Following the splendid “Torchwood” miniseries “Children of Earth,” stepping up to share the next chapter with the BBC represents an enormously shrewd move for Starz, bringing the pay net built-in cult appeal. That this latest sci-fi tale — a 10-parter subtitled “Miracle Day” — doesn’t fully measure up to its predecessor does little to diminish its offbeat charm, with a small army of loyalists likely to shout “Hallelujah!” at the mere glimpse of its intrepid leads. For a network establishing its street cred, having a hot Comic-Con commodity is all upside, even without stretching beyond the program’s existing universe.
For those unfamiliar with “Torchwood,” it’s probably too late to join. Yet this project spun out of “Doctor Who” (an anagram of that title) has taken on a life very much its own, focusing on the immortal, free-wheeling and bi- (if not omni-) sexual Capt. Jack Harkness, who for the last 120 years or so has served the United Kingdom by thwarting extraterrestrial threats. Capt. Jack is prone to losing his comrades; the surviving member of the Torchwood team is Gwen (Eve Myles), whose hopes of leading a quiet existence with her husband (Rhys Williams) and new baby are quickly (and for fans, happily) shattered.
Series creator Russell T. Davies is a kind of genius when it comes to spinning big sci-fi ideas, and “Miracle Day” is a doozy: At a certain moment all across the globe, people stop dying. While that might sound wonderful, it quickly begins to trigger a humanitarian and ecological crisis, as well as a mystery regarding who or what might be responsible.
Enter Capt. Jack (as always, played with swashbuckling gusto by John Barrowman), whose own immortality seems compromised even as everyone else stops dying. Among those joining him in seeking to decipher what’s happening are two American CIA agents (Mekhi Phifer, Alexa Havins) and a skeptical doctor (Arlene Tur), while a parallel plot focuses on a child killer (Bill Pullman) spared execution by this bizarre turn of affairs.
Big, brainy and bawdy — all elements we’ve come to expect from Davies, who also created “Queer as Folk” — “Miracle Day” isn’t completely effective in integrating the new players into the “Torchwood” mythos. Perhaps not surprisingly, the best moments involve Gwen and Jack — the former hilariously slapping earmuffs on her infant before leaping into a gun battle, the latter detouring to a gay bar in the midst of a world-threatening crisis.
“We’re going to need a new vocabulary,” one character muses, throwing out “undying” and “ever-living” as descriptions of the new order. The first three hours are filled with such playful silliness, while grappling with the enormity of a still-inexplicable threat that appears to involve “deliberate intervention” in the whole circle of life.
If not nearly as gripping, creepy or tightly constructed as the five-hour “Children of Earth,” “Torchwood’s” fourth flight nevertheless remains grand, intellectually stimulating fun — precisely the kind of smart popcorn fare Starz has stated its intention to provide.
Whatever its flaws, “Torchwood” has proven every bit as hard to kill as Capt. Jack — and that’s good news indeed.