As Torchwood lurches into its fourth season, now a STARZ and BBC co-production, I have to wonder what the enduring element of the show actually is. Launched off the back of Doctor Who in 2006 the show got off to a decent ratings start but hemorrhaged viewers and did little to please critics. It’s initial two seasons jumped between the channels and time slots to try and maintain an audience, but despite a genuine upswing in quality in its second season the show never seemed to have the success of its parent. A third season, a mini-series encompassing one stand- alone story, managed to find an audience even as the shows plot essentially folded into itself. The mini-series, ‘Children of Earth’, despite being a rating success was essentially a finale for the show, killing off or seeing off the remnants of the cast and effectively drawing a line under the entire thing. From its initial main cast of five only two remained by the end of ‘Children of Earth’ and both were at places which felt like natural endpoints. Gwen Cooper free to live her life with her family in obscurity, Captain Jack (not that one) hitching a lift on a passing space-freighter (in a scene that brought to mind Poochies exit from The Itchy and Scratchy show more than anything else). As such I wonder how valuable the Torchwood brand actually is, especially considering that STARZ and the BBC seem to have thrown considerable resources at this American-centric reboot.
Capitalizing on the surprise success of ‘Children of Earth’ the fourth season of Torchwood is following a similar structure. For its ten episode run the season will follow one storyline. This storyline is centred on Miracle Day (Hey. That’s the name of the show!), a global event in which people ceased to die. We’re introduced to the concept through the eyes of new characters Rex Matheson and Esther Drummond, two CIA agents who happen across a reference to the Torchwood team. Whilst investigating Torchwood, Rex is involved in a car crash and is impaled several times by metal poles. Rex doesn’t die, much to everyone’s surprise, and in a speech seemingly cribbed from Children of Men we find out that not dying is a worldwide phenomenon. We already know that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, due to a great pre-credits stinger involving a death row inmate who won’t have the decency to put the lethal into lethal injections, but the speech is a nicely evocative way of establishing Miracle Day. The montage of news reportage (complete with a news report in non-English to prove it’s a global problem ) that occurs a few minutes later almost seems to be hitting us over the head with that information.
If I have one criticism of the episode it’s that it takes a while to actually get into gear. A large part of the first half is about establishing the mythology of the Torchwood institute. The problem is that if anyone has seen the first three seasons of Torchwood then this comes across as faintly ridiculous. The welsh branch of Torchwood, as characterized in the first two seasons, were always kind of lovably useless, the Delta Tau Chi House of the Torchwood institute. By the second season this was actually kind of a canonical thing, with the team changed into the scrappy underdogs of the Doctor Who universe rather than the, wannabe, slick operation of the first season. As such long time viewers are left bemused by the serious tones used to discuss Torchwood, whilst first-time viewers are left to wonder why we keep flashing over to this heavily armed Welsh couple living in a cottage in the middle of nowhere.
Throughout the episode I was a little annoyed at the trans-Atlantic plotting because it felt like every time the episode focused on Gwen Cooper over in Wales the episode ground to a halt. Whilst I’m not one of the rabid fans who hated Gwen Cooper’s character, I never found her to be a particularly engaging lead and always preferred her as part of an overall team. The fact that her scenes really didn’t tell us all that much about what was going seemed to really hurt the pacing of the show, particularly when the narrative itself started to get going. For the run time of the episode I was still trying to work out why this new iteration of Torchwood needed Gwen and Jack as prominent characters when it seemed to do a great job of establishing an interesting set of new protagonists. It made the episode feel like it had one foot in the grave, less of a new and exciting start and more a fresh coat of paint. Even holding off the reveal of Gwen’s character until the last ten minutes might have helped with the pacing. That’s not to say that Gwen’s scenes were all a waste, I just would have preferred a little more time with our new characters.
However one of my favourite moments of the episode was Gwen’s realisation of what immortality really meant for Planet Earth. What made this episode work so well was how the concept of Miracle Day was handled, with the initial excitement over everyone living quickly replaced by rational concerns such as expanding populations and diminishing resources. By this point we’d already seen the personal ramifications of a world full of immortals that were still very much vulnerable. In fact the reveal of a bomb blast victim, half melted but still horrifyingly conscious, was a surprisingly adept moment of pure horror. The sheer concept of still being alive in that situation, and the eyes pleading for some sort of end to the trauma, was genuinely unsettling and set up the dangers presented by this new paradigm. That scene set up the visceral danger of Miracle Day, whilst Gwen’s later scene plots the theoretical ramifications of the human race not being constrained by mortality. They’re both stark scenes which showcase one of the elements that makes series creator Russell T Davies such an interesting writer. RTD got a lot of criticism during his Doctor Who run for his hand waved, deus-ex machina, endings but I think part of this was due to the fact his writing went to naturally dark and often fatalistic places which required a herculean effort to course correct into a good resolution.
Without the constraints of writing for a family audience RTD’s writing tends to go to naturally dark places and the ramifications of immortality in this episode are a perfect example of that. What impressed me about this episode was the tone, which retained a little of the Torchwood style but was altogether a little cooler and collected. Torchwood had a tendency towards camp and kitsch, as discussed earlier the Torchwood team were essentially ironic jokes, which was curtailed a little in this. The camp was still there and was particularly evident in the broadly villainous character of Oswald Danes, a serial rapist and murderer played with a seedy sort of relish by Bill Pullman. For whatever reason I always associate Pullman as something of a drippy character, constantly left at the aisle by his dissatisfied bride to be, so it was fun to see him get to play a character with pep. Despite having limited screen time Pullman was able to craft a memorably sleazy character and I’m assuming he’s going to have a lot to do in the coming episodes. John Barrowman, as Captain Jack, in comparison seemed almost subdued. Barrowman is an actor whom I felt had way more presence than actual acting chops, and this episode sort of encapsulated that with Barrowman floundering during his big speech/exposition dump but positively coming alive when bouncing off the rest of the cast.
My favourite person in the episode was Mekhi Phifer who played Rex as a perfect kind of belligerent asshole. The episode gave him a lot more to do in the second half and the episode came alive once he became an active part of it. Once Rex, still perforated, was up and about chewing painkillers and hobbling to the airport the episode gained a sense of inertia and purpose it had previously missed. His travel montage to Wales and his increased irritation at every obstacle in his path were just great and Phifer managed to make a character whom should have been loathable (he started the episode off celebrating a potential promotion due to his superior’s wife getting cancer) actually kind of likeable.
As an indicator of things to come this episode did a great job of selling both the season’s story and STARZ commitment to the show. Whilst there were a few spotty moments, a rather unconvincing helicopter explosion towards the end, the fourth season of Torchwood looks to have a scope and ambition it never had before and the means to pull it off. The increased production values were evident everywhere, but they actually helped to sell the story rather than just seeming to show off an increased budget. I was actually genuinely impressed by the helicopter chase towards the end, partially because Torchwood apparently now had the budget to fire a helicopter, but mostly because the episode had the confidence to show the chase from steady long shots rather than quick-cutting around the action like previous episodes had. Torchwood is a show where it often felt like its potential was squandered, the scope of its universe and concept constantly countered by reductive plotting and awkward characterisation. As the show went on it managed to iron out a lot of the kinks and Miracle Day seems to be the result of this learning curve. Hopefully as the season continues we’ll rewarded with something as engaging and great as ‘Children of Earth’.