Why Starz's Torchwood may be the best new sci fi show on TV this year
There is an instant, during the first episode of the rebirth of sci fi cult hit Torchwood, when you realize you’re seeing something special.
It’s not when the guy who played the president in Independence Day surfaces as a serial killer who lives through a lethal injection. Or when the dude who was an impertinent hotshot doctor on ER appears as an impertinent hotshot CIA agent left alive after being impaled by a pipe flung from a crashed truck.
It’s when doctors uncover the body of a man pancaked in an explosion which leveled a two-story building. And he’s still breathing.
That’s the big idea which might help turn Torchwood: Miracle Day into the best example of a Brit-to-American TV transplant since Steve Carrell helped comedy fans forget Ricky Gervais while anchoring NBC’s version of The Office.
In Starz’s iteration of the British science fiction cult hit, people across the world stop dying. But they don’t necessarily heal.
So, if you’re impaled by a pole flying off a truck into your car, the wound remains in your chest, painful and bleeding, while you live on. If you were dumb enough to set off a cache of explosives strapped to your chest, your body will become a flat disc of burnt flesh but your lungs will keep working and your eyes will move – even after surgeons cut off your head.
It took a huge notion to power the translation of a beloved spin off from the BBC’s long-running Doctor Who series into a big ticket TV event an upstart American premium cable channel could build its summer schedule around.
And Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies came up with the biggest idea yet: The death of dying.
Torchwood began as a spin off from the revered Doctor Who science fiction series, centered on a secret organization in Britain which investigates incidents involving extraterrestrials.
The group was led by John Barrowman’s Capt. Jack Harkness, an American, immortal ex-con man from the future who landed in Earth’s 19th century. As Starz’s Miracle Day series unfolds, Harkness and his ace colleague Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) are the only members left from the Torchwood Institute, fleeing efforts by an unknown group to assassinate them.
Still, just ask the producers of MTV’s late, unlamented version of the British hit Skins how tough it can be to translate television from across the pond – their efforts to bring the edgy UK hit to America drowned in a sea of harsh reviews and allegations the show’s child actors were participating in pornography.
But Davies' vision for the new Torchwood – a co-production between Starz and the BBC – just may be fresh enough to snag new viewers while staying true enough to the old series that longtime fans love, straddling two different TV cultures, while creating a grand, new science fiction vision for the small screen.
Click below for a few more reasons why Torchwood: Miracle Day works where other Brit TV translations don’t:
The hero is already American – In Torchwood, producers have a hero who is already a yank, allowing them to avoid changing the most recognizable elements of the show. Barrowman’s Harkness is also a bisexual with a taste for cute men, allowing Starz to break ground with an explicit gay sex scene leaving longtime fans with no doubts whether they’d stay true to his sexual orientation.
The move to America widens the show’s scope and its cast – By moving the best loved parts of the Torchwood team to America, producers got a chance to inject new blood into the series with American characters. ER alum Mekhi Phifer’s CIA agent Rex Matheson (at left) is a particularly inspired creation; a hard-nosed agent who winds up at various turns fighting Torchwood and The Agency itself to uncover the mystery at hand.
Despite the sci fi concept, the first episodes are more an espionage thriller – Few fancy special effects needed here; Miracle Day begins as the race to crunch intelligence, discover who wants to kill Torchwood and find out why no one is dying. Which means guns, fist fights, explosions and a old fashioned poisoning on an airplane – all stuff TV-level budgets can handle without looking chintzy.
The show helps the audience’s transition through its storylines – As the American characters learn about Torchwood, so do the American viewers who may not have seen the British series. And as Myles’ Cooper struggles to get accustomed to the U.S. – where lemonade isn’t fizzy, mobiles are called cellphones and crisps are known as potato chips – British fans learn the landscape of Yank culture.
Producers have a brilliant twist – SPOLER ALERT – There is one new wrinkle to the world post-Miracle Day; onetime immortal Jack Harkness is the one mortal left on Earth. Suddenly, the quirky eccentic hero character used to having all the answers – a staple of British series such as Dr. Who, Sherlock and the original Torchwood – has precious few at his disposal and a pressing motivation to change that situation.
More than a tasty treat for BBC nerds, Torchwood: Miracle Day just might be the smartest reinvention of a series in many years.
Is that enough to produce a much-needed hit for Starz? That’s a question whose answer even Capt. Jack might have trouble predicting.