Thursday 14 July 2011

The return of Torchwood, how to survive a cliché and why Welsh women should not be messed with.

Altered Instinct is pleased to introduce RJ, who will be writing for us regularly on all things geek. Here, she reviews the first episode of the new series of Torchwood. 

Torchwood – Miracle Day
Aired BBC, 9pm, 14/07/11

After the horror of Children of Earth, it is hard to see how Torchwood could get any darker. Miracle Day looks lined up to show us. For those of you new to the phenomenon of Torchwood, the 2006 spin off from Dr Who, a brief summary is in order.

The Torchwood Institute, created in 1879 as the British response to the threat of aliens, most specifically Dr Who and his adventures. Torchwood spent several centuries defending the Earth, having close encounters and generally chasing down trouble. Catching up with the most recent team in 2006, audiences were treated to two series of a dark and unflinching analysis of mankind's many and varied failings. As the team challenged alien attacks and human conspiracies alike helmed by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the agents suffered all manner of losses and indignities, including becoming a zombie, seduction by a variety of alien creatures and death by deeply unpleasant causes . Always engaging, never compromising and often shocking, the series was loved for its unexpected twists, plot relevant erotica and bloody action sequences. Torchwood quickly found both a mainstream and cult audience, and a place alongside Dr Who as a British sci fi triumph.

The long awaited fourth series, Miracle Day, picks up months after Torchwood ceased to exist. Main characters Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and Captain Jack are the only surviving members of the Institute, which was systematically hunted down and destroyed in the five part mini series Children Of Earth. Captain Jack (he of the flexible sexuality and inability to die) hitch-hiked away from the Earth leaving a pregnant Gwen Cooper and her partner Reece (Kai Owen) behind. Then one day, out of nowhere, a mysterious email is sent to all the defence agencies in the world, at exactly the same time, bypassing all security. The message is just one word: Torchwood.

In a tiny, sanitised room, paedophile and murderer Oswald Danes (Bill Pulman) is being put to death. The lethal injection administered, all seems well... until he fails to die. Likewise, CIA Agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) suffers a fatal collision with the “pole from the back of a truck through the car window” cliché, and similarly fails to die. Odd though this is, it is nothing compared to the sight of Gwen Cooper playing happy housewife on a windswept Welsh beach, miles from anywhere. With a new baby and a loving husband, Gwen seems happy until strangers knock on the door. Viewers around the country relax as out come the guns and the (not unjustified) paranoia.

The plot of the series unravels slowly. As the word Torchwood bounces around the world, the human race stops dying. They still get injured and maimed, but they just don’t die. To demonstrate how awful this is, there are many scenes of injury and overflowing hospitals from all around the world. Danes eloquently explains why he can no longer be kept in prison as his sentence has been carried out and walks free thanks to the American Constitution, which clearly was not written with undying zombie people in mind. 

News reports of people praising and denouncing the crisis in equal measure rouse Agent Rex from his hospital bed and send him and assistant Esther (Alexa Havins) on the trail of Torchwood, once they make the connection between the events and the email. Apparently Captain Jack has also spotted the email from wherever in the universe he was, and comes back to Earth to make sure Gwen and family are OK and keeping out of trouble. Enter Rex, who endures a frantic montage of plane trips, telephone calls and some nice comedy moments of an American in Britain (“I gotta pay for this bridge?”) to get him there on time, oblivious to both Captain Jack and an unnamed enemy helicopter following him. Typically, within 20 minutes Jack and Gwen are back in business, being chased by a gun toting helicopter and annoying Reece. Gwen appears to be openly distressed at the prospect of getting into danger (/sarcasm), as she exchanges grins with Jack over the burning (and presumably still alive) remains of the helicopter and its pilot. But behind the Devil May Care exterior, Jack is hiding a secret...

Fans of Torchwood can enjoy the in jokes and references, including the reappearance of Sgt. Andy Davidson, the over enthusiastic use of RetCon by Jack and the name dropping of “FBI Agent Owen Harper”  which I admit made me shed an inward tear. Fan appeasement may indeed be in order however, as there is a definitely American feel to the new Torchwood, with super shiny technology and the traditional Welsh mother, gun in one hand and baby in another, shooting at a helicopter from the window of a picturesque seaside cottage. A lot to accept for fans, but guaranteed to increase accessibility for the less traditional audiences.

Writer Russell T. Davies is back on mind bending form then, throwing the audience the barbed question of what if? From horrific injuries such as a bomber who is less of a living corpse and more like the bits at the bottom of the BBQ, right through to the natural parental question of whether their children will live forever, the consequences of an immortal population are explored in painful, exquisite detail. The first episode poses global concerns – will we run out of food, run out of space... what will happen to the people that don't die? From the teaser trailer at the end, it appears the answer will be far from pleasant. Davies truly has a talent for hiding very real issues under a veneer of glossy sci fi fantasy. 

For a preview of the next episode, visit the BBC homepage, Torchwood  


  1. Cheers for that, RJ. It was a funny old episode, but I definitely enjoyed it. A lot to set up, and they did it quickly and well.

    As first episodes go, I think I enjoyed that more than episode one of Game of Thrones, so if it can match the heights of the rest of that series, it's onto a sure thing!

    Love the basis of the story too - a creepy idea. Bill Pullman's doing good work in making my flesh creep too. Bring on next week's episode!

  2. Bill Pullman was very scary! I did love him tying the blue collar worker in constitutional knots.

    The nice thing for me about Miracle Day is that I can't see where it's going - is it an alien thing, is it something to do with Jack, or what? I love a series that keeps me in suspense, and Torchwood is managing it!