Torchwood: Miracle Day – Russell T Davies Interview
In this online exclusive, the Torchwood creator spills the beans on the new series SPOILERS
Torchwood returns to our screens in July with Miracle Day, a ten-part co-production with US network Starz, which explores what happens when suddenly, one day, people stop dying… Back in February, while the production team were shooting scenes for episode one in Cardiff Bay, we caught up with showrunner Russell T Davies. You can read some choice cuts from that interview in SFX 210 (on sale now), but here’s what else he had to say.
SFX: The basic concept of Miracle Day – the end of death – is massive. It changes religion, economics… You could run with that in a hundred different directions!
“You’re right, and we sat in a room for a long time all talking about those consequences.”
SFX: No death means no consequences, so I could imagine a three-minute-warning scenario where everyone’s looting and having sex in the streets!
“Well, in episode three there’s a great scene where Gwen and [CIA analyst] Esther walk through Washington at night, and it’s kind of a wild atmosphere, because half of the world is out drinking and the other half are at home praying, so we are acknowledging that sort of stuff. But at the same time, I think you should never forget that during the greatest national crises people just go to work, and go home, and get on with it. If this really happened, you and I would just carry on as normal. If something conceptual and huge has happened, nonetheless, you’ve got a deadline tomorrow, and I need to go to work and write a script tomorrow, and if our granddad is ill in bed, he’s still ill. So it’s a very unusual concept, in that it’s hard to dramatise in many ways. That’s why I like it. It’s a very powerful concept, because it takes hold subtly, and you have to find ways to dramatise it, because it’s not immediately obvious. The overpopulation isn’t obvious – it’s not like an extra 200 million people land on Earth today. So it’s unusual in that sense, and it’s been fun to dramatise and really challenging. And we’re still telling a great big rattling thriller, so you find ways to dramatise that.”
SFX: Are there similarities with Children Of Earth in terms of looking at how quickly “civilised” society can take a turn for the worse?
“Well I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we think we’re so far away from Romania, or Rwanda, or Kosovo… and we’re not! We don’t have better instincts than Rwandans do. It’s fascinating how paper-thin it is. We were getting at that with Children Of Earth – we showed it there. That purposely ended with children being taken from homes to be killed, which you see happening in Rwanda and think, ‘It’s a million miles away’, but it’s not, it’s next door. So that’s continuing into this, because I loved that.
“Y’know, you sit in every drama launch where they’re going, ‘What this show is really about is what it is to be human!’ [laughs] What the f**k’s that?! I don’t even know what that question means, but I do think you can look at how society works, and how we are responsible for each other, and what responsibilities you have for yourself, against your family, against your friends – it’s fascinating.”
SFX: How long is the mystery about what’s caused it all sustained?
“It’s not one of those things that’ll annoy you! Round about episode six you start to get concrete answers, and episodes nine and ten finally explain it all properly. But all the way through Jack’s kinda ahead of the game in working out what’s going on. It’s a mystery, but in a way it’s not that mysterious. Obviously something’s happened to the world, but the most fascinating thing about what happens in terms of science fiction plotting is that it happens instantaneously. It’s not a virus, it hasn’t spread, it didn’t take a day for it to travel from the North pole to the South pole; it’s literally a flick of the switch and it’s happened. To Jack, that instantly suggests what has happened, and that takes a few episodes to evolve. It’s more about explaining what has happened to society while this has happened, that’s the real meat of the story. But it is explained in the end, and finding it out… this story goes back in history as well. We’ve got episodes that go back to 1927, so it’s a broad story covering continents and covering time as well; it’s one of those stories with a plot that’s been planned for decades, so there’s a lot of expanse and muscle in the story. The 1927 stuff is beautiful. I’m giving away too much!”
SFX: In terms of the story, how much takes place in America and how much is in Wales?
“Oh, it’s about 95% America… well, 90%. We’ve got three weeks here and we’re shooting scenes from nine episodes – I think episode seven is the one that doesn’t have any Welsh material at all.”
SFX: Could you ever do this show without it having one foot in Wales?
“I would never want to. Whether I do any more Torchwoods I don’t know, because I think I’ve saved the world often enough – I’ve done it enough now. But it’s a BBC Wales production as well, it’s part of its DNA, so yes, I would think if there was a new series you’d start with something being dug up here, something mysterious… those are the building blocks, it would always work.
“And it’s great. You see scenes of Mekhi [Phifer] walking into the Gower, and it really has a size to it, y’know? We take this American CIA character and put him in that landscape and it’s really good. You’ve seen CIA agents in Buenos Aires and Rio, you’ve seen that a million times, you expect them to be in those settings, and then to play Wales as one of those places is really powerful – it just works.”
