On Finishing Torchwood

Torchwood, season one. As I mentioned a few days ago I recently started watching Torchwood, the BBC’s adult-oriented Doctor Who spin-off about a team of alien tech investigators. I’ve finished the first season, and what do I think?

Torchwood was very much a mixed bag. There were moments that were absolutely incredible. There were episodes that were stunningly brilliant. And then there were the moments where I said to myself, “Good fucking god, what were they thinking?” Overall, I liked the series. I liked the cast. I got involved with the characters and came to care about them. Torchwood becomes very good as it approaches the end of the season, but then… it fizzles out. Though I liked the series overall, it’s the final twenty minutes of the season that left a very bad taste in the mouth, yet I’m looking forward to the second season in 2008.

Let me address the flaws of Torchwood first.

There’s a whopping huge disconnect between the premise as it’s explained–super secret agency beyond the police, the British government, and the United Nations control searching out alien technologies to protect the human race–and how it’s actually developed in the show. Captain Jack Harkness, the leader of the Torchwood team in Cardiff, is very blunt in the first episode–they don’t actually involve themselves with criminal matters that might relate to alien tech, they just swoop in and get the alien tech out of the way before someone else gets their hands on it. Then we see a development in the first few episodes of Jack’s stance changing at Gwen’s instigation–there are some crimes that only Torchwood can solve because of their access to alien tech and their greater knowledge of threats from beyond space and time–and the series starts doing stories that are basically police procedurals with aliens or monsters.

The problem is, the police-procedural-with-monsters doesn’t always work because there’s often no story justification for why the Torchwood team would get involved. Why did Torchwood get involved in a series of disappearances in rural Wales in “Countrycide”? Why would a routine hit-and-run accident in “Random Shoes” necessitate Torchwood’s visit to the crime scene and Gwen’s investigation of the kid’s death? While both stories eventually get into what I would call “Torchwood territory,” the stories get there only because the story has to go there, not from any sort of organic development.

More than that, for being a super-secret extra-governmental organization, Torchwood isn’t exactly secret. Government agencies know who they are. “Random Shoes” shows that raving morons off the street know who they are. Torchwood isn’t a particularly well-kept secret.

The major problem with Torchwood is that the writing can be very weak. For being an “adult” series in terms of content, Torchwood can be remarkably juvenile. A bed conversation between Owen, the team’s medical officer and second in command, and Diane, a pilot from the 1950s, in “Out of Time” stands out as particularly jarring where the show goes from post-coital snuggling to Owen’s ramblings about “fuckbuddies.” At that moment, Owen’s need to bring up “fuckbuddies” was completely inappropriate, nor did it even fit with the rest of the episode. Coarseness was mistaken for maturity many times in Torchwood, and that’s the fault of weak writing. From the premise problems with “Countrycide” and “Random Shoes” to inappropriate, even random, dialogue, Torchwood‘s writing wounds were entirely self-inflicted.

The worst self-inflicted writing wound has to be the season finale, “End of Days.” Without getting into spoilers, there is a massive disconnect between the first half and the second half of the episode. The first half of the episode is absolutely rivetting as a temporal crisis facing the world has its roots in something the team did previously, and as a consequence the team tears itself apart from within. Then, with twenty minutes left to go, the episode takes a hard right turn, and we’re in a completely different story. Up until that moment the season felt like it was building up to something. The disintegration of the team was a consequence of that. What happened in the final twenty minutes of “End of Days,” however, had absolutely nothing to do with anything that had happened in the previous twelve hours of Torchwood. To mangle a line from “Logopolis,” the ending was not prepared for, and what’s left is errant nonsense and a sour note on which to end the first season.

Yet I liked the series, didn’t I? Let’s take a look at why.

Torchwood, as a series, works best when it forges its own identity separate from Doctor Who, telling stories that Doctor Who couldn’t tell. “Small Worlds,” the P.J. Hammond script about faeries and the little girl they want, was a creepy, tragic, and moving story, one that I’m not sure would have worked with the Doctor. “Out of Time” isn’t impossible to see as a Doctor Who story, but the reason it works as a Torchwood story is that the situation can’t be fixed while in a traditional Doctor Who story there would have been some attempt, ultimately successful, at returning the characters to their time and place. Because the Torchwood team’s hands are tied, however, the story takes unexpected turns for a Whoniverse story and becomes genuinely moving as the characters confront love and loss. “Captain Jack Harkness” was another strong episode that would not have worked as a Doctor Who story, from Jack’s doomed romance in 1941 to Tosh’s intellectual puzzle of how to communicate across the span of fifty-plus years to the conflict between Ianto and Owen over how to get the team back out of the past. In a Doctor Who story, I just don’t see any of these things happening.

