The fourth season of Russell T. Davies’ magnificent Dr. Who spin-off Torchwood kicks off with a new world for the characters on the show, and for the show itself, as it transitions from the UK to the US.
Evolution is part of Torchwood‘s DNA: the show has changed channels with every season. It started on BBC3, moved to BBC2, then BBC1, and has now touched down on Starz. It stays alive, much like its immortal, omni-sexual hero Captain Jack Harkness, and, in the premise of this new season, like everyone else in the world. For this is the concept of Miracle Day: no-one dies.
Russell T. Davies has always been one of the greatest chroniclers of the human heart on television, from his earliest days working with that other titan of British TV, Paul Abbott (Shameless, State Of Play). But as Davies’ career developed, he became something else as well: the true master of the big idea.
It first showed most overtly with his TV miniseries Second Coming, where future ninth Doctor Who Christoper Eccleston played an ordinary man living in an ordinary part of Manchester who truly believes he is the messiah, the second coming, come to save humanity. This show clearly marked the new phase in Davies’ progression: marrying the big idea to street-level emotional reality. It’s since become clear that Davies’ signature across the wide variety of his work is this: huge, paradigm-altering concepts with complex emotional ramifications, handled with humanity, grace, humor and heart.
His massively successful relaunch of Dr. Who took this combination to another level, and his creation of sister show Torchwood continued the evolution.
From its earliest incarnation as a monster of the week show for adults, like Dr. Who but with more sex, violence and horror (the more visceral content was why it started on the more experimental channel BBC3), Torchwood has quickly and steadily evolved into something greater.
Amidst the thrills, the scares and the laughs, the show always dealt head-on with melancholy and loss, and with the horror of its events from the human perspective. Seasons One and Two were great, a huge amount of fun laced with heart-wrenching drama, as Davies blended the episodic approach with more lightly serialized story arcs. Always, he allowed the darkness to build and the implications of his narratives to really hit home for the characters and the viewers.
Season Three, which for the first time had a title, Children Of Earth, was magnificent, monumentally so. Ironically, having fewer episodes and a tighter framework allowed Davies to realize his jaw-dropping big idea in a much bigger and far more emotionally devastating way. It marked a new era and template for the show: the broad-format, one-story miniseries.
Torchwood: Miracle Day continues that new direction and hits the ground running, in true Davies style. The big idea, that on this day, the miracle day, no-one dies, is deployed almost immediately, in two creepily effective ways: in the opening moments of the show, a convicted child murder (an astonishing Bill Pullman) receives a lethal injection, while a CIA agent (a perfectly grandstanding Mekhi Pfifer), gets a lethal impalement. Neither of them die, and very quickly, the world realizes that no-one else is dying either. Something has happened to humanity, and at the very moment it occurs, the word “Torchwood” appears on CIA servers; just as quickly, all traces of it disappear.
In the hands of some showrunners, that might be the entire first episode. For Davies, who has a brutally fast-moving, story-burning approach similar to that of Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec on The Vampire Diaries, it’s just the first five minutes.
From there, the episode races in powerful, muscular fashion through the rapidly evolving chaos that ensues. It introduces Alexa Havins in a sweetly soulful performance as CIA agent Esther Drummond. It reintroduces John Barrowman’s charismatic but tortured Captain Jack from the darkness. And it finds generous amounts of time to catch up with the show’s other lead, the incredible, legendary Gwen Cooper (played brilliantly by the never-better Eve Myles), fangirl and fanboy favorite, and one of sci-fi’s greatest female characters — in fact, allow me to apologize for even mentioning gender there — one of sci-fi’s greatest characters, period. Her relationship with husband Rhys (the always awesome Kai Owen) encapsulates everything that is great about this show, and Davies: a myriad of small, intimate, truthful human moments laced with blistering humor amidst the vast sci-fi darkness that threatens to engulf us all.
The move to Starz was a mouth-watering prospect: Davies’ huge vision coupled with a much larger budget than the show had ever had before. And the results are in: Torchwood made with extra dollars works wonderfully. The enhanced production values are in full effect, and the direction is breathtakingly exciting. All the way through to the thrilling helicopter chase at the end, the show is popping and humming and exploding off the screen.
In fact, speaking as a true connoisseur of helicopter scenes in TV shows and movies (I loved Airwolf a little too much as a kid), I can say with authority: that chase scene kicks major ass. It also, thanks to Davies’ frankly brilliant writing, simultaneously serves to throw Phifer’s agent into the Torchwood mix, and is also the scene that brings Jack and Gwen back together for the first time. Davies always does a great job blasting out scenes that work on multiple levels, and this is no exception.
This first episode does an awesome job of setting up the arc of the show, reintroducing the major characters and deftly reaffirming the Torchwood concept for first-time audiences (with some nice callbacks for existing fans, including numerous ‘456’ references, and Harkness using ‘Owen Harper’ as his fake FBI identity). It also has some great Wales jokes (“the British equivalent of New Jersey”).
The stage is fully set for the remaining nine episodes, and there is so much to look forward to: watching Phifer’s awesomely irascible agent Rex Matheson get on board with the Torchwood team, seeing how Pullman’s arc plays into the larger narrative. There is also the glorious prospect of great future episodes from fantastic TV sci-fi writers, including Jane Espenson and Doris Egan.
Above all, thanks to Starz, we get to see Davies really turn up the volume on his terrifying and thrilling vision.
The pedal is well and truly to the metal, sending us headlong into the darkness.
I can’t wait for more.