I remember once watching a sketch* about an all-you-can-eat restaurant that hid a horrible secret: the diners were not allowed to eat all they wanted to, but rather forced to eat all they could physically hold. The premise of Torchwood: Miracle Day, the Americanization of the British Torchwood series that debuts tonight on Starz, is a bit like that. One fine day, humankind is blessed: no one dies, anywhere. And humankind is cursed: no one can die, even if maimed, burnt or horribly ill. Not that day, or the next, or the next.
*(A million pretend dollars to anyone who can ID it for me; Google, or at least my Google skills, failed me on this one.)
The repercussions soon become horribly clear. The “miracle” not only means terrible suffering for many, it means an exponentially growing world population that will soon be unable to sustain itself. Into this perplexing mess is brought the British paranormal-investigation unit Torchwood—headed up, coincidentally, by Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) who has long been unable to die.
Torchwood, here played out on a much bigger American and world stage, is a continuation of a British sci-fi series, which itself is a spinoff from a mid-2000s incarnation of Doctor Who. (The version run by Russell T. Davies, who now runs Torchwood.) If you don’t go back far with either series, don’t worry: I’m only an occasional watcher of both, and I found Miracle Day easy enough to jump into (with a certain amount of backstory the early episodes helpfully provide).
That said—judging, at least, from the few episodes of the 10-episode season I’ve run so far—it’s not up to the previous Torchwood, 2009’s Children of Earth, which I did watch in entirety. That series (about an alien species that shows up on our planet, demanding human children as tribute), took a horrifying premise and faced its implications unflinchingly, turning it into as much a moral and political experiment as a sci-fi story.
Miracle Day has a cracking good premise too, a notable cast (including Mekhi Phifer, Lauren Ambrose and Bill Pullman) and—from the looks of it—a fatter budget. As a straight-ahead sci-fi tale, it’s engrossing: how is this happening, who is doing it to us, and how does it relate to Captain Jack’s own blessing/curse of immortality? The social aspects, however, are handled more hamfistedly so far; there’s a storyline about a death-row convict (Pullman) who becomes an odd celebrity and a walking-dead-as-minorities theme that recalls the less subtle social commentaries in the early days of True Blood.
Still, Children of Earth really caught fire around its midpoint, so I’m going to give Miracle Day a little more time, even if I won’t bump it to the top of my TiVo list. I’m not dying—or is that not-dying?—to see how it plays out. But if it can see through the potential of its earthshaking premise it could make a good summer sci-fi thriller, which would be a small blessing in itself.