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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
f you’re currently digging “Torchwood: Miracle Day” on Starz, and it’s your first exposure to “Torchwood” as a concept, then boy do I have a Blu-ray for you. This box set collects together all the episodes of “Torchwood” that were created prior to “Miracle Day,” so if you aren’t caught up and would like to delve into all that came before, buy the ticket and take this ride.
“Torchwood” was designed to be something of an adult spin-off of “Doctor Who,” and in order to kick things off, producer Russell T. Davies brought the slick con-man character of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) over from the parent series to the new show, and in doing so, Jack was reenvisioned as a begrudgingly heroic central figure cursed with immortality. Although there were subtle nods for hardcore “Who” devotees, “Torchwood” quickly became its own dog. Whereas “Doctor Who” was very much about finding the good in humanity, “Torchwood” seemed hell-bent on showcasing the flaws. Its exploration of the selfish, darker sides of being human through the lens of science fiction became its hallmark.
For its first 13-episode season, which aired on BBC Three, “Torchwood” was essentially a sci-fi riff on the standard police procedural. Set in Cardiff, Wales – apparently the location of a rift in time and space – the various members of the team were in the position of tracking down and dealing with bits and pieces of alien debris that floated through the rift into our world, and it was all very much a “ride-of-the-week” sort of experience. Viewers were introduced to Jack through the eyes of wet-behind-the ears police officer Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who joined the Torchwood Institute, which operates out of a secret hub beneath the city. Once indoctrinated, Gwen quickly became accustomed to the weirdness that regularly plagued its handful of employees. As with many first seasons, there were stumbling blocks, and some episodes didn’t work as well as others, but on the whole it was a season of TV that showed immense promise and frequent greatness.
For its second season, “Torchwood” was granted another 13-episode order and it was moved up to BBC Two. Surely this was a vote of confidence? If so, it worked, because the second season saw the show mature into something even more innovative and special. While it retained the basic thrill-of-the-week layout, the series moved closer to an arc-driven format, going so far as to create several character-driven mini-arcs within the 13 episodes. Much negative criticism has been lobbed at the first two seasons of “Torchwood” over the years, and most of it is nonsense. These are bold, complex stories with daring payoffs. What was only hinted at in the first season was cemented here: Being a member of Torchwood meant you had a considerably shorter lifespan than the average bloke. This show was not afraid to kill off its characters, which is the sort of thing that always divides loyal audiences, because audiences don’t like being screwed in that way.
Curiously, for its third season, “Torchwood” had its order drastically reduced. There were to be only five episodes produced, however, they would be broadcast on consecutive nights on BBC One. The show had finally docked at the flagship station, and a miniseries about aliens coming to Earth and demanding our children titled “Children of Earth” was the result, and it delivered on every count. Those who bitched and moaned about any dubious quality in the first two seasons were force fed a heaping bowl of shut the fuck up, because this was fierce television, acted to the hilt, and scripted and directed like there was no tomorrow. Indeed, the sci-fi morality play, “Children of Earth,” even ended as if the saga of Captain Jack Harkness and Gwen Cooper was drawing to close, but lucky for us that was not to be.
At the time of writing I’ve only seen the first three episodes (of ten) of “Miracle Day,” so making any kind of prediction about where it stands quality-wise in relation to the previous material would be foolhardy. Based on what I’ve watched, I’d say they’ve pulled loads of thought-provoking drama out of the premise of nobody dying, Bill Pullman deserves an Emmy nomination for his work, and Mekhi Phifer is a much better actor than I’ve previously given him credit for. Beyond that, there’s no question that what was old feels fresh and new again, and the series has been given yet another lease on life. But it had quite the strange life before, and now’s your chance to uncover those haunting, acerbic mysteries for yourself.
Special Features: This set merely collects together all the previous season sets that have been released. There are no new special features, and this set isn’t geared toward folks who bought the old sets – unless, of course, you owned them on DVD and would like to upgrade to Blu-ray. Season One has the bulk of the extras with commentaries on every episode, numerous behind the scenes featurettes, a video diary, episodes of “Torchwood Declassified” for each episode, as well as outtakes and deleted scenes. Things pull back a bit for the second season, which has no commentaries, but still retains the “Declassified” episodes as well as deleted scenes and outtakes. And by the time the set gets to “Children of Earth,” the extras dwindle down to a single “Declassified” episode and nothing else.