Transatlantic Torchwood: Everything Changes?

July 15, 2011
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It’s only part one of ten – BBC1 being a tardy six days behind Starz – but how has Torchwood been retooled after its move from BBC Wales to a Starz/BBC Worldwide co-production? Russell T. Davies’s script is faced with quite a shopping list: re-introduce Torchwood given that the show’s been off television since 2009; acknowledge the programme’s history so as not to alienate established fans; bring in new American lead characters; set up the basic premise for a serialised SF thriller; make sure there’s some visible Welshness sprinkled in; and establish new character possibilities for Captain Jack Harkness by revoking his immortality. There’s so much to cram in that the episode belts from one set-piece to another.

However, this pace has its downside. Oddly, ‘Miracle Day’ lacks a sense of the miraculous. Nobody’s dying – it’s a big concept, a massive what-if – but all-too-quickly, and with very little shock and awe, this is rendered as a rolling-news soundbite. ‘Miracle Day’ becomes both the series’ subtitle and a diegetic media shorthand for what’s happening. A quick montage of vox pops and to-camera reporters and – tick that scripting box – it’s on to the next story beat, with ‘Miracle Day’ sketched in as something characters can refer to. By marked contrast, Children of Earth‘s eerie, frozen schoolchildren with their “we are coming” chant allowed that central mystery to gradually build. Episode one of Miracle Day is rather more manic, and more on-the-money in terms of spelling out its parameters. Although we don’t yet know who or what is behind ‘Miracle Day’ – is the global cessation of death just an unanticipated side-effect of some alien scheme to render Captain Jack mortal? – Davies’s screenplay seems more intent on spewing societal stats than evoking extraterrestrial enigmas. And the fluidity of character sexuality that previously marked out Torchwood is also problematically squeezed out here by the need to match up explosions and firefights with High Concept SF TV.

Davies takes a straightforward approach to doing Torchwood-meets-the-US: he literalises production and fan discourses of American-ness/Welshness within the diegesis. Worried that America won’t “get Wales?”. Rex rants about the Severn Bridge and having to pay its toll, as well as observing in mid-action sequence that “Wales is insane”. Will Torchwood become unrecognisably ‘transatlantic’? Rex crosses the Pond with Captain Jack at his side, with the return journey beckoning in ep two. Torchwood goes to America? Well, the team are due to be transported to the States under a “rendition” order. And we haven’t even got to Gwen’s “I’m Welsh” fighting talk yet, though it already feels like the series’ mission statement, after featuring paratextually and insistently in BBC Drama publicity, and at the close of the ‘This season’ trailer.

The curious thing about all this diegetically-rendered ‘culture clash’ stuff is that it’s hardly needed. Because, in a way, Torchwood: Miracle Day is no more or less ‘American’ than Torchwood ever was. The show’s very first episode name-checked CSI, after all, whilst drawing on a glossy, US-indebted televisuality of helicopter shots to depict Cardiff from the air. At least one such shot of urban Cardiff makes it into this episode for old time’s sake, along with lovingly rendered vistas of the Gower, casting the tourist gaze/picture-postcard aesthetic of Wales further afield than before. And it’s hard not to fannishly read the inclusion of a menacing helicopter as a self-referential moment: rather than helicopter shots of Cardiff (series 1 and 2), or the special-effects-simulated helicopter from Children of Earth, this time the show can afford to put an actual, proper chopper on-screen.

Torchwood 1.0 was always in love with the likes of Buffy: casting James Marsters, and aiming for the production values of American Quality/Cult TV. The rift was a kind of aggressively atheistic hellmouth. Now Torchwood is produced by Kelly A. Manners, and Jane Espenson live-tweets along with UK transmission. The show was always a symbolic collision between codes of US telefantasy and icons of Cardiff – the Hub residing underneath Cardiff Bay; Captain Jack stood atop the Altolusso building and the Millennium Centre. This latest version of Torchwood might diegetically literalise US/Welsh identity tensions, but its new production teams also embody the show’s hybridisation of Welsh/American imaginaries. As such, I’d argue that Miracle Day ep one intensifies the cultural logic of Torchwood series 1—3 (‘British’ TV desiring to inflect and emulate ‘American’ TV) rather than representing a ‘New World’. The series might now be partly filmed in America, and part-staffed by American creatives, but the Torchwood brand was always semiotically caught between connoting a specific version of Welsh modernity (mostly architectural) and coding itself as a modulation of US TV, whether in the playful guise of CSI: Cardiff, or via the hicksploitation of ‘Countrycide’, the casting of guest stars, or even Captain Jack’s accent. Torchwood‘s putative ‘Welshness’ was firmly BBC America-friendly; shards of Brit-quirk and signifiers of Welshness (though not the language) jammed into generic telefantasy. And this opener does just the same thing, combining skewed, subversive moments (Rex collapsing instead of offering a gun-toting face-off; Gwen admitting tearfully that she doesn’t know what to do; Rhys suggesting they should do nothing about ‘Miracle Day’) with the generic glitter of rocketlaunchers, interweb intrigue, and a hammily “evil” killer on death-row.

Still, this isn’t an ‘American(ized) Torchwood‘. It’s the making-literal of what was always-already a transatlantic semiosis, and a symbolic US/Welsh hybrid. This time round, though, the show wears its multiple, fragmented cultural imaginaries on its (billowing coat) sleeves.



One Response to “ Transatlantic Torchwood: Everything Changes? ”

  1. Melissa Beattie on July 17, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    What interested me is the shooting style; I’ve sort of pinned it down as cod-US-medical-drama with some intertexts to 2 particular ones that also have Anglo-American associations, namely House (Rex had a crutch initially when he was downing painkillers from the bottle) and ER (shooting style especially when Rex is brought in, plus of course Mekhi Phifer was in it I think concurrently with Alex Kingston). The chopper shots of Wales are also similar to a popular travelogue of the UK that airs on PBS (bastion of British Quality tv in the US) which was called ‘Visions of…’ and there were Welsh, English, Scottish and Irish iterations.

    (Also, there’s stuff for you to build on with regard to this in ep 2, though I won’t spoil it. I’m nicking a line to use as a subchapter heading, however– you’ll know the one).