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.

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Blood Streams: The Vampire Diaries

Last week’s episode, Klaus, only confirmed what we already knew: watching The Vampire Diaries is an exhilarating, exhausting, extraordinary experience that leaves you drained in the best possible way.

Thanks to showrunners Kevin Williamson (Scream 1-4, Dawson’s Creek, I Know What You Did Last Summer) & Julie Plec (Kyle XY, Scream 2&3, Cursed), and their excellent writers’ room, this show consists of non-stop live-wire storytelling, barreling along and aggressively evolving and phasing on the fly with maximum speed and acceleration. The pace of storytelling is relentless: it’s like a killer act out every 60 seconds. It’s brutal but addictive; which is also how the writers handle the show’s main theme: love. Because for all its velocity of narrative, The Vampire Diaries has a beating heart when it comes to romantic love.

The lushly unabashed romanticism of the show is brutally intercut with swift chest-punching heart-grabbing (literally and metaphorically, because the show is that good). To quote another iconic Warner Bros TV show (SouthLAnd, of course): love’s a bitch. Love will lift you up and enrich your life and take you to beautiful emotional and physical places, but you’d better believe it will kick your ass along the way. That’s just the truth about love (and also about writing, as it happens), and in The Vampire Diaries that huge, resonating truth just happens to be filtered through the awesome genre lens of vampires, werewolves, witches and beautiful people in a contemporary setting. This is a hardcore genre show that is so much fun it’s accessible to everyone.

Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec have taken L.J. Smith’s rich source material, and created a monster, with all the enormous fun and kicking aside of responsibilities that comes with it. There’s a “hell, yeah!” quality to every episode, act, scene and beat in this show. It goes all the way from the season arc through-line, down to the granular level of shots and edits. There’s such a huge, wild enthusiasm for high-octane, wild-eyed with exhilaration storytelling. They build storylines over months to an unstoppable momentum, and then slam you with insanely thrilling reversals that take your goddamn breath away.

The writers take those awesome WTF moments and pile them one on the other, detonating story-bombs with abandon, because they can, thanks to the bench strength of the writing room talent on this show.

From the beginning, the showrunners declared their intention to have an absolute blast. The opening words of the pilot script teaser described the boyfriend driving the car as having that “cute-I’m-probably-gonna-die-soon look,” and his girlfriend as having that “I’ll-probably-live-longer-than-my-boyfriend look.” From there, it’s only gotten to be even more fun, with Damon’s chest-punching and Elijah’s multiple heart-grabbings (again, you know, on more than one level), and the many, many British accents on display (as a Brit, I gotta love that — of course the accent denotes worldly experience, intellectual brilliance and general bad-ass awesomeness. Of course. It just does.).

Throughout, Williamson & Plec and their outstanding team of writers demonstrate an intense sense of glee with their slice and dicing of typical monster tropes, and their manipulation and reconstruction of genre. They’ve taken the twin concepts of genre and love, and spliced them, allowing each to transform the other.

At its heart, this is a show all about transformations, both literal and metaphysical: human to vampire, human to werewolf, innocent to aware, comfortable to world-shattered. Everyone on the show at some point has had to deal with the reversal of everything they thought they knew. This is why The Vampire Diaries transcends genre and achieves vertical take-off into the realm of great drama — it grounds everything in character.

When someone’s world gets upended or destroyed, they feel it, and so do we. And as quickly as this show moves, it knows exactly when to hold a moment too, as we saw in this week’s mind-blowing episode Klaus, which not only seemed to pack in more plot than a season of 24, but also finally gave us Jenna’s reaction to finding out about the existence of vampires and werewolves, and to the fact that everyone had been lying to her all this time. Sara Canning played the scene with simple, heart-rending truth, breaking down inside and out. It was beautifully done.

Thanks to the fantastic writing which delivers kick-ass genre awesomeness and brutal character work week after week, the show continues to work its way into our bloodstreams and has shown no sign of slowing its momentum. The show was just renewed for a third season, and like an insane but thrilling rollercoaster, it’s impossible not to come back for more.

Call to arms: saving the Fringe universe

It’s time for a rallying cry to save one of the most inventive, emotionally rich, beautifully geeky and intensely genre-busting shows on TV right now: Fringe.

