David Chute reviews Torchwood: Miracle Day, the new Starz/BBC limited series, which launches Friday.
Torchwood: Miracle Day signals its take-no-prisoners seriousness right off the bat. The premise is daring, almost too cosmic to ever be paid off satisfactorily. At the same moment all over the world, human beings stop dying. Illnesses that would have killed us in the past simply don’t, any longer, no matter how gruesome the damage inflicted on our hapless flesh. The SFX work, here, by Greg Nicotero and his crew, sometimes rises to Walking Dead levels of grisliness. A man trapped in a burning building is reduced to little more than a head and shoulders and a few trailing scraps of jerky– yet he still manages to squirm and whimper on a mortuary table. (Trailer below.)
Even more chilling, however, and richer in possibilities, is the botched execution of a truly irredeemable soul, a pedophile and child killer (a malignant, sly Bill Pullman) whose lethal injection on the gurney causes grotesque convulsions but proves less than lethal – and it may prompt a cruel and unusual lawsuit, if it can be filed before the planet descends into teeming chaos.
It’s in the context of this metastasizing global disorder that stalwart CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), who should have died in a car wreck when an iron bar dislodged from a semi punched through his chest, manages to drag himself across the pond, delirious and drenched in blood, and bust through layers of security to track down the last two surviving members of Britain’s Torchwood Institute, the only law enforcement agency on earth with extensive experience of the uncanny. This is surreal, hallucinatory science fiction.
Geeks like me are already familiar with the Torchwood back-story. The institute’s fearless leader, Captain Jack Harkness (played with infectious exuberance by strapping ex-pat American John Barrowman), was created toward the end of the first season of the reactivation of the BBC’s Doctor Who in 2005, a resurrection masterminded by writer/producer Russell T. Davis (Queer as Folk). Harkness is, in Davies’ words, a “bi-sexual swashbuckler from the 51st century,” a bent interstellar Indiana Jones in a billowing duster overcoat.
For several episodes on DW he served as a space and time traveling companion (and frequent last-minute rescuer) of the ninth incarnation of the series’ iconic protagonist, The Doctor, played by Christopher Eccelston. A few months later, in April 2006, Eccelston’s successor in the role, David Tennant (the most popular doctor of them all), was on hand when the Torchwood Institute was founded in the 1860s, by Queen Victoria, to secretly keep the kingdom safe from supernatural evil.
By 2008, when Davies long-planned “post watershed” adult-themed science-fiction series was ready to launch, Barrowman’s Harkness was installed as the head of the modern-day branch, Torchwood 3, located in Cardiff, Wales. As luck would have it, the Instutue’s headquarters was constructed right on top of a space-time rift through which gross and often lewd creatures kept trying to infiltrate the earth. It certainly kept things lively.
Torchwood was unusually cheerful about the silliness of its grab-bag set-up. It had been Davies, after all, who created the fan-favorite all-purpose explanation on the fly, “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey,” a dismissive reference to the sort of long-winded sci-fi mumbo-jumbo the rocketing narrative pace of Doctor Who couldn’t be expected to slow down for. Davies also coined the name Ret-Con for an amnesia drug used by Torchwood to wipe the slate clean when civilians got too nosy. The name is a cheeky reference to the practice of “retroactive continuity,” reviled by fans, in which creators sneak back when no one is looking to rewrite a character’s back-story. This cavalier spirit was pushed even further on Torchwood, which famously opened its second season with a quick blackout-style segment, never explained, of a crested blowfish driving a sports car.
Half the stuff that popped through the rift into Torchwood HQ remained mysterious even to our heroes, and domestic and romantic issues were allowed to take center stage surprisingly often: the home life of stalwart second-in-command Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), a recruit from the local constabulary, with her hulking teddy bear of a husband and a baby on the way, and the highly flexible romantic travails of Captain Jack, whose most long-term relationship ended in agony when his bf, analyst and administrator Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) was killed in action during the show’s third season, the 2009 epic miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth.
Miracle Day, like Children of Earth, is a single huge story enacted over several episodes on a global scale. In fact, it’s even more ambitious. The pact between the BBC and Starz has enabled Davies to think big and, on the evidence of the pilot, at least, he has not squandered the opportunity. This new Torchwood earns its high-concept conceit (an “intervention” into the natural order for which no ghost of an explanation has yet been offered) by pushing toward implications that are bigger and darker than most TV programs could absorb.
The best news of all, however, is that this landmark series has expanded and deepened without getting weighed down by its aspirations. It has retained its bracing casualness, playfulness, relaxed attitude toward continuity and willingness to embrace the odd, often lewd non sequitur. Even when staged with a Michael Bay-like grandiosity that has Gwen Cooper, in between changing nappies, shooting down a helicopter with a bazooka, Torchwood is light on its feet, still great fun to hang out with.
[Photo courtesy of Starz: actor John Barrowman with Torchwood creator Russell T Davies.]