Doctor Who for Newbies: Torchwood
by Kyle Anderson on March 17, 2011
Don’t say I didn’t warn you
As a fan of all things Doctor Who, I felt it was time I turned my attention to the spinoff series, Torchwood. Now, I had actually seen an episode of TW before I saw a single Doctor Who episode, and I didn’t like it. To be fair, it was the final part of a five-part mini-series and I didn’t know who any of the characters were, save one, and I didn’t fully understand the stakes. All this in mind, I still thought it was a bit melodramatic and ended on an extremely dark note. But, again, I’m a completist, and I like the crap out of DW, so after a few months, I thought I’d give it another chance. Luckily, all of Torchwood is available for instant play on Netflix. God. Bless. Netflix.
First some context. In the first series of the revived Doctor Who, a character was introduced in the last five episodes. His name was Capt. Jack Harkness, and he at first appears to be a normal WWII American Air Force pilot on loan to the British. He is quickly revealed to be a 51st Century Time Agent-cum-Con Artist. He’s a roguish character, the Han Solo of the series. He’s morally ambiguous and a bit of a loose cannon, but nevertheless is a loyal companion to the Doctor. Capt. Jack is played by openly gay actor John Barrowman, which I’m sure aided in the decision to make the character Omnisexual (men, women, aliens, monsters, etc.) and added yet another layer to his already colorful personality. The showrunner of the updated series was Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk, and I think in general it was a very brave, awesome thing to do to introduce a main character on a “family” show who is GLBT. At the end of the season, Capt. Jack is killed by a Dalek only to be brought back to life by Rose Tyler via the heart of the TARDIS. He is, however, stranded in the far future, seemingly forever. That isn’t the case, however.
During Doctor Who‘s second series, there are multiple references to the Torchwood Institute, a secret organization started by Queen Victoria as a means of protecting the Crown against alien threats, the Doctor among them. In that series’ finale, Torchwood reveals that it takes and adapts alien technology for service to the the United Kingdom, but they are all but destroyed. Or, more accurately, the LONDON part of Torchwood was destroyed. Torchwood 3 is working just fine over in Cardiff, Wales.
And that’s where Torchwood series 1 picks up. In Cardiff, as is explained in a Doctor Who episode, there is a temporal rift allowing time and space matter to travel between dimensions, making it a hotspot for alien phenomenon. This follows the Buffy model of having all the action take place around a single area that happens to attract the paranormal. Makes it easy to keep the location shots cheap; since both Doctor Who and Torchwood are BBC Wales productions, all they have to do is go outside. When series one begins, Captain Jack is the leader of a small team consisting of medic Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), tech-savvy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), and stuffy paper-pusher Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). In the very first episode, they are more or less discovered by Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who helps solve the case and is inducted into the world. Blah blah blah, heard it all before.
It took me about five months to get past the first four episodes. Torchwood was a “post-watershed” series, which in Britain, given the limited number of television stations, is the designation of a show that airs later at night and can have much more adult content, including graphic violence, sexual content, and bad language. I am always up for heaping helpings of all of these, except when they aren’t handled well. It felt to me that the writers didn’t know how to make a show of this nature and as such put in huge amounts of sex unnecessarily, or just because they could. In many cases, the sex didn’t have anything to do with the story and was really more just titillation for the sake of it. Sci-fi writers generally don’t know how to deal with sex. Gwen, who is dating blue collar Rhys (Kai Owen), has an affair with Owen, which is neither interesting nor very important to their characters. There was also, amongst the sex, a fair amount of homosexual activity. One episode finds Toshiko in a relationship with a mysterious blonde woman who ends up being an alien, wouldn’t ya know it? Another ends with a 360-degree camera sweep around Capt. Jack passionately kissing goodbye to a young military man of the same name. I definitely applaud the show for going there, and that much doesn’t distract.
One bit I did enjoy about the series is just how deeply damaged all the characters are. Gwen struggles with her personal life and her work life, Owen hates himself and wants to die, Tosh is crippled with insecurity about everything, and Ianto grapples with his growing romantic feelings toward Jack. We also learn little bits about what happened to Jack after he was stranded in the 24th century. Turns out the time energy that brought him back to life left him immortal, or more accurately, left him with the ability to come back to life after getting killed. He is shot, stabbed, strangled, smothered, and other means of dispatch not beginning with S, only to eventually gasp back to life. We also learn that he somehow got sent back to the late 1800s and has to live through the whole 20th century waiting for the off-chance the Doctor will come find him.
