When Jane Espenson was first approached about joining the writing staff of Torchwood, the veteran television writer whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica had just one thought: "It's going to be hard to get stakes higher than aliens wanting to gobble up the children of Earth."
Fortunately for fans waiting to see how immortal alien hunter Captain Jack Harkness would return after suffering the devastating losses he did in 2009's Torchwood: Children of Earth, series creator Russell T. Davies had just the ante-upping answer. For the U.K. hit's fourth season, (premiering Friday at 10/9c on Starz), he'd move the action from Cardiff, Wales across the pond (and into the bigger-budget land of pay cable), transform actor Bill Pullman into a worldly "monster," and hit Jack with a head-spinning reality in which everyone is cursed with living forever — except, suddenly, him.
Watch the trailer for Torchwood: Miracle Day
"Immortality sounds fantastic for about a second," says John Barrowman, who has played the unsinkable Jack since the sci-fi show's 2006 launch on BBC Three. "Then everyone begins to realize what it means for humanity, for the population. The ethical questions come up. For some, it's a real disaster. You get in a car accident? You're mangled? You're still alive when you should be dead."
"When I first heard about this," says Eve Myles, who plays Torchwood's only other remaining member, Gwen Cooper, "I was seven, nearly eight months pregnant, and my waters nearly went. I nearly had the baby when I found out the plot."
The Torchwood faithful will be comforted to know the 10-episode fourth season, Torchwood: Miracle Day, is not a reboot for U.S. audiences. (New cast member Mekhi Phifer prefers "Torchwood on steroids.") Instead, the story picks up several months after a tormented Jack left the planet, leaving behind a pregnant Gwen and her husband Rhys (Kai Owen). Jack is compelled back when, simultaneously, people stop dying and Gwen, now a mom in hiding, comes under attack. It so happens she's aching to get back into world-saving mode. "She is, literally, baby in left arm, magnum in the right," Myles says. "Her big challenge this year is juggling Torchwood and being a mum."
For the unfamiliar, Torchwood began its life as a more ballsy monster-of-the-week spin-off of Doctor Who following a covert agency defending the world from alien danger; all but two of the Torchwood's team members have been killed, and the group's leader, Jack, has demonstrated a voracious (if little-seen), omnisexual (men, women, alien) appetite. Davies decided to make the show's third season a taut, five-hour thriller about a single case: an otherworldly threat to the Earth's children. Two years later, Miracle Day follows the same model — though it consists of 10 hours — and the threat is eternal life.
Torchwood: Miracle Day: What happens if everyone is immortal?
"It's one of those ideas that's been ticking away in the back of my mind for many years," Davies says. "It could have been a Doctor Who episode [the show he revived in 2005], but I thought it was better as an interesting way to present Torchwood to both new and old viewers. Jack's immortality is fascinating, but it could be hard to introduce to a new audience. You don't want to roll back four years and say he's immortal because he was exterminated by the Daleks in a completely different series! We came to pole vault over that problem by giving it to the entire world. I wish I could tell you it was planned. It was pure accident."
The U.S.-set season was originally headed to Fox, but when the network passed, Starz stepped up, having seen success with the original series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Barrowman says the new Torchwood takes full advantage of its pay cable home. "It's not watered down," he says. "In fact, being on Starz, it's edgier. We're doing more of... how can I talk about it in a vague way? You know, more kissy-poo, kissy-poo."
Barrowman explains. Jack's sudden mortality — a reverse effect of Miracle Day — presents a conundrum that brings out "a much darker side to Jack at times, a confused side." At the same time, his newfound vulnerability also gives the sometimes morally ambiguous time-traveler a jolt of adrenaline, and he quickly expends it in bed with a stranger.
To that end, Starz says viewers can count on the same quality and tone in Torchwood's fourth season coupled with more expensive explosions and action sequences and, yes, racier sex. "The only thing [BBC Worldwide Productions executive Jane Tranter] was concerned about was: How gay can we make it?" says Carmi Zlotnik, managing director of Starz Media. "I said, 'I don't care, make it as gay as you want to.' That wasn't a worry for me. I think it's all about the characters. We didn't tell them to do less, we didn't tell them to do more. We said, 'Write what you think.' And it's certainly less sexuality than we've had in Spartacus or Camelot. We have no quota."
Says Davies: What viewers will see is "utterly uncompromised."
Check out photos from Torchwood: Miracle Day
There will be other changes, as well. The new season brings new players into the Torchwood fold, including CIA operatives Rex Matheson (Phifer), who gets ensnared in the miracle day mystery in a rather gruesome way, and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins), who serves as something of an entry point for new viewers as she begins investigating the covert organization.
Then there's the Oswald Danes, who Myles describes as "the worst type of monster, the biggest Torchwood has ever had." As played by Pullman, Oswald is a confessed, slack-jawed murderer-pedophile whose life is spared when the miracle prevents his death by lethal injection from taking effect. Soon after, he becomes something of a television messiah with dubious intentions.
"There is something about what it is to be given your life back that allows you to speak about the preciousness of it. No matter what you feel about Oswald, there' a truth to that," Pullman says. "It's easy to say he's the bad guy, but it's really not quite the depiction of evil that is just watching him get blacker and blacker and blacker. He's actually someone who starts black and then has this opportunity to transform himself. Then it becomes a question of is he or isn't he able to shed his old skin?" Making her way into his sudden fame is sweet-talking PR maven Jilly Kitzinger (Lauren Ambrose), whose Miracle Day agenda is equally suspect.
Pullman hadn't seen Torchwood before signing on, and said he was convinced by the strength of the ideas put forth in Davies' initial script alone. "I think that there is some real interesting philosophical thought about why mortality is important," he said. "It goes to the core of whether we're living our conscious lives as wholly as we should or not. This show doesn't ever lose sight of the fact that we're talking about something kind of important. As much as the show is really fun — and the last thing Russell would want me to say that it's more important than it is fun, because he loves fun — but it's also great that he has this other thing in play."
Exclusive video: Rex Matheson finds Miracle Day a pain
Things didn't get so philosophical on set either: Back in April, while filming a very grave, very pivotal moment in a gaudy Chatsworth, Calif. Mansion — one in which someone will die — Barrowman had trouble not laughing his way through it. "He's dead!" the actor shouted emphatically after several takes before ad-libbing, "Don'cha get it?" and breaking into a jig. Moments later, he tried again, pretending to do CPR on the body of the dead character before realizing he was actually asleep, "And the Emmy for best sleep acting goes to... the guy in the bed!" Minutes later, Barrowman stopped production for several minutes when he came down with uncontrollable giggles.
Apparently, such behavior is pretty typical. "He's the naughtiest actor I've ever worked with, and I wouldn't have it any other way." Davies said.
Espenson says that balance of real fun and real stakes is what makes Torchwood unique. "It has that same thing I adored about Buffy, the light-heartedness, that sense that sci-fi doesn't have to mean the turgid space opera sort of thing, which everyone thinks sci-fi is even though it almost never is that," she says. "Sci-fi doesn't have to be grim. There's humor in Torchwood even though the stakes are sky-high. It's takes risks and tries different things, like the episode set in WWII where Jack meets the other Jack — what other show is doing that? Daring, romantic, tragic, epic... the first three seasons were extraordinary and different and so not American. It was so its own thing and such an eye-opener for an American viewer. Like, oh, here's a different kind of hero."
Torchwood: Miracle Day premieres Friday at 10/9c on Starz.