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Review: 'Torchwood' Fights a Frightening 'Miracle' & a Chat With Star John Barrowman

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jul 8th 2011 10:00AM
There's a place on the television landscape for shows that cater to the casual science-fiction fan -- the kind of person who enjoys fantastical premises and way-out ideas, but doesn't necessarily want to see spaceship battles or is put off by the kind of baggage that invading aliens often arrive with.

'Fringe' has its share of freaky occurrences, but it's so well grounded in thoughtfully created characters and complicated emotional dilemmas that it's managed to (just about) stick around for four seasons.

'Torchwood,' which might well be thought of as 'Fringe's' saucier British cousin, unveils its fourth season Friday (10PM ET on Starz), and it's interesting to note that, as they've matured, both shows have gone full bore into serialized stories that revolve around big ideas. The writers behind these shows have recognized that those who want genre-flavored entertainment want to plunge headlong into those kinds of evocative tales; not even the casual sci-fi fan has much time for a procedural, watered-down 'X-Files' wannabe.

There are several things working in 'Torchwood's' favor -- its unique brand of irreverent, thought-provoking energy has been missed since the miniseries 'Torchwood: Children of Earth' aired in 2009 -- but it's not quite clear yet whether the new season of the show, which changes venues from the U.K. to the U.S., has a firm grasp on where it's going and how it's going to get there.

The first three episodes of the drama have to accomplish many things, and some of those things are done more elegantly than others. There's fine line between hurtling and heedless, and early in its fourth season, 'Torchwood' rushes back and forth across that line with the kind of energetic, overcaffeinated abandon that can't quite be condemned (yet), given how hard it works to entertain.

In the opening minutes, the show's premise is set up quickly and cleanly: On the so-called 'Miracle Day,' human beings stop dying. What's originally hailed as a marvelous development, of course, turns into a nightmare. Where are all those non-dying people going to live, and where are the resources to feed them all? And can you really call it living when the sick and injured who've clearly outlasted their lifespans aren't allowed to die?

The generally solid first two hours of the season are 'Torchwood' in "putting the band back together" mode: Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper -- the core of the alien-fighting Torchwood team -- are introduced and reunited, and the origins and purpose of the UK's Torchwood Institute are dug up by a CIA analyst named Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). It's clear that 'Torchwood' wants to bring in new audience members who've never seen this 'Doctor Who' spinoff before, and the hand-holding is not necessarily overbearing, but longtime fans may grow a little impatient for the story to well and truly get underway.

Watch my two-part interview
with star John Barrowman here

Still, even amidst the setup, there are exciting set pieces that close out the early episodes -- creator Russell T Davies is clearly trying to toss in the kinds of twists and cliffhangers that will keep newbies and veterans alike tuning in. In fact, the second episode is something of a "bottle episode" -- much of it takes place in an enclosed location -- but Davies and the episode's writer, Doris Egan, bring a good deal of well-crafted tension and wit what amounts to a subversively entertaining team-building experience.

Harkness (John Barrowman), the omnisexual space adventurer, and Cooper, the engagingly direct former Cardiff cop, are every bit as winning as they've ever been, but when it comes to structure and pacing, 'Torchwood: Miracle Day' struggles a bit. If Davies has a downfall as a writer, it's in falling back on similar kinds of stories, and the potential Big Bad that begins to awkwardly emerge in season 4 recalls the kind of unsubtle villains that were frequently seen in 'Torchwood's' uneven first couple of seasons and during Davies' run as head writer on 'Doctor Who' (echoes of the 'Children of Earth' story also emerge in the 'Miracle Day' investigation).

In previous seasons of 'Torchwood,' the team's cheeky camaraderie and deep, unspoken bonds often compensated for the repetition or structural deficiencies of the stories, but that's where 'Miracle Day' runs into some trouble early on. I'm not one of those fans who thinks that the "classic" cast of 'Torchwood's' earlier seasons should necessarily still be around. By killing off major characters, Davies has wisely made the stakes real for the 'Torchwood' gang (do people really want another 'Heroes,' where nobody ever dies? God help us.)

