Daily Archives: 2 January 2007

The Trouble with Torchwood

So that was Torchwood Season One, then. Hmmm… It certainly had its moments, but overall I think it was a serious misfire from a team that, up until this point, has provided some cracking telly over the past 18 months. So what was the problem? As far as I can see there a several main issues:

It’s Buffy Season Six
Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is known as the dark season. It’s the one where Buffy gets yanked out of paradise by her friends to resume her slaying career, shags Spike, alienates everyone else and the main villains are a bunch of inept losers. Derided by many Buffy fans, there’s a actually a lot to like in this season, such as the musical episode Once More With Feeling, Normal Again (the episode where Buffy finds herself in a mental institution and discovers that the last 6 years have been nothing more than a paranoid delusion) and the obligatorily apocalyptic season finale, but people disliked the unremittingly depressing tone of the season.

If that went down like a lead balloon in a well established series, Torchwood Season One is a good example of what happens if you try the same tone for a completely new series. For you to have sympathy for a character behaving in a thoroughly dislikable way, you have to get to know them well. Otherwise, you tend to just think of them as a bunch of shallow gits.

Ugly Sex
In order to establish itself as a ‘mature’ show, the makers of Torchwood felt it was necessary to stuff it as full of sex and violence as the budgets would allow. In fact, violence is quite expensive to film well, so in the event it was relatively infrequent and quite derivative (I have to guffaw when I watched the Combat episode of Torchwood Declassified to hear them all going on about how ‘realistic’ the violence was), but sex is cheap. You don’t even need any costumes.

The problem is, much of the sex in this series seemed to be there for no better reason than to fill precious airtime. It was rarely used for dramatic reasons. And it all tended to look very staged, very uncomfortable (all the characters seem to have a look of horror on their faces mid-coitus) and very dispassionate. And worst of all, most of it seemed to involve Burn Gorman.

Now I liked Burn Gorman in Bleak House. He made a great Guppy. But that was because he looks so much like, well, a guppy. My idea of a great Sunday night in is not watching a fish-faced unlikeable twerp getting his freak on. Especially when it involves someone as undeniably attractive as Louise Delamere. Twice.

But he wasn’t the only problem. Take last night’s episode, Captain Jack Harkness for instance. At the end of this episode, the two eponymous captains snog in front of the doomed 1941 version’s colleagues. This presumably struck the makers as being incredibly daring and right on, given the views of homosexuality in the forties, yet it had no dramatic impact (the episode wasn’t about Harkness being gay, repressed or otherwise, it was about meeting a guy who you stole your identity from, 24 hours before he died) and didn’t make any sense. It was completely gratuitous and cheapened an otherwise quite good episode.

Stupid characters incapable of growth
Leaving aside the fact that they never explain why they leave such a small band of five disparate individuals in charge of something as potentially world-threatening as the Rift without supervision. The real issue is why they are such stunted idiots.

Take Gwen, for example. In Ghost Machine, she learns all about the tricksy nature of looking into the future, and how it can become self-fulfilling prophecy, or worse. So what does she do in End of Days? Make exactly the same mistake all over again, without even pausing for thought, or questioning why the clearly dodgy bloke who can walk through time is showing her this.

Indeed, all the characters, with the possible exception of Jack, fall apart during the smallest of crises, fail to resist the temptation to play with alien tech, never think about the consequences of their actions and throw tantrums like spoiled three year olds.

The question that Russell T Davies et al need to answer in Season Two is why should we like these dangerous arseholes?

In fact, the only character that has grown on me as the series has progressed is Tosh, yet she is the one who has had the least screen time. In the one episode where she got the spotlight, Greeks Bearing Gifts, she switches from being a boring backroom character to an actual human one. Of the four, she seems to be the least prone to falling apart and her fears tend to be the most well founded. Yet Jack seems to invest all his trust in stupid, wailing Gwen.

No Metaplot
In short, what is Torchwood about? We know there’s this nasty Rift thing they have to keep an eye on, but who is the baddie? What’s the threat?

Most superior TV series establish this pretty early on, or in the case of Doctor Who and classic Trek, establish a format that renders such a thing unneccessary. Torchwood has been screaming out for a metaplot, but it has failed to deliver.

That’s not strictly accurate. In They Keep Killing Suzie, we learn there is a big, nasty Thing Out There; in Out of Time and Captain Jack Harkness, we learn that the Rift is increasing in activity and causing links across time; Bilis Manger emerges as a recurring villain (in two episodes at least), and we finally get to meet the Big Bad, in the shape of Abaddon.

Except that all of that has been very disjointed, too late in the series in coming, and have just been events that the main cast have reacted to. There’s been absolutely no sense of them mounting a counter offensive or a sense that they have any idea what is actually going on.

A lot of this has been down to a refusal by the makers to give the characters any help. By the end of Season One you would expect the rest of the team to at least know as much about Captain Jack as we do: namely that he is a former Time Agent from the future gone freelance. Jack’s refusal to answer any questions about his past (future) smacks more of lazy writing than any real determination to keep things mysterious. After all, every small titbit of information would surely pose as many questions as it answers. One gets a sense that the real reason we haven’t learnt anything is that the writers don’t know either. I get a sense that much of his backstory will be revealed in the next series of Doctor Who, which is great from the POV of the flagship programme, but sells Captain Jack’s own series somewhat short – is Davies truly committed to Torchwood?

Chris Chibnell
In my view, the standout worst episodes have been Day One, Cyberwoman, Countrycide and End of Days. Only after establishing this did I learn they were all written by the same person: Chris Chibnell.

I have no idea who this guy is, but his episodes have characteristically lacked any subtlety, with Countrycide doing for violence what Day One and Cyberwoman did for sex, are full of examples of the ‘team’ running around like headless chickens, have poor characterisiation and make little sense.

For example, in the last episode, it turns out that Jack can kill Abaddon by standing under his shadow (although it ends up killing him as well, albeit temporarily). Why not simply walk out of the way then, and get on with killing everyone else? And if he is the Big Bad alluded to by Suzie, then you’d think he’d have thought about this vulnerability first? In any case, after meeting the Devil himself in Doctor Who’s Satan Pit, this version comes across as a bit of a wet blanket.

The main writer of a series doesn’t have to be best, although Joss Whedon, Chris Carter and Aaron Sorkin all give a good run for their money. He or she however should not under circumstances be the worst. Having had four shots, more than anyone else, I would suggest his P45 should be in the post.

***

The most damning indictment to Torchwood is that I’m looking much more to the Sarah Jane Adventures than the second season. Sex and violence free, featuring a character who is determined to solve problems with brains rather than brawn, SJA is everything Torchwood is not. Explicitly aimed at children (anyone with a day job will have to record it), the pilot episode of SJA was far more intelligent and grown up than whole series of Torchwood put together. To be fair however, Torchwood was still better than most brainless sci-fi on TV. Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes in Season Two.

UPDATE: One suggestion just made to me is to make Lembit Opik a consultant for the show, given that he is an authority on Wales, intergalactic phenomena and sex with odd-looking aliens.