One thing that I’ve heard consistently about Torchwood is that it’s a series obsessed with death. I’m not sure that it is. I think there’s a message slightly more subtle at work in Torchwood. The characters aren’t obsessed with death. (Well, except for Captain Jack, but he’s immortal, he’s lived a long damn time, and he clearly wants to die but is afraid to do so.) The characters are obsessed with loneliness. Which manifests itself thoughout the series in the form of death because all the characters lose someone to death. There’s an undercurrent of the characters fighting against the inherent loneliness of human nature, they’re looking for connections, they wander down dark and unfortunate paths seeking connection, but events have an unfortunate way of showing them that, in the end, we’re all alone.

I came to be very involved with the characters. The Jack Harkness of Torchwood is a darker, more aloof character than the Jack Harkness of Doctor Who, a change that is slightly dismaying at first but ultimately feels right given the nature of what Jack has become and what he is seeking. Owen, the team’s medical doctor, goes from being utterly despicable and unlikeable in early episodes to being a romantic, even tragic figure at the end of the season and he emerged as my favorite character in Torchwood. Gwen, introduced to us in “Everything Changes” as our viewpoint character, trods a very slippery slope as the series progresses, becomes rather shallow, self-centered, and insensitive by the midway point, but has moments of redemption in the latter half of the season and emerges, if not exactly likeable, as being somewhat understandable–she’s stared into the abyss, she’s seen her loneliness and isolation, and it’s led her to do things to fill the emotional vacuum she wouldn’t, under other circumstances, have done, yet she’s come to realize in the end the things that really matter to her despite having worked to push them away. The other two characters–Tosh and Ianto–are the least well-developed characters in Torchwood; both have focus episodes, but neither see the character growth across the season across the season that Gwen and especially Owen see.

I was premature in saying a few days ago that Torchwood might be better than Doctor Who. It’s certainly different, though, and it’s at its best when it’s trying to be different than Doctor Who. Torchwood doesn’t always work, and it makes the common mistake of confusing sex and swearing with maturity, but when the show does work I found it to be involving. I cared about the characters. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. And the fact that I came up with a number of Torchwood story ideas didn’t hurt. πŸ˜‰

In the final analysis, I liked Torchwood and I was entertained. It’s not a great show, but it is a show that, in my mind, hit more than it missed.

3 thoughts on “On Finishing Torchwood

  1. “Random Shoes” shows that raving morons off the street know who they are. Torchwood isn’t a particularly well-kept secret.

    That probably has more to do with “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” than anything else; it was a bit hard to miss the Cyberman invasion (though Donna did manage it…).

    Besides, by the year 200,001 they were common knowledge (“Bad Wolf”); their going public had to happen at some point in there. πŸ˜›

  2. Good analysis. The show had some serious flaws, but nonetheless I looked forward to it every week and I’m eager to see the next season. Got the novels, too, though I haven’t read them yet.

  3. Andrew, I tend to agree. “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday” should blow the lid off Torchwood as a secret organization, and “Runaway Bride” seemingly confirms that (as no one really bats an eye at the mention of Torchwood).

    I think the series’ major misstep is that it never followed through on Gwen’s suggestion that she be the liaison between the Cardiff Torchwood and the Cardiff PD. That would have been a really interesting angle to play during the series. Maybe that‘s why Torchwood got involved in “Countrycide.” Maybe that‘s why Gwen investigated Eugene Jones’ death in the hit-and-run. (Except there’s still no reason why the Cardiff PD would have called Torchwood in on that. That episode needed a damn rethink.)

    That’s one of the story ideas I had–a story that follows a single investigation from the Cardiff PD side and from the Torchwood side and how they intersect and affect one another, with Gwen caught in the middle. It’s not something Torchwood can cover up, it’s not something the Cardiff PD can let go, and it becomes a race to see who can solve it first.

    Steve, I’ve heard good things about the books, so I’m looking forward to reading them when I get around to them. I’ve heard it said that they’re more in line with the pre-new series Doctor Who line than anything we’d had since, so in my book that’s a plus. πŸ™‚

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