Sunday, September 09, 2007

“Contraceptives in the rain. Love this planet” – Torchwood

(First, a quick note – all my reviews of Torchwood will be going from the untrimmed British versions. On BBC America each episode will be edited by a few minutes for timing reasons, so on the off-chance I ever mention anything that got cut out, that’s why. Okay, onwards!)

In a sense I have made it my mission to try and turn people onto Doctor Who, especially American viewers who need all the encouragement they can get. However, it’s a lot harder to vigorously recommend Torchwood, an offshoot (and an anagram) of Doctor Who that first aired in Britain almost a year ago. Torchwood started out as a story-arc that spanned the whole of Who’s second season. In the penultimate episode it was revealed to be a secret organisation which combated alien threats to Britain, the plotline then culminating in an epic battle in and around the Torchwood base in the season finale. Russell T. Davies, showrunner on Who, decided a continuation of Torchwood’s story would make a perfect vehicle for one of the Doctor’s first season companions, Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman, now a British household name). And thus Torchwood the spin-off was born.

In fact Torchwood is one of two spin-offs to come out of Davies’ hugely successful revival of Who, the other being The Sarah Jane Adventures. But where Adventures is a kid-oriented show (though it’s still very much worth a look), Torchwood prides itself on being dark. As it airs post-watershed in Britain, it can get away with a lot of stuff you’d never see on US network television, let alone Who – swearing, sex, bloody violence, it’s all here. Unfortunately, these dark aspects often feel over the top and shoehorned in for the sake of shocking the audience. This isn’t as readily apparent in the first episode though, so I’ll come back to it in later recaps.

What is apparent is that Torchwood has the potential to be an entertaining, if not exemplary, show. The first scene establishes the show’s overall tone immediately – the Torchwood team take over a police crime scene, bring the victim back to life, then talk to him for a couple minutes before he dies again. I don’t mean to suggest this show is all about them talking to dead people – that aspect is pretty much dropped after the first episode – but it successfully establishes Torchwood’s cynical tone (when asked what he saw when he died, the victim says “Nothing…oh my God, there’s nothing!”) and dark, moody style (the scene takes place at night, with rain pouring down the whole time). John Barrowman also gets to deliver a character-establishing monologue about “Contraceptives in the rain”, concluding with him proclaiming, “Well at least I won’t get pregnant. Never doing that again”. It’s a genuinely clever scene which exemplifies exactly how good this show could have been (and, in fairness, sometimes is).

Ominous as that may sound, I won’t start getting negative just yet. ‘Everything Changes’ is a fun fifty minutes of television and a good set-up for a series. It follows Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff Police Constable who stumbles upon the world of Torchwood and finds herself drawn into it, uncovering a traitor within the unit in the process. Said traitor is Suzie Costello, played by Indira Varma, who was included in the cast list and cast photos to keep her out-of-nowhere death a surprise. Unfortunately this is the weakest aspect of the plot, as Suzie’s secret killing spree is only hurriedly explained and doesn’t really make a lot of discernible sense. Thankfully most of the other happenings – Gwen’s initial entrance into Torchwood, all her scenes with Captain Jack, the rest of the team experimenting with alien technology – prove suitably entertaining stuff.

It’s a shame, therefore, that Torchwood isn’t able to keep up this level of quality in further weeks. This can probably be put down to the role of Russell T Davies, who takes scripting duties for (at least so far) the only time before handing the show off to other writers (specifically Chris Chibnall, ostensibly the showrunner). Before Who Davies wrote several adult-oriented shows, and while there are a few moments in ‘Everything Changes’ which seem more like an imitation of adult material (the swearing and Suzie’s eventual suicide are two good examples) mostly he successfully pulls off a balance between the dark and the light. It is the failure to keep up this balance that cripples further episodes of the show. But more on that in the coming weeks.


Good Dog said...

The problem with Torchwood is it's supposed to be "adult", but the end result is what teens and nerds who still live with their parent think of as adult.

Compared to proper drama it's laughable.

Todd said...

I actually rather liked the Torchwood pilot (I think because it's such a solid IDEA for a show -- I'd KILL to Americanize it, while I think trying to Americanize Doctor Who is ridiculous folly whenever it's suggested), but it was probably the best thing about the whole season, which quickly goes downhill.

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