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Torchwood Comes to America

July 12, 2011

The new season/miniseries/whatever-it-wants-to-be-called of Torchwood premiered last Friday, and I’m pretty excited.  For the uninitiated, Torchwood is a spinoff of sorts of the long-running British sci-fi series Dr. Who, trading occasional character cameos with and preserving much of the metaphysical mythos of the original show.  For the two people left on this Earth who haven’t heard me ramble on about this show and how awesome it is, here’s the cinematic preview for the new season, Torchwood: Miracle Day, which is being produced in partnership with Starz:

Explosions, action, sci-fi conspiracies, supernatural happenings, Welsh accents, attractive guys in long coats who flirt with anyone on two feet (I’m looking at you, Capt. Jack Harkness)…  It’s not that difficult to see why I like this show.  Russell T. Davies and his writing team are fabulously clever and witty in the way of all my favorite British TV writers, and despite their irritating and heart-wrenching penchant for unexpectedly killing off important cast members (this is not a spoiler: much of the original Torchwood team is dead at the start of Miracle Day), they are also brilliant at writing exceptionally human, endearing, and behaviorally consistent characters.  Anyone who’s heard my recent rants attacking the writing on Glee will know how important I find the last.

On the one hand, I’m glad the show now has a premium-cable-style budget.  On the other hand, I was a bit concerned by one thing in particular when previews began surfacing for the new season: it’s set in America, and large swathes of the new cast of characters are American.  Now, I have nothing against TV shows set in America.  I’m a rabid fan of The West Wing.  And the original premise of Torchwood–there’s a space-time rift in Cardiff, Wales, and we need people who can deal with the weird alien things that drift through it!–is more or less important from episode to episode, so it’s not like I’m unused to plots from the show that leave it behind for a while.

Actually, I was just worried that Torchwood would succumb to the same fate as so many other British shows that flub their trans-Atlantic transitions: getting “dumbed down” for an American audience.  (The Office, I think, is one glaring exception to the rule of shows like Coupling, whose translation to American TV was horrendous but, at least, mercifully brief.  Until recent seasons, I found the American version of The Office to be funny and smart in a way different from, but on par with, the original.)  I don’t know why producers think that Americans won’t “get” British humor.  Especially the premium cable audience.  Maybe Starz is just leery of all things British after the sting of Camelot’s failure–but I digress.

Given that Starz is a premium cable channel, and given that Dr. Who and original Torchwood writer/producer Davies is on hand for the new season, I wasn’t all that concerned at first.  Until I started to see promos like the first couple of minutes of this:

I get that Starz wants to draw in some of the big huge chunk of their viewers who aren’t rabid fans of the BBC and haven’t made the effort to stalk/track down/TiVo BBC America’s airings of all things Dr. Who.  I get that the more new Torchwood fans this show creates, the better the future prospects of one of my favorite shows.  All a-okay with me.  I’m even a big fan of Mekhi Phifer, who plays one of the new principal characters, CIA agent Rex Matheson (although, can we talk about how bad that character name is?  Come on).

Even after watching the first episode, though, I remain underwhelmed by Alexa Havins‘ Esther Drummond, an overwhelmingly typical waifish blonde who somehow holds onto her job at the CIA while wearing 5-inch stiletto heels and pencil skirts, and whose “What’s Torchwood?” computer searches and run-in with Captain Jack are (1) painfully obvious analogues to the “let’s introduce an American audience to Torchwood” effort and (2) a rehash of much-more-compelling-female-lead Gwen Cooper’s Season 1 intro to the team.

So, misgivings aired.  All this said, I am still sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for this Friday’s episode.  Why?

Rex Matheson to the rescue!

No, seriously.  This is how Russell Davies’ narrative genius handles my let’s-bring-the-show-to-America-for-the-Americans-because-they-won’t-get-Wales squick: Rex Matheson.  As illustrated by the cinematic preview at the top of this post, the premise of Miracle Day is that all of a sudden, no one on Earth is dying.  Not the condemned Kentucky murderer, not people in ICU units at hospitals, not the elderly, not Gwen Cooper’s dad when he has a heart attack.  Not even Rex Matheson, who gets into a car accident that should’ve been fatal and thus acquires a compelling personal reason to move the plot forward.

Even in the brief space of its first episode, the show does a lot of smart things with this premise.  Rex, for example, doesn’t die from his injury, but it heals imperfectly and leaves him bleeding and wheezing for breath and popping painkillers just to stay on his feet.  Already, Gwen and other characters worry that with no one dying and thousands of new kids being born each day, a moratorium on death (yeah, sorry, couldn’t help that one) will mean a global food crisis and the potential collapse of civilization in a matter of months.  Smart sci-fi writing!  Honestly a breath of fresh air on TV.  So, cue huge sigh of relief and giddy smile while I watched this episode.

To go back to fawning over Davies’ grip on what makes his characters tick, it’s not Jack Harkness, leader of Torchwood, who goes to fetch Gwen Cooper, other surviving member of Torchwood, from her self-imposed witness-protection-style exile to the Welsh coast with her husband and baby daughter.  Jack doesn’t want to get his friend and her family entangled in yet another Big Dangerous Conspiracy.  But since I love Gwen, especially Gwen taking out a helicopter with a bazooka:

You probably don't want to mess with this.

Yes, I'm serious.

… I’m not at all sad she gets caught up in the plot, too.

Here’s where Rex comes in.  Injured, hurting, direct Rex Matheson high-tails it to the British Isles and triangulates the location of Gwen’s cell phone (from which she has conveniently answered a call recently, coming back onto the grid briefly for news of her dad’s heart attack) to her isolated sea cottage.  He uses his CIA authority to not-quite-arrest Gwen and Jack and drag them back to the US–which isn’t the best place to solve the problem for any compelling top-down plot reason, but is for Rex’s character, whose resources and colleagues are all centered in America.  Rex is introduced as the kind of brash, no-nonsense guy who would do something like this.  His character is immediately complicated by his injury, but that only gives him more of a reason to want to fix this problem.

It’s not often a show manages to overcome my aversion to a central component of its premise in about 40 minutes.  So my hat’s off to Miracle Day’s writers–although if blondie Esther doesn’t get more interesting soon, I will still be rolling my eyes every time she appears on the screen.  Fair warning.

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