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EXCLUSIVE: 'Torchwood' Creator Russell T Davies on Captain Jack's Dangerous Secret and Much More

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jun 6th 2011 2:45PM
Some writers tinker around the edges with their shows, but Russell T Davies, the creator of 'Torchwood,' is not one to play it safe. For the acclaimed 'Torchwood: Children of Earth,' which aired in 2009, Davies redesigned the sci-fi thriller as a short-run miniseries to make it more accessible to newcomers. It worked: The propulsive 'Children of Earth' was a hit for the BBC worldwide.

This season, the drama will change networks in the U.S. -- it debuts on Starz July 8 -- and creatively speaking, Davies is not letting 'Torchwood' rest on its laurels. In the interview below, Davies speaks in depth about the changes he'll unveil in 'Torchwood: Miracle Day,' which stars John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Mekhi Phifer, Lauren Ambrose and Bill Pullman.

There's a doozy of a surprise involving Captain Jack Harkness, but don't worry, I've put that very spoilery stuff at the end of the interview, in case you don't want to see it. If you've never seen 'Torchwood' but want to know more about the show, or if you're a fan of past seasons, it's safe to read on.

'Torchwood,' which follows a team that battles alien threats to Earth, has always taken risks -- just ask the fans who are still in mourning over characters killed in past seasons. Though he clearly likes to keep people guessing, Davies doesn't do that sort of thing just for shock value (though some viewers might dispute that). For my money, one of the things that makes the series interesting is that Davies doesn't like to repeat himself. The first two seasons of 'Torchwood' gave viewers a collection of 26 mostly standalone episodes that were hit or miss in terms of quality, though the characters were usually compelling.

Davies realized the 13-episode season wasn't quite working for the 'Doctor Who' spinoff, so he threw out that format, came up with a daring central concept, and wrote five tightly serialized hours for 'Children of Earth.' The results, despite some wobbles at the end, put the show on the radar of many critics and viewers who hadn't paid much attention to it before. [Update: A commenter below makes the point that Davies wasn't the one who came up with the miniseries format -- a 5-episode season was something that the BBC wanted. That point is well taken, and, to clarify, my goal here was to point out that Davies very much embraced to the serialized-season and/or miniseries format and realized it was a better fit for the show.]

The good news is, you don't need to have seen previous seasons to jump into 'Torchwood: Miracle Day,' much of which was shot in Los Angeles and takes place on a global stage. The new season has a mostly new cast, aside from Eve Myles, who plays former Welsh policewoman Gwen Cooper, and John Barrowman, who plays Captain Jack Harkness. When the new season begins, events take place months after the Torchwood team disbanded following the destruction of their home base at the end of 'Children of Earth.'

That move was of a piece with Davies' desire to keep the characters at least a little off balance. Some shows, especially those in the sci-fi or fantasy realms, keep giving powers, abilities and resources to their characters, whereas Davies is quite interested in seeing how characters react when things are taken away from them.

"The problem was, they kind of became unstoppable," Davies said of the show's previous incarnations, in which Torchwood had governmental funding and resources. "Every problem solved itself just by the strength of Torchwood. Going back to 'Children of Earth,' the biggest decision was to deliberately blow up the base and strip them of all their assets."

"The toys are gone and all the backing is gone," added Davies. "They're literally street rats, off the grid. They are against the law, against the establishment, against the system, but they are right. That's what's great about them."

The first part of the interview below is not spoilery, but it assumes that you know one of the premises of the new season of 'Torchwood' -- and the show informs the viewer of this premise a few minutes into the first episode of the 10-episode season. That premise is...

One day, everyone on Earth stops dying. There's an additional big twist that is unveiled the new season, but the information about that is at the end of the interview, and you'll get a spoiler warning before you get to that part.

The interview below has been edited and condensed.

Maureen Ryan: So this is your first time making a show in the U.S.?
Russell T Davies: Yes.

So has it been really different?
It's funny because, you know, I've been making [TV] for decades and this is the first time in America. I think once the whole thing's over, I'll come back to you with a good answer, a concrete answer.

There is that thing of "two countries divided by a common language," because so many things are similar and so many things are different, but in the end, the script is a script, a crew is a crew, actors are actors. It's kind of the same job. [The difference is that] things are lot more unionized here and the hours are very different.

