Torchwood: Miracle Day: TV Review

Despite some trouble inserting American actors into a British franchise, "Torchwood: Miracle Day" has enough compelling elements to make both newbies and die-hards stick through the bumpy parts for the payoff.

John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Mekhi Phifer and Bill Pullman star in the fourth installment of "Torchwood," premiering Friday on Starz.

Although Starz is trying to make a splash in the pay-cable arena by taking on HBO and Showtime, the channel proved with the cancellation of Camelot that it won’t fund series with weak numbers. And so it is that the success of Torchwood: Miracle Day will probably have less to do with what die-hard fans think than attracting new ones who have zero idea about its past.

And there is a past, of course. The sci-fi series, created by Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who, Queer As Folk), follows a group of people enlisted into the secret Torchwood Institute by the British monarchy to fight aliens and other unexplained phenomenon. The first two 13-episode series aired on BBC America after their run in the UK and created quite a cult following. The third season was trimmed to five episodes and titled Torchwood: Children Of Earth, which increased the popularity.

Now Davies and Starz are teaming up for the 10-episode fourth season, Torchwood: Miracle Day, while attempting to infuse the Welsh-skewing original concept with a heavily American new twist. And that’s a challenge that will test both old and new viewers.

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Torchwood’s original fans will be happy to know that the two mainstays, immortal (and bisexual) Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the world’s most dangerous new mother, are holding down the center of the series.

New viewers, of course, will know little about those characters and so the Torchwood writers are working overtime to repeat elements die-hards already know without seeming heavy-handed about it. They are simultaneously inserting references to the past in a way that will please older fans without confusing new ones.

The success of both endeavors falls somewhere in the middle. The series opens with Gwen in remote exile with husband Rhys (Kai Owen) and their newborn daughter, Anwen. Jack is, well, who knows. But there’s trouble in the world when all of a sudden nobody dies. Even when they should have. Case in point – the lethal injection being carried out on convicted pedophile and killer Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), who flops around like a flounder but survives. Or: the accident that sends rebar flying through the windshield of cocky CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) which should kill him but doesn’t.

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It’s Miracle Day. And that’s not a good thing for the psyche of the world’s population, not to mention the world itself. If you can’t die, why be good? And what will that mean for your retirement plan? There’s a neat conceit in the premise: Even if you don’t die, you can still be in pain, ala Matheson, whose chest is still bleeding and who is in constant need of pain relievers. This nobody-in-the-world-dying thing is complicated.

As the CIA investigates, the interwebs are flooded with one word: Torchwood. But before intrepid CIA analyst Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) can figure out what it means – poof – the word vanishes. That is essentially what sets the Americans – in the form of Matheson and Drummond – on a collision course with Torchwood, in the form of Jack and Gwen.

So there’s your meshing, though it produces some difficult to overlook glitches. While it’s funny to see the irritable Matheson bitch about all things Welsh (a nice wink), new fans may think that Jack’s random mention of a boyfriend (and a full on gay sex scene that follows) may seem on odd turn of events. That’s because they don’t really know he’s been around this world for a long, long time and bisexuality sort of made a lot of sense.

As these disparate entities merge, it’s also pretty clear that Drummond is more like an American damsel in distress compared to Gwen’s bad-assedness. Likewise, Matheson seems like a stereotypical, one-dimensional loud-mouthed authority figure, while Jack is suave and multi-layered.

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And this much has to be said, because it becomes glaring at times: Phifer seems to over-act while Havins pushes against the boundaries of her talent in her role. That contrasts badly with the seemingly effortless excellence of Barrowman and Myles. (To their credit, Pullman’s work and a wonderful cameo turn from Lauren Ambrose help level the scales a bit.)

These might be nitpicky complaints about Americanizing a Brit franchise, since many parts of Torchwood: Miracle Day do compel viewers to stick with the series.

The actual mystery is a good one. How is this happening? And Torchwood does an excellent job of contextualizing the issues at hand, both through science and medicine without ever making the scenes drag on. (Maybe that’s because the series has more than enough bullets and rockets in the first episode to allow for wordy exposition.)

Curiously, there’s a decided lack of fiction mixed in with science. That is, even though references to Torchwood’s past bring up aliens and such, Miracle Day seems overtly grounded in our world (though there are a lot of hints that this “miracle” could only happen through paranormal activity and may be caused by a species more evolved than us humans).

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If there are sci-fi fans who haven’t found Torchwood before, they may come to Miracle Day with their eyes filled with excitement and their minds filing away a message to rent the first three seasons. What Starz will need going forward is an influx of non sci-fi fans who can make the numbers work, ratings-wise. The trouble with that is there isn’t much sci-fi at all in Torchwood – until there is. And then it might seem out of place. Honestly, there’s a scene where a woman is walking with her head turned all the way around the other way that jars you into the realization that, until that scene, Torchwood has been pretty conventional.

It’s difficult to guess at which audience may find Torchwood: Miracle Day compelling enough to stick it out. Die-hards might not like the American infiltration and newbies might sense there’s more wink-winking and missing back story than they can handle.

But when Torchwood gets the balance right (the rising paranoia, cults, rewritten rules of human behavior), it becomes a rousing, enthralling half-breed.

The vote here is to not only give Torchwood: Miracle Day a chance, but to ride out the bumpy parts and put some faith in Davies’ unique take on storytelling.

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