'Doctor Who' spin-off 'Torchwood' comes to the States in its fourth season

Torchwood: Miracle Day stars John Barrowman, left, as Capt. Jack Harkness, Mekhi Phifer as CIA agent Rex Matheson and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper.
Torchwood: Miracle Day stars John Barrowman, left, as Capt. Jack Harkness, Mekhi Phifer as CIA agent Rex Matheson and Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper. Starz Original

In the TV world, Russell T. Davies is a hard act to follow — even, it turns out, for Russell T. Davies.

One of Britain's most creative and successful writer/producers (Queer as Folk), Davies is the mastermind behind the most recent revival of Doctor Who and of its spin-off, Torchwood, which after three seasons on British TV launches its fourth season, in which the series debuts in the United States on the Starz cable channel on Friday.

If Torchwood: Miracle Day were just following the first season, it would be one thing, but it would take singular TV greatness for Davies to come close to the brilliance of the third season, the darkly compelling Children of Earth. Where Children saw the Torchwood Institute battling the British bureaucracy and a bunch of merciless aliens who demanded that the humans turn over 10 percent of the world's children to them, the new series spins off a worldwide "miracle:" All of a sudden, people stop dying.

And it's not for lack of the usual causes of death. Convicted child killer Oswald Danes (a creepy-good Bill Pullman) merely thrashes around on the execution table as the lethal cocktail is pumped into him; CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) finds out firsthand about the dangers of driving while talking on a cellphone, but he doesn't die. Hospitals are suddenly overflowing. A man caught in an explosion is reduced to a charred marshmallow, but he keeps on ticking — and blinking his eyes.

The one person who becomes vulnerable to mortality, after more than 100 years of popping to life after being killed repeatedly, is Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the former head of the alien-fighting Torchwood Institute. Harkness and his group need to find out why death has taken a holiday, who's behind it and how it can be reversed. He and fellow Torchwood survivor Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) are flown to the United States to do the job.

Davies' exploration of the moral implications of a deathless world prompts the formation of a bi-national, reconstituted Torchwood crew: Harkness, Cooper, Rex and his CIA colleague Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), and Dr. Vera Juarez (Arlene Tur), who quickly realizes that a world without death means not only a seismic shift in human values but a dire need for drugs, especially painkillers, because although people can't die, they can still suffer.

If there is no death, what will happen to the world's resources? And what about crime? There is no such thing as "murder," yet an abusive husband may strangle his wife repeatedly until her brain turns to oatmeal without being charged with attempted murder because the crime no longer exists.

And what about our slimy friend Oswald Danes? He survived the injection meant to end his life, but does that make him immune from further punishment? He thinks so, and he has the legal system scratching its head over the issue.

The performances and characterizations are all top-notch, and the action sequences, especially in the first episode, are crisply directed.

Newbies won't notice it, but veteran Torchies might think there's something missing in the new Torchwood, especially as a follow to Children of Earth. To some extent, maybe it's that American bureaucrats aren't as much fun to hang out to dry as their British counterparts. In the new series, for example, Wayne Knight is miscast as a CIA honcho — it's just hard to see Jerry Seinfeld's neighbor as very threatening, and even after all these years, can you avoid sneering "Newwwman" to yourself when he comes onscreen?

That isn't to say that Miracle Day is a bust; far from it. As long as Davies is writing, you can at least count on creative concepts and delicious dialogue, crackling with witty asides. What's also true is that, even with Children of Earth, which was a mini-series, Davies is known for taking his time to develop plot and theme. That bodes well for future episodes of the Americanized Torchwood.