Saturday, March 31, 2007


Torchwood Series One

To limber up for the new series of Doctor Who, Richard’s reviewed three recent books on Millennium’s Diary. I’ve been meaning to review the first three Torchwood novels, but – with all those heavy hints that Captain Jack will be back in Doctor Who soon – I decide to think about his series first. Earlier today, I resuscitated my (even more) Who-themed blog to take a look at what makes Doctor Who special. It’s given me a few ideas about the reasons Torchwood didn’t seem as special as it should, and, to my surprise, one of them was Captain Jack…

Torchwood was the first Doctor Who spin-off to make it as a TV series, so naturally Richard and I watched it. It starred John Barrowman as the immensely shaggable Captain Jack Harkness, the time-agent-turned-conman-turned-hero who’d been so successful playing opposite Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, and he was running a branch of Torchwood, the fabulous secret alienbusters shown in the style of Dynasty in the terrific climax to last year’s season of Doctor Who. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it turns out, not quite everything, but the giveaway may be that, though we’ve bought the DVDs, they remain in their wrapping, even though I’d quite like to see the deleted scenes. I’m pretty sure I’ve only watched most of the episodes when they were first broadcast, and that’s unheard-of for something Whoish. As I’m typing, The Sarah Jane Adventures: Invasion of the Bane is being repeated on CBBC. It’s bright, colourful, witty and has a relishable villain and terrific monsters.
“They tend to go in, guns blazing. I just think there’s a better way of doing it.”
Gosh, it seems Sarah doesn’t think much of Torchwood either. I’ve watched her pilot story several times since it was originally broadcast, the same day the final episode of Torchwood went out. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it’s something entertaining I can sit back and enjoy. I’ve not rushed to pop a single episode of ‘rival’ Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood on since.

Torchwood has a leading man with real star quality, and Eve Myles’ Gwen is a great second lead. I was looking forward to it; I loved the trailers (“One man who can’t die / Four people who can”) and the music. And it was sold as “The X-Files meets This Life,” which put it right up to the minute for, er, ten years ago (perhaps they should have aimed for Spooks with googly monsters). But though it may be in the same universe as Doctor Who, it doesn’t share the same ‘worldview’. That isn’t because it’s ‘adult’. Doctor Who’s had times when it’s been aimed at all sorts of ages, and with any ‘family’ show there’ve been times when it’s fallen too heavily at one end of the range. I’ve equally enjoyed Doctor Who picture-books and Doctor Who novels that were only stocked in the children’s section until I took them to the counter and pointed out the lines that would have irate parents screaming the place down. What they shared was the Doctor. A traveller in time and space who can go to any planet in the past, present or future, who respects life rather than authority, and obeys no-one else’s rules. He takes joy in the wonders of the Universe, and would rather use his intelligence than carry a gun. Sometimes the series is dark and horrific, or light and frothy, or grim, or eccentric. It’s the perfect show to change mood if you didn’t take to the last story; you might like the next one, because it’ll literally be another world. Torchwood, on the other hand, is set in a sewer, and its depressed personnel only seem to go out in the dark, either to investigate depressingly horrible things or to have depressing sex with the people who make them depressed. But they have big guns.

I’m not sure I’d have watched this at all if it hadn’t been Whoish.

There have been some very incisive Torchwood reviews in the last few months. Richard reviewed every episode on Millennium’s Diary, and was probably a little too kindly. I’ve just re-read them all, and I can see how that happened. Reviewing each story in turn and wanting the best out of each of them, he gave each in turn the benefit of the doubt. After he finally excoriated one, he struck an apologetic tone in subsequent weeks. I remember that, after each episode, we’d talk about it (he sometimes quotes me), and we’d look for what was good about each – as if it was a weaker episode of a stronger series. It’s only in retrospect that we can see it’s more in the series than the episodes that the problem lies. James Graham, on the other hand, wrote a damning indictment of the whole lot that was probably a little too harsh. Still, it was bang to rights on a lot of points: he too thought The Sarah Jane Adventures much better; he identified the weakest link as writer / show-runner / co-producer Chris Chibnall; and he noticed that, while it was aiming to be a British Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it had foolishly modelled itself on Buffy Season Six, the one where no-one has any fun (they barely survived that mistake, and that was after building up five years of goodwill). There’s a lot of good in individual Torchwood episodes, as Richard identified. There’s a lot wrong in the structure of the series, as James recognised. But for me, the central problem was what should have been its main selling point: Captain Jack.

