Torchwood goes to America

A new look and a new location for Russell T Davies’s sci-fi adventure

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In an American city street, Captain Jack Harkness rolls back the sleeves of his RAF aviator’s greatcoat and inspects his scratches and bruises – a troubling development for the hitherto self-healing, immortal, extra-terrestrial hero. In a remote Welsh cottage, Gwen Cooper hears a knock at the door, stops feeding her baby and reaches for every fugitive mum’s store-cupboard staple: a rocket-launcher.

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And in a London private members’ club, screenwriter and producer Russell T Davies ponders how the post-watershed “alien of the week” science-fiction drama he spun out of Doctor Who has survived its moves from BBC3, to BBC2, to a five-part BBC1 special in July 2009, to its greatest challenge yet: a new, ten-episode, prime-time-viewing, co-production deal with Starz, a top American cable channel.

“I’ve always operated on the principle that you should make hay while the sun shines,” insists the ebullient 48-year-old, awarded an OBE in 2008 for his services to drama. “If I hadn’t created Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures when I did – in that white heat generated by the success of Doctor Who – they wouldn’t exist. There’s no way, in this economic climate, that they would get commissioned today. So every time a change comes along, you just roll with it.”

And how Davies is rolling. Six years since he rebooted Doctor Who and five since he devised its grown-up offspring, the Torchwood team led by Captain Jack – as played by actor, singer and housewives’ favourite John Barrowman – have come to America, crossing the Atlantic from Cardiff (in CIA handcuffs) in pursuit of answers to the greatest threat mankind has ever experienced: Miracle Day – the day people stop dying.

“The audience will see that Captain Jack is darker, but he’s still got his wit,” says the 44-year-old, Glasgow-born, American-raised Barrowman. “He’s still passionate about planet Earth and the human race.” But as humans stop dying, leading to an almost-instantaneous overpopulation panic and resources crisis, Captain Jack has to face the prospect of his own mortality. Might these “miracles” be linked? “The journey he goes on is extremely different from the journey he’s been on before. It’s absolutely, jaw-droppingly exciting.”

We’re talking on the Miracle Day set, in a gated suburban community stuffed with McMansions a few miles outside Los Angeles. Powys-born Eve Myles (who plays Gwen) strides by. She’s relocated for the four-month shoot with her partner and 16-month-old baby, and laughingly bemoans the fact that her daughter has been heard to say “momma”, a dagger through the heart of mummy’s Welsh pride.

It’s sunny and hot – and only April. We’re definitely a long way from Cardiff. Around us mill the US cast and crew, including ER’s Mekhi Phifer, playing a CIA agent, and Independence Day’s Bill Pullman, playing a child killer-turned-televangelist.

What’s not currently obvious are the helicopters and epic special effects that funding from Starz has allowed – money from the US channel has, says Davies, approximately doubled Torchwood’s budget. (It’s well over £1 million per episode.)

Everyone involved, from actors to creative team to broadcaster, are clearly intent on capitalising on the success of the drama’s 2009 outing. In Children of Earth, the adventurers from the Torchwood Institute had to stop extra-terrestrials harvesting ten per cent of the world’s children. Stripped across five consecutive nights, Torchwood’s third season was a critical and ratings hit at home – although Davies wasn’t sure it would work at all.

“I thought it would die a death on BBC1 and I’d prepared Children of Earth to be the end of Torchwood,” Davies admits. “I was proud of it but it’s an odd show – a Welsh spin-off of Doctor Who that took some bold, camp characters and fused them with a dark, realistic plot. It could’ve been a dog’s dinner but somehow it worked.”

It also worked on BBC America and was the subscription channel’s most-watched series ever, beating even its parent franchise. As for Davies, who left his position as executive producer on Doctor Who in 2009 and relocated to Los Angeles, Miracle Day is the first Torchwood series on which he has been able to devote his energies fully without the distraction of the all-conquering Time Lord.

The same is true of Julie Gardner who, as head of drama at BBC Wales, was midwife to the new Who. Now she and Jane Tranter, former BBC controller of fiction, are also LA-based for BBC Worldwide, the broadcaster’s commercial arm. Tranter is executive vice-president of programming and production, while Gardner is senior vice-president in charge of scripted productions. Torchwood is their first big project together.

