Talking ‘Torchwood,’ Political Science Fiction, and Tough Mothers With Jane Espenson

Torchwood: Miracle Day premieres on Starz tonight at 10pm, asking what would happen to sex, religion, politics, and the health care system in a world where no one can die—but everyone can feel pain and continue to suffer from disease. As the action moves to the United States, I talked to veteran TV writer Jane Espenson about what it was like to come on to the famous franchise, what she’s learned about writing political science fiction from her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Battlestar Galactica, and writing a scene where the immortal Captain Jack Harkness and policewoman-turned-alien investigator Gwen Cooper lay it all on the table. I’ll have an interview with Eve Myles, the wonderful Welsh actress who plays Cooper, up in a couple of hours.

What were some of the challenges of bringing Torchwood to the U.S.? Were there things that you thought it was possible to do on Starz that weren’t possible on the BBC? Certainly, the show is somewhat more sexually explicit in a way I think that really works, but I don’t know if there were other things that airing on a different channel made possible. One thing Eve Myles mentioned when we talked to her is the way Torchwood‘s sort of found its stride when it’s able to fit long arcs into a number of episodes appropriate to it: do you think it’s worth it for other American shows to explore shorter seasons, or seasons of variable length on purpose?

I never wrote for the show when it was on the BBC, but I think the freedoms there in terms of language and sexuality are much more on a par with the rules at Starz they would be with a major US broadcast network. I think writers who had worked for the BBC writing Torchwood would have probably felt pretty constrained by some of the network restrictions. Being limited to only the mildest of epithets and making everyone keep all their clothes on—that’s no way to tell a tense and sexy thriller! And yes, I love the idea of developing stories with an eye toward the number of episodes that fit the story. It’s not often that something is both obvious and revolutionary, but that is. Yes, it would be fantastic if that became something that was implemented here.

How did you settle on the health care plot arc? How do you think it’ll resonate in the U.S. and the U.K., which are in very different stages on the road to universal health care?

Russell had the story seed already planted in his brain when I was brought on board, and he’d already thought through a lot of the implications. Then, as a group, we discussed it all at even greater length. Then we brought in a doctor and discussed it all again, and every time it just felt better and deeper and more important. I think it will resonate with US audiences in particular since the warring opinions on health care are so remarkably far apart. I’m less familiar with the UK system, but I knew that Russell obviously had an instinct for what would resonate there.

Speaking of health care, Miracle Day is an exceptionally political program in the way it takes on everything from safe sex to the death penalty. What have you learned from other shows you’ve worked on, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Battlestar Galactica, about balancing political themes and human drama? And the extent to which human drama is political?

I’ve learned that the human drama has to be there. If you write a political theme so that it makes you laugh or cry, then you’ve got something—a story with real implications for the world that people are actually going to care about and remember. So it’s not really a matter of “balancing them” against each other, but making them be the same thing. I think that’s what you’re getting at with your last question about human drama being political. I would’ve said it the other way around, that politics is really human drama, but maybe that’s the same thing?

I loved seeing Gwen in ferocious, protective mother mode-were there any influences you looked to as you thought about transitioning this character into the next phase of her life? I’d be curious what you think of The Killing, another show with a mother who is perhaps more committed to her work than to her child.

I didn’t see The Killing, but I love hearing that was a theme in it, since I think it’s an interesting topic. I totally understand what it is to try to balance parts of your life so that you manage to feel guilty all the time—no matter what you’re doing, you know some part of your life is going untended. It’s funny though, I never thought of it as a new phase for Gwen other than in the details. She already suspected that she had a sort of unhealthy attachment to Jack and Torchwood, and a guilt over the price she was paying. This is the same thing, just with the heat turned way up.

What was it like coming in as a writer and taking on Jack and Gwen’s relationship? In a pop culture environment where the assumption is that men and women can’t be friends because they secretly always want to sleep with each other, is balancing the friendship and camaraderie between the two of them a challenges? How do you think they differ from the standard will-they-or-won’t-they pair? Eve’s hinted that those two characters “lay it all on the table” this season, so I’m excited to see what you have planned!

It was THRILLING! I love them both so much—writing these two characters is what made me go all giddy at the prospect of writing for the show. Getting to write for them was really a dream come true. Balancing the friendship and camaraderie was a challenge just because Russell writes their relationship so well, and I felt I had to rise to that level, but not because there was anything tricky about keeping them from crossing any kind of line with each other. I felt I understood the depths of their feelings for each other—what their relationship is and what it isn’t. I guess… it’s like… relationships have flames inside them and sometimes they may flare up, and sometimes they may burn steady and warm, and sometimes both people get burned, and it’s all so much more complicated than will-they-or-won’t-they. To continue to throw metaphors into the pot: that’s just one axis in a relationship, and theirs has about five other axes running through it. And when they do lay it all on the table, in an episode I was fortunate enough to write, it’s about all of that stuff. Love and trust and home and guilt and life and all their opposites. Anyone who goes in hoping for a simple definition of what they are to each other, is going to get a lot more than that. I hope people feel that it rings true. It certainly did to me. When characters have been developed and acted this well, writing doesn’t feel like inventing, but like digging and I hope I dug well. And I hope you dig it, too.