An Essay on TORCHWOOD: Series 1

Neo’s written essay on TORCHWOOD: Series 1.
What was Russell T Davies doing in 2006, setting a dark and sexy sci-fi crime drama in a city where the kebabs are velocitised? How well were the themes of the series executed, those themes of mundane life as humanising, trivium the only meaningful defence against meaningless death, and the friction of fae worlds jutting up against these mundane ones? Why do moments even beyond Cyberwoman fighting pterodactyls grate, and feel adrift with the rest of the show?
Plus a ranking of the thirteen episodes!

Spinning Off

The mid 2000s saw British showrunner Russell T Davies craft a media empire through his enormously successful revival of DOCTOR WHO and its two spinoffs – one for kids, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, and one ostensibly for adults, TORCHWOOD. Years before Hollywood would find the money and appeal in consistent, interacting shared universes, RTD (Davies) wrangled over ten successive series between the three shows, all sustaining the same world and trading characters and plot points back and forth. That interconnectivity is almost more a point of trivia now, years after the fact, as the shows sustain themselves perfectly well as more or less standalone.

In the case of TORCHWOOD, while its lead character and basic premise of the setting come from the first revived series of DOCTOR WHO in 2005, it keeps itself at a curious distance from all that. The show is more told through the eyes of new characters, with the elements from the parent show more a cipher – indeed, the carryover lead character of Captain Jack doesn’t get particularly singular focus until the penultimate episode of the first series. So, while at least the British ratings back in the months of airing indicate most viewers had seen the parent show that birthed it, TORCHWOOD does enable – and perhaps even ask for – being read on its own terms as well.

Theme of a Team

What terms are those? Well, the show’s most consistent concerns are with its Cardiff setting, and work/life balance. There’s an amusing irony to the whole premise on the surface, the idea of Cardiff as home to a sci-fi crime drama in the style of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL (the initial inspirations for the show). Characters even lampshade it as “CSI: CARDIFF”. And yet the show doesn’t just play up the juxtaposition of the would-be cool of its genre with the dinkiness of its city. Instead, it all plays a key part in the central theme of the first series, that of the mundanity of life being the key humanising element that keeps one alive, keeps one’s life worth living, and staves off what the show conceives as the inevitability meaningless oblivion of death.

Work/life balance also plays into this. The show is hugely concerned with the process of work, and the ‘in-between moments’ that might be dismissed on other shows. Meals, using the bathroom, organisation of schedules, paperwork, all these things crop up frequently to the point they go beyond just being running gags. They actually form part of the larger framework of the show. The mundanity of work not only juxtaposes with the supernatural and science-fiction elements most episodes deal with as a source of drama and tension, but also emphasise how human relationships are formed out of such trivium and process. This is the show’s conception of what really energises and sustains a life, demonstrated again and again in dialogue as Captain Jack pushes neophyte Gwen to maintain her relationship, empathy, and perspective.

(series 1 spoilers – but no further – below)

The first episode (crucially, the only one actually penned by RTD) makes this the key point of its climax. Weary Torchwood agent Suzie Costello has become so dehumanised, so adrift from human reality, through her work with Torchwood, that she has become a murderer conducting experiments on innocent Cardiff residents.

SUZIE: ‘You do this job for long enough, and you end up thinking, how come we get all the Weevils and bollocks and shit? Is that what alien life is? Filth? But maybe there’s better stuff out there, brilliant stuff, beautiful stuff. Just they don’t come here. This planet’s so dirty, that’s all we get. The shit.’

In the second episode, that general dehumanising atmosphere of Torchwood becomes a source of friction as Gwen starts working there in earnest.

GWEN: You’ve been hidden down here too long. Spending so much time with the alien stuff, you’ve lost what it means to be human.
JACK: So remind us. Tell me what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.

Further emphasising these themes is the motif of mirror worlds, parallel worlds, fae worlds jutting up against regular 21st century reality. This is literalised in the primary story generator of the show, a space-time rift that sees all sorts of cosmic “flotsam” – monsters, technology, travellers, and the like – dumped onto Cardiff, for the organisation of Torchwood to deal with. It’s also portrayed variably across different episodes, like the world of the fae in the episode SMALL WORLDS, or the ghostly past of the Blitz lapsing intermittently into the present in the episode CAPTAIN JACK HARKNESS. These sort of concerns carry the series through urban fantasy, crime drama, supernatural drama, science-fiction, and so on. The show varies enough that it works on a broader speculative fiction level than how a show like DOCTOR WHO nominally always falls under sci-fi. That is to say, there are episodes in TORCHWOOD that outright have magic and the supernatural and don’t bother with technobabble to