Torchwood: Miracle Day, “The New World”

Posted on July 09, 2011

Here’s an interesting dilemma for a blogger: How do you write about this show on a weekly basis? And make no mistake, after that tense, explosive (literally), and just plain fun opening episode, we have every intention of writing about this show every week.

But here’s what: This is technically the 4th season of a British science fiction show which is itself a spinoff (and anagram of) a much more well-known British science fiction show now in its 6th (or 30-somethingth) season. Except now it’s being co-produced and featured on an American cable network as a Brit/U.S. collaboration. Oh, and while it’s technically a “series” by British broadcasting standards and a season by American ones, it really seems to be functioning as more of a mini-series, which makes sense because the previous season of the show essentially ditched the known format (after dumping half the cast) and turned what had been a somewhat silly X-Files/Fringe-type show into something far darker, more nuanced, and emotionally wrenching.

Confused? Relax. That only makes you normal. Let the nerds guide you through this one.

The good news for any newbies is that you could tune into this first episode having never seen any prior ones and you would think you were watching the premiere of a brand spanking new TV series. We imagine there might be one or two moments that’ll have you going “Hunh?” but the script does a surprisingly good job of filling in the parts of the backstory that are relevant and walking quickly past those parts that either don’t matter or don’t fit into the new paradigm.

And what is the new paradigm? Well if you saw the previous Torchwood series, Children of Earth (which is on Netflix streaming; you don’t have to watch it to understand this series but it’s a cracking good sci-fi series on its own and it’s only about 5 hours long), things are as you would expect. Torchwood is disbanded, Gwen and Rhys are living in seclusion with their ridiculously cute daughter Anwen, and Jack hasn’t been seen since he ran off at the end of Children of Earth.

But if you’re just seeing this show for the first time, most of the aforementioned won’t matter much to you because the story unfolds rather quickly and the setup and implications of that setup are laid out within the first half hour. The Miracle Day of the title refers to the day people stopped dying on Earth, which sounds like good news except it means people with catastrophic injuries (like, y’know, getting your head cut off) still don’t die. It also means the aged will keep on aging without dying; a convicted murderer and pedophile gets a lethal injection and doesn’t die, opening up a whole can of legal worms; ICUs are overwhelmed within days because there’s no patient turnover; and if babies keep getting born without other people dying, the planet is looking at a Malthusian crisis within months, only worse, because people will starve from lack of resources but still won’t die. It’s a credit to the writers and the actors that all of this information is presented without overwhelming the viewer. You get how horrifying things will become even before you see that much evidence of it.

Compounding the mystery is the mysterious email that shows up in the inboxes of the CIA with one word: “Torchwood.” No one knows (except the viewer) what it means. This was a brilliant way to start the show (although the last series pretty much dictated it) because as the two main CIA characters try to find out what Torchwood is (or was), any viewers who aren’t familiar with the show get a pretty decent crash course in it.

We’re making it all sound terribly expository but there’s plenty of action. In fact, if you are familiar with Gwen and Jack it’s both thrilling and jarring seeing them in the middle of action sequences that look a hell of a lot more expensive than anything we saw on the BBC. The beach chase with the helicopter was like something out of a Die Hard movie.

As for the cast, Mekhi Phifer is a bit on the irritating side, but considering what he’s going through, we suppose it makes sense. Besides, we’re getting the impression that he’s almost a parody of the rough and tough American law man. Bill Pullman is creepy as hell playing the murderer-pedophile and manages to make him unrelentingly evil without turning him into a mustache-twirling villain. Eve Myles is still awesome as Gwen. We know some fans of the show never liked her character (and to be fair, she could be a bit mopey and irresponsible), but give her a reason to get angry and she’s a sight to behold. Sure, it was silly seeing her firing at a helicopter with a baby in her arms, but it made a great iconic image; she always was a bit of a lioness, now she’s got a cub in tow. And while we always kind of liked Rhys’ character, if he keeps bitching at her it’s going to get old real quick. As for Captain Jack Harkness, here’s an admission that might get us in trouble: we never could stand John Barrowman. Oh, he was fine in the role when he was playing the Doctor’s sidekick, but once they gave him his own show, the bombast and camp with which he played the character seemed way out of place. He did a pretty decent job of toning  it down in Children of Earth, but he’s in some ways almost unrecognizable here. That’s a good thing. The story is grim and the previous story ended on probably the grimmest note possible, so the comparatively underplayed performance here is making him a lot more palatable to us.

We have two plot issues, however. We’re not mathematicians but it seems to us the 4-months-to-everything-collapsing timeline seems awfully short to us. Secondly, the release of Bill Pullman’s character would never happen under the real-world American judicial system. In fact, that one rang so false to us it took us out of the story. Then again, the story has barely started, so maybe there’s an explanation forthcoming.

Aside from that, no complaints. It was a tense, fun, horrifying hour of television and frankly, it’s been WAAAAY too long since we’ve been able to say that about any sci-fi show on the air. No doubt about it; we’re sticking with this one for the time being.

[Picture credit: Starz]

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