So, the Americanised relaunch of Torchwood is underway. And we can breath a little sigh of relief, because the main headline is that the transatlantic co-production arrangement has not catastrophically tampered with the show’s basic DNA.
Yes, there are differences – of course there are. But then, each series of Torchwood has been different from the one before as it moved from BBC Three to BBC 2 to BBC 1 and now to international status, and given how woeful that first series was at times this growth and development series-on-series is to be warmly welcomed. Certain parts do feel very American, but that’s okay because the underlying basic structure of the show still feels remarkably faithful to its Welsh roots, and with Russell T Davies writing the first hour there were no cringe-worthy American gaffes about the British in evidence; instead there was a nice sequence where new character Rex Matheson struggles to comprehend the idea that Wales might not be connected to England and that he actually has to pay to get in.
The co-production status gives the show much grander scope than it had before – the helicopter chase filmed in Rhossili on the Gower was grand stuff, and seeing Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) in kick-ass mode with bazooka (after earlier carefully putting pink earmuffs on the baby, Anwen) was wonderful. Also wonderful was Captain Jack, who made a delightfully over-the-top hero’s entrance into proceedings (and several times, at that) completely befitting the character’s personality, but he also had time for more interesting subtle moments such as his use of the alias “Owen Harper” for long term fans, and especially when he found out the effect that Miracle Day was having on him – is he afraid, or happy? Scared of dying, or delighted at being freed from a curse? It’s a beautifully played moment by John Barrowman that allows him a real moment of skilful acting a world away from his usual “larger than life” persona.
It was interesting to see all of the old Welsh cast in a US production (also including Kai Owen as Rhys and Tom Price as Pc Andy) acquit themselves so well. But arguably the most scene-stealing performance of the show was from by far its biggest new name, movie star Bill Pullman in a very unusual (for him) role of a despicable convicted child killer: the “sneering bad guy” acting wasn’t exactly subtle, but it never quite went over the top either and hinted more than a little of a Hannibal Lector-like evil that makes it fascinating to see what they intend to do with the character over the coming weeks.
Weakest performance by far was Mekhi Phifer as Matheson, which is odd as he’s the second biggest name of the cast with an impressive TV (ER, Lie to Me) and movie (Dawn of the Dead) track record and yet who was embarrassingly poor even from his very first scene (as an absurdly hyperactive CIA agent taking delight in a colleague’s leukaemia before ending up in his own fatal car crash) and then lumbered with a misjudged scene that saw him lurching out of the hospital on wheelchair and crutches demanding international flights and sidearms with blood flowing from his chest. It takes acting of some skill to pull off such an inherently absurd scenario, and let’s just say that the actor didn’t nail it.
The basic scenario is an intriguing science fiction Big Concept (“what if no one could ever die again?”) but at this point, despite the script talking about the consequences of population overrun in mere weeks, it lacks the nail-biting instant tension of Torchwood’s finest hour, the “Children of Earth” miniseries, and the narrative pace seems a little slow for both Torchwood and for US TV standards. But that’s probably more down to the fact that the show has to introduce not only the Big Concept but the entire idea of Torchwood and its remaining members to an American audience. Perhaps the first episode only felt slow to long term Torchwood fans who know all that stuff backwards, while presumably to new viewers the whole “What is Torchwood?” B-plot would have been as confusing as all hell. Writing for a mass audience is such a difficult balance at the best of times.
Still, at this point I’d say that the first episode needed a little more Big Concept jeopardy: fighting a “concept”, especially one where people aren’t dying by definition, lacks a sense of real danger. I’m sure they’ll get there as the episodes progress but I wonder if the series wouldn’t have been better slightly nipped-and-tucked to around eight episodes rather than ten. We’ll see how it fares.
On the whole though a solid start, even genuinely impressive in places. Not perfect, but with room to grow, and certainly interesting and intriguing. Perhaps the biggest relief of all, though, is that despite all the changes, the move to America, the new cast and the primarily US-based setting, is: “they didn’t totally f*ck it up” in the way that, for example, a US co-production totally fouled up Doctor Who in the 1990s.
And that’s one huge sigh of relief you hear coming from me and a large section of fandom: now we can get on with watching and enjoying the series itself without that first fear and trepidation anymore.