Davies, Gardner continues, “had found a way of saying things that were important about the world” and from there, the only way was upwards. “We wanted to do more episodes, we wanted to find a way to tell a bigger length of story, and all of that thinking coincided with us being in America.”

The BBC sought the money and the platform offered by a US production partner. An initial relationship with Fox foundered. “We have a friendly working relationship with them,” insists Davies, adding that the network helped develop the Miracle Day story. “But then on their desk landed Terra Nova, a new series by Steven Spielberg and with dinosaurs [which Sky has acquired and will show in the autumn]. Frankly I can see why they made their choice!”

Also, he adds, he envisaged Miracle Day as a ten- or 13-episode story arc. It would have been “exhausted if it ran to 22 weeks”, the traditional length of US network dramas. The fact that Torchwood has an inbuilt fanbase and “hinterland”, adds Tranter, is a definite advantage for a premium cable channel like Starz. But American networks such as Fox “need everything really branded and to feel like it’s a show that’s got their DNA right at the heart of it. And Torchwood already has ownership and a history somewhere else.”

But she doesn’t think that Torchwood, in American broadcast terms, is up against Terra Nova or Spielberg’s other new sci-fi series Falling Skies. “It’s really existing in a world of its own. It’s very different from other cable sci-fi and fantasy shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. It’s quintessentially a Russell T Davies science fiction – he takes these enormous events that happen to human life and looks at them in a very personal, often quite domestic way.

“So on Miracle Day, the biggest storyline that could ever hit humanity – death dies – is played out to a large extent through Gwen’s relationship with her mother and sick father, and husband and baby.” This, she points out, is of a piece with Davies’ work on Who, “where Russell would save the world from a council flat in Peckham.”

Torchwood is the sci-fi show planted on terra firma. While the infusion of American money may have upped the production ante, Miracle Day’s well-funded shininess still has heart. Our heroes’ transatlantic playground has not come at the expense of a gripping narrative and the central characters of Captain Jack and Cooper are not playing second fiddle to ratings-grabbing US stars. And the makeover only goes so far: there have been no demands from Starz executives that Myles lose weight or firm up to conform to the glam tyranny of US TV.

“You would have to not be looking in order to want Eve Myles to change,” fires back a proudly possessive Jane Tranter. “Also, she’s playing Gwen Cooper. And Cooper is a very rooted, grounded woman.”

“Grounding science fiction is so important,” says Jane Espenson, one of the American writers whom Davies has hired to work alongside him on Miracle Day. She’s worked on Battlestar Galactica, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Game of Thrones. And she’s helping the world of Torchwood expand in other ways: Espenson has scripted Web of Lies, four-minute webisodes featuring the voice of Eliza Dushku that will run as weekly online companions to the show.

Sci-fi, Espenson notes, can work – and often works best – when located in an urban setting, or aboard the equivalent of a deep-space aircraft carrier. “You can ground a science-fiction show with nothing but characters who we recognise as being like ourselves.”

Thus there will be no issues for American viewers in identifying with a “foreign” show – not least because of Barrowman’s accent. “Captain Jack is an American and he’s how Americans like to think we are,” says Espenson, who insists she had no problems scripting the broad, quirky streak of Welshness that continues to run through Torchwood. “He has a great indomitable spirit and wit and smile and wink and charm – and manages to be a hero even though he’s not perfect.”

So what might the series’ likely success mean for the franchise’s big daddy? Any word on that Doctor Who movie? “Oh, there’s always rumours,” smiles Julie Gardner. “There was Doctor Who the board game! Having been there [on that show] for seven years, I know the rumours never stop. I’d like to see Doctor Who conquer the universe. Give me everything – playing cards, board games, movies, novels – I’ll take the lot.”

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But the man from whose imagination such adventures would have to flow denies that Torchwood: USA is a Trojan Tardis. “No one at BBC Worldwide is looking at an American version of Doctor Who,” insists Davies with a laugh. “I know everyone thinks we have secret plans. But we do have plans for new dramas, and non-science fiction drama. It’s about time I got back to that sort of material, ’cause I have a lot to say in that world. So our ambitions are endless – but not for that particular one!”