Review: Torchwood 1×1-1×2


In the UK: Sundays, 10pm, BBC3. Then repeated on BBC2 on Wednesdays at 9pm and every cowing day of the week on BBC3.

In the US: Might be a bit too wild for the SciFi channel, but could potentially go out on BBC America or something else “open to experimentation”

So here it is. The first full-blown spin-off from Doctor Who. Like Bod, it’s been ambling amiably towards us for the best part of a year, with frequent references to it throughout the second series of Who. Now it’s arrived, has it been worth the wait?

Yes. I think.

The plot (no spoilers, I promise)

After seeing something inexplicable happen at a murder scene, Cardiff WPC Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) tries to hunt down Captain Jack Harness (John Barrowman), leader of a special ops team called Torchwood. Torchwood deals with aliens and the technology they bring to planet Earth. Or they try to, when they’re not out on the lash, anyway.

Is it any good?

There has been a question floating about since the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who: has Russell T Davies lost the ability to write? Watching episode after episode of tatt, while other writers came in and produced quality drama, led many (myself included) to believe that RTD was spreading himself so thinly in his role as exec producer and omnipresent god-figure that he’d lost whatever creative skills had led him to produce Dark Season, Century Falls, Queer as Folk et al.

Turns out, he hasn’t. The script for the first episode of Torchwood was an absolute cracker: funny, dramatic, adult. Great, actually. Okay, I agree it could have been slightly better paced and maybe an extra five minutes chopped out of the opening twenty. But it was actually really good with some great lines. And it had one completely unexpected moment right towards the end that probably resulted in millions of people thinking to themselves “I can’t believe they just did that!”.

By contrast, the second episode was a bit flat and derivative: alien sex beast wants people to have sex. Sorry, but Angel‘s done that and so has The X-Files. Some good moments, but it appears the law of Torchwood scripts is going to be “regular writers good, RTD better”. It’s a bizarre mirror universe we’re dealing with here.

But there were problems, all the same. My wife is a perfect control group for Captain Jack’s character development: she never saw any of the episodes of Doctor Who in which he appeared. Her verdict on Captain Jack after two episodes? “He’s a bit sexless, isn’t he?” Yes, you read that right. Captain Jack was a bit sexless. Clearly, something is wrong with the universe – or at least the set-up for Torchwood – for that statement ever to have been made.

Because she’s right. This is not the Captain Jack we know and love from Doctor Who. There’s a scene in one of the episodes where he’s having a drink with an attractive woman in a bar and he doesn’t try to pull her. It’s all wrong. What we have is deputy-Doctor Jack, a stand-in for the necessary know-it all Time Lord the show lacks. He even has his own Doctor-esque costume – he’s still running around in that World War II RAF uniform he had in series one.

The other characters are moderately interesting and need a little time to develop, although by the end of the second episode, it’s hard to think of them as crack defenders of the Earth, rather than bored local government employees who are the victims of cutbacks in the training budget. They’re just a bit pants at even the basics: watch The Andromeda Strain then watch Torchwood and ask yourself if perhaps their quarantine facilities need a little improvement for starters.

There are also issues with the whole set-up – not severe ones, but they’re enough to make you pause for thought and for the show to lose a little lustre. Why are Torchwood’s headquarters under the Millennium Centre’s fountain? Yes, I know about the time rift in Cardiff, but there are any number of office blocks and flats nearby that would do just as well with a bit of refurbishment, I reckon. Why does Captain Jack spend so much time standing on top of tall buildings? Yes, it’s very impressive, but he never actually does anything while he’s up there. And why does he drag other people up with him for their job interviews?

Then there’s the Torchwood hub: isn’t it basically a cross between the sets for Deep Space Nine and the industrial zone of The Crystal Maze? The aforementioned rift: isn’t that just the sci-fi version of Buffy‘s Hellmouth? Plus they’re all complete nancies when it comes to handling a gun.

And if you wondered why just so many aliens decide to invade Britain in Doctor Who, you’ll be utterly bewildered about why they’re so fixated on the Cardiff Bay area. I’m predicting that episode seven will feature an attack on the Norwegian Church and episode nine will involve a dastardly scheme to possess the birds of the wildfowl and wetlands area near St David’s Hotel and Spa – you know, just past Harry Ramsden’s.