I suspect the producers of Torchwood had exactly the wrong idea about Captain Jack Harkness. He was created almost as a send-up of a Hollywood version of the Doctor – traveller in time and space, but a uniformed secret agent, impossibly handsome and with sex – but though he keeps the uniform, the looks and (it’s implied) the sex in Torchwood, and is now in charge of his own bunch of blatantly obvious agents, something vital’s missing. People went for Captain Jack because he looked like he was having as much fun as a human could have. It took the Doctor to make him heroic, but even before then he blazed with charm and confidence, and he absolutely loved what he did. And a lot of what he did was to have sex with anything alive, so long as it was gorgeous enough. He was the embodiment of exuberant sexual liberation. The Captain Jack we see in Torchwood might not have aged to look at, but he’s at least a hundred years older, lost, abandoned and hopeless, but bizarrely in charge and serious rather than a cheeky charmer. He’s at the heart of James’ ‘Buffy Season Six’ analogy: though he’s not been snatched out of Heaven, he’s been restored to life but life has lost its savour for him. He may do the same sort of things, but it’s just going through the motions, and even the sex is because he just wants to feel alive. In Doctor Who, the Doctor inspires people; in Torchwood, a human has been crushed by the responsibility of trying to be like the Doctor. This Captain Jack is suicidal, and even more depressed because, as he’s now indestructible, killing himself doesn’t work. Now, where’s the fun in that? And which Jack will be back in Doctor Who?

The flipside of this is that he provides the series’ themes. There are two that regularly spring out of the episodes, one about something fun that it makes gloomy, the other about something gloomy that it makes intriguing. The first? ‘Sex is bad’. It’s nasty, and shameful, and addictive, and the only reason to do it is to distract yourself from the things in life that are even more depressing. Well, gee; I knew Torchwood had been set up by Queen Victoria, but there’s no need to make it so obvious! The second theme is, thankfully, the best thing about the structure of the series. As Richard spotted in his reviews, it’s ‘the life after death show’. The start of that, clearly, is Captain Jack, returned to life and really not enjoying it (though Richard has a great theory in his first review on how coming back to life made him impossible to kill), but episode after episode looks at people or things surviving beyond death, and it tests from every angle whether there’s anything there at all. And those two themes tie into the feeling that there are two quite different series here, made for completely different audiences. One thinks ‘adult’ means a monster of the week, violence, swearing and cheap sex, and ‘story’ only gets in the way. The episodes of this series are aimed at heterosexual males of around fourteen, and are most strikingly written by Chris Chibnall. The other series thinks ‘adult’ stories should have stories to them, and tells sad, elegiac stories of people (human or not) and very human emotions. I’m not sure that that series has such a clearly defined demographic, but it’s the one that appealed to me.

The Episodes That Make You Think, ‘Actually, This Was Rather a Good Series…’

1.08 They Keep Killing Suzie
By a long way the best of the first series, and the only really great episode. It opens with “Torchwood” daubed on a wall in blood over a pair of gruesome corpses; I remember thinking that it looked like, if you’ll excuse the pun, a bloody Chibnall. Except I was completely wrong, and it’s saying ‘Look at me!’ to Torchwood as a trap, not to the audience as all there is. Richard and I were surprised to get a brilliant story at this point, and it was just in time – after six weeks in, I think we’d finally stopped giving it the benefit of the doubt. This was a tragic, twisted noir (you know I like noir), the most nihilistic life after death story, but it showed that darkness could be intelligent and affecting, not merely offputting. At last, it made something of what we already knew about Torchwood, rather than just getting to a slow bit and thinking ‘time to bung in a Weevil’. It centres on an insane, inspired bit of planning, and Indira Varma is stunning. It’s such a pity she had to die; she’s so much better than anything they have left.

