Torchwood: Rendition / Dead Of Night

Following on from Russell T. Davies’ powerhouse opener, episodes two and three of Torchwood: Miracle Day continue the blazing momentum, alongside the steady and terrifying extrapolation of the series’ central conceit: no-one is dying, but no-one is healing either.

Dark Angel, Smallville and House writer Doris Egan grabs the narrative baton from Davies for the second episode, Rendition, and doesn’t miss a step or a beat. Egan presses the pedal to the metal from the very beginning, and only cranks it up from there. With the barest of outlines — the Torchwood team are on a flight to America, the conspiracy begins to emerge, the consequences of the miracle continue to unfold — Egan busts out a breathless, frantic and engrossing hour of TV. Her screenplay is nimble, dancing furiously between the strands and keeping them all flowing. Whether it’s the desperately improvised cure for Captain Jack, which is a masterclass scene in itself (blending highly technical dialogue with massively high stakes and a relentless supply of quips and one-liners for the cranky as hell Rex Matheson, and geek goddess Gwen Cooper), or the evolution of Oswald Danes, or the CIA conspiracy, Egan keeps it moving, energetic and alternately entertaining and chilling as hell. Egan also gives Gwen multiple hero moments, and verbal punches that hit as hard as the real punches that Gwen throws, including the standout line of the episode, delivered with awesome style by Eve Myles: “I’m Welsh.” Cue right hook.

By the end of the episode the team have landed, fought their way out of a trap, and escaped. In a Mini Cooper. (And to think some fans have been complaining about Torchwood being too American — (a) duh; and (b) trust me, Davies has made this even more Welsh than it was in seasons 1-3. Which is a good thing.).

From there, it falls to geek TV writing legend Jane Espenson (Buffy, BSG, Game Of Thrones) to take us into the Dead Of Night. For the first time this season, the show pauses to take a breath. It’s an interlude of sorts, although, being Torchwood, all kinds of crazy shit still happens. The change in pace is a good thing: it allows the viewers to really catch up, and lets the devastating implications continue to unravel and sink in. Espenson gets lots of juicy scenes to sink her brilliantly geeky teeth into: the bumpy integration of the new Torchwood team as they learn to work together for the first time (which, as Espenson has noted, could serve as a metaphor for the transatlantic writers room that Davies established for this season), the revelation of PhiCorp’s involvement, and Oswald Danes’ disturbing revelation of his true, dark self.

And an eye-popping double sex scene.

Espenson handles these pivotal moments with skill and gravitas, saving her humor, unleashing it sparingly but in the most brilliant of ways. She deserves an Emmy just for Jack’s “you should see the other guy” (it’s all in the context), which may be one of the greatest one-liners in sci-fi TV history. She also does a wonderful job with continuing Gwen Cooper’s ascendancy far beyond official Legendary status. Eve Myles has never had such great lines, has never had so many brilliantly moving, cool and geeky moments as she has in this season. Myles attacks every scene with subtlety, relish, tongue in cheek when need be, and flat-out heartbreaking acting when necessary.

Espenson, as you might expect, weaves the melancholy and the thrilling both expertly and seamlessly. In midst of it all, in the darkest hour of the night, Jack’s lonely phone call to Gwen was a beautiful piece of dramatic writing. Around that, the heavy lifting of the plot was done elegantly, with the haunting, silent march of the masked soulless, and the great reveal of the scale of PhiCorp’s involvement (done with a huge warehouse vista and Espenson’s other Emmy-worthy, geek-legend line of the episode, “bigger on the inside than the outside”). Espenson also made time for Esther and Gwen to discuss the poet Robert Frost, which provided great shading in the episode, and allowed Alexa Havins to develop her tremulous and vulnerable portrayal of Esther.

Mention must be also made of Bill Pullman and Lauren Ambrose, whose characters’ involvement with the miracle and its chaotically unfolding ramifications has been separate and enigmatic thus far, though their paths and significance have been beginnging to entwine. Pullman is truly extraordinary as the insane child murderer, and Ambrose is deliciously deceptive and shady in her apparent role as PhiCorp’s PR, Jilly Kitzinger. Both of them fully inhabit their roles, investing them with magnetism that is both horrific and hypnotic.

Horrific and hypnotic sum up this season so far: the huge, escalating crisis dreamed up by Davies and his team expands with every episode. It’s an incredible story engine, full of mind-blowing, exhilaratingly scary possibilities. From the writing perspective alone, Torchwood: Miracle Day is a masterclass on many levels.

Torchwood S4: Miracle Day — “The New World”

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.