With just five episodes in the summer of 2009, Torchwood went from a mildly diverting Doctor Who spinoff to a show that could stand alongside Twin Peaks, Fringe and The Prisoner as one of television's great insane rides.
Now, after a two-year break, Torchwood is finally coming back, with Torchwood: Miracle Day. And just like 2009's miniseries Children of Earth, Miracle Day has a huge, Earth-shattering premise, laced with paranoia and a heaping spoonful of misanthropy. We've seen the first three episodes, and so far it's almost as good as Children of Earth.
Here's our spoiler-lite review, which doesn't reveal much beyond what you'd learn from the trailers and stuff.
It's probably not fair to compare Miracle Day to Children of Earth, because the latter was such a jolt of pure storytelling electricity that it still feels tingly when I think about it. (And of course, Children of Earth had the unfair advantage of getting to be compared to the first two mostly forgettable seasons of Torchwood.) But Miracle Day tackles this challenge head on, positioning itself as a sequel to Children of Earth and trying to recapture the magic a second time.
Once again, the entire world is in the grip of some weird occurrence. Once again, the Torchwood gang is at the center of it, but also on the run from people who want to get them out of the way. And once again, someone is doing unspeakable things to your kids.
So in Miracle Day, the entire human race stops dying. All at once, all over the world. Suddenly, no matter how badly injured or sick you get, you can't die. And it doesn't take long for the pure horror of this idea to make itself apparent — people can keep living in terrible, excruciating pain, and we quickly see just how many ways death makes life possible.
Davies and his co-writers take this seriously as a science fiction premise, and slowly explore all the angles, both the potential causes and the consequences. They've clearly given this a lot of thought, and the result is a thought-provoking, ambitious work of science fiction in which one change has a million ripples. Among other things, the lack of death means that deformed babies no longer spontaneously abort, and human bodies become germ factories, creating an endless supply of lethal pathogens without death to put a stop to the process.
The whole thing quickly becomes a fascinating meditation on the nature of death, but also our imperfect health care system. And the very real problem of overpopulation, with all of its Malthusian implications.
And here's where Davies' ability to recruit superstar writers comes in handy. Want to have an episode where you delve into the implications of this premise for hospitals and doctors? Who better to write that than House producer Doris Egan? And indeed, Egan's episode, which comes second, is chock full of delicious medical nerdery and some amazingly twisted ideas about how universal immortality would begin to change hospitals' ways of doing things.
At one point, a character suggests that this is the Singularity — Ray Kurzweil was right all along, and the Singularity was near, but it just took a different form than everyone expected. Even though nobody knows what caused the Miracle, and whether we'll be able to adapt to it or not.
Another benefit to Davies cherry-picking some of the best writers in Hollywood? Episode three is by Jane Espenson, and it contains some of the best Captain Jack Harkness scenes ever televised. (And yes, John Barrowman is on absolutely top form as Captain Jack. He's swashbuckling and hilarious and charming and tormented, and you feel like he's grown as a character right in front of our eyes.)
But don't worry — the first three episodes don't consist of characters sitting around discussing the fact that the human race can never die. There are tons of interconnected mysteries, and the CIA gets involved, and somehow everything points to Torchwood. And soon enough, everybody wants the Torchwood gang out of the way. This leads to lots of explosions and people jumping out of windows and awesome stunts. One new character, CIA agent Rex Matheston, is almost unspeakably awesome. And Gwen Cooper gets several chances to prove that she's more than just the comic relief.
And I haven't even mentioned the twisted part yet. Most writers, having crafted an awesome spy saga about the human race being transformed into some kind of posthuman freak show, would call it a day and go for martinis. But Davies and his crew add one final, totally demented ingredient: a pedophile rapist/murderer named Oswald Danes, played by Bill Pullman. Oswald is supposed to be executed for his crimes at the exact moment that death stops happening. And so he becomes a weird symbol of what has happened to the human race, and we spend a lot of time with him. He's one of the most disturbing characters I've seen on television, or in the movies, in a long time.
What is Oswald Danes doing in this story? Are we supposed to sympathize with him or loathe him, or both? In a world where none of us can ever die, are all humans doomed to commit some unforgivable sins eventually? What kind of cosmos allows people like Oswald Danes to exist in the first place?
After watching three episodes of Miracle Day, I'm still not sure how Oswald Danes fits in, or whether his inclusion in the story will turn out to be a masterstroke or a really weird diversion. It's already clear, though, that Pullman's performance is going to leave people really shaken and freaked out. Pullman really commits to the role of the most hated man in America, and leaves you with no doubt that he's capable of the brutal acts that Oswald Danes committed.
The first few episodes aren't perfect, by any means. The pace lags a bit from time to time, and there are a few attempts at trans-Atlantic humor that don't entirely work. Like a long scene where Gwen learns that we say "ATM" instead of "Cashpoint." Speaking of which, if you've ever found Gwen Cooper annoying in the past, you'll definitely find her annoying in these episodes — although she also gets some absolutely brilliant moments.
But all in all, this is Torchwood achieving its full potential. With a huge budget thanks to the new co-producing partners at Starz, the show is able to tell a widescreen story full of crazy action as well as Earth-encompassing consequences. And Russell T. Davies and his collaborators seize this chance with both hands and run with it. The result is a series that lives up to Children of Earth's heady legacy — and one that we'll all be talking about long after the summer is over.
Torchwood: Miracle Day launches on Starz on July 8 at 10 PM.