The funny thing is over here, you just keep shooting until you get the shot. In Britain, you might have 10 minutes [until it's time to stop] and that's it. So if you don't shoot anything you might have to do some rewrites. So as a writer, it's slightly easier [in the U.S.], dare I say. Then again sometimes I don't think that, because sometimes I think, in American [TV] writing, before a word is even written, it is thought of and conceptualized to fit the production, whereas we don't necessarily do that in Britain.

Like I said, I'll know better at the end. And I'll be a wiser man by the end of the whole production, which is part of the reason I came here -- to learn all this stuff. To learn different ways of doing things, [to learn] where some things are better, some things are worse. It's good.

You said your intention with 'Children of Earth' was to put 'Torchwood' on a bigger stage, on a global stage. Is this another step to an even bigger kind of platform, if you will, with a bigger budget, a bigger feel to it?
That is the plan, to make it bigger and bolder, I mean, to be honest, when we did 'Torchwood: Children of Earth,' that was complete relaunch of the show, it was a very different version of 'Torchwood.' Some fans found that hard to take, but also I think that's why we tripled our viewers -- it sort of rose out of the niche, a niche we loved and had done very well in. [The point of having the bigger platform with 'Children of Earth'] was saying, "Look, science fiction isn't something locked away in this little channel at this time, it's for everyone." So it became bigger.

'Miracle Day' is very much a continuation of 'Children of Earth' -- you'll sense the same spirit, you'll feel the same drive behind it, and it is literally bigger. And it's not just because we've got a bigger budget. It's not about a bigger budget. We would have made this story, taken these risks in Britain. We'd have had these same sequences and found a different way to shoot them.

In the end, the size of it is what it's saying about the human race. As a piece of science fiction, it's kind of unique. There's all sorts of science fiction on screen, particularly in America, there is everything from horror of 'Supernatural' to the bizarre, brilliant science-fiction of 'Fringe' to the monsters and aliens, vampires and [all of that].

This is a different form: It takes a science-fiction idea and sets it loose in society. This is actually about us. In a way, I think it's the highest science fiction -- it is not dependent on the monster on the spaceship. It's the concept.

[This time, it's] the concept of, 'What if death stopped?,' which is an entirely fanciful notion in a toxic society. It's actually looking, in some ways, at the darkest depths of the human soul. We shot some stuff in the U.K. -- it's frightening, some of the plot turns. There's some [dark] stuff that I think we're capable of as human beings, which I hope is balanced by the wonderful things that we're capable of, humility and nobility. Not me personally [laughs]. But genuine hero qualities that some people have, thank God.

[Spoilers redacted here: Go to the end of the interview if you want to learn about 'Torchwood: Miracle Day's' other big twist.]

When the new season begins, Gwen and Jack are in really different places, obviously. But their relationship is still the heart of the show, right?
Yeah, it's a long time since they've seen each other, circumstances bring them together, and whether that's a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. And of course [in some ways] they're clicking like they were in the old team. You know, they're the science fiction heart of it, in a way. The other characters are CIA agents, but it's Gwen and Jack who have seen the strange things that are out there. Their experiences actually put them ahead of the game when a fantastic event happens to the world.

But then again, they're also powerless, Torchwood [as a governmentally supported entity] no longer exists. That's why you need [CIA agent and analyst] Rex and Esther. Also, there's Dr. Perez. Dr. Perez is the medical figure [in 'Miracle Day'], there's a doctor right at the heart of it because this is such a medical mystery. So they form up a rag-tag team that actually has all the right skills.

But now they're outside all the proper channels, right? The old dynamic was that Torchwood would roll up in their Range Rover and take over and had all these resources and power and authority.
Yes. That's partly why I changed it. I loved that, that super-science-fiction [element], you know, unlimited money and unlimited resources, even to the point of having super-science-fiction scalpels and things like that.

The problem was, they kind of became unstoppable. Every problem solved itself just by the strength of Torchwood. Going back to 'Children of Earth,' the biggest decision was to deliberately blow up the base and strip them of all their assets except those magical contact lenses, because I loved those contact lenses. But all their gadgets are gone.

All the toys.
All the toys are gone. The toys are gone and all the backing is gone. They always had some invisible government backing, now it's gone. They're literally street rats, off the grid. They are against the law, against the establishment, against the system, but they are right. That's what's great about them.

