What’s Wrong with Torchwood?

The first episode of the second season of Torchwood opens with a blowfish driving a sports car. It doesn’t really look that much like a blowfish, but I’ll take Gwen Cooper’s word for it.

This sequence — go on; it’s only a minute — sums up a lot of the initial charm of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spinoff which once freely mixed camp with its saving-the-world-from-aliens premise. It was a twisted version of The X-Files with a sense of humor and a lot more sex. If you didn’t laugh at the absurdity of the blowfish scene, you’re very possibly not its audience.

Or weren’t. Everything changed with Torchwood: Children of Earth, the intense, bleak, impressive miniseries that aired in 2009. I blogged about Children at length for the Eugene Weekly, and I loved the series for its fearless approach to horrible situations. People die without reason; a healthy dose of cynicism regarding the powers that be turns out to be a handy thing; saving the world requires incredible sacrifice for which there is no balm, no salve, no forgiveness. Engrossing, taut, and imperfect — the pacing went a little wonky, and the score butted in a lot — Children of Earth was Torchwood gone sideways.

Torchwood‘s new direction works far less well. Torchwood: Miracle Day is full of change: it’s set in America, for starters, which involves a lot of unfunny “translation” jokes and painting-with-broad-strokes ideas about what America and its people are like. (The jokes also come fairly quickly on the heels of a handful of similarly flat cracks in spring’s season openers of Doctor Who.) Two major and two minor characters return, and the rest of the show is filled out by too many characters I care too little about. Yes to Dr. Vera Juarez, sharp as a tack, efficient, impatient, logical; yes to Jilly Katzinger as she appeared in the first three episodes, though the incompetent/giddy version of Jilly that appears in episode four seems like a different character.

I’m less impressed with Rex Mathison and Esther Drummond, the stand-ins for a new American audience (now that the show is on Starz, not BBC America) who are both CIA agents now on the run as a result of their curiosity about Torchwood. The word appeared online everywhere, then disappeared from the entire internet; at the same time, people stopped dying. Everything is connected, but the show is taking its own sweet time with the how and the why and the things that lured me into the show in the first place: Snappy Gwen Cooper, a police officer turned heart of the Torchwood team; Jack Harkness, the (mostly) immortal leader and sometime pal of the Doctor; and curious, playful, dark, sometimes clever plots that have as much to do with the relationships between the characters as they do with the promise and peril of alien life and technology.

As a friend put it, right now it’s like Torchwood got in a bar fight with NCIS or CSI and lost. The last episode included a lengthy heist that lost most of its power because it was clear from the word go that the nameless man on Torchwood’s trail was going to catch up to them mid-thievery. A lot of time is spent with fancy Torchwood computer software, gizmos we’ve seen in other seasons, and characters who are a lot less fascinating than the show seems to find them. Dialogue clunks and grates and tells us what we already know, and the focus is too rarely on Gwen or Jack. When it is, Jack’s off getting laid (which is realistic enough, given the situation) and Gwen’s on the phone to her tiresome husband, Rhys, asking about their baby.

Like Gwen, Esther has family to fret about, or at least to provide an excuse for her to put the team in danger. Meanwhile, a creepy pedophile, played with disturbing relish by Bill Pullman, becomes an unlikely poster child for the “miracle” — he was the first person to not die — a fake Sarah Palin natters about being a mom and a voter and gosh, just sure her idea is the right one, and a sly pharmaceutical rep with a gorgeous red coat sticks her finger in the pot and stirs wherever possible.

Torchwood‘s not awful. But Miracle Day will test your patience. We’re four episodes in, but the plot is advancing too slowly while simultaneously lacking emotional resonance. What’s at stake, other than Gwen’s admittedly adorable baby? The world is in crisis, the population is soaring, the devil is in the drug companies, but nothing about the show feels big despite the obvious scope. From camp to drama to … procedural?

I’m holding out hope that there is much more than meets the eye to all of this. A quick reference to families that will rise, a throwaway comment about how germs benefit from an undying populace — there’s a foundation for a good story, but it’s shaky. Splicing serious-American-television DNA with Torchwood’s brand of serious campiness, it turns out, is about as awkward as it sounds.

So far.

What’s Wrong with Torchwood?

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