Russell T. Davies, the man behind ‘Torchwood: Miracle Day,’ on the new season
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Russell T. Davies is one of Britain’s most influential television writers. He reinvented “Doctor Who,” created “Queer as Folk” and “Torchwood,” and now brings us “Torchwood: Miracle Day.” The fourth installment of the “Doctor Who” spinoff, which premieres on Starz tonight, once again features immortal, time-traveling Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and company, this time trying to save the world by figuring out why no one on Earth is dying.
Davies talked to the L.A. Times about the sci-fi series and his career in television.
What was the inspiration behind “Torchwood: Miracle Day”?
It’s kind of a classic story, which is: death takes a holiday. That’s an idea we’ve seen in millions of different “Twilight Zones” and things. I thought we’d build off that classic idea. What if we really took over the whole world for a long length of time? What if it changed society, changed who we are?
I think of “Torchwood” now as a show that, we sort of take situations like this and imagine how the human race would react. We did it with the previous miniseries, “Torchwood: Children of Earth.” How far you would go to sacrifice people in order to save yourself? The moral pressure that puts on people. “Miracle Day” attacks the infrastructure of society. Within days, the health service comes under pressure. It’s all a domino effect. And it allows for this intriguing thriller to unfold. I’m enormously excited by it.
It must be fun to sort of let your imagination run wild with that idea.
Oh, yes. And it really causes you to think. But the story is set on Earth, so it has certain responsibilities so it has to stay credible. It exists by being a reflection of our society and a comment on our society while still being fun.
You’re known for liking stories done on a big scale. Does it get harder to find ways to top yourself?
It doesn’t really. I like the fact that I can afford a helicopter chase now and again. But the real drama is the character moments. That’s what I really write well. It’s the same for “Torchwood.” When you reach Episode 9, there’s such punch coming where we reveal the secrets of the show in a very clever way. But it doesn’t always have to be drama on a scale. Intimate moments are just as effective. It’s just such a great cast. If you want to give me a scene with Bill Pullman (Oswald Danes) locked in a room with Eve Myles (Gwen Cooper), then I would happily write you the best drama in the world. It all comes down to good actors in the end.
Can you talk about how you became a show runner?
I started out working behind the scenes in children’s television but always wanted to write. In Britain, we don’t have show runners and such, or we didn’t used to. I became a writer in the early ‘90s, and then by 1999 I wrote “Queer as Folk,” which took off around the world and became a Showtime series. That’s when I started to become a writer-producer. And when the BBC people brought back “Doctor Who” in 2005, they asked me to relaunch that show. That’s when I became the proper show runner -- one of the first show runners in Britain; we sort of invented the title and its responsibilities from the American model.
“Torchwood: Miracle Day” is just 10 episodes long. Do you think American television would benefit in doing more with the miniseries format?
I come from Britain, where the industry is smaller and we tend to have less money, but it survives because we’re making much shorter series. I like it. I’ve lived in America now for two years, and you get these blocks of programming that run for 23 weeks of the year. And when they all stop before the summer, it’s like TV land is empty. I think stations should be more nimble and have 10-parters, six-parters. Audiences are getting smaller and more niche now; it just seems like the smart thing to do. That’s what happened with Starz. We came in with a 13-part series for “Torchwood,” and they were like “cut it down, cut it down” to 10 episodes. ... We really made it fly.
Is it tough trying to appease an ardent fan base, with social networking amplifying people’s criticism and or/hopes for shows?
I don’t read message boards, I don’t go online and read opinions. I’m delighted that there are opinions -- I hope that people have a wonderful time discussing it -- but it’s not a democracy. You can only survive by trusting your own instincts. I don’t need the instincts of 5,000 people. I’m terrible at staying in touch with friends and stuff like that, so it would be remarkably ridiculous if I suddenly turned into a social network fiend.
-- Yvonne Villarreal
Uppper photo: John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, Mekhi Phifer as CIA agent Rex Matheson and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper in “Torchwood: Miracle Day.” Credit: Starz
Lower photo: Russell T. Davies. Credit: Starz