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Death Takes a (Long) Holiday: Thoughts on Starz's Torchwood: Miracle Day

When we last saw Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), they had managed to save the world from a menacing alien incursion that threatened to harvest the world's child population. While Team Torchwood managed to save the day, it came once more at a heavy price: the loss of team member Ianto, the sacrifice of Jack's own grandson, and the discovery that Gwen herself was pregnant. Jack took off for the stars, while Gwen went into hiding.

Pyrrhic victories are something of Torchwood's stock-in-trade, really. The spinoff of Doctor Who, which originally launched in 2006 on BBC Three (and on BBC America here in the States), is far less sunny than its predecessor, more concerned with the darkness of both the extraterrestrial threats to the planet and to that inside its alien hunters. This is a series that revolves around some inherently flawed, damaged individuals who are constantly forced to make some tough choices. It naturally then inhabits the grey moral area where The Doctor himself would often fear to tread.

No stranger to change (it's been broadcast on no less than three different networks in the United Kingdom over the course of its run, Torchwood undergoes yet another transformation tonight as Starz launches its fourth season under the tagline of Torchwood: Miracle Day, a co-production between the pay cabler, BBC Worldwide Productions, and BBC One. With American currency comes some American presence as well: Barrowman and Myles (along with Kai Owen, who reprises his role as Gwen's husband Rhys) are now joined by a slew of Yanks as the latest threat being investigated by the fractured Torchwood Institute is global in nature. (More on that in a bit.) Thus, the action slingshots from Wales to Washington D.C.; and from Los Angeles to Shanghai; the budget is significantly larger than anything Torchwood has seen to date (look for a helicopter battle in Episode One to see what I mean); and there's a broader canvas as well. While Torchwood: Children of Earth presented a threat to the planet, Miracle Day actually carries it out, as the entire world changes overnight and Death itself is seeming vanquished.

When I sat down with Russell T. Davies a few weeks ago (which you can read more about here in my Torchwood set visit/interview piece), we discussed the notion that Torchwood didn't deal in metaphor, that it was instead presenting a science fiction story set in the real world. That definitely seems to be the case with Miracle Day, which for all of its talk of global consequences, focuses on the street level reaction to the so-called "miracle." That miracle is itself more of a curse than a blessing: a world without death is not a good place. After the initial jubilation at the thought of endless life, reality soon sets in: there aren't enough resources on the planet to sustain this continuum; endless life also means endless pain for those who should die from their injuries or conditions; and someone--or something--is pulling the planet's strings in order to pull off a sleight-of-hand illusion of this magnitude.

Which brings us to the central mystery of Torchwood: Miracle Day as Jack and Gwen and their newfound comperes--including Mekhi Phifer's Rex, Alexa Havin's Esther, and Arlene Tur's Vera--attempt to unravel the puzzle of who or what is behind this global phenomenon, as the world soon slips into absolute chaos. (Intriguingly, there are also personal costs involved: immortal time traveler Jack Harkness is suddenly very mortal, even as everyone else on the planet is seemingly immortal. Interesting, that.) There's a pharmaceutical company which appears to have had foreknowledge of the advent of the miracle, government agents within the CIA and other organizations with their own agenda, and a whip-smart public relations executive, Lauren Ambrose's deeply mercenary Jilly Kitzinger, who is using the global event as a springboard to power.

How these various entities connect, as well as to Bill Pullman's unrepentant child killer-turned-media darling Oswald Danes, remains a mystery throughout Torchwood: Miracle Day, which keeps the wraps on the architect of its global event as various factions collide, repel, and come together in order to investigate the cause of the miracle itself. Children of Earth, while it kept the 4-5-6 in the shadows, was upfront about the extraterrestrial presence in the plot. Here, it's entirely oblique: there are no aliens front and center and many of the villains we encounter are painfully, woefully all too human. As the cost of a world without death mounts, we see the thin veneer of civilization slip away as humanity turns on itself. There is a brutally shocking moment in the gripping fifth episode--written by Jane Espenson--that sums this up entirely (which I won't spoil here) and shows just how fragile our society can be when it's pushed past its breaking point.

But that's the thematic arc, really. In terms of the nitty-gritty, Torchwood: Miracle Day is also about getting the band back together, in a way. Or at the very least, forming a new one. There's very little of Jack in the first installment as the pieces fall into place, and it takes five episodes for the team to get up and running again. But there's plenty of Gwen Cooper to go around. Myles and Barrowman are both at the top of their game and there's a sense of excitement in seeing their characters reunite once more; both manage to make it all seem very effortless. There's an ease to their on-screen rapport and to the sense of camaraderie and shared loss that they inhabit. We can't help but fall in love with both of them time and again.

The rest of the cast, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Phifer's Rex Matheson is meant to be an arrogant, dashing CIA agent with a gruff and take-charge demeanor, but I found it very difficult to find him sympathetic as a character. Gruff, yes, but he lacked the sort of compelling charisma necessary to make Rex an engaging character; likewise, Havins seems too shaky at times. Yes, she's meant to be the naive ingenue sucked into this global conspiracy, but she seemed to be far too sunny and calm, as though she were in an entirely different show altogether. (A subplot involving her sister and nieces, which materializes a few episodes into the season, doesn't add any gravitas to her character. It's meant to give her some shading but it feels unnecessary and out of place as well, an odd misstep as Torchwood has often given its operatives outside familial issues to bounce off of, but I also found Episode Four, as a whole, to be weakest installment of the season to date.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Dollhouse's Dichen Lachman steals the scene when she appears a few episodes in as a steely espionage agent, and I cannot say enough positive things about the remarkable turns from Pullman and Ambrose. With Oswald Danes, Pullman is virtually unrecognizable from his earlier roles as he gracefully inhabits the part of a murderous pedophile who is compelled to become a celebrity out of a need to survive. His is the death that kickstarts the miracle, his death by lethal injection thwarted when the miracle hits. He's a true scavenger and survivor in every sense of the word, a man who knows his next meal may be his last and who looks to use the conspiracy as leverage to a new life.

Ambrose's Jilly remains one of the most tantalizing figures within Miracle Day, a publicity professional with an uncanny knack of being in precisely the right place at the right time. Whether she'll ultimately choose to side with the angels remains to be seen, even as she's caught up in events far larger than herself. And Arlene Tur is sensational as Dr. Vera Juarez, a doctor with links to Rex and to the emerging New World Order in the post-Miracle Day landscape. Tur is riveting to watch and a most welcome addition to the Torchwood canon.

For those wondering whether omnisexual Jack would retain his sexual voracity, fret not: his sexual orientation hasn't been changed for the fourth season and Starz makes good use out of its pay cable status with a storyline in the third episode that's sexually charged, to put it mildly. So too does Wales remain very much in the picture, despite the fact that Gwen leaves her Welsh hideaway to meet up with Jack and the others. Her familial plotline--now that she's the mother of little Anwen--remains compelling on a number of levels, exploring the lure of Torchwood as it relates to Gwen's identity as mother, wife, and daughter.

Ultimately, there are a few missteps along the way, but Torchwood: Miracle Day is also compelling event television, a heady blend of science fiction tension and philosophical debate that manages to feel momentous and thought-provoking in equal measure. While the ten-episode structure negates some of the driving momentum of Children of Earth (there are, inherently, some lulls), Torchwood: Miracle Day contains the show's trademark blend of action, humor, sex, and violence. But it's the sight of Jack and Gwen, together again on-screen at last, that brings a smile to my face, even as I can't shake the horror that's unfolding around them.

Torchwood: Miracle Day begins tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on Starz.

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