But minor niggles aside, Torchwood is actually really good. It’s adult in a way that’s probably going to cause minor heart attacks at the BBC’s various licensing arms as they try to work out exactly which overseas networks are going to buy a lowish-budget sci-fi series that features reasonably graphic sex, nudity, ‘gayers’ (male and female), masturbation, voyeurism and a whole lot more – and that’ll probably need subtitles for people who can’t cope with the near-universal Welsh accents (you know who you are). There are enough Doctor Who references to keep the faithful happy, but without so many that others will be mystified. The effects are actually reasonable (with the exception of a couple of dodgy mattes). Most of the performances are excellent, with a couple of exceptions. And it does my Welsh (by marriage) blood good to see Cardiff given the full on Heat treatment in the rather beautiful aerial work each episode features.

The trailer for the third episode hinted that it might be better than the second, so I’m giving this an almost-definite thumbs-up for now. Yes, Britain can do sci-fi again and make it world-leading. Hoozah!

PS Did you know that Torchwood is actually an anagram of “Welsh Tourist Board”?

PPS Isn’t the theme just the middle ten seconds of the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream aka “The Music for the Trailers to Lord of the Rings”?

STOP PRESS: Ratings just in – Torchwood‘s first episode got 2.4 million viewers. By BBC3 standards, that makes it “an unqualified smash hit”.

  • Yes, I liked it too. Some teething troubles but lots of potential. Your wife is right about Captain Jack though – he seems to have lost his (se)X factor. Let’s hope he finds it again…

  • Great review, Rob, and thankfully no spoilers. I’m hoping to see the two eps on Thursday as a friend nicked them during the night. (shhh)
    I hope the Captain Jack we all know finds his way back into the characterization again. As seen on ‘Doctor Who’, Jack blew the door down on the stodgy portrayal of space travellers set in stone by ‘ST:TNG’.
    Blew it down and then bought it a drink!
    Does sound like it’ll have to be cleaned up a bit for the American audience, what with the Gestapo running the FCC over here….

  • “Great review, Rob, and thankfully no spoilers.”
    Ta very much. I’m always well aware that probably 50% of the readers here won’t have seen what I’m writing about, whether they’re in the UK or the US, so I try to maintain a spoiler-free policy at all times.

  • I think its possibly meant to be more of a symbolic shot, possibly representing the fact Jacks a kind of Sentinal for the city. Always looking and seeking out threats that crop up over the city.
    It did look unashamedly cool in some ways, how many other Brit TV series do you see where the leading man stikes poses in such a way.
    On Torchwood as a whole.
    More Gritty, darker and aimed at older audiences (AT LAST!)
    Yes there are some quirks and annoyances. The Dr Owen character is too annoying and makes childish comments, was he a trainee doctor before being plucked into Torchwood.
    But it is good to see him get put down by the other characters. Gwen is a necessary way of introducing the viewer to Torchwood but she does seem a little out of depth. Only a handful of members for such an organisation, it seems like the torchwood institute is down to skeleton crew numbers for manning it. No heavies for when things get get to the point of needing a bruiser or two! Surely there should be more cast, even supporting cast members. Not even extras to bolster the numbers!
    Overall though, until now we haven’t seen Brit Sci Fi looking this good.
    Its a good break from Dr Who, which though I loved it, it was too wishy washy and kiddish. Hopefully the adult theme will be taken further and developed in the upcoming episodes.
    Jack Standing up on the building.
    I think its possibly meant to be more of a symbolic shot, possibly representing the fact Jacks a kind of Sentinal for the city. Always looking and seeking out threats that crop up over the city.
    It did look unashamedly cool in some ways, how many other Brit TV series do you see where the leading man stikes poses in such a way.
    Not since Blakes 7 has Brit Sci Fi been this good and aimed at adult audiences.
    Lets hope we see more improvement in Episode III.

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  • [why haven’t you posted any pictures of David Tennant lately?] i love torchwoo it is sutch a cool program!