1.05 Small Worlds
The earlier episodes were the shakiest, so thank goodness for this tale of wicked fairies from Sapphire and Steel’s creator. All right, I wasn’t all that impressed by the design of the monster of the week, but the fearful concept behind them was something else, as was the bitter ending. The touching story of lost love is the series’ best stab at seeing Jack as someone human and flawed, in the Doctor’s place but unable to deal with it.

1.03 Ghost Machine
The first story to be really good, with more than a smattering of Nigel Kneale and Sapphire and Steel, it’s an emotional Halloween ghost story with great performances all round – even a good part for Owen, and someone who could be him long down the road, played with grubby despair by Gareth Thomas. Despite the serious themes, though, there’s a moment we just can’t take seriously. Neither lead actor is given enough good material, but both work when given the chance. Eve Myles, however, has one element to her acting that makes us laugh at inappropriate moments: her upper register. There’s something about her emoting that just appealed to us both back when she was in Doctor Who, wailing “It’s ungodly!” Here, she wails that she couldn’t stop the killing, covered in blood, and I’m ashamed to say we fall about. And there’s another bit of her upper register later in the series…

1.12 Captain Jack Harkness
A beautiful, unsettling story with another touch of Sapphire and Steel. Looking at which episodes work, perhaps Mr Chibnall should be sat down in front of PJ Hammond’s opus before being allowed to strike his keyboard again. Switching between now and the 1940s, this introduces the real Captain Jack – gay, heroic and lovely – and the fabulously sinister Bilis Manger, who may or may not be an anagram but ought to be. Top marks for the moment when Gwen looks behind her and dancers pass in front of her as the time zones blur, and for the way that the story of the original Jack is, appropriately, just about the only one in the series who seems to embody Jack’s original mission that sex is good and life-affirming.

1.10 Out of Time
The 1950s rather than the 1940s this time, but here’s an anthology within an anthology series, as three short stories of culture shock interweave. Owen improbably falls for Diane, played by an actress who seems to be cornering the market in ‘incredibly glamorous mid-20th Century sexually liberated women’, judging by this and The Chatterley Affair. We get to see Rhys’ bum, which is nice, though sadly not Jack’s; our leading man is in the story about suicide, and wishes he could join in…

The Episodes That Make You Think, ‘Well, It’s All Right…’

1.09 Random Shoes
This is the cuddly ‘life after death’ story, with lots of great little observations in a Torchwood take on Love and Monsters. Eugene’s endearing, though curiously not very Welsh, and though the end could be taken as heart-warming or nauseating, “Happy Cock” still tickles me.

1.07 Greeks Bearing Gifts
Well, it’s a great whacking cliché of a title, and I made the mistake of watching Buffy’s Earshot soon afterwards, which has immensely more style. Oh, and there’s yet another addiction metaphor! A good relationship between Tosh and the alien, though, and it’s great to have a proper femme fatale.

1.01 Everything Changes
The first episode of the series is impressive in many ways, though the pleasingly noirish set-up is wrapped up in a far too much of a hurry. That anti-climax is its second-biggest problem; the biggest is that it seems like the first episode of a completely different series. Fun, fantasy things like the pterodactyl, Suzie and the glove, even the Weevils, or characters on more than one note like Owen’s implied date rape… The creator sets up mildly interesting ideas, and the lead writer drops them on the floor. What’s kept is a feeling that’s more broody than quippy, more Angel than Buffy, and where everyone’s addicted to something to escape from humdrum life. Even when their lives are vital. And, from the first, it’s utterly absurd that – after the huge Torchwood Tower, full of thrusting young things – this Torchwood doesn’t even have any support staff. I just don’t believe for a moment that five of them can hack it, which rather undermines the show from the start.

