how best to capitulate with the aliens being especially chilling.It also pretty much ended the Torchwood universe, as their secret Cardiff Bay HQ the Hub was totalled in part one, and the ridiculous ‘Torchwoodmobile’ (a black Range Rover kitted out with unnecessary bulges and fluorescent lights) was stolen, never to be seen again. And with the team already having lost two of its regular characters the year before, they were further whittled down as Russell T Davies, now in charge of the show, killed off the inexplicably loved Ianto Jones, much to fanboy dismay.
But that was two years ago now. Russell T Davies, now freed of the enormous workload of Doctor Who, has been in LA with his old cohort Jane Tranter, shopping a new Torchwood idea around the American networks. With Davies seen as quite a success story after Queer as Folk, Doctor Who and of course Torchwood itself, it was only a matter of time before someone bit. That someone was cable channel Starz, also responsible for Chris Chibnall’s current toe-curlingly bad series Camelot. Old school fans immediately began to fret, not just about the identity of the BBC’s co-producer, but about the very fact that it was going to be, primarily, and American production. Surely, they worried, the Americans don’t produce drama as good as the British – won’t Torchwood lose its amazingly high quality?
Actually, the Americans very much do produce drama as good as the British these days – as any viewer of Mad Men, Deadwood and Game of Thrones could tell you. And the fans needn’t have worried – on the basis of part one, Miracle Day is nearly as good as Children of Earth.
I say ‘nearly’ with the reservation that this is a ten part story rather than a five part one, and doesn’t hit with the same slam bang as the beginning of Children of Earth. It also necessarily has to introduce the characters and premise of Torchwood all over again for a completely new audience. However, Russell has shown he’s good at doing this before, with Doctor Who in 2005, and he does it again here.
It works by having Torchwood as a now-defunct organisation who’ve become the focus of a group of young, implausibly good-looking CIA operatives. They’re baffled by the sudden appearance of the name ‘Torchwood’ and associated files on all their computers, and want to know what the hell it’s all about, which helpfully delves into the concept for any new viewers. But that takes second fiddle to the big premise on which Russell’s building the story – people have stopped dying. Nobody is dying anywhere in the world, however life-threatening and horrific their injuries – a fact which nominal hero Rex Matheson finds out when he’s impaled on a steel bar hurtling through his windscreen from the truck in front.
It soon turns out that people not dying could be a bit of a problem, as Gwen Cooper finds out in an interesting scene with old pal PC Andy. Taking into account the birth rate and the now defunct death rate, the world population will be so large that global famine could hit within weeks. Wars are problematic when you can’t actually kill the enemy, but North Korea are fronting up to invade South Korea, emboldened by the fact that their troops can’t be killed. And it’s no fun living forever if you’ve had horrific injuries that should have killed you, as is graphically demonstrated by a blackly humourous and chilling ‘live autopsy’ scene on a man who’s been, quite literally, blown to bits. “What’ll happen if we cut off his head?” “Let’s find out.”
It’s a good premise, typical of Russell’s interesting ‘what if?’ ideas, although I seem to recall the conceit having formerly been played out in an Outer Limits episode. The script for part one is by Russell himself, and makes the most of the idea, while reinventing Torchwood yet again. Starting from the viewpoint of the new characters, it’s a long way into the episode before we see Gwen Cooper, and even longer before we see Captain Jack. But when they appear, they’re every bit the characters they always were. Gwen, lying low with husband Rhys after the events of Children of Earth, is as marvellously Welsh as ever, and both Eve Myles and Kai Owen are a refreshingly normal pair of characters – as they always were. About a third of the first episode takes place in Wales, allowing incoming American Rex to do a comical fish out of water act – “What’s this bridge?” “The Severn Bridge, it links Wales to England?” “What, Wales is like New Jersey? Wait, I have to pay for this bridge?!”
Captain Jack is almost his old self too. Reappearing to save the life of CIA researcher Esther when a masked gunman blows up the CIA archive, he then plies Esther with amusingly named memory suppressant ‘retcon’ in a virtual replay of the scene with Gwen from the very first episode of series one. John Barrowman’s accent seems a little out of place here, though I can’t put my finger on why – it’s a real American accent, but just seems almost overplayed. But Jack is till Jack, clad in his traditional 1940 RAF gear, though not yet trying to chat anyone up.
Indeed, there’s a surprising lack of sex, or even innuendo about sex, given Torchwood’s past history. I gather some quite graphic scenes are coming up though, some even involving Jack himself for the first time. Interestingly, some of the graphic sex, I hear on the grapevine, will be cut out for British transmission, though extra dramatic scenes will be added that weren’t in the American broadcast. Meaning die hard fans will have to watch both versions for comparison purposes!
As if to make up for the lack of sex, there’s action aplenty, and on a scale that the poor cash-strapped BBC can rarely afford by itself. Aside from the aforementioned blowing up of the CIA archive, the episode culminates in a riotous helicopter/Land Rover chase across a Welsh beach, with Gwen (visibly loving every minute of her return to action) blasting away from the back of the car with a rocket launcher. As the helicopter fairly convincingly spirals to destruction mere inches from our heroes’ heads, it’s hard not to emit a Keanu Reeves style, “Whoa…”
Also in the car is nominal hero Rex, whose central dilemma is that, should the ‘miracle’ end, his injuries may well mean his death. Thus far, Rex is fun but little more than a cipher. Mekhi Phifer brings a lot of charisma to the role, but we don’t really know much about him as yet, and his comic stooge role in some of the Wales scenes seems a little forced. And his actual investigating mostly seems to be done via the phone to his Chloe O’Brian alike assistant Esther. Esther, engagingly played by Alexa Havins, neatly fills the ‘baffled innocent’ role filled by Gwen in series one and Lois in Children of Earth. n fact, thus far, she’s the most likeable and rounded of the new characters.
The other new character we meet in episode one is potentially the most chilling and controversial. Oswald Danes is a convicted paedophile and murderer, who justified the killing of his last victim with the phrase, “she should have run faster”. The failure of Danes’ execution is the first, uncomfortably graphic, instance of death having ceased to function, and Danes wants out of prison on the grounds that his sentence has been carried out – it’s not his fault that death has taken a holiday.
Danes is incarnated by Bill Pullman, probably the biggest ‘star’ name in the cast – if ‘star’ is the right word for someone whose best known role is playing second fiddle to a lot of hyperkinetic effects shots in Independence Day. Actually that’s a bit unfair – Pullman has given some good performances, and takes on a doozie here as his first villain. But he’s giving a very odd, mannered performance so far. In the scene with him demanding his release from the state governor’s assistant, his dialogue is delivered almost as if he’s had a stroke. This could be meant as after effects from the injection that should have killed him, but it’s not spelt out if that’s the case. Still, mannerisms aside, Pullman is quite magnetic in the role. It’s not clear yet what he has to do with the main story, but given the casting and the focus on him in episode one, Danes is clearly going to be a major player.
Episode one, then, makes clear that this is a continuation rather than a reboot, and neatly introduces the ideas to a potential new audience. Even the old theme tune plays out in the background of the new score, though theme composer Murray Gold has now supplanted Ben Foster on scoring duties. This is a well-scripted, well-acted, and well-directed show that should keep the old fanboys happy without excluding newbies. And if anything, the lack thus far of gratuitous sex and swearing makes it seem more grown up than the very first series did. With upcoming episodes by Jane Espenson (Buffy, BSG, Game of Thrones) and Doris Egan (Smallville, House), expect more rapturous – but hopefully shorter – blog entries soon.