'Torchwood: Miracle Day' review: Importing Brit sci-fi and humor, trickily
Torchwood: Miracle Day, the 10-episode series that premiered Friday night, is a sometimes witty, frequently successful attempt to introduce American settings to the hit British series. The premise is that one day, world-wide, nobody dies anymore – no matter how sick or injured. Oh, except for the immortal Jack Harkness (star John Barrowman) – he can suddenly be hurt and, perhaps, expire. The title’s “miracle” is quickly recognized as a curse: If no one dies, and the population increases, soon there’ll not be enough food for the planet, the sick will remain ill, the suffering will suffer… The Torchwood investigative team – now primarily down to Harkness and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) – to the rescue!
Mekhi Phifer, as a CIA agent working with Torchwood, is much more loose and open than he’s been before. Among the many pleasures here is a superbly creepy performance by Bill Pullman as Oswald Danes, a celebrity pedophile-murderer. Plus, guest stars including Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and Wayne Knight, transcending Seinfeld’s Newman with dapper villainy.
Juggling the themes of famine, fame, and family, Torchwood: Miracle Day – conceived by series creator Russell T Davies, with some episodes written by Buffy and Warehouse 13 vet Janes Espenson, makes a trans-Atlantic shift that will, I hope, broaden this marvelous, tense fantasy’s audience. The transition is a bit of a bumpy one. Seeing Gwen, with her combination of smarts, skepticism, and sarcasm, contrasted with her opposite number here, a CIA analyst played with prim eagerness by Alexa Havins, you realize how rarely a dire sci-fi premise gets played for occasional laughs in America.
For me, that’s one — minor, but significant — reason why shows such as Heroes and The Event sputter and fail: They leave no room for humor, for an aknowledgment of the absurd. Of course, people who don’t enjoy the original Torchwood or Doctor Who could say the opposite is true: That Brit shows can be reduced to mere silliness at moments when a fan might want more furrowed-brow seriousness.
One of the themes of the series — more a hobbyhorse that Davies wants to ride hard — is the notion that the world can be made hostage to a lack of health care and the greed of Big Pharma. I don’t want to say much more just after the premiere, since the issues Miracle Day touches upon become more frequent and richer as the series proceeds. For now, I’ll just urge you to hang in there if you were intrigued by the first installment; if this isn’t the Torchwood you were hoping for, at the very least I think you’ll come to think, in future weeks, it gets better.