1.11 Combat
Yes, it’s Fight Club and macho, but far more thoughtful than most ‘fight’ episodes (just look at Babylon 5’s TKO, and wince). Writer Noel Clarke is lovely, of course, and bless him for all his protestations of how straight he is, when he writes the most eyebrow-raising homoeroticism in the series. For once, they don’t even forget the Weevils, and it’s interesting that Tosh tells Jack – using a Weevil as live bait for nasty humans – that he’d never do the same with a person. Of course, he did exactly that, baiting a Weevil with a human, way back in the first episode. On the down side, “In the darkness, something is coming” is so shoehorned you can’t help wincing. But masses of points for Gwen’s selfish doping of Rhys to “Say you forgive meee!” Yes, I’m afraid it’s another of her ‘suffering’ lines that we enjoy for all the wrong reasons. It’s now used every time one of us does anything mildly wrong.

1.13 End of Days
Roman centurions and stomping beasties, a sinister villain and a spectacular-looking season finale. The trouble is, it all adds up to something merely all right, and for the climax, that in no way cuts it; so, while not a bad episode in itself, for me it undermines the series by being an inadequate conclusion. Still, it’s by far the best of Chris Chibnall’s scripts. Yes, that’s right – we’ve got so far down the list we’ve reached his four stories, the rest from here down. Now, I don’t want you to think he has no talent as a writer. Just watch his episodes of Life On Mars; did you see the one with the ‘corrupt cop… or is he?’ as both Sam and Gene’s mentors are put to the test? Logic, character, a story… So it appears that it’s only in Torchwood that all he can create is empty spectacle. Rhys dies – then, with nowhere else for his character to go, has that undone by the big reset switch, making it utterly pointless (in drama, actions should have consequences; perhaps the biggest problem with this story). Jack goes all messianic, coming back to life after three days then being taken up, along the way forgiving doubting Owen. Sigh. With his own bit of ‘doubter’ nicked from Babylon 5. And the villain who’s evil because he’s evil, like the tackier outings for the Master. And, as the shape of it demands a Buffy-style ‘Big Bad’, the Rift tediously becomes a hellmouth, with a demon coming out and being – who’d have guessed? – easily overcome. Why exactly was it a brainless, lumbering beastie? In Doctor Who last year, The Beast had no mind because its thoughts had escaped elsewhere. Predictably, Mr Chibnall appears to have seen this, but thought no further than ‘Cool!’ at the way it looks. Richard’s review quotes me: “Alex suggests this is Torchwood all over – all the spectacle of Doctor Who but with its brain extracted!” I’ll stick with that.

Still, it’s better than the Robin Hood finale, which – after an uncertainly-toned series of occasionally interesting but more often laddishly brainless entertainment – was just shit, though at least its clumsy strokes at political parallels stayed on the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. …Unlike some forthcoming wingnut Hollywood excrescences I could mention. Yes, I know I shouldn’t slag off a movie without watching it, but really, have you heard about Nottingham?

The Episodes That Make You Lose the Will to Live

1.04 Cyberwoman
First, I have to say that at least the Cyber-brassiere and Cyber-heels are hilarious, like something from a Chris Achilleos rock album cover painting, even though you have to suspend your brain to forget that Cybermen slice off sexual characteristics rather than exaggerating them. And that’s this episode – looks impressive, but no brain at all. They even kill off that pterosaur I liked, and without properly saying so. Bah. John Barrowman and Eve Myles remain solid leads, but this is where it’s most obvious that it’s being aimed at the horny straight fourteen-year-old, the most monster-of-the-week, and the first time of many that one of the dysfunctional Torchwood team cries out to be sacked. And no, I didn’t even mean Mr Chibnall, at that point.

