The trailer for Torchwood's revivalist fourth season, subtitled Miracle Day, is finally upon us, bringing forth a lot of guns and explosions. While longtime fans may see some of the old whipcrack of the BBC show—mainly from star John Barrowman's cute asides as immortal swashbuckler Captain Jack Harkness—if you weren't privy to the information beforehand, it's impossible to know just from the trailer that this was once a Doctor Who spin-off.
No alien creatures in sight, no reference to Captain Jack's deep connection to the Doctor, no futuristic gadgets and weapons. It comes off as another Fringe instead: humans investigating the extranormal.
"We investigate the strange and the alien." While technically true, it's a complete whitewash of who he really is and what Torchwood does. Maybe they did some research, and found out that most US viewers would be reluctant to tune in to a show where the hero explains himself by saying, "We kill illegal aliens and steal their technology. Also, I bang every man and woman I meet, causing tragedies wherever I go."
Of course, the most successful spin-offs outgrow their parent shows and establish independence all the time (NCIS, Frasier, Daria), but it's trickier here because the first two seasons in particular were closely tied to the concurrent Doctor Who series, with Captain Jack going so far as to spend the break between the first and second season time-trotting with the Tenth Doctor David Tennant. There was always a sense of the Doctor Who universe existing just outside Torchwood's rim: some of the questions concerning its mythology are answered in Doctor Who episodes and vice versa.
Theoretically, all that could change, here. A new continent, a mostly new cast, and most importantly, a new network? Although current Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffatt has gone on record saying he would love to write Captain Jack into future episodes, it's safe to assume that for the time being, references to each other would be kept to a minimum.
The more important thing, for Torchwood, is that even if it tempers the more direct connection, it still keeps its weirdness; spinning adult, complex themes about human emotions within the frame of the Whoniverse's kitschy sci-fi world. On that front, we're in safe hands. Producers Russell T. Davies and Jane Espenson insist that they're not severing these characters from their roots just for new audiences, and we know that the amazing FX wizard Greg Nicotero has cooked up some creature effects for the show.
For now, let's take it on faith that the Miracle Day trailer's abundance of grounded human-on-human violence is just its way of showing off their spiffy new increase in budget. Now Davies can afford showing exploding houses and helicopters without them looking like the cheap CGI that the BBC could only shell for.
Starz's Torchwood is designed to serve as both a continuation of the first three seasons of BBC's Torchwood and a brand new starting point for virgin viewers. Last time we left the show, the Torchwood Institute has disbanded, its headquarter's a crater, most of its members are dead, and our hero left the planet in exile with his massive guilt over the horrible actions he took in saving the world (sort of like when Jack Bauer retired to Africa, except, you know, more sincere).
Now Captain Jack's back, they've moved to America, and the show's on a new network. If there's ever a time for newbies to get on board without checking out the BBC shows, this is it (though you'd be missing out on some very, very good storytelling).