Torching the Wood

Having tried to resist the temptation, I’m now wading in with my views on the first three episodes of Torchwood. Spoilers abound…


Russell T. Davies is a man of many ideas.

Troube is, most of them don’t seem to be his…

In fact, most of them seem to belong to Joss Whedon, and I hope he doesn’t ask for them back, as RTD would be in serious trouble. Possibly the first spin-off series to be given its own pre-release promotional story arc in the series that spawned it, Torchwood has been set-up as Doctor Who’s grittier, more adult cousin- taking place in the same universe, but dealing with darker, more ‘adult’ themes in a post-watershed environment. Funnily enough, this is exactly the same relationship that the Angel TV series had with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and while it’s not quite a shameless rip-off of Whedon’s more grown up series, it is close enough to share a number of problems. We’re only three episodes in, but it’s safe to say that Torchwood is going through a similar problem to Angel in its first season, as the series is obviously trying to work out what it is, and so far hasn’t come up with an answer that makes it any more than the sum of its somewhat derivative parts.

We’re back in Cardiff, thanks to RTD’s ceaseless quest to make the Welsh city the centre of the Universe, and the show revolves around a gang of investigators who spend their time tracking down alien technology or rogue extra-terrestrials, supposedly ‘above the government, beyond the United Nations’ (although I maintain that UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart and his crack team of seven men could still give Torchwood a run for their money…). Our two leads are bi-sexual space adventurer Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who’s taken to a more brooding approach and outrageously standing on tall buildings for no reason, and Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), an ordinary beat copper who’s inducted into the Torchwood team in the first episode, despite them being somewhat untrustworthy buggers who’ve already tried to wipe her memory. Beyond the scene-setting pilot, where the villain was revealled to be one of Torchwood’s own, the episodes so far have been one rogue alien- a traditionally sex-crazed parasite who’s apparently watched Species too many times- and one piece of rogue technology- a device that enables you to see echoes of both the past and the future. We’ve also had lots of banter, the first genuine on-screen sex scene in the Doctor Who universe, a ripped-out throat, a frankly OTT scene of a security guard engaging in a little ‘self-love’, a few too many scenes of the characters standing around in their (admittedly gorgeously designed) underground base talking to each other, and a rather thuddingly predictable dose of will-they, won’t they? tension between Gwen and Captain Jack (Gwen has a boyfriend who’s so deliberately ordinary that he’s obviously for the chop- it’ll either be a messy relationship end or a sudden death within six episodes, you mark my words!)

In fact, despite the mandate to be darker, edgier and more adult, the one major problem with Torchwood so far is the lack of genuine surprises. The opening episode managed a couple of moments- particularly the unveiling of the show’s first alien, in a long-shot with no music (until the Hospital Porter who might as well have had ‘Cannon Fodder’ tatooed on his forehead got attacked, and everyone from Torchwood suddenly leapt out as if they’d been waiting for the exact moment after someone got their throat ripped out)- but while the show is very slickly put together, it’s mostly dealing with very familiar conventions. It’s obvious RTD and co want it to be a gritty Sci-Fi version of something like CSI or Spooks, and yet while there’s echoes of darker shows (like C4’s abortive Vampire saga Ultraviolet), it’s got the same kind of outrageous camp and need to shamelessly entertain that runs through most of the new series of Doctor Who, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. Also, the steals from the Whedonverse are getting more and more extreme- I could just about live with RTD appropriating the climax of Buffy Season 4 for the end of Season 1, having written himself into a corner with the Daleks (one of the problems of creating unstoppable villains- you’ve got to be able to stop them without pressing the ‘Deus Ex Mechana’ button), and much of the ‘video diary’ and outsider perspective of the Season 2 episode Love and Monsters was done infinitely better in the Buffy episode ‘Storyteller’… but now we’ve got Captain Jack having come back from the dead with a serious case of the dark-and-brooding moods, a flappy 1940s style coat (that he didn’t feel the need to wear last time he was in Cardiff), and a major case of indestructibility. (I so want the episodes to open with the words- “Captain Jack is Indestructible! You are not! Do not attempt to imitate him!”). As if that wasn’t bad enough, we also find out that thanks to the dimensional rift featured in the Who S1 episodes The Unquiet Dead and Boomtown, Cardiff now has its own science fiction equivalent of a Hellmouth!

