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TELEVISION REVIEW

With death no longer possible, life is no longer a miracle

From left: John Barrowman, Mekhi Phifer, and Eve Myles in “Torchwood: Miracle Day.’’ From left: John Barrowman, Mekhi Phifer, and Eve Myles in “Torchwood: Miracle Day.’’ (Starz)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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The premise of the sci-fi series “Torchwood: Miracle Day’’ is dazzling. The idea is that all human beings have suddenly stopped dying. We are now immortal.

For a moment, it feels like good news. We spend so much of our time, money, brainpower, and emotional energy trying to fight disease, to spend more hours on Earth. And yet this fundamental shift on an otherwise ordinary day - the media has labeled it “Miracle Day’’ - is actually a catastrophe. When you take our hunger for survival to its farthest-out extreme, you get a world in the throes of disaster. You get “Be careful what you wish for’’ on a major level.

“Torchwood: Miracle Day,’’ which premieres tonight at 10 on Starz, beautifully explores all the big and little consequences of the death of dying. Among them: Those who should have died from accidents and natural causes continue to linger like zombies, leaving us in an even larger health care mess. Those sentenced to death, including a man named Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman) who raped and murdered a 12-year-old girl, survive lethal injection and, through legal wrangling, live free. Suicide is no longer possible, and neither is attempted murder. Overpopulation, however, is very possible, now that 300,000 people aren’t dying each day.

And our spiritual orientations and humanistic motivations are thrown into flux, when the likes of reincarnation and the afterlife have been taken off the table. People who’ve dubbed themselves “The Soulless’’ walk the streets wearing grim masks. Without death, poetry is lost.

This is a case for Torchwood, but don’t worry if you don’t know what Torchwood is. By the end of the first episode, you’ll know all that you need to know. “Torchwood’’ originated in Britain in 2006, as a BBC spinoff of “Doctor Who’’ from that show’s executive producer, Russell T. Davies; this season, the series is being coproduced by Starz, and so the action has moved to the United States and the cast now includes a number of Americans. Tonight, as the mystified American characters learn about Torchwood, a secret organization that has been investigating alien events and other strange occurrences since 1879, so do new viewers.

Torchwood leader Captain Jack Harkness, played with elegance and ultra white teeth by John Barrowman, is back, and it’s personal for him since, in a reversal, the miracle has robbed him of his immortality. After a one-night stand with a man, Jack finally learns the wonders of a hangover. Also back: former cop Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles). They reluctantly reunite to look into the miracle, after American CIA agent Rex Matheson (Mekhi Phifer) has dragged them across the pond to help. Rex was in a fatal accident, and his chest is still bleeding. If he succeeds in solving the immortality problem with Gwen and Jack, he’ll probably die, while Harkness will probably live on.

The story line is expertly structured, especially after the first hour’s exposition, as potential explanations emerge and the pieces begin to fit together. And the writers maintain an all-important sense of humor, not just with the one-liners among the team members but with shrewd social satire. A YouTube video of Danes’s failed lethal injection goes viral, for instance, and he becomes a guru. Meanwhile, Lauren Ambrose is a burst of cynical energy as a pharmaceutical PR rep. In immortality, alas, she sees endless possibilities.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

TORCHWOOD: Miracle Day

Starring: John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Kai Owen, Mekhi Phifer, Wayne Knight, Alexa Havins, Bill Pullman

On: Starz

Time: Tonight, 10-11