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.

In "Children of Earth," the main theme is the corrupting influence of power and the corrosiveness of state secrets. Rather than moving decisively to assess the risks of an alien invasion they've been warned is coming, Permanent Secretary of the Home Office Peter Frobisher wastes time ordering the assassinations of the members of Torchwood who know about the government's previous contact with the 456—and who might have been able to advise the government. His actions dismay the people working underneath him. "I didn't sign the Official Secrets Act to cover up murder," agonizes Lois, a Home Office underling who decides to work with Torchwood and is rewarded for her concern with imprisonment. "But then I didn't take the job to commit treason on my second day." Eventually, the administration's self-interest leads it to turn on Frobisher—anyone is sacrificeable when it comes to maintaining power.

"Miracle Day" engages a wider range of issues with its core concern as well. The series beings when, in the middle of executing a convicted child rapist and murderer, Oswald Danes, death stops working. Danes successfully argues that because his sentence has been carried out, he must be released—and parlays his newfound fame into a role for a new movement, calling for an end to requirement that medicine be dispensed by prescription, given the overwhelming demand for pain medication, antibiotics to treat spiraling infections, and medical contraceptives. The end of death implicates everything: what does sex in the gay community look like when HIV can ravage you forever? What are the implications for abortion rights when unviable pregnancies won't spontaneously end? Does the end of death mean humanity no longer has souls? And are tactics like extraordinary rendition justified as government faces entirely new constraints and requirements to serve its citizens?

Espenson said that, though Russell T. Davies, the creator of Torchwood, initially decided on the overarching scenario, the writing staff thought carefully about how far they could take it.

"We brought in a doctor and discussed it all again, and every time it just felt better and deeper and more important," she says. "I think it will resonate with US audiences in particular since the warring opinions on health care are so remarkably far apart."

As a backbone that supports all of those other tangents and exploration, the health care storyline asks a particularly prescient question: What happens if everyone has the right to care, but disaster strikes and there aren't enough resources to distribute even though everyone has the ability to pay for them? It's a kind of disaster planning that's several steps beyond our debates about getting everyone insured, and it's exactly why science fiction is a useful tool for thinking through the future.

And Myles says that even if the scenarios are different, Miracle Day shares a theme with "Children of Earth" that directly address contemporary political concerns in the U.K. "With us having a new PM, and David Cameron being so young, it's all about decision-making," she explains, "And what the humans do to each other to get by, and it's disgrace."

It's that kind of darkness, rather than the relationship angst that dominated the first two seasons of the show, that makes Torchwood a powerful show. At the beginning of "Miracle Day," Gwen Cooper's telling her infant daughter stories about her adventures fighting aliens, telling her husband Rhys that their daughter will think they're only fairy tales. "It's a nightmare, Gwen," Rhys tells her. Torchwood's initial slogan warned viewers that "In the twenty-first century, everything changes—and you've got to be ready." It's found its niche warning us that we can't be prepared for what dreams may come.

Read a transcript of Alyssa Rosenberg's interview with Jane Espenson.