Like its parent series, Doctor Who, Torchwood is "about" a colorful outsider with a brilliant smile who arrives at the heart of calamity and somehow fixes everything with a nod and a wink. But the approaches of the two series differ in an intriguing way. With Who, the format is often conflict between unlike races, and the result peace through the harmony and triumph of good people over bad. But Torchwood, increasingly, has reveled in major science-fiction dilemmas of circumstance forced on the human race as a whole, where all options are agony. In such circumstances, a nod and a wink only get you so far.
The Same, But Different
The latest incarnation, Torchwood: Miracle Day (premieres on Starz July 8, 2011), is both a continuation and a departure. It's a continuation of the UK series last produced by the BBC two years ago, with the two original stars still in place (John Barrowman as the incapable-of-death Captain Jack Harkness and Eve Myles as brassy Welsh ex-cop Gwen Cooper). These ten new episodes firmly and canonically constitute the fourth series of adventures for Jack and Gwen.
Still, though some sights are pleasantly familiar (Jack's captain's coat, the reappearance of Tom Price as PC Andy, and so on), Miracle Day's continuity links are thinner than one might expect. Not, for once, because its new trans-Atlantic producing partnership has radically changed the series -- the current season is still steadfastly under the hand of, and largely written by, Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies. Rather, it's because Torchwood, like its immortal hero, has been systematically killing itself off and resurrecting itself in a new form since its inception. Today's Torchwood is an evolved and in some ways distant descendant of the scrappy little humans-using-alien-tech-to-defend-the-Earth spin-off that emerged from Doctor Who's triumphal parade in 2006.
In other words, Torchwood has consistently presented unparalleled challenges not only to the human race but also to its fanbase. The provocations have been deliberate, starting with the pilot (in which Captain Jack's lieutenant, Suzie, was snuffed) and extending through season 2, in which Toshi (Naoko Mori) was killed off once and Owen (Burn Gorman) twice.
Response Becomes Story
Fans were still feeling the loss of Tosh and Owen when, in the miniseries that constituted season 3 (Torchwood: Children of Earth), Davies one-upped himself by providing the last remaining supporting team member, Jack's lover Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), with a demise that lacked even the noble purpose of the previous eliminations. Ianto's meaningless death riled fans, and some internet voices have greeted news of this new season with loud refusals to watch after so many beloved characters had been so brutally sacrificed.
Davies, brilliantly, has incorporated Torchwood's black halo into the program itself: the mutterings of fans, as if through some ancient Celtic magic, have become the series's own mythology. Torchwood has become a dark legend, knowledge of its existence extinguished. Everyone who works for Torchwood dies, one awed character advises another. Lone survivor Gwen has vanished, gone off the grid with husband Rhys (Kai Owen), living in fear that any resuscitation of Torchwood would threaten them and their precious infant daughter. And that fear is made tangible: once Torchwood's survivors are forced into the light, bullets and artillery start raining down from the sky.
In fact Torchwood: Miracle Day, taking its cue from the ineluctable survival of its hero and the brutally realized mortality of his companions, is all about death. The premise is that, starting one early Monday morning, no one on Earth dies. But that's just the starting point. Like Children of Earth, the weight of Miracle Day is not in the fantastic event but in its spiraling ramifications.
Ramifications of Survival
The first round of impacts are spelled out in episode 1 ("The New World"): no one dies, but they still get sick, they still get hurt, leaving those who would have perished from catastrophic injury or death-dealing heart attacks in lingering, eternal misery. People start doing the math: society will collapse into food-grubbing chaos in a few short months on the outside.
The calamity is all depicted in the classic Torchwood one-two punch of generalized news reports by increasingly alarmed journalists subsequently brought home by individual examples: Gwen's dad, languishing in a hospital bed; the execution of a pedophile rapist proved futile; a horribly mangled bomb victim still, impossibly, conscious and aware; a CIA man impaled in the chest by a plunging rebar and struggling to do his job past the pain of an unhealing mortal wound.
That CIA man is new regular Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), whose assistant, Esther (Alexa Havins), manages to connect the inception of what the press call "Miracle Day" with another strange event that occurs exactly simultaneously: the CIA receives a spray of incoming flashes, all consisting of the word "Torchwood," followed by the immediate elimination of all electronic and archival hard-copy references to the institute.
Classic Sci-Fi Dilemma
The actions of those impacted by Miracle Day drive the plot. Rex, fighting both his injuries and the helplessness involving in trying to investigate something not happening, fixates on Torchwood as his only lead in solving the macabre transformation of Miracle Day. Meanwhile the pedophile rapist, Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), is released, his sentence carried out despite its lack of effect; he reemerges into the world a lightning rod, a reviled antichrist who seems ready to make this new and darker Earth his own.
Torchwood: Miracle Day is a well-written (by Davies leading a remarkable stable including Jane Espenson, John Shiban, John Fay, and Doris Egan) and well-directed (by several hands starting with Bharat Nalluri, whose credits include Outcasts and the brilliant UK spy series MI-5) attempt at a classic science-fiction fable and, in my view, a successful one. Refreshingly for science-fiction drama, the story rides not on special effects (for which there is little need) or even the (more prevalent) guns and explosions, but on the responses of both individuals and masses to a simple threat to humanity that's not only unstoppable but worsening by the second, every unnaturally sustained heartbeat spinning the world further out of control. Far from being about a grinning Mr. Fix-It, Torchwood asks what we would do in a world of eternal suffering, a world in which Oswald Danes is king.