'Torchwood' recap: Immortality for everyone!
Yeah, yeah, I know. That show was not good. Not at all. It aimed for an epic, TV sci-fi type story, but it fell far short of that for any number of reasons, up to and including poorly-drawn characters, bad plotting, and TV simply being unable to portray something truly global. It was a failure but a fascinating one, the kind of show that teaches you a bit about how talented people can sometimes get it very wrong.
“Torchwood: Miracle Day” rather reminds me of “FlashForward” in a lot of ways. In some ways, it seems like it’s learned the right lessons from that earlier show. In other ways, it feels like it makes the same mistakes. But it’s helped at every step of the way by the fact that at its center are two people who so frequently make “Torchwood” so much fun to watch: Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper.
Now we come to a problem with writing these reviews: Some of you will have seen the first three seasons of “Torchwood” (which were produced in Britain and aired here on BBC America). Some of you will be watching this show for the very first time. I’m going to keep these reviews mostly free of spoilers for the first three seasons (as much as possible), though I will say here that if this first “Miracle Day” episode seems like your kind of thing, the show’s miniseries-esque third season, “Torchwood: Children Of Earth” is great fun and some of the best TV sci-fi of the last decade. This is a show that can knock a high-concept idea out of the park when it wants to. I'll also say that roughly the first half of this episode was a little drawn out for us "Torchwood" vets. It was odd to have the new characters constantly asking "What's Torchwood?" when we already know that answer.
But let’s make sure those of you who’ve never seen the show before are all caught up with our two main characters.
Captain Jack Harkness: You probably don’t need to know the elaborate backstory for Captain Jack (played by the always entertaining John Barrowman) to enjoy “Miracle Day.” Really, all you need to know is that he was in World War II and he's immortal, to the point where he can't even be hurt. Thus, when he starts getting scratches that don’t immediately heal in this first episode, it’s a matter of concern. He used to head up Torchwood over in the U.K., but as mentioned, the institute had a bad habit of losing lots of young agents, and now it’s closed. This first episode makes most of this clear, but it also rushes by some of it, so that’s more or less what you need to know about Jack going forward. Jack’s also bisexual and fairly gleeful about his wide range of dating options. (And if you're really curious about that backstory, well, it spans not just "Torchwood," but also select episodes of "Doctor Who.")
Gwen Cooper: Gwen was, at one time, the normal girl who was drawn into the world of Torchwood. Feisty and eminently capable, she somehow survived several years of working for the institute without any superpowers, though now she’d rather just live in isolation with her husband Rhys and their new baby. The original three seasons sometimes seemed to be aiming for a will-they/won’t-they vibe with Gwen and Jack, but it’s one of those things that will never happen, I think, mostly because Rhys is such a good match for Gwen, even if he seems to spend most of this episode trying to keep her from doing what we know she has to do (and that’s never a fun character type to have around). Gwen, in many ways, fulfilled the same role in the series’ pilot that Esther does here. There’s even a very similar scene in the pilot where Jack doses Gwen with a drug that makes her forget her time at Torchwood.
As for the other characters? They’re just as new to those of us who’ve seen the other episodes as they are to you. Rex, Oswald, Esther, and all the rest of the American characters are a part of the show, ramping up its world and production budget to make the move to Starz. And while not all of this ramping up works, enough of it works that I’m incredibly eager to see what happens next.
Really, the best thing about all of this is the fact that it’s got a pretty irresistible idea at its core: What if nobody could die anymore? And creator Russell T. Davies and his other writers (including “House” veteran Doris Egan and genre show maven Jane Espenson) have come up with some terrific ways to explore that question. Rex getting a giant hole in his heart after being impaled, then trying to solve the case while constantly bleeding from that wound? Mekhi Phifer made me feel every painful step he took. I also loved that guy who was near the bomb blast but lived through it, now a charred collection of human remains. Plus, they cut off his head and still he lived. What a great, gruesome moment.
But let me return to my “FlashForward” comparison just briefly. “Miracle Day” is at its best when it shows us the epic sweep of how everyone on Earth living without end would change things. The scenes where the characters argue that, hey, maybe this won’t be so bad or consider the strain having no death would put on the Earth’s resources are some of the best in the episode. But it’s at its most mediocre when it’s just another action-packed cop show (outside of that final helicopter-on-car chase, which was pretty cool).
What made “FlashForward” fail ultimately was that it took a cool, globe-spanning idea – everybody sees the future! – and turned it into just another show where the FBI conducted investigations. “Miracle Day” is far better than “FlashForward” already, but the trick is going to be avoiding turning this potentially awesome, gruesome, terrifying idea into something that’s solved by detectives with superpowers. I don’t think we’re in dangerous territory or anything, but that’s what pinged for me the most in this otherwise solid premiere. (Well, that and the musical score, which is frequently far too overwrought. But we'll deal with that in weeks to come.)
Photo: Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) tried to leave Torchwood behind, but she finds herself too intrigued by the new mystery of why no one on Earth can die. (Credit: Starz)
--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)