Because of the not-so-great writing and sometimes way-dramatic acting, I’d say I actually liked 2 and a half episodes of the 13. But I kept watching because I heard it got better. At the end of Torchwood series 1, Jack goes off to find the Doctor, leaving his team without a leader. That storyline picks up in the last three episodes of Doctor Who series 3 (“Utopia,” “Sound of Drums,” “Last of the Time Lords”), where Jack does indeed find the Doctor and travels with him and his companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). A whole mess of stuff happens that I won’t get into, but at the end of it, Jack decides he misses his team and working for and with Torchwood and leaves the Doctor to return to them.
But when he does, at the beginning of Torchwood series 2, he finds a team that is at once happy to have him back and resentful that he left in the first place. During this season, the writers calmed down a bit and found their own rhythm. They introduced a few characters from Jack’s past (which is our future… wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey) and strengthened the character relationships. Gwen is engaged to her boyfriend Rhys and eventually tells him about her job. Toshiko tries to confess her feelings to Owen, who just doesn’t get it. Ianto embarks on a romantic relationship with Jack that is allowed to develop naturally. My favorite arc occurs in the middle of the season where Martha, now an agent of UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce), comes to Torchwood to help. During this time, Owen is killed and Jack tries to bring him back to life. It half works. Owen is animated again, but he’s still technically dead. None of his bodily functions are operating, his heart isn’t beating, he doesn’t get tired, he can’t drink or have sex. If he’s injured, it won’t heal. So he has to deal with being the living dead, which doesn’t go too well.
Series two had uniformly better writing and acting, but it was still far too “monster-of-the-week,” and often those monsters were uninteresting. The season ends with Owen being disintegrated and Tosh is killed by the bad guy, leaving Torchwood severely diminished. The next time we see Jack, Gwen, and Ianto is during the finale of Doctor Who series 4, where every character who ever existed reappears. It’s a pretty ridiculous finale that I’ve spoken about at length in other posts. But after THAT, is the five-part miniseries “Children of Earth,” which is pretty damn amazing, I must admit. It’s basically a sci-fi version of 24, which I also loved. The writing is top notch, as are the guest stars. I could try to describe what it’s about, but I wouldn’t want to spoil any part of it. If you like sci-fi at all and think I have good taste in anything, give “Children of Earth” a watch. It’s on instant play on Netflix and it’s only five episodes. What’s stopping you!?!?!
A bit I can’t seem to get past is my strong belief that, while Capt. Jack is a great character, he is not a great central character. Jack works incredibly well as a member of the TARDIS crew but as the leader of this incredibly messed up clandestine organization, he doesn’t compel. Part of the reason ensemble shows like Firefly, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica succeed (in narrative terms anyway) is because they have a very strong character at the heart of the action. They’re flawed, surely, and often make the wrong decisions, but you never question that they are the glue holding the ragtag group together. Jack isn’t that character at all. As I said earlier, he’s the Han Solo of the series. A Han Solo TV show would be excellent if he were out smuggling and pirating it up on the Millennium Falcon, but how boring would it be if the show were Han Solo training new recruits or running a fleet? Capt. Jack Harkness only really works as a supporting character, despite how cool you may think he is. He works in Doctor Who remarkably well, and he works just as well in “Children of Earth” because he’s no longer in charge. Hopefully, for the new series, they’ll keep his character roguish and not give him too much responsibility.
What’s this? A new series? Why yes! After two full years without it, Torchwood is coming back. It’s now a co-production with the American Starz cable network and will be a ten-part arc called “Miracle Day.” The premise is that on one day, not one single person in the world dies. Not a one. That’s a freak occurrence, surely, but then the next day, same thing. And people keep not dying and very quickly the world is overpopulated. Who should they call upon to aid in such a problem? Why someone who can’t stay dead, of course. The series will be written by both British and American writers and will see the return of the remaining cast members while adding a ton of new ones. I won’t say I’m excited, but I have tempered optimism. The show improved every time it came back, and if MD ups the ante of CoE, then we’re in for some excellent crap. The new series of Torchwood is tentatively scheduled for sometime in July.
Man, I do go on.