I never watched Torchwood before its third series (better known by its subtitle, Children of Earth), but I envy those who did. Not because the show was good before that third series; I've only seen bits and pieces of the pre-Children episodes, but what I did see was by and large very silly stuff, all over-heated and campy, plenty of energy but not much sense. There were occasional good bits, but critically speaking, in those first couple years, Torchwood was something of a joke, a supposedly adult Doctor Who spin-off that failed to capture the other series' wit and intelligence, while ladling on lots of grade-school panting and hollow sentiment. Then Children of Earth showed up out of nowhere, put a gun to everyone's head, and whispered, "You will listen."
And we did. Oh, did we ever, because for once, here was something worth hearing, and I envy those of you who'd stuck out from the beginning, who loved Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper enough to struggle through all the crap, only to be graced by a premiere that somehow made up for everything. I can think of other series which improved over time, and I can even think of shows that kicked some seriously unprecedented ass in their third seasons, but I can't easily come up with a show that managed to revitalize a seemingly wasted premise so quickly, and so sharply, without a new creative staff or a significant re-tooling. "Day One" was and is a terrific hour of television, and it would be great regardless of what had come before it, a gripping, fast-paced thriller that introduces a killer concept, and then finds just the right way to make that conflict even more unpleasant for the people we care about. It sets a tone that the rest of the series by and large managed to live up to, as Jack and Gwen struggled against a mysterious alien force bent on stealing children, and a British government determined to hide their own complicity in the theft. For once, adult wasn't just "Jack wants to shag everyone" (which, for the record? Totally cool). Adult was impossible choices, meaningless sacrifices, and victory at a cost that wasn't just shooting the bad guys and smiling a lot.
The first episode of Torchwood's fourth series, Miracle Day, has certain expectations to live up to, then. "The New World" isn't as bracing a shock as "Day One" was, but then, how could it be? Instead, it's a solid start, setting up the playing field for a ten-episode run, introducing new players, and re-introducing the few old favorites that were left alive at the end of Earth. It does this with efficiency and rapid pacing, and a sense of urgency that everything is about to get really terribly, really soon, and no one has any idea how to stop it. I think that's one of the major keys as to why the current Torchwood succeeds where the old one so often failed—the sense of stakes here is acute, because it's not just a handful of characters at risk, it's the world. Although that's not quite it, either. I keep wanting to make 24 comparisons, from back when 24 was really exciting to watch, but it's not like Jack Bauer went around saving every human on planet Earth. Maybe it's the sense that this isn't just some bad guy who can be handily dealt with in the finale. There's that idea of cost again; we can be pretty sure the world won't end at the end of this series, but we also know that not everyone we care about will be left standing. And even those who do survive won't necessarily be happy about it.
So, the characters: in "World," we meet Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), a pedophile rapist and murderer who survives his execution; Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer), a self-centered CIA man who survives a horrible car accident; and his assistant, Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), who manages to get more information than may exactly be healthy for her on Torchwood. We also check back in with Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and her man Rhys (Kai Owen). When we last saw Gwen, she was terrifically pregnant, and in the interim between that series and this one, she's gone and had herself an adorable baby. She, Rhys, and the kid are hiding out in Wales, which is probably a smart move considering how much the government was intent on killing her during Children. But as always, when a crisis strikes the Earth, it's not long before Gwen starts asking questions; and even if she thinks she can stay out of things this time, those same things have a way of finding ex-Torchwood personnel.
Then there's Jack Harkness. Jack is a bisexual time-travelling immortal who will do anything to save the day, even if it means… well, in case you haven't caught up with Children yet (and you should!), I won't spoil it. But let's say that, while my reference to 24 might be a bit of a stretch, the two Jacks have more in common than just a name. When Russell T. Davies brought Doctor Who back on the air in 2005, one of the biggest changes he made was in making sure to remind us, at every available opportunity, just how amazing the Doctor was. It can be a cheap trick when over-used, and Davies did over-use it from time to time (most notably in "Last of the Time Lords," which turns David Tennant into a kind of Tinkerbell Jesus), but by heightening the iconic impact of the character, by making sure the Doctor got the best entrances and the grandest moments, Davies created a sort of immediate emotional investment that made the Time Lord's adventures all the more exciting. Davies gives Harkness a similar treatment, and his entrance in "World" is just the right level of bombastic cool.
It's great seeing old familiar faces again, and the new characters have potential (although I'm not sure about Danes, which I'll get to), but the greatest strength of "New World" is probably the premise: what if, one day, no one on Earth died? And what if everyone kept on not dying? They got older, they got injured, but death simply—stopped. Oswald and Rex both survive physical damage which would, on a normal day, have killed them. Except it doesn't, but it's not like their injuries (or anyone else's) instantly heal, like a world full of Wolverines. Rex gets a metal rail through his chest, leaving a rather large hole, and through the rest of the episode, as he struggles to find out what's happening and eventually tracks Gwen down to Wales, he's downing painkillers and bleeding profusely. We don't know yet if there's any healing going on at all; this all could just be a form of stasis, not so much preventing death as forestalling it. Before the episode is over, Gwen and her cop buddy are already wondering about consequences. If no one ever dies, that means the population boom is going to be deafening, and in about four months, there won't be enough food for everyone to eat. Which means you'll have billions of starving people who can't die from starvation, either killing each other for sustenance, or just comatose in the streets. The possibilities for suffering here are amazing, because it seems like a wish-fulfillment concept, at least on the surface. "World" even briefly toys with that, as Rhys tells Gwen how great it would be if their daughter lived forever. But suddenly, this is a world where torture can last an eternity, where the indignities of old age and disease will extend into perpetuity. And it's also a world where, if our heroes try to bring Death back, they aren't going to make a lot of friends.
Admittedly, we're not quite there yet, and there are more pressing questions right now—like, who was in the helicopter that tried to kill Gwen and her family? And why is Jack getting injured like a normal person all of a sudden? And who sent the one word e-mail "Torchwood" right at the moment of the last recorded death on Earth? "World" doesn't end on the same throat-grabbing note that "Day One" did, and I'm interested to see how the show will manage to keep pace and interest over a series twice as long as Children of Earth was. As for the new cast, well, Rex is ridiculous, but growing on me; I could see him getting tedious fast, but right now, he seems like a mild parody of every over-the-top American action hero cliche, and that could be fun. Esther is basically doing the newby role that Lois Habiba did in Children (and that Gwen herself fulfilled at the start of the show's run). My only major caveat is Oswald, the super-smart, super evil, hair slicked back psycho. I like Bill Pullman, and he does a great job of making Oswald incredibly sleazy in just a few scenes, but the character is a hugely familiar archetype, and the show will have to find some way to differentiate him from every other character of that sort soon. As for everyone else, well, if we can just get past Rhys yelling at his wife not to have adventures, and quickly, I'll be happy with that.
But those are minor complaints so far. This is a great premise, and an exciting first episode, and I look forward to following the show over the next ten weeks with you. Long live Captain Jack! And, er, everybody else, I guess.
- Torchwood fans: if you think I was unfair to the first two series of the show, let me know what episodes I can watch to mend my wicked ways.
- I've heard there are people who don't like Gwen Cooper; is this carry over from the start of the show, or are there other reasons? Because I think she's terrific.
- Torchwood is headed to the US. I can only hope this means a montage of Jack and Gwen marveling at Americans driving their cars on the wrong side of the road, speaking in funny accents, and not using familiar slang.