Torchwood's Careful Return in First "Miracle Day" Episode


One day, out of the blue, the people of Earth stop dying. The media see it as a hot story. Citizens see it as a miracle. Doctors and nurses? They’re the first to see it as what it really is: a huge problem.

This Friday, the British science-fiction series Torchwood resumes broadcast after a two-year hiatus that left fans unsure of its fate. Now a joint production between original producer BBC and American cable partner Starz, the new season will premiere July 8 on Starz first, and then on BBC One the next week, a day before the second episode airs in the US (a schedule that unsurprisingly angered longtime UK fans).

I saw the premiere early, and I’ll say this: the first episode feels mostly automatic, but necessary, as it sets up a ton of great stuff to come in the next episode and certainly further down the line. It is the stretching of the limbs before a mad dash.

By the time the episode ends, the audience won’t learn anything about the plot that they don’t already know from the synopsis and/or trailers. It seems unimpressive when you compare it to the opener of past seasons. While the end of “Day One” in the previous season, Children of Earth, gave us twists, plot advancement and a total destruction of the Torchwood status quo, that isn’t the case at the end of “The New World,” as the first episode of this fourth season is called. We know no more than we did ten minutes in.

It’s a little disappointing if you’re expecting a lot more to happen in its big return, but there is a reason for this. The scope is being spread out to include a number of outside perspectives instead of just our regular characters, which is probably why one hour will feel like it’s going by really fast. They’re establishing a lot of things. Since this season has ten episodes compared to the last one’s five, the pace can afford to decompress a little to make room for more character moments, and we do get some really nice moments.

There’s definitely a slight shift in tone and style. It’s not as foreboding and intense as Euros Lyn’s direction in Children of Earth, but not as kitschy as the episodic first two seasons, either. With all the location jumps, assassinations, gun fights, computer hacking, and shadowy government networks, it has become some sort of a 24 with extraterrestrial flavor. It’s tempting to say that it’s Americanized, as it does have that slick network drama feel, but I think that’s more because of (British) director Bharat Nalluri, who’s experienced with establishing episodes like this, having done the pilots for shows like Life on Mars, Spooks, Hustle and Outcasts.

Witty banter is minimal and Captain Jack Harkness isn’t as flirty as he usually is, so it doesn’t feel much like the Torchwood we’re used to... yet. Judging it on its own, though, it's definitely an intriguing introduction. Fast paced, action-filled and a real sense of budding dread runs through. Not to mention knockout performances by pretty much everyone in it. Captain Jack is mostly a run-and-shoot character in this episode, but it’s actor John Barrowman that’s keeping him from being just another pretty action hero, and letting new viewers know that there’s more personality to this guy that you should find out by watching the show.

[Only minor details are described ahead, but stop reading if you really don’t want to know about anything that happens.]

The mystery in this storyline isn’t just “The Death of Death,” or so a BBC News headline in the episode reads. As the episode begins, even before we find out that death has stopped, an anonymous email is sent to the CIA containing only one word: TORCHWOOD. As they try to investigate this word, a malware hits the CIA computers and all traces of anything relating to Torchwood disappear.

“If you search ‘Torchwood,’ it gets no results. Nothing gets no results,” comments a perplexed CIA desk jockey.

So what is it, and how does it relate to this Miracle Day, as the press have dubbed the event? Investigating this are a pair of CIA agents, Rex (Mekhi Phifer) and Esther (Alexa Havins), who have more screen time on this episode than the returning series regulars. Rex is especially interested because he feels like the walking dead, having been involved in an oughta-be-fatal car accident shortly after Miracle Day began.