But the new characters -- CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer, in full gravelly-voice mode), Esther and an emergency-room doctor, Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur) -- don't make much of an impression; they're there to fill in the blanks and get the story moving. Perhaps in the next seven hours they'll be developed into more complex characters, but in the first three episodes, the show is so focused on setting up various CIA stories and the 'Miracle Day' premise that the new team members don't emerge as compelling people in their own right (the exception is Lauren Ambrose, who does excellent work as Jilly Kitzinger, a friendly but frighteningly savvy P.R. executive).

As for Bill Pullman's character, convicted murderer Oswald Danes, I can't say much about his journey without giving away parts of the story. Let's just say that where Oswald ended up at the close of the third episode didn't make sense to me and the efforts to connect Oswald to the larger narrative felt strained at times. 'Miracle Day' has a lot of ambitions -- it clearly wants to say big things about fame, the media and the capacity for forgiveness, and of course the season as a whole is a meditation on mortality -- but when 'Torchwood' struggled to connect its disparate threads or took somewhat slapdash shortcuts between plot points, I wondered if it had taken on too much.

Maybe Oswald's overall narrative will begin to make more sense as the season progresses (though I remain dubious about the trajectory of that story), and maybe the team will gel in ways that will produce the kinds of emotional payoffs that 'Torchwood' is capable of when it is working at peak capacity.

The way to keep both casual and hardcore sci-fi fans in the fold is to tell stories that revolve around memorable characters, to take on compelling questions and to give the tales intellectual and emotional plausibility. 'Torchwood: Miracle Day' doesn't quite have all those elements nailed down all the time, but it gets reasonable chunks of those things right -- enough to keep me tuning in and hoping that the story gains coherence (and not just speed) over the course of the season. If nothing else, Jack and Gwen are still quite a team, and humanity's reaction to the arrival of immortality seems all too plausible.

For an interview with Davies, look here. For an interview with Myles, look here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Finally got around to watching the first episode and I have to say I was underwhelmed. I like the basic premise of the mystery but I did find far too much exposition and it wasn't very skillfully done. Maybe the second episode will be less bogged down by all the explanations.

I also don't think any of the new American characters were even remotely compelling enough to replace the ones that were killed off simply for shock value, despite RTD's claims to artistic integrity.

While I agree that once characters die they shouldn't brought back, I also think it's cheap and lazy writing to just kill off them for the shock and angst factor. It also gets predictable when it happens too often. I was devastated when Tosh (she was my fave) and Owen were killed but then Ianto last year just seems like unnecessary pile on and cheapens the deaths of previous characters because now we know that everyone except Jack and Gwen are just cannon fodder. I mean let's be honest. We know Jack and Gwen will always be safe, so where are the real stakes here?

If RTD stays true to his formula, either Rhys or the baby are gonna bite it this series. Hopefully, they won't be that predictable but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest.

Anyway, I'll give it one more episode to see if the new "team" gels because, as you say, sci fi has to be about the characters but I discovered this episode that just Jack and Gwen aren't really enough for me.

July 14 2011 at 2:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sorry, Mo. I know you have the advantage of having screened more episodes, but this first one has much visual excitement but a whole lot of suck. Three big things that leap out at me: 1) Mekhi Phifer is not attractive (besides the eye candy aspect, which is mmmmm) with all the racism, xenophobia and loudness; 2) no one ever comes close to explaining background on what is Torchwood sufficiently except for Jack in a pre-retcon that won't count to the characters and helps none of the new viewers, and 3) there is no good reason I can see to make me really love a pedophile/murderer and then make me want to slap myself silly. Oh, and 4) did Davies get amnesia on the plane over to the States? The introductory formula for Jack flirtation is to repeat the attractive newcomer's full name, THEN say "Captain Jack Harkness."

July 09 2011 at 2:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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