It may say science fiction on the tin, but Torchwood so far has only been as much sci-fi as the new relaunch of Doctor Who has been- i.e., not very much. RTD may love the paraphenalia of sci-fi, but he’s got absolutely no interest in it as a mode of storytelling, and most of the sci-fi devices in Torchwood could be shifted into the realm of ‘magic’ with very little effort. More than anything else, this mode of storytelling is all about avoiding the kind of dislocation that’s at the heart of normal sci-fi- instead, it’s all about emotionalism, wish-fulfilment, and confronting the issue-of-the-week. This has manifested itself in a number of dodgy ways (the supposedly hilarious sequence where the character Owen uses an alien spray that essentially magnifies the ‘Lynx Effect’ up to levels where the phrase ‘date rape’ wouldn’t be completely inappropriate), but it’s also showing up that, at heart, there’s not very much so far that seperates out Torchwood from its influences. With Doctor Who, RTD was performing a relaunch- and as a result he had a history he could play with, things he could react against, and a whole public perception that he could manipulate to his own ends. Now, whether or not I agree with what he did, I think the main trouble with Torchwood is that he’s starting from scratch, and his magpie habits are showing through too strongly. There’s plenty of effervescent dialogue, and episode 3 did manage to capture the collision between the real world and sci-fi strangeness in a way that New Who has so far singularly failed to exploit, but behind the occasionally sharp dialogue, Torchwood doesn’t feel distinctive enough.

Yes, it’s a show that’s designed for people who don’t watch that much sci-fi, but for something marketed as hard-hitting and tough, it’s approach to much of its more grown-up material is only ‘adult’ in the way that your average late-night Hollyoaks special is adult. It’s playing like something designed for teenagers who want to feel they’re getting their moneys worth, and it’s creating a strange environment where half the time the show feels like it could play easily in a weekday 8pm slot, and the rest of the time it’s spraying out blood and getting supporting characters to blow their own heads off. Episode 2 is the worst offender, trying to say something significant about modern day culture’s attitude to sex, and instead getting hot under the collar about lesbianism and tittering at the idea of a randy teenager trying to forcibly shag the local postman. Like the original addition of Captain Jack to the Who universe, there’s the feeling that the show is slapping itself on the back for being so right-on and daring, when all it really needs to do to be adults is treat the audience like grown-ups. Instead, we’ve got to have the subtext spelled out in purple dialogue that has so far turned out to be the guarenteed clanger of each episode, rather than letting it stand for itself.

At the heart of it, John Barrowman is both a blessing and a curse to the show. He’s got plenty of charisma, and carries of a bizarre kind of chiselled heroism well, but it’s hard not to think that Jack was much more fun before his resurrection, and Barrowman has a strange plastic quality that almost looks like he shouldn’t actually exist in real life. Jack is also arguably a more interesting character in an environment like Who, rather than a show where his swings-both-ways philosophy isn’t that out of the ordinary. Eve Myles is doing a good job with one of those nightmare characters who’s supposed to be the ‘humanising’ member of the team but often ends up the most annoying. She’s doing okay so far, but out of the other members of the Torchwood team, the most interesting one so far is the business suited ‘assistant’ who handles Torchwood’s paperwork. Three episodes in, and I’m mildly interested to see whether the show does actually develop its own identity, or if it just remains an entertaining but rather ungainly hodge-podge of other people’s shows. I’ll keep watching, and report back my findings.

Now, if only they could get rid of that god-awful pre-title sequence voiceover from Capatin Jack, I’d be a happy guy…

3 thoughts on “Torching the Wood

  1. dull dull dull
    I saw the first two episodes (or was it the pilot and episode one?) and frankly there’s nothing there resembling a hook. It’s all been done before. It’s like X-files but with added self-reference, in a way that only latter day Lucas can do worse. And, of course, not as good as X-files. Or my memories of Project Blue Book for that matter.
    Obviously the BBC thinks the sun shines out of RTD’s arse and are salivating at the regional resale value of a Doctor Who spin off made with our license fees. The only thing to save me recently from the pathos and banality of the BBC was the oft imitated but never (yet) surpassed many-levels-of-irony masterpiece that is Crooked Features. And you’ll only see that on TV when you’re probably asleep.


    • T”ouch”wood
      With regards to the smoke shagger in ep2.
      Was I the only one who had flashbacks to the shapeshifting anything shaggers the Kindred in The X-Files episode “Gender Bender”?
      Brings a whole new meaning to a “Kindred Surprise”…
      Brill music at the beginning of “Gender Bender” too – even though I hated it at first…


      • Re: T”ouch”wood
        Absolutely. Worth noting that the X-Files episode (SPOILER WARNING!) was about a group of shape-changing Amish-style aliens who could get anyone to shag them, and yet managed to be signficantly less silly than Torchwood simply by playing it for grown-ups. The show is, in many ways, playing like the camper aspects of the X-Files- and definitely has its habit of rounding up the ‘message of the week’ with the kind of portentious dialogue that makes me want to kill the writers.


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