World without death explored in new 'Torchwood' on Starz

Jul 3 2011 - 1:18pm

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STARZ
John Barrowman stars as Capt. Jack Harkness (center), whose team moves to the Starz channel Friday for its new season “Torchwood: Miracle Day.”
STARZ
John Barrowman stars as Capt. Jack Harkness (center), whose team moves to the Starz channel Friday for its new season “Torchwood: Miracle Day.”

Torchwood" migrates from one continent -- and one cable network -- to another this coming week with mixed results in its early episodes. The series, a spin-off of "Doctor Who" (don't hold that against it if you're not a "Who" fan), previously aired on BBC America, but shifts over to pay-cable channel Starz for a new 10-episode season that also moves the show's setting from England to America.

Because "Torchwood: Miracle Day" (8 p.m. Friday) is pretty much a reboot (with the same, small, three-person central cast and a lot of new characters), it does not rely on viewers having seen previous seasons, including the most recent, critically acclaimed "Torchwood: Children of Earth," which aired in 2009.

New viewers may be confused by some references (Ianto is a former "Torchwood" team member and lover of the bisexual Capt. Jack), but "Miracle Day" takes great pains to welcome newcomers.

All you really need to know is explained in the new season's first hour: Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is the immortal leader of the Torchwood Institute, established by the British royal family in 1879 to investigate the unusual, strange and alien and to protect the realm. The group's headquarters have been blown up, Capt. Jack went somewhere far away and the only other surviving team member, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), has exiled herself to a house on the coast of Wales where she lives with her husband, Rhys (Kai Owen), and their baby.

The Torchwood team reluctantly reunites following a world-altering event: Miracle Day. Suddenly, no one on the planet dies. Even those whose bodies have been ripped limb-from-limb continue to have life. The first hour pounds away at this premise to the point that some viewers might want to shout at the TV, "Yes, we get it, no one's dying!"

The plot pace picks up in episodes two and three, the only other hours immediately available for review. These episodes feel more like past seasons of "Torchwood" with a cheekiness surrounding the action sequences (in hour one, there are a lot of things that go boom but not much of a sense of humor).

Eventually, Jack and Gwen team up with CIA agents Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer, "Lie to Me"), an unlikable jerk, and Esther Drummond (newcomer Alexa Havins), to investigate the Miracle Day phenomenon, which may involve their CIA boss (Wayne Knight, who played Newman on "Seinfeld") and his toady (Dichen Lachman, "Dollhouse").

Executive producer Russell T. Davies, who wrote the first hour of the new season, tries to weave the miracle into the new team's midst through Rex, who is gravely injured in a traffic accident that, on any other day, would have killed him. His doctor, Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur, "Crash"), becomes a key player in a plot that explores the repercussions of Miracle Day: Overpopulation, crowded ICUs, people in pain on the verge of death and a need for more medicine.

The role of the drug industry becomes more prominent as the series goes on and "Miracle Day" introduces a smiling shark, pharmaceutical PR representative Jilly Kitzinger, played with scheming glee by Lauren Ambrose ("Six Feet Under"). Viewers first meet her when she sidles up to one of Miracle Day's first beneficiaries: Convicted child killer/rapist Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), who fails to die from lethal injection and, through completely unrealistic legal maneuvers, gets released from prison.

"If the devil himself were to walk this earth, even he'd need representation," Jilly tells Danes.

"If the devil walked the earth, surely he'd be in PR," Danes replies.

Davies and his writing staff allow "Miracle Day" to ask a lot of questions about the nature of life, medicine and even law. When Juarez wants a police officer to arrest a man on an attempted-murder charge for injuring his wife, who is now her patient, the officer throws up his hands.

"We're not allowed to say 'attempted murder' anymore because murder is impossible," the cop says. "The whole system is breaking down."

Science fiction is often at its best when it raises big questions, but early on it's unclear what the true source of Miracle Day is and where that will take this batch of "Torchwood" episodes. In the first three episodes, corporate greed and possible alien intervention are the most likely culprits. Or is Danes somehow involved in instigating Miracle Day? It remains to be seen if "the end of death" is a concept that can carry "Torchwood" through a full 10 hours of television.

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