It’s some time in early July, 2011. Let’s go with US transmission, since that is first transmission. So July 8th, 2011. Does that mean we should do Billboard charts for these? Yes, let’s. That means Adele is at number one with “Rolling in the Deep,” with Pitbull and Lady Gaga placing and showing. We are approximately one month into Doctor Who’s new “midseason break,” and from now on the break is going to feel like it takes forever. In news, News of the World is announced to be no more. On a spiritually related note, the Anthony Weiner photo scandal happened. And, the day this episode airs, the final Space Shuttle mission launches.
So, to start, we’re back on thrice weekly posting for the next couple of weeks. The next three, specifically – the final two episodes of Miracle Day, which are interspersed with the back half of Season Six, will go back to twice-a-week treatment, with Doctor Who on Monday and Torchwood on Wednesday. I am also pre-emptively doing away with all sense of what a post length is for Miracle Day. I’m covering it episode-by-episode, but if an episode only has a couple hundred words to write about, well, it’ll be a short post that day.
All of this sounds rather grim, so let me also put in at the outset that I, at the time, rather liked Miracle Day. Of course, at the time I rather liked Torchwood Season Two as well, and that turned out poorly, so there’s certainly the possibility that this is all going to get very hostile and dour within a few entries, but for now, at least, my vague guess for where we’ll end up with Miracle Day is more or less redemptive. Equally, there’s no point in dodging the overall narrative here: after the stunning success of Children of Earth, Davies took Torchwood to America and promptly killed it. Miracle Day is a massive critical flop that did poorly enough that nobody really wanted to make more Torchwood after it was done.
All of which said, “The New World” is a puzzling little thing. Much of why this is true is down to the circumstances of its production. Following the end of their time running Doctor Who, Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner were basically sent to the US with the intention being that they’d generate some high-profile American co-productions, starting with the fourth season of Torchwood. Whatever high hopes they started with ultimately faltered a bit – Gardner has managed to get a production career going on a number of b-list shows like Da Vinci’s Demons, but Davies ultimately left the US after Miracle Day, albeit for reasons entirely unrelated to that show’s success or failure. (His partner had brain cancer, and he returned to the UK to spend time with him and care for him, abandoning the show he was developing for Showtime in the process.)
No small part of this was down to the choice of US co-producers, namely Starz. This may require a bit of explanation for those in the UK. There are in essence three tiers of American television. The most basic tier is broadcast television – a handful of channels that can be received for free, over the air, with an appropriate antenna. These channels are nominally local, but are in practice almost all affiliated with national networks (NBC, CBS, etc) who set their daytime and primetime coverage. These channels are where shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Heroes, and The X-Files come from, to pick three that we’ve talked about over the years.
Atop that is basic cable – channels that require a subscription to a service. There are a couple dozen channels on the “basic” platform – CNN, Comedy Central, and SyFy are all examples, providing shows like The Daily Show, Battlestar Galactica, and, for its first four seasons, American rebroadcasts of Doctor Who. Cable is named for the way it gets to your house, namely through wires running up alongside electricity and phone service. (In contrast, the UK prefers satellite dishes, which Americans also have, but the category of channel delivered through these means are broadly called cable because that was what was initially more prominent.)
And then there’s extended cable – the hundreds of small channels you get with a more expensive subscription like BBC America. These include a handful of channels that one must pay specifically for. The most famous of these is HBO, which combines semi-recent movies shown commercial free with a smattering of original programming that’s usually quite expensive and well-made. Behind them, but also prominent, are Showtime and Cinemax. And then, bringing up the rear, is Starz.
The number of households that get Starz is, in other words, not huge. In terms of raw audience, moving from BBC America to Starz is in most regards a step down, especially given that prior to its move Torchwood had decent distribution on Netflix. That’s not to say that Starz made a bad call in acquiring Torchwood. But it’s important to be clear on what the merits of Torchwood could reasonably be expected to be. The logic underlying the subscription channels is not so much the attraction of a large number of viewers, but an increase in subscribers. HBO doesn’t spend an obscene amount of money every year to make Game of Thrones because tons of people watch it (though it does get very good figures), but because a significant number of people will pay $15 a month just to get access to Game of Thrones. So the appeal of Torchwood is that it’s a show with a reasonably large number of built-in fans who might credibly pay a premium to see it.
Which means that the one thing “The New World” really didn’t need to spend a ton of time doing was reintroducing the premise of Torchwood with a new POV character. And yet, with Mekhi Phifer’s character, that’s ultimately what we get – a story that’s about some bog standard American television characters (the hotheaded but brilliant agent and his overly patient and meek female assistant) finding out that something called Torchwood exists, and that it seemingly consists of an extravagantly violent Welsh woman and a kind of camp guy in a nice jacket.
This was seized upon, in the early reaction to the show, as a reason to make a variety of complaints about the show being “Americanized.” And there is some logic to that, most notably in the basic fact that Mekhi Phifer is more or less the statistical average of American television actors, and Rex Matheson doubly so. In many ways, in fact, at first glance Miracle Day appears to be not so much an Americanized version of Torchwood as a sort of ultra-American show – more American, in many ways, than American television itself.
But equally, this isn’t actually motivated by an effort to make Torchwood accessible to Americans – something we’ll see over the rest of the season. Rather, the Americanness of Miracle Day, at least at the outset, seems like part of the point. Certainly that seems to be what’s going on with Oswald Danes, who is, from the very start, visibly a sort of cracked mirror representation of American culture. It feels wrong and jarring, but then again, it’s very pointedly a British person painting a broad and exaggerated portion of America – an image of what the country looks like from the outside. There’s an argument, and a sane one, that this image plays poorly in the United States itself. There’s another that says this doesn’t matter, and that the practice of showing America from another perspective is worthwhile. There’s a third perspective that says that this entire discussion is irrelevant as long as Bill Pullman is busy deciding that he was mostly hired to eat the scenery.
And, of course, there’s a fourth perspective, and in many ways the one that was most damning to the show in the long term, which is that the British public didn’t much care about a crassly Americanized remake of Torchwood in the same way that they had cared about Children of Earth. Ultimately, whichever reading of “The New World” you take – Americanized to appeal to a new audience or Americanized to show an outsider’s perspective to the country – neither of them are great arguments for airing the show on BBC One, especially given that it’s not even first transmission and the UK is thus getting the delayed feed of their own damn show.
But in any case, the result of all of this is a very odd first episode where the only real sense of a statement of “this is what Torchwood does now that it’s an American co-production” is to very loudly shout “we can afford a helicopter chase!” Regardless of what Miracle Day eventually finds to say – and at this point the general hints that it’s going to explore its premise in an old school “science fiction as a place to explore the consequences of ideas” way, albeit with a premise that is still firmly in the realm of magical realism more than it is in the realm of any sort of “hard SF” approach – this is a very strange way to start proceedings.