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.


  1. All pretty fair. I especially agree about Tosh, who was horrendously underused given how much better than the others she was in “her” episode.

    Chris Chibnall was the co-producer and it’s him I blame for the lack of any ongoing narrative or consistent style. All the way through it felt like a group of writers had been sent the same series outline and then gone away without ever talking to each other and written their episodes.

    My prescription for series two:
    – Build an ongoing narrative and a consistent style
    – Get some likeable characters
    – Ditch Chris Chibnall
    – Give Tosh more to do
    – Give them an authority to answer to and an enemy to fight

  2. Good summary of the dramatic problems of the series.

    I had a go at coming up with an in series explanation of why the Torchwood organisation in Cardiff may be as it was in Series 1 (apart from the real world reasons of lack of a strong overall story arc and financial constraints on the number of continuing characters).

    From the way the late Yvonne Hartman was portrayed in Dr. Who it seems likely that she had built an over-centralised operation in Canary Wharf. She could not close down Cardiff completely because there needed to be people on site to monitor the rift, but she gave Cardiff as few people and resources as she could get away with and left the people in the Hub to do what they could, which suited Captain Harkness fine (if he was involved at that stage).

    There was obviously contact between Torchwood Cardiff and Torchwood London, as Ianto was there enough to have a relationship with Lisa. It therefore follows that Cardiff had backup when it needed it.

    However the destruction of Torchwood’s London operation has left the organisation greatly weakened. Jack was speaking to the Prime Minister on the telephone in one episoide. I doubt that the head of the Cardiff operation would normally have that function.

    Presumably someone is responsible for rebuilding Torchwood in London, although there was no sign of it in the Torchwood series or the Dr. Who Christmas Special. Perhaps by the next Torchwood series there will be a Director and a central operation for Cardiff to report to.

  3. I’ve actually come up with a workable explanation for why Torchwood Cardiff is the way that it is – it helps if you remember it’s part of the legacy of the Empire which tended to regard the enthusiastic amateur as much more useful than the government agent (consider how much of the Empire was developed by non-governmental forces like the Hudson’s Bay Company, East India Company and Cecil Rhodes etc). Plus, I think the idea is that the team are much more lightning-chasers than ‘the first line of defence’ – and remember that the Imperial mentality would find it hard to conceive of something important happening outside London, let alone in somewhere as backwoods (and backwards, from their perspective) as Cardiff.

    On a general point, if you ignore the Chibnall episodes, it’s a much more coherent series about a group attempting to do a job that’s near-impossible, with all the resultant problems that causes. True, they have their cockups, but (until the idiotic finale, anyway) nothing even vaguely near the monumental stupidity of Torchwood One’s ‘let’s keep shooting energy at this rift until it opens up’ plan. The problem with the Chibnall episodes is that they’re idiot plots, requiring the characters to be stupid to make them work, and that perception spills over into other episodes and its harder to give them the benefit of the doubt, even though they’re now being written by someone who may have actually met and worked with other people.

    For series 2, I’d sack Chibnall and replace him with Cath Tregenna (who wrote ‘Out Of Time’ and ‘Captain Jack Harkness’), get the writers to watch a lot of Spooks to see how teams like that should work and remember to use the Rift as a plot point – it’s supposedly the reason for there being a Torchwood base there, yet it’s hardly used in story terms.

    Finally, they have to resolve the Jack problem – he can be a Who character or a Torchwood character, but he can’t be both. One of the problems they had this season was that they couldn’t do much to Jack, as he had to be returned to the parent series the way they wanted, so he couldn’t really have any development in Torchwood. I think he works better in Who and should stay there, allowing Torchwood to develop without him.

    Oh, and they should bring back DI Swanson (Yasmin Bannerman’s character from ‘They Keep Killing Suzie) as a recurring semi-antagonistic character…

  4. I still think there were more fundamental problems than just the Chibnell written episodes, although with no evidence to the contrary, I would be happy to accept that the other problems were his fault as well.

  5. “Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes in Season Two.”

    Let’s hope there’s NOT a season two.

    and if they do feel so posessed(sp?) that there has to be a season two, can they at least hire Steven Moffat for some of the writing? (The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fire Place.)

  6. I agree that Cyberwoman was the worst episode of the whole series, but closely followed by Random Shoes. This could have been quite good except for one quite small thing (which probably bugs me alone and I doubt anyone else noticed). Why did Eugene’s character speak with a London accent when all the rest of his family had Welsh accents? As said, a minor thing, but it ruined the whole episode for me.

    As to the rest of it, I liked Day One and End of Days and Countrycide was my all time favorite episode. Yes they do need to pull things together for the next season and I’m sure they will. I also reckon that Torchwood London is still in operation, but recovering after the Canary Wharf fiasco. After all, we saw an underground Torchwood base in the Xmas Doctor Who and in last year’s Christmas Invasion, the shot fired at the Sycorax was seen to be originating from several locations. Of course, whether they will attempt to take Torchwood Cardiff back under their wing or leave them to the relative anarchy that I have enjoyed for the whole of season 1 remains to be seen…

  7. I have to agree that Owen is annoying and unattractive. I feel like Gwen didn’t make much sense. She seemed to shift between out POV character and a selfish bitch who was incredibly unlikable. Jack was underused as was Tosh and the only characters who are likeable as people are Jack, who was developed in Doctor Who, Tosh and Ianto. Gwen needs to pick a stance and stick to it. I loved Suzie. I love the premise of the show. I think it has serious potential. A few more Doctor Who writers would help it out. I think it’s a little premature to start hating it. It only had 13 episodes to develop. I’m used to a 22 episode range..ha! I would have to say the 2 episodes before the 2 part finale sucked. The finale was good and I liked the m/m action although I would like to see Jack paired with both to keep up his 51st Century Male stance.

