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Big ideas carry 'Torchwood' across the pond for an American audience

There is an instant, during the first episode in the rebirth of sci-fi cult hit Torchwood, when you realize you're seeing something special.

It's not when the guy who portrayed the president in Independence Day surfaces as a pedophile and killer who somehow lives through a lethal injection. Or when an actor best known as a hotshot doctor on ER appears as a hotshot CIA agent left alive after being impaled by a pipe flung from a crashed truck.

It's when doctors uncover a man pancaked in an explosion that leveled a two-story building. And he's still breathing.

That's the big idea that might help turn Torchwood: Miracle Day into the best example of a Brit-to-American TV transplant since Steve Carell 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 or regenerate beyond typical human capabilities.

So, if you're impaled by a pole, 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 big idea to turn a beloved spinoff from the BBC's long-running Doctor Who series into a big-ticket TV event for an upstart American premium cable channel. Just ask the producers of MTV's ill-fated version of the British hit Skins, which was lambasted for placing high-school-age actors into explicitly sexual scenes, how tough it can be to translate television from across the pond.

Torchwood creator Russell T. Davies came up with the biggest idea yet: the death of dying.

Davies insisted that his vision for the new Torchwood, a co-production between Starz and the BBC, was fresh enough to snag new viewers while staying true enough to the old series that longtime fans still would be thrilled.

"It's faithful and careful and honest, but at the same time, it's brand-new for a whole new audience," he told Entertainment Weekly. "In Episode 1, you have a brand-new cast of American actors who have never heard of Torchwood, saying 'What is Torchwood?' So all those questions in the mind of a new audience are literally being said on-screen and answered."

Carrying the torch

Torchwood began in 2006 as a spinoff from the revered Doctor Who science fiction series, centered on a secret organization in Britain that investigates incidents involving extraterrestrials.

The group was led by John Barrowman's Capt. Jack Harkness, an American, immortal ex-con 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.

That's why fans call this a continuation of the series rather than a reboot or reinvention, even though many of Davies' new plot points adjust the mix of characters and locales to keep U.S. audiences interested.

ER alum Mekhi Phifer is Rex Matheson, a CIA agent who forces the Torchwood team to America, convinced they are connected to the world's new immortality problem. And as a guy who lived through an impaling, he has good reason to want some answers.

Turns out, this kind of eternal life may not be so wonderful. The sick are stuck in painful states of illness, the world's population jumps by a million people each day, and people with infections become breeding grounds for new, drug-resistant diseases.

It also turns out this is an idea just big enough to blow up a cult British series into a swaggering American epic, avoiding some of the biggest pitfalls of series translation.

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.

RIPPING GOOD IDEAS: Here are five more reasons Torchwood: Miracle Day works where other Brit TV translations don't:

The hero is already American: In Torchwood, producers had a hero who already was a Yank, allowing them to avoid changing the most recognizable elements of the show. Barrowman's Harkness is also a bisexual hottie with a taste for cute men, allowing Starz to break ground with a gay sex scene leaving few doubts whether the new show would 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 get a chance to inject new blood into the series with American characters. Phifer's Matheson is a particularly inspired creation. He's a hard-nosed agent who winds up fighting the CIA itself to uncover the mystery at hand.

Despite the sci-fi concept, the first episodes feel like an espionage thriller: No fancy special effects needed; Miracle Day begins as the race to crunch intelligence, discover who wants to kill Torchwood and find out why no one is dying. That means guns, fistfights, explosions and an old-fashioned poisoning on an airplane, all stuff that TV-level budgets can handle without looking chintzy.

The show helps fans transition through its own story lines: As the American characters learn about Torchwood's history, so do the American viewers who may not have seen the British series. And as Myles' Cooper struggles to get accustomed to the United States — where lemonade isn't fizzy, "mobiles" are called cell phones and "crisps" are known as potato chips — British fans get a crash course on Yank culture.

Producers have a brilliant twist for longtime fans: (SPOILER ALERT) There is one new wrinkle to the world post-Miracle Day. Onetime immortal Jack Harkness becomes the one mortal left on Earth. Suddenly the eccentric hero character accustomed to having all the answers, a staple of British series such as Doctor Who and Sherlock, has precious few at his disposal and a pressing motivation to learn more.

Torchwood: Miracle Day premieres at 10 p.m. Friday on Starz.

Big ideas carry 'Torchwood' across the pond for an American audience 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 5:30am]

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