The show has risen mightily from its X-Files-esque beginnings, with an unorthodox FBI team working on strange phenomenon-based cases of the week. It has built a beautifully detailed, richly atmospheric and resonant architecture for itself as it heads towards the end of its third season. However, with Fox having moved Fringe to the “Firefly” slot on Fridays, and ratings slipping, the outlook for the Fringe-iverse may not be so positive: cracks may be appearing in the future of the show, just as reality is starting to fragment within the show itself.

The show has a core team of three, serving in the FBI’s “Fringe Division.” Special Agent Olivia Dunham (played by Anna Torv), the uptight, fiercely intelligent and emotionally unflinching leader. Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson), the man who was a boy from another universe and is now a troubled but fundamentally sincere and decent “special consultant.” He happens to be the son of the team’s resident genius, Walter Bishop (the legendary John Noble), a Harvard-based scientist who devised countless reality-defying experiments, spent 20 years in an asylum, and now struggles to connect his genius to the real world. These three, with the assistance of agent Astrid Farnsworth (Jasika Nicole), report to Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick), the enigmatic senior agent with mysterious connections.

Fringe has grown in scale and ambition since those early days investigating unexplained and terrifying creatures and occurrences. Now, it deals with nothing less than the fate of our world, and that of the Other Side, the alternate version of our world, intimately tied to ours as the fabric of both begins to rupture and come apart. The details of that off-kilter alternate world are perfectly drawn, creating the same-but-different feel: for example, there is no such thing as coffee there, the Statue Of Liberty is cast in bronze, and airships float through the high-tech skies. With the conflict between the worlds played out like a war in the making, the show has built a powerful narrative momentum as the stakes are driven higher, and the emotional impact gets deeper, and more intense.

The show is geek heaven, with its critical recurring role for Leonard Nimoy as William Bell, Walter Bishop’s former partner (and founder of Massive Dynamic), and its immaculately chosen guest stars, including Back To The Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, and Robocop‘s Peter Weller. The stories themselves have become more resonant, more richly emotional — feelings play an intense and devastating role in this show. It’s not just abstract science that fuels the tales of the two universes, it’s deeply powerful stories that tear at you with their implications. They are primal human stories: a father losing a son in one world, and stealing his alternate version from another; a love triangle between a man, and the two identical women from each side, told in the most emotionally devastating and real way possible; experiments on children to develop and enhance special abilities, dealt with through the lens of the disturbed, haunted adults they become.

But it isn’t all about darkness and fear. Fringe is one of the funniest and wittiest one hour dramas currently on the air. It’s a true stablemate to other such intense yet bitingly funny shows produced by Warner Bros. Television, including True Blood, SouthLAnd and The Vampire Diaries. They all share deep and compelling traits: they approach emotion, drama and humor with equally savage and sustained enthusiasm and energy. They are all derived from the minds of some of TV’s finest showrunners: J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner & Joel Wyman (Fringe), John Wells, Ann Biderman & Christopher Chulack (SouthLAnd), Kevin Williams and Julie Plec (The Vampire Diaries), and of course, Alan Ball (True Blood).

These shows share an emotional intensity, the furious whipping up of wild and hard-hitting narrative arcs, a beautiful awareness of genre and how to play with it, honor it, and transcend it. They all build worlds real and imagined, and they all push the boundaries of their creations.

Now one of them is in trouble. Maybe two, but SouthLAnd is discussed in other posts on this blog. This post is for Fringe. Because quality storytelling is important. Writing of this caliber must be supported. Great acting needs to be cherished. With its ability to filter emotional stories through “strange science”, alternate universes, and complex relationships, by playing with the tropes of TV sci-fi, Fringe is truly unique in its genre, and in the world of TV drama. It has a powerful engine driving its ideas, and its cast and crew is populated with artists and visionaries, beautifully executing the ideas in a manner that is always highly entertaining, intense, gory sometimes, emotionally powerful all the time.

John Noble, Anna Torv and Pacey himself, Joshua Jackson, do a tremendous job as the heart and soul of the show. They portray heartbreaking, hilarious, darkly complex characters: they have the richness of Shakespearean creations, filtered through the fast-moving, wisecracking lens of 21st century TV. Noble, Torv and Jackson are an essential, compelling team, with truly fantastic chemistry and comic timing, and dramatic, heartbreaking depth.

As they fight to save our world and the alternate world that threatens it, so the fans of Fringe must also mobilize to save the universes. Without regular live viewings, the show will slip through the cracks in the TV drama universe and disappear forever. Watch it, and it will endure.