  8. Torchwood is not serious SF and I enjoy it with that approach. Who cares if Owen isn’t attractive? And why do all the characters have to likeable?

    I’m glad it has a second series.

  9. I don’t think anyone is saying it has to be serious SF – most comments here are about storytelling.

  10. I totally agree. Why SHOULD characters be likeable; in fact, I’m sure Owen was created to be the detestable anti hero he is. For what it’s worth, I do like all the others, although I hope we learn more about Toshiko including the reference made in Countrycide where she said there wasn’t a cell she couldn’t get out of. It doesn’t matter to me whether SF is serious or not, I just enjoy it as it comes and yes, it would have been much better with a 22 episode range.

  11. Actually, I disagree with your assertion that Burn Gorman is unattractive; speaking as a woman, that is.

    I only got to watch bits of this series but, and this may say oodles about my psyche than anything lese, but I can see why he was always the one involved in the sex – twice even – can’t exactly explain why but there you go!

  12. What do you mean “speaking as a woman” – you might just be a woman with appallingly bad taste! 🙂

  13. Jo, I have to say that I find him an insufferable, slimy little creep with the exception of one scene. Episode 5, Countrycide, where he has Gwen up against a tree whilst making a heavy pass. On that single occasion I sincerely wished I was Gwen at that moment

  14. right i have to admit the Countrycide episode was pretty pointless but all the others were fab!..
    i think that the reason why Jack confinds in Gwen is because of the fact that her atittude towards “alien” debry isnt to run round like headless chicken scared to her wits, more to find out more about the object,reason or motive. Also you speak o the characters repeating past actions which they have suposidly learnt there lesson before, if no-one tried out new discoveries we wouldnt have the amount of technology we have’s..computers ect. So why not write this into a tv series?
    and to the ladies comments of Owen being sexy/insfferable who cares what he is or isnt? Everyone has there own opinions and should be intitled to them! Personaly i’d choose Captain Jack any day (i know he’s gay but do you realy think that anyone could hit it off with Owen?)
    I hope they will make another series, im a big fan! and i hope that it will make lots more too…how many more Doctor Who’s can you have? lets have a change.Or merge the 2 together! even better!

  15. I agree totally. More Torchwood is needed and soon. Captain Jack is indeed sex on legs; yes JOHN BARROWMAN is gay, but the fictional character of CJ is supposed to be omnisexual so I’m sure we can all put in some overtime on our fantasies. Of course, Ianto is quite sweet as well.

    I really liked Countrycide. We saw some more background to the characters, and Owen’s transistion from agressive propositioning of Gwen to efficient, dispassionate doctor was particularly well done.

  16. Russel T Davis says that he IS working on another Torchwood series.

    My favourite episode was Everything Changes, Countrycide and Cyberwoman although I think every single episode was fantastic. Ghost Machine and Small Worlds were good too though.

    I can’t wait for the other series. I just can’t wait at all.

  17. This is a brilliant summation of the problems with Torchwood. I loved the character of Captain Jack on Doctor Who and I wanted to like this series so much. I watched the entire season, expecting the characters to grow (or at least get less annoying), but alas, the season ended with me just as disappointed as you. Tosh is definitely the best of the bunch, other than Jack. Let’s hope the other characters step up, otherwise this promising series is doomed.

  18. how the hell can you say that your disapointed with series 1 of torchwood?Yonto’s character has grown loads….at the begining he was thought to be the quiet boring receptionist who has nothing better to do with his time…but he turns out to be in love with a woman who’s turned into a syber man due to the “battle” at london torchwood..i think
    also how can people say that “torchwood” only fights or finds out about sexy aliens? i hardly think a weavel is the best bit of totty in the alien world
    bring back torchwood…what else is there to watch? another tedious series of bb? or repeats of have i got new for you?

  19. Wow reading this gave me chills. I had more or less the EXACT same impression of the both Torchwood AND SJA.

    I just can’t buy Torchwood. The plot – wait what plot? – is poorly defined and utterly unbelievable on every level, the characters are completely unlikeable (notably, I see absolutely nothing attractive about the Owen character so his spouting off like he is some great Casanova is just pathetic) and that RD felt it so important that “everyone is bisexual” (and polyamorous) is witless and insulting. Last time I checked, there was more than enough gratuitous sex on the tele.

    I give up on Torchwood. SJA, I am very much looking forward too.

  20. how can you slag torchwood off and the say your looking forward to SJA when right at the start you had exactly the same impression of both torchwood and SJA?!
    The new series of Torchwood is supposed to be out at January time..and where as there getting Martha there loosing one of the current team
    i really think that it will be Yanto where it should be Gwen because she just doesnt know what she is doing!
    And i think that the plot is revolved around Jack and his link to the last 3 eps of Doctor Who which was just amazing!
    Cant wait for the new series of Torchwood and the Doctor Who christmas special and new series!

  21. I love the show except, Random Shoes. There are not many sci-fi shows this well written and fun to watch. I think Capitan Jack over acts a little bit but I find him enjoyable along with the rest of the cast. By the way everyone else may think I am crazy but I think Burn Gorman is so sexy. There is just something about him. He look like William Defoe, who is also hot.

  22. random shoes is the best! it doesnt quite fit in with the rest of the shows as a sci fi genre, however it does bring a sence of reality and a wake up call in a way to our personal lives. Life is to short to waste as the character ugine found out while looking back on his life, dont spend life always waiting, do something about it!

    also how the hell can you over act jack? he is the campest guy ever! and is supposed to be! i mean he’s a 100 year old guy living in the 21st centry for god’s sake!!

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