Why is it a problem if people stop dying? Isn’t that a good thing? Future episodes will get into it with more specifics in terms of the complications in government and medicine (House producer Doris Egan wrote the second episode, if that tells us anything), but even here, we see brief glimpses of the burdens that are piling. Nobody likes to talk about it, but hospitals depend on deaths to prevent overcrowding. There’s a horrific urgency when we’re shown hospital hallways filled with perpetually dying patients who can’t fit into the ICUs. An estimated 300,000 people die every day, so if that’s stopped, in just 4 days, the Earth will have an extra million bodies to sustain. If that continues, then in just a couple of months, the planet will run out of food.

We also get a personification of this horrible new world in Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), a pedophile and child murderer who survives his execution and hires a team of lawyers to argue for his release on the basis that his sentence of lethal injection was already legally carried out. The first episode doesn’t reveal how he relates to the big picture, as he doesn’t interact with anyone involved in the main plot. Any other show, you can assume that he’s the villain behind this thing, but given that it’s Torchwood, it’s probably not so simple. He seems more in line with Peter Capaldi’s character from Children of Earth: a technically peripheral character, but an important one that tells a different side of the overall story.

In contrast, there’s something very sweet about the premise of our hero’s return. Last we saw him, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) did something so horrible that he disbanded Torchwood and left Earth on a self-imposed exile, leaving a pregnant Gwen (Eve Myles) and her husband Rhys (Kai Owen) to go on with their lives in relative normalcy. We know that Jack is back, because you simply can’t do Torchwood without him, but why is he back? The most natural assumption is that the event in Miracle Day is so catastrophic that he returns as a hero to save the day—but that isn’t the case. It’s more personal than that.

Jack is back because he wants to keep Gwen safe.

There it is. A simple motive that will keep longtime fans fluttering while establishing their relationship to new viewers. Jack knows that Gwen, Rhys and their baby Anwen have gone underground since becoming fugitives during Children of Earth, so he knows that if people are trying to dig up Torchwood, eventually someone will go looking for its only two surviving members, namely him and Gwen, and Jack can’t let that happen to her.

Jack isn’t the only one who wants to protect Gwen (even if the audience knows that the kickass Gwen hardly ever needs protecting). I’m so glad that Rhys continues to be a strong presence on the show, because Kai Owen is just simply fantastic. Once again, he contributes to one of the best scenes of the episode, where Rhys and Gwen start up their age-old argument about her being involved with a group as dangerous as Torchwood. Over the years, we’ve seen many incarnations of this fight: when Rhys didn’t know what Torchwood is, when he knew but was trying to be a supportive boyfriend, when he was her fiance, when he was a husband, and in Children of Earth, when he was an expecting father. This time, Rhys finally has the upper hand and the leveled logic. He tells Gwen that she has a bigger responsibility as a new mother and cannot neglect that to go off investigating mysteries with Jack, putting their baby in the line of fire.

For those who don’t know any of this backstory, Rex and Esther serve as surrogates. Yes, Starz wants Torchwood creator and episode writer Russell T. Davies to re-introduce everything as if it’s a brand new show, and so he did, just as he did with the first episode of Children of Earth. We even get a repeat of the first Torchwood episode ever. A curious female law enforcement—now Esther instead of Gwen—gets Torchwood explained to her by Jack, before he drugs her with his amnesia pill. When it works, why change it?

But Davies didn’t forget to throw some winks at returning fans, too, with references only they would get. Things like Rex and Esther investigating a case marked “456.” Or William Thomas and Sharon Morgan returning to play Gwen’s parents, as well as Tom Price as Gwen's friend Andy. Or—and this is the one that’ll get the fangirls screaming—Jack pretending to be an FBI Agent using the alias “Owen Harper.”

Those longtime fans will also catch on to a plot development way before it is explained to new viewers at the end of the episode. They know that Jack is an immortal who can’t die, so what happens to him if something makes everyone else immortal? As Jack and Gwen go bug-eyed at this realization, the reaction of new viewers is captured succinctly in Rex’s out-of-the-loop quip: “You guys talk some crazy shit, you know that?”

Yes, we do. And you should tag along, because there will be some more great, crazy shit.

Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.


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