1.02 Day One
With a lost, lonely young woman desperate for contact that means something, it sounds like it could be one of those meaningful, elegiac episodes. It isn’t. It’s the story where YOU SHAG UNTIL YOU EXPLODE! It’s an Angel-ish sexfest with a very slight plot, and not even a patch on Lonely Heart. I only gave it the benefit of the doubt because it was on opening night.

1.06 Countrycide
Richard’s great at spotting whodunnit. Stick on a murder mystery, and he’ll wrap it up far faster than the detective. Aside from the really, really obvious ones (spotting the victim and murder long before the first death in one of Chris Bulis’ Bernice Summerfield books; what is it with writers named Chris?), I’m rubbish at it. So when I tell you that I guessed the ‘twist’ in the pre-titles sequence, with the only surprise in how absurdly useless the team were and how risible Jack is as a strategic leader, you might understand how I wearied of it long before it was over. For the first five weeks, I’d given the series the benefit of the doubt, with stories ranging from poor to pretty good, but no absolute cracker nor absolute stinker to ‘decide’ which side I’d come down on. Sadly, this came along before They Keep Killing Suzie did, and I’d probably have a much more positive view of the series without it. It’s a feeble, derivative slasher movie in which things happen for effect, not for logic. I wouldn’t choose to watch a story with one lone, bloody, cannibal psychopath, but you could believe in lonely madness. A community of cannibal psychopaths with no rationale (Richard’s review suggests several), just because they are, and seeming normal to everyone else… Sorry, this is just bollocks.

Still, this inspired an amusing argument with a writer about the worst Torchwood episode – I argued for this, he was passionate about Cyberwoman – and the Torchwood Declassified drinking game for every time they talk about “going to a very dark place”…


Since Torchwood finished, ITV1 has shown its own version, intended as competitor to Doctor Who but far more like the spin-off. With Charlie Brooker comparing Torchwood to Scooby Doo, this really fits the bill much more; suitable for children, monsters of the week that disappear in a flash, and if Cutter wasn’t Freddie and geeky Connor Shaggy… But, like Torchwood, an improbable team loosely affiliated to the government chase monsters that no-one’s supposed to know about and that pop out of a rift in time, though at least Torchwood left incessant playing of “What’s that coming over the hill, is it a monster?” to its documentary shows rather than over actual scenes. Astoundingly, its characters – very ITV1 – were even more cardboard than Torchwood’s, though much less quirkily dysfunctional. The actors were more wooden, with the exception of the woman from S Club 7: yep, her part largely consisted of ‘get your kit off, luv’, but she developed a character without any help from the script. Even Connor the regular geek of the world’s least convincing set of young-people-conceived-by-the-middle-aged grew on me a little, though the ‘handsome’ men were so dull it was untrue, and the woman excitingly written out of history at the season finale – fair dos, it was well done – was erased so perfectly that neither Richard nor I can remember anything about her. Her rival for Cutter’s affections, the estranged ‘I’m a psycho bitch callous scientist’ wife, may have been a cliché but was worth watching for her joyful nastiness.

Yes, it was monster-of-the-week and ITV-drab, but from less promising material it did better than I expected, while Torchwood under-performed. Torchwood probably still came out ahead, but there should have been no probably about it. Primeval was much dumber, but it had a better idea of what it was about: a recurring villain you love to hate, and cool monsters. You can hardly go wrong with dinosaurs, after all. Well, actually, they did, especially the one with comedy teeth loping about the school, but the sea monster in the swimming pool looked great. So does Torchwood need more monsters? The little boy in my brain who thinks monsters are cool says yes, but the older me who saw what a mess they made of their monster-of-the-week episodes thinks that the more emotional, human stories were what the series did best. Either way, what Torchwood really needs for its second series is to make up its mind.

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