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Torchwood: season one (2006)
Creator: Russell T. Davies
review by Duncan Lawie
Spoiler Alert!I knew that we couldn't believe the hype, but still I hoped. It was going to be The X-Files crossed with This Life, they said. I guess they meant spooks and sex and swearing. We certainly got that, but we could have got so much more.
Torchwood, season one, opens with Everything Changes, a classic outsider-investigates introduction, where Gwen, the honest copper, follows her professional instinct into very deep water. She discovers a secret group who are playing with alien artefacts they don't understand. Captain Jack Harkness, in his fabulous flyboy trench-coat, decides that his team needs more contact with normality and lets her join; particularly as there is a vacancy once Suzie shoots him and kills herself. Gwen is delivered special knowledge here, when Captain Jack recovers from the headshot as if it was a headache. Strangely, none of his team seems to know.
Of course, his team is such a self-centred bunch of misfits that it isn't surprising they've failed to learn their leader is immortal. None of them notice the butler is keeping a comatose cyber-person in the basement, until she starts wreaking havoc (in Cyberwoman), and someone supposedly familiar with alien artefacts doesn't spot what she is playing with when someone distracts her with affection (Greeks Bearing Gifts).
Whilst each of the Torchwood Cardiff team get their own starring episodes, three of them are supporting cast. Tosh is the team geek. She happens to be of Japanese origin, which is a clever way of getting someone non-white into the team without having to make her the avatar of any of Britain's largest minorities. Nevertheless, she has clearly been reading the book of geek rules - secret crush on a team member; desperate for affection; retreats into techno-babble as way of empowering herself. Owen, the subject of this crush, is a more flexible character, bitter and sarcastic although we need to believe that there is a nice guy hiding under this exterior. His official skill is medical. Ianto, the butler, actually sounds Welsh. He's the guy who gets things done, from making the coffees to warming Jack's bed.
Captain Jack is team leader and a man of mystery. He's also the show's main connection to Doctor Who, from which Torchwood is a spin-off. In Doctor Who, he was dangerously close to an adult intervention into 'family entertainment'. He was a yank with guns, a knowing time traveller, a spy (or maybe just a freelancer) and a competitor for Rose's affections (or even, dare we say it, the Doctor's). Captain Jack was a big enough character to pin a spin-off on; something the BBC hadn't tried since Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 teamed up to tackle witches in 1981. Back then, 'gothic' seemed like a valid direction for a spin-off, as the main programme was heading far from Earth and away from the style of the mid-Tom Baker period.
K-9 And Friends was, of course, aimed firmly at the same young viewers as Who. Torchwood wanted to be different. Every time the media mentioned the connection between Who and Torchwood there was a but: "but this is an adult programme"; "but this won't be suitable for younger viewers"; "but this is on after the watershed" (the ancient British principle that 'adult content' in television should only occur after nine pm). All this sounded like we were going to see Captain Jack with the shackles off - possibly even with his kit off. Every girl and boy in the land with a crush on Jack couldn't wait. Unfortunately, he turned out be our big brother instead. In a team of misfits, his role was to be the steadying hand. He offers smiles and advice and an arm around the shoulder - and Gwen hops into bed with someone else.
Gwen-the-copper is the principal viewpoint character as the series opens. Jack tasks her with normalising her colleagues, but she isn't up to it, because she cannot maintain her normality - the average sort of flat with the average sort of boyfriend - in the face of her discovery that the world is not what she thought it was. This breakdown in Gwen's relationship with the world is a key arc of this first season. Her new job gives her access to power, but it also generates secrets. These are secrets that she can only share with the Torchwood team, and they drive a wedge between her and her boyfriend, not least because she can pretend to be 'on the job' whilst screwing Owen. This adds to the secrets the team members are keeping from each other and brings further division into Torchwood, making Tosh (and maybe Jack) jealous.
So far, so This Life - what about the X-Files component of the show? Cardiff is a hotspot for strangeness, due to the Rift 'underneath' the city, and Torchwood's job is to deal with it. This is a great device for generating a plot every week, even when the actual technique used by the writers seems to have been to get the 'Great Big Book of Weird' and flip it open at random pages. Although this follows the X-Files blueprint, entries such as 'fairies' (Small Worlds) and 'cannibals' (Countrycide) don't have any continuity of existence with the alien artefact story, which seems to be the series default. More frustratingly, the programme doesn't seem very interested in separating alien technology from magic. While they could employ Clarke's dictum in defence, it appears that they might not actually be familiar with the SF canon. Whilst the objects could be the embodiment of science fictionally interesting ideas, they are in fact simply tools for the relationship stories the writers want to tell, making the individual plotlines shallower than they need be.
Nevertheless, some of those stories are interesting and well told. Random Shoes takes the perspective of a one-off character to tell a coherent, consistent life story and show the intersections between his life and the Torchwood team. It's a technique that sits better in this show than when the Doctor Who team used it in Love & Monsters. This is partially because a truly new show has more room to mess about with the format but, more significantly, it gives us a protagonist whom we can like. He might be a bit of a loser, but he's still more likeable than the Torchwood team on most days of the week.
Combat is another notable episode. The previous story (Out Of Time) had, as one of its strands, Owen falling for a fly-girl who flees him. He says he loves her, but the outcome is that he hates himself even more for allowing someone to get under his skin. The result is an episode about urban angst and angry young men. Some commentators have suggested this story is a cheap rip-off of Fight Club, with men climbing into a cage with an alien instead of each other. But its focus on Owen and the reasons for his anger make it more than that - and more importantly, it does hold its place as the second of a four-story arc that closes the series. Here, at last, the series starts to develop a consistent tone - even if that tone is unpleasant.
It really is quite astonishing that the characters of the team are so unlovely and like each other so little. Perhaps Torchwood is intended as a study of extreme pressure on ordinary individuals. Torchwood Cardiff is like a terrorist cell, without apparent support or acknowledgement of any greater organisation, despite its facilities. It's quite possible that this is the only remnant left after the Cybermen destroyed Torchwood London; maybe our team is battling on against the odds, unsupported - and maybe that explains why Jack is so happy to leap into the TARDIS when the season closes.
But before that, he has to face the 'Devil from the Dawn of Time', and defeat his own team into the bargain. It's perfectly possible that the collapse of the team's personalities is the welding we need for a much larger story arc, that season one is no more than the 'first act'. If so, the fighting within the team in the last episode (End Of Days) is about as close to a catastrophic breakdown as we want to get.
It is strange that it takes so long to refine the personalities of the protagonists when other elements have been clear from before Day One. The Torchwood base has been carefully shaped; placing it under central Cardiff allows for a subtle display of Torchwood's power. The programme makers have also turned the constraint of local filming into an asset, making the capital of Wales look attractive. The city doesn't have sufficient density of tall buildings to evoke New York or Sydney, but it does have waterfront and, apparently, long vistas of sunset motorways. The camera team also anchor the action with good use of the handful of signature locations available.
Great location work isn't enough to carry a TV series, though, so why am I thinking about tuning in for the second season? It's the hope that the programme makers can take their bravery with character and theme and apply that to their attitude to SF. Maybe then they can overcome the childish impulse inherent in the pterodactyl versus cyberwoman moments; and think about bigger issues than who's screwing who...
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