The original incarnation of TORCHWOOD is a strange hybrid. As a spin-off for of DOCTOR WHO for mature viewers the show wore its American television influences with pride. Grown up themes, unflinching plot lines and plenty of explosions and gunplay gave TORCHWOOD the feel of a heavy drama masquerading as an action film. Perhaps that’s why the first two series produced such middling results. TORCHWOOD always felt like a show that knew where it wanted to end up, it just didn’t quite understand how to follow the path to get there. It wasn’t until the third series, TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH, that the creators discovered the right balance for the show, choosing to forgo the weaknesses of episodic television to focus on a single plotline.
In order to bring a fourth series the air the creators have collaborated with the American station Starz, hypothetically returning the show to its American inspirations.
Unfortunately the results to date have been uneven. The first episode floundered until it arrived at its big budget climax, while the second ep recovered brilliantly with a prototypical ‘locked room’ storyline that was suspenseful with a healthy dollop of black humour (the vein of storytelling that serves TORCHWOOD best).
And sadly the American additions to the cast have been underwhelming as well. Mekhi Phifer, as CIA agent Rex Matheson, has been reduced to a hyper-masculine American stereotype, snapping and snarling his lines out with a perpetual grimace on his face. I’ve seen more from Phifer during his time on ER so it’s disappointing to see his character so badly underwritten.
Even worse is Alexa Havins as the intelligence analyst Esther Drummond. For three episodes now she’s been tottering around on four inch stilettos and generally dressing like a 13 year old’s vision of a naughty librarian. Nestled amongst more gifted actors Havins’ bland performances stick out like a sore thumb, especially when compared to original TORCHWOOD-er Eve Myles, who manages to portray a tough, nuanced character without ever sacrificing her femininity in the process.
The only bright light among the new cast members has been Arlene Tur who plays an emergency doctor trying to cope with the challenges of Miracle Day. Although Tur is used primarily as an expositional plot device, observing how the MD changes affect those on the front line, she makes the most from her limited screen time.
Dead of Night, the third entry in this season, is as rocky as the season opener was.
When it comes to light that painkillers and other drugs will soon be made available to the public without a subscription the team begins to investigate PhiCorp, a major pharmaceutical company that seemingly began to stockpile drugs in preparation for Miracle Day.
Jack also begins to take an interest in convicted pedophile Oswald Danes after his many television appearances begin to earn him a sympathetic following from viewers and a mysterious meeting with PhiCorp.
There's a bit of running around, a well worn break and enter cliche is used (OMG, THEY'RE HIDING RIGHT BEHIND THE BOOKCASE) and nothing of substance really seems to happen.
This ep just dragged. Davies et al are clearly setting the table for bigger goings on in later episodes. In the meantime, that means force feeding the audience a bunch of background information on PhiCorp and shuffling the characters around like chess pieces in order to put everyone in the right place at the right time.
There was also one particularly painful scene where two characters nattered back and forth about how Britain and the U.S. use different words to describe the same thing. Once is funny, (a misunderstanding regarding pants and panties), but half a dozen times is overkill and just sucks all the momentum out of the scene.
(Is this still a thing, btw? Are people still so ignorant of the rest of the world that they need a translator to tell them that gas is called petrol in other places? Or are we just to assume that the writers think all North American are idiots?)
The few moments where the ep excelled was in the smaller character pieces, Jack exploring his mortality and reliving his failures, Gwen reconnecting with her husband and son and Rex and Vera struggling to find a romantic connection with each other despite their own self sabotage. When TORCHWOOD pauses long enough from its seemingly endless info dump and uses its characters to explore the changing nature of the world around it, the show becomes legitimately interesting.
If it really wants make a splash across the pond then TORCHWOOD needs to bring it’s A-game right now. After shedding 30 per cent of its viewing audience between the first and second ep it can’t afford to fart around and hope people keep watching. The show’s premise and its characters are clearly established and its fan base eager and ready. Its time to give them what they want.