We all know how difficult international travel can be these days, and the trip from the U.K. to the U.S. has certainly taken a toll on the “Doctor Who” spinoff, “Torchwood.” Having jumped, after three seasons, from the BBC to Starz, “Torchwood” is, in many ways, a shadow of its former self.
Some of that can be attributed to the events, quality and construct of Season 3 of the five-part miniseries “Torchwood: Children of Earth” that drew much critical acclaim in both countries. A powerful and emotionally wrenching storyline left the ranks of the Cardiff-based alien-hunting Torchwood Institute decimated. Those still standing — the cheeky and literally indestructible time traveler Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman); the sensible but prickly former police officer Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and her rather reluctantly involved husband, Rhys Williams (Kai Owen) — were left so battered that Torchwood could do nothing but disband.
Which it has when Season 4, “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” begins. The action has moved to the United States, where Torchwood is just a rumor and the world, has Something Big to worry about. Beginning with the botched execution of child murderer Oswald Danes (a deliciously creepy Bill Pullman), it soon becomes clear that death has taken a permanent holiday. No matter how dire the disease — Gwen’s father recovers from fatal cancer — or how gruesome the accident — CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) is impaled during a car wreck, another man is burned to cinders — no one on the planet can die.
What at first appears to be a blessing soon becomes a numerical nightmare. As the population increases exponentially, the planet’s resources dwindle and the only group equipped to find the cause, and thus the solution, is …Torchwood. So back Captain Jack comes from his self-imposed exile, gathering up Gwen, Rhys and their new baby and forming a new team that includes, after the requisite arrests and misunderstandings, Matheson and his colleague Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins). Besides the obvious imperative to save the world, Harkness has a personal stake: Captain Jack, who has been indestructible for much of his character’s span, can suddenly be injured and killed; while everyone else has gained mortality, he has lost it.
This isn’t the only promising twist. Russell T. Davies, who created “Torchwood” as well as the latest incarnation of the also seemingly indestructible “Doctor Who,” jumped the pond with the show and set several promising subplots in motion. Pullman’s Danes, having technically served his sentence, is released from jail and becomes something of a celebrity, while a murky pharmaceutical company, repped by the scarlet-mouthed and ubiquitous Jilly (Lauren Ambrose, having a ball), seems two steps ahead of everyone else, pushing an agenda of pain management (for all those people who should be dead but aren’t).
But while many of the top notes of the British “Torchwood” are still intact — the dark humor of Gwen engaging in a shoot-out while holding her infant, Jack’s trademark voracious and varied sexual appetite — the setup of “Miracle Day” is unnecessarily repetitive, as if Starz wants to make certain the audience “gets” it.
And though Rex is predictably angry and dubious and Esther is a dogged researcher, neither character adds much depth to the team. The story of Torchwood, and of the events that led to its disbanding, are barely hinted at, which is both maddening and inexplicable — part of the fun of introducing a show to a new audience is making sense of its past.
Ironically, the real problem is pacing. There are criticisms to be made of Davies’ “Doctor Who” (in 2009, Steven Moffat took over as head writer) and the first three seasons of “Torchwood,” but “plodding” is not one of them. And yet for all the fuses lit in the premiere of “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” three episodes in, it has not exploded or even caught fire.
With any luck, subsequent episodes will find a sharper, cleaner stride. All the elements are there, it’s just the alchemy that seems a bit off.