How 'Torchwood' Found Its Way

After two lackluster seasons, the science-fiction series became a success by learning two important lessons



Torchwood, the BBC Wales spin-off of the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who, had an obvious pitch when the show launched in 2006. The show was meant to add a healthy dose of sex and adult talk about the complexity of relationships to the time-travel-and-aliens formula that has served Doctor Who, which is essentially a family show, so well since 1963. But the show took two seasons of meandering through repetitive plotlines before it found the best way to tell stories about the titular fictional law enforcement agency, which it did in rather spectacular fashion in 2009. With the five-episode season "Children of Earth," Torchwood finally discovered the two things that make it a truly distinct television show: a dedication to finding the number of episodes that fit a given story, and an explicit embrace of political themes and storylines.

Now, BBC Cymru Wales, BBC Worldwide, and Starz have used those lessons to very good effect in their collaboration on the fourth season of Torchwood, called "Miracle Day," which begins airing on Starz in the U.S. at 10 p.m. tonight and on the BBC next week.

"Children of Earth" used its five episodes to follow five days in a deeply disturbing alien invasion. As the mysterious race, known as the 456, demands ten percent of the world's children, the British government embarks on a murderous coverup to disguise the fact that they've been in touch with the aliens—and surrendered children to them—before. The short season lends a nastily propulsive quality to the storyline, which involves the characters racing against a government that's trying to kill them, and aliens with no inclination to alter their timeline. "Children of Earth was a compact little time bomb," says Eve Myles, who plays Torchwood's main character Gwen Cooper.

"Miracle Day" takes on more issues, and it spans twice the number of episodes. This time, instead of a race against the clock, the surviving members of the Torchwood team are facing a rather more open-ended dilemma. Suddenly, no one on earth is able to die, halting executions, spiking birthrates, and sparking a prescription drug shortage. (Just because no one can die doesn't mean no one can suffer pain or contract diseases.) Because that problem has so many more institutional implications and involves so many more moving pieces, the ten-episode order gives viewers what Myles says is important room to absorb the issues and to consider the implications of the unfolding crisis.

Torchwood's decision to vary the lengths of its seasons is a break with precedent, especially for shows in the United States. Shows like 24 have managed to divide up a single day so it fits neatly into the constraints of the American fall-to-spring network television season, which usually consists of 22 to 24 episodes. But most shows can't sustain a single plot arc for an entire season. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was substantially written and produced by Torchwood: "Miracle Day" writer Jane Espenson. That series addressed one major problem or fought one major villain over the course of a season, but it had to include unrelated episodes to make the season long enough.

There are exceptions for under-performing but much-loved shows like NBC's Chuck (which had a 13-season episode first season, then longer second, third, and fourth seasons, and have a 13-episode order for next season) of course, but they're the exception rather than the norm. Premium cable networks like Starz, HBO, AMC and Showtime have shorter seasons, mirroring the British predilection for 10 to 12-episode season orders, but those numbers are standard from season to season, rather than shifting to accommodate the story the characters are addressing in any given season.

"I love the idea of developing stories with an eye toward the number of episodes that fit the story," says Espenson of her experience on "Miracle Day." It's not often that something is both obvious and revolutionary, but that is."

Similarly, "Children of Earth" and "Miracle Day"'s use of science fiction tropes to explore political and moral questions isn't exactly shocking: that's the most logical use of the genre, after all. But where so many shows and movies settle for subtle allusions or take vague stances on the issues raised by the science fictional concepts they employ, Torchwood at its best when it tees off on everything from abuses of government power to prescription company profiteering.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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