Are there some commonalities between Jack and Oswald [the convicted murderer played by Bill Pullman]? Is that one of the areas that you're going to into this season?
Yeah, it's the most fascinating thought -- Torchwood intersecting with a murderous pedophile, a guilty man who escaped his own execution and becomes this remarkable media figure during this Miracle Day crisis. The way it intersects and connects with and draws away from the Torchwood team is huge part of the storytelling of the show. I was asked quite recently, how are these two things connected, Jack and Oswald, [FBI agent] Rex and Oswald? That's the skill of the storytelling, we see it unfold, that's one of the cleverest aspects of the show.

Sometimes they're in parallel stories -- the meetings between Oswald and Torchwood are very, very rare, but very, very crucial, and by the end, it all pays off. You've got to be a patient viewer for 10 episodes, but it's kind of delicious, I think.

Did 10 episodes seems like a good number for this story? It's twice what you had for 'Children of Earth.'
I think it's a great length. Someday it'll be 20, and I'll be sitting here saying 20 is a good length [laughs]. I think it's quite important to say that the story does end at the end of episode 10. This is a 10-episode story, with a beginning, middle and end.

Is it a little scary, having a whole new cast, except for two characters?
Yeah. It's kind of exciting to me, that's the reason I do it. It's not really a reboot, it's a continuation, it's in the same universe [as the first three seasons], this story is a few months later and what happens next. But having to do it is kind of a joy, that's why I killed everyone off, and that's why I sent Jack off the planet [at the end of 'Children of Earth']. It could have ended there. [But we left it] with the thought that if it ever comes back, it's a clean slate. And I think and I hope that we get new viewers to come in.

SPOILERS AHOY

Below, Davies discusses the other big twist in the new season of 'Torchwood' and its implications for a key character.

Stop reading now unless you want to know it...

Really, you want to stop now if you don't want to be spoiled.

OK, here we go.

The Captain Jack we first met in 'Doctor Who,' he was a swashbuckling hero...
A con man.

A con man, right, a charmer, all that kind of stuff. Along the way, especially in 'Children of Earth,' you put him through a lot of changes. Is he a really different person at the start of this season of the show?
Well he's literally, physically different. He's mortal. Everyone else is immortal, he's mortal. It's the biggest switch in the show, which we did in order to give us new insights into Jack. I appreciate what you're saying, that he's a different character. I think that's my job. I [there can be] a great passivity and inertia when it comes to characters on shows that are successful -- they keep coming back and they keep being the same. I'd much rather change them.

You've got a great cast, you've got great writers, why keep doing the same old stuff? We should all move into new areas. Look where we are with this strange, weird, hybrid Welsh-American show. We couldn't have started with this, because it's too odd. It's a rolling stone that's gathered moss. And that's come from pushing and changing all the time. I love where we did end up, which has odd flavors and tastes sometimes, but here we are.

I'm just trying to process this information about Jack being mortal. It's sort of fundamentally altering who he is, isn't it?
It's part of the story, but the greatest thing you can do is offer a new look into the character. It's not fundamentally altering the character, it's fundamentally altering the rules -- the character stays the same, that's the glorious thing. [The idea is to] put them in situations where there are new rules, new trials, new victories, new losses, and see who they are, that's the point. That's what they're there for, these fictional people.

This gives you a lot more places to go with him in terms of emotion, connections, relationships.
Absolutely, yes. It just opens up a whole new palette for me. It's just richer and better.

So many characters have died on the show... so you're killing Jack now?
I couldn't possibly say... but the stakes are that high.

I think it's a fascinating concept, because, his immortality is one of the things that, ironically, gave Jack a kind of humanity. You felt so terrible for this guy, having to say goodbye to everyone he ever loved, all the time.
And it's very hard to prove he's mortal without killing him. So that's going to be interesting. Some clever things to come.

There was all that pathos in who he was when he was immortal. But it's interesting that he doesn't have that free pass anymore. He can't just take all those risks.
Now it's like twice the pathos. As the stakes are being raised, everything's up for grabs, everything's at stake. It's lovely.

And everyone on the Torchwood team knows this, that he can die?
That's part of the story unfolding. It's all little details, well woven in.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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June 10 2011 at 1:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
teeandgi

I think it all sounds pretty interesting. Sounds like a lot of folks are just pissed off that the show moved from being in Wales to the U.S. Get over it. Also, I like that Davies doesn't mind killing off a few main characters here and there. Sometimes that is the problem with American shows. The writers don't like to kill off the well liked main characters (I think they could have killed off Jack on Lost and made the show REALLY interesting but that is another story). They say they are going to kill off someone and then it ends up being the lab tech who appears sporatically on the show. I think killing off main characters makes the stories more unpredictable and more realistic (we can't all live forever...except maybe Jack...oops...maybe not). If I had Starz I'd watch it, but since I don't...guess I'll have to wait for it come out on DVD...but I'm definitely looking forward to watching it. Not all change is bad people. Sheesh.

June 08 2011 at 1:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to teeandgi's comment
patou gravitule

A few main characters here and there? It was 3 out of 5 in the course of 4 episodes....

Anyway...I will just add this:

Before COE when I thought about Russell t Davies I had the image of the creator of QAF and Torchwood in my mind.
Now when I see his name the only thing which comes in mind is: "oh yes, the guy who killed Ianto Jones".
What a poor resume...But it's all what remains at the end.

June 08 2011 at 4:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to patou gravitule's comment
sassytarheel

Please. I was upset when he killed off Tosh and Owen. But come on. Shouldn't we have expected him to kill off someone else considering that on the very first episode he killed off Indira Varma's character? Characters dying on the show shouldn't be a news flash. I stand by what I said. I think him being willing to kill off main characters keeps the viewers on their toes (you never know who is going to be next). They NEVER kill off anyone of concern on other shows (Think about all the folks they COULD have killed off on Lost and made it just that much better). Besides, if Ianto was the ONLY thing you liked about the show I wonder why you bothered watching it in the first place as he wasn't that prominent until a bit later in the series.

June 10 2011 at 4:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
M

Its very Simple: No Ianto, No Torchwood! I would not watch this new version if you paid me. In fact so as not to pay for it I canceled my Starz subscription last year. Ianto/GDL comes back in some meaningful way then after the fact I do to. If not, nevermind. Actually I'd love IT if Jack were killed just to put an end to this sham once and for all, though this new series may do that anyway, but I don't believe it will happen.

RTD can toy with folks in interviews all he wants, tell how fascinating and thrilling this new twist will be but he's not killing off Jack. Even Rusty could not be that stupid to imagine there could be anything remotely resembling Torchwood at all with out Capt. Jack Harkness/John Barrowman. In fact he has said as much many times since COE so this here is what we call hype. And some lame hype at that.

June 07 2011 at 10:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nan00se

What a load of old rubbish in this article-My guess is that Russel destroyed all the HUB tech so he could replace it with the CIA tech--Russel demolished TW and turned it global so it could move stateside.The original was a sci fi show set in Wales with unknown stars with a raw chemistryy which created an interesting interaction within the team.Far more innovative than the gloabalised version with USA stars which it has now been turned into. Torchwood was better off when RTD was taking a back seat.The dialogue was better and it did not hit you over the head too much with alot of pretentiuosness about what you what you were suppose to feel and think.
Children of Earth was overrated -take out the shock value and it wasa actually quite repetitious on second viewing.
And lets face it Miracle Day relies on shock value and sensationalism as well-the use of a paedophile to create interest and of course lets make Captian Jack immortal -i saw that coming the moment they announced the premise-and the use of CIA agents --oh please how hackneyed can you get.To be honest they are flooging Captain Jacks charactor to death-he use to be fun and innovative now he has just become this tortured soul with a story well passed its sell by date.

June 07 2011 at 9:33 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to nan00se's comment
Morgan Hamilton

In series 3, not only was he destroying all his TW toys but I believe they needed the space the Hub set was taking up for a new/expanded TARDIS for Doctor Who.
I don't mind the occasional cast and/or character change. I fact I totally LOVE TO PIECES *REAL* CHARACTER DEVELOPEMENT, not the complete load of BS that Russell often tries to pass of as 'character developement'. Tosh & Owen had no development because they were BOTH killed off in the last episode od series 2. Ianto went from being a very troubled but more or less confident young man into the whiney butt of all the 'gay boy' jokes that popped into being for almost *exclusively* for the 3rd series and someone that an emo-club-kid would run screaming from. PC Andy too was a bit off an arse, what little we saw of him.

They had so many opportunities to both delve into Jack's dark & troubled past AND so how he had changed over the years & refound his compassion. Instead they turn Jack into not only the Jackass of the Year but of the Decade w/ options on Jackass of the Century! And FYI new viewers - Jack had already made several hard choices that were unpopular w/ his team or were kinda morally ambiguous so there was no reason to turn Jack into such a rat bastard.

And there are reasons that Gwen gets called things like 'SooperCooper' or the 'Teflon Tart'. The character had so very much potential that was never realized in the first two series & for the third series she was portrayed as a cross between Wonder Woman & the ultimate Mary-Sue. I believe that she could have still been totally kick-ass w/o her being quite so over the top. And we now know that Russell wasn't kidding when he threatened us w/ the scene of Gwen holding her baby in one arm, while shooting a big gun w/ the other. Most of us thought he was just yanking our chain but no such luck, Gwen really is that irresponsible.
Rhys on the other hand was excellently written & portrayed as Gwen's long suffering other half. His character is a good example of character growth over the past three series. I just hope that he gets more development before he's killed off in series four. (Yep top choices for cast deaths are Rhys, Anwen his daughter, Jack, for good this time,or at least one of the Hollywood Barbies.)

While I have no personal desire to watch series four of Torchwood, I just hope for other fans' sake it isn't another case of what's left of TW being shoe-horned into a political thriller like what happened w/ Children of Earth. There were some terrific acting jobs done by the non-TW cast members. In fact CoE would have made a brilliant mini-series on it's own instead of trying to shove a 20 lb cat into a 5 lb box, which left a lot of the old 'fans' disappointed even as it pleased the new 'viewers' it got by being shown on BBC1.

Thank you to anyone who took the time to read this.
Morgan

June 07 2011 at 1:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Morgan Hamilton's comment
Mike Kessler

I don't know what show you're watching if you think Rhys had more character growth and development than Gwen did. She grew in an amazing way from season to season. And Owen had major character development in the second season. I'll give you Tosh, though. Andy is a side character.

Jack's history has been a major vehicle in the series so far.

I don't know where you're pulling most of this from, to be honest. Gwen's awesome.

June 07 2011 at 6:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Sharon Crawford

I wouldn't normally comment but had to butt in and correct your opening paragraph. The decision to make series 3 a 5 part mini series was not taken by RTD but by the BBC and had nothing to do with widening the appeal but was due to budgetary constraints. In fact RTD's objection to the decision is well documented, he literally threw his toys out of the pram at the time, but hey if there's one thing you have to admire about the man, it's his ability to rewrite history. I guess this will now become part of the RTD mythology. - The genius that he is just knew the 5 part mini series format would increase the number of viewers. By the way, it only trippled it's viewers from series one which was aired on BBC3, a satellite channel that not everyone is able to view.

June 07 2011 at 4:16 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sharon Crawford's comment
Mo Ryan

Your point is well taken, Sharon. I should be clear, at no point in the various interviews I've done with RTD has he said that *he* decided to throw out the 13-episode season format. I've amended the text above to reflect what I really meant, which was this: He clearly embraced the miniseries structure creatively and that particularly format was a good fit for Torchwood. He has said that in interviews, with myself and others -- that he really liked writing for the serialized miniseries format and he thinks it's the right fit for that show.

I don't think it's him rewriting history to say, after Torchwood season 3 was written and produced, that he'd liked doing that sort of thing more than what he'd done prior to that. And the fact that he's stuck with that format for season 4 means that he's standing by that assessment, in my opinion.

June 08 2011 at 11:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Charles Wick

Ok. Jack will not die! We know from Doctor Who that he is the Face of Boe (however its spelled) and he wont die for like ever.

June 07 2011 at 2:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
michbc

Sorry to hear it will only be on Starz. I enjoy the Torchwood programs and will be sorry to miss the new story line although I am not too sure how interesting the new "twist" sounds.
I am a real sci fi person, dislike all of the reality shows that prolifierate all over tv land as well as all of the "haunted" and "fight" programs that Universal has stuffed on all of their channels. The loss of this franchise to Starz is a blow.

June 07 2011 at 1:38 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to michbc's comment
whitearrow

If it wasn't for Starz there would be no more Torchwood. They are paying for a significant part of it. And there will still be DVDs and iTunes downloads.

June 07 2011 at 6:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
evinsd

What happened to Gwen's Husband Rees? I don't subscribe to Starz and I'm already going thru withdrawl

June 06 2011 at 6:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to evinsd's comment
Mo Ryan

He's in the new season, don't worry. I don't think he's in every episode, but he'll be around some.

June 06 2011 at 11:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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