Alyssa Rosenberg looks at how the BBC sci-fi series Torchwood went from being a goofy Dr. Who spin-off, to being one of the best sci-fi shows around.
Torchwood finally discovered the two things that make it a truly distinct television show: a dedication to finding the number of episodes that fit a given story, and an explicit embrace of political themes and storylines. […]
“Children of Earth” used its five episodes to follow five days in a deeply disturbing alien invasion. As the mysterious race, known as the 456, demands ten percent of the world’s children, the British government embarks on a murderous coverup to disguise the fact that they’ve been in touch with the aliens—and surrendered children to them—before. The short season lends a nastily propulsive quality to the storyline, which involves the characters racing against a government that’s trying to kill them, and aliens with no inclination to alter their timeline. “Children of Earth was a compact little time bomb,” says Eve Myles, who plays Torchwood‘s main character Gwen Cooper.
“Miracle Day” takes on more issues, and it spans twice the number of episodes. This time, instead of a race against the clock, the surviving members of the Torchwood team are facing a rather more open-ended dilemma. Suddenly, no one on earth is able to die, halting executions, spiking birthrates, and sparking a prescription drug shortage. (Just because no one can die doesn’t mean no one can suffer pain or contract diseases.) Because that problem has so many more institutional implications and involves so many more moving pieces, the ten-episode order gives viewers what Myles says is important room to absorb the issues and to consider the implications of the unfolding crisis.
Torchwood‘s decision to vary the lengths of its seasons is a break with precedent, especially for shows in the United States.