SFX: Tell us how the paedophile/child killer character, Oswald Danes, fits into it. I gather he gets out of jail after his execution fails.
“Well, his argument is that his execution didn’t fail, and there’s no legal precedent for this. You don’t release someone because the rope snapped – that’s not true. His argument is that it was carried out, to the best of everyone’s possibility, and that the fact that death has ceased to exist has absolutely nothing to do with anything – or the legal system – so he gets out on a technicality. And then the only way he’s ever gonna get a police guard, or a motel room, or any sort of food without being stoned in the streets is to ride this media wave and survive it. And at the same time, Torchwood is looking for anyone who may or may not be connected to this problem.
“At the same time there’s a very important subtext, which is that here is a child killer saying that he’s been forgiven. Jack killed his own grandchild and has never forgiven himself, and would never believe Oswald’s lies for a second. So there’s a fantastic collision between these two men being terrible opposites, with a very bizarre common ground between them. It’s fascinating territory that – really difficult.”
SFX: Some people take umbrage at the idea of having a paedophile character in Torchwood, because of its connections to Doctor Who.
“Well, of course you would never put a character like that in Doctor Who, but equally if there was a child watching… they understand different genres, they understand the watershed, they understand different types of drama brilliantly. These are the people we feed a diet of cartoons. If you can understand a cartoon you can understand anything! The cartoon’s one of the most sophisticated forms of storytelling in existence, and it’s bread and butter to kids, it’s what we feed them straight away – it’s the weirdest thing! So they’re fine, there’s no problem about it.”
SFX: How did you manage to get Bill Pullman for that role? Do you have negatives of him in compromising positions?
“I’m not kidding, Americans genuinely rolled their eyes! He was free and available so we said, ‘Shall we try Bill Pullman?’ and these Americans said, ‘You’ll be lucky!’, and the next day he said yes – he just read it and liked it. And he’s such a laugh, he’s such a nice man.”
SFX: And he’s teamed up with Lauren Ambrose’s character, Jilly Kitzinger…
“She plays the real villain of the piece, actually – she’s the PR woman. In this world of heightened sensation, with paedophiles being forgiven live on television, the PR person becomes one of the most important people in it, able to manipulate this world more than anyone else. Her rise to power is one of the most fascinating stories we’ve ever told, it’s an utterly fantastic story. She’s twinned with Oswald, and they have many episodes where they have no contact whatsoever with the Torchwood team, but you’re always telling their stories in parallel, because it’s all heading for a great big climax with Oswald, Jilly and the Torchwood team, in extraordinary circumstances.”
SFX: People tend to be a bit nervous about international co-productions. How do you avoid creating something that feels not quite one thing or the other?
“To be honest, I just didn’t worry about it. It’s been my job to keep the integrity of that, but when we see Eve Myles walking through Washington, being herself, it feels absolutely natural – that’s the funny thing. You put her with Alexa [Havins], who is as blonde and American as can be, and they simply feel like two characters in a drama walking along together, it has never felt odd. And I did wonder about that. I thought, ‘Is it gonna look strange when the rushes come in, is it gonna be like this weird combination?’
“But it’s not apologising anywhere. It’s a really heartfelt, big drama that never shrinks. I think you get that sort of bad, Europudding feel when you’re a bit shy about it, or even when you pretend this isn’t happening – you know, when you get those bad dramas where a German walks in, and a Swiss person walks in, and a Scotsman walks in, and everyone pretends that’s really normal that they’re all working together. No, that’s rubbish – it’s really odd.”
SFX: So is there a culture clash? Do the American characters and the Welsh rub each other up the wrong way?
“They do, and there’s some obvious gags, and some obvious cultural differences, but mainly it comes down to the story – I think that’s where we’ve got it right. Of course, Rex is rubbing Gwen up the wrong way. He’s a great big, strong, arrogant man; she’s a proud, feisty woman, they would argue anyway. But the fact is he’s arrested her, exercised a rendition to take her to America, and separated her from her baby, so they’re not gonna get on anyway! Nonetheless, they’re on the same side. The coming together of the team takes a few episodes. It takes until the end of episode three for them to actually feel like a team but they do because they’re very quickly all on the run together, so it’s natural.
“There’s only so much, ‘You say tomato, and I say tomato’ dialogue you can do – those jokes kinda wear thin. We started out full of intentions to make all these funny lines about how different the countries are, but once you’ve got a great big story underway it’s kind of… y’know, it’s a Welsh person and an American, they’re fine – there’s not that much of a difference. We don’t do those jokes about ‘I’ve never heard of Wales’, stuff like that, because that’s just cheap shots.
“So actually the story does that. They rub each other up the wrong way and then becomes friends – and Esther’s a very healing force, she comes in and makes everything alright between them, because she’s much cleverer, and much more able to empathise with people. It’s just a natural story. It would happen this way if Rex came from Manchester – he’d get on Gwen’s nerves, he’d rub up against Captain Jack, but they’d end up being friends. So it’s absolutely no different in that sense.”
SFX: Does taking these familiar British characters and putting them in a different environment show you different sides of them?
“Not madly, to be honest, because that’s all in the middle of a thriller. Also, they’re in America. Throw them into the middle of China in episode one and genuinely, culturally, you’d be out of your depth, not knowing left from right… but they’re in America. I could bore you to tears with a million cultural differences between Britain and America but actually they’d kinda look like arses if they couldn’t cope in America! There’s a lot of bad dialogue I’m really glad we haven’t chosen to do – there’s some funny lines from Gwen about it in episode three, but not for long. You can’t talk about 1% milk for that long before it runs out of steam, y’know?
“Extraordinarily, they don’t say ‘skinny’ over there for a low-fat coffee. Didn’t you think that’s American? They don’t know what the f**k you’re on about! If you say ‘skinny’ they go, ‘What?’ Isn’t that weird? I thought that was American, turns out it’s British. You could fill a script with stuff like this, but who cares?”
SFX: Torchwood’s been written with an American-style writers’ room for the first time, and you’ve some great genre names in there, people with experience on the likes of Buffy and The X-Files.
“Oh I know, and that’s part of what I went [to LA] to do, to meet people like that and work with people and talk to them.”
SFX: You’re a fan of those shows yourself. Do you turn into a Buffy fanboy when you meet people like Jane Espenson?
“Oh yes, I sit there and say, ‘Tell me about “Storyteller”, about how you did that. Tell me about why you killed Tara.’ I’ve worked with her all these months now and I keep thinking of new questions! I sat there the other day and said, ‘Why did you kill Jonathan?’ That was the strangest decision! I do think the death of Jonathan on Buffy was really strange and thrown away. And we had a great dinner, and she tells you all about what was going on at the time and what it was like, and I love all that! And John Shiban, he’s directed Breaking Bad – I love that. And Doris Egan, with her stories on House, is just hilarious. I just love it all.
“When you’re here [in the UK], you think, ‘God, that woman’s the lead writer on House! That’s one of the biggest dramas in America! That’s amazing!’ But when you’re there, in America, it kinda becomes normal. Doris will come into the office and they’ve gotta do a reshoot on House because they didn’t like the scene with the goldfish or something, and it’s just normal – all that stuff that you dreamt about from afar becomes really workaday, really. It’s strange, isn’t it? One day you’ll be sitting there interviewing Henry Cavill on the set of Superman or something, and it’ll all be quite normal – it’ll be all about the cup of tea you’ve got, working late, what your deadline is… everything normalises when it’s actually your life.”
SFX: Do you find yourself thinking, “Ah, Jane’s the writer who does that kind of thing” and, “I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own”?
“To an extent. Don’t forget, I started out working in soap operas, so I’m kind of used to it. Everyone in Britain says, ‘We should use the American system! We should use the writers’ room!’ when the highest-rated dramas in Britain are run with a writers’ room, but no-one ever pays them any attention because they’re soaps. So of course it happens here – it’s happened for 50 years at Granada television. But in any office – it must be the same in the SFX office, or at the DVLA in Swansea – anyone in any room falls into certain roles. So you do. Doris will always be quite tangential and come in at an unexpected angle. Jane is an absolutely brilliant voice of common sense. I will know when I’ve gone too far – one little look at Jane sort of says, ‘Right, stop it now!’ She’ll go with the greatest flights of imagination, but she’s absolutely brilliant at just saying, ‘You’ve gone too far’. John is very steeped in mythology. He’s a series consultant on The Vampire Diaries now, and he just knows his stuff: he knows how to introduce an enemy, he knows how to bring in an assassin, he knows the mechanics and he knows how to enjoy that stuff so well. Then completely in the middle of all this you’ve got John Fay sitting there, this Liverpudlian who spent 10 years writing the best Coronation Streets of all, who comes in on a completely domestic level – and I don’t mean that as an insult. He sits there and says, ‘Well, Gwen wouldn’t do that, and Rex wouldn’t do that, and Esther wouldn’t do that, and why don’t they do X, Y and Z?’ to an extent that’ll drive you mad sometimes, but you sit there thinking, ‘He’s right!’ I’ll go off on a flight of fancy, and you need those people sitting in a room going, ‘He wouldn’t do that.’
“But basically they do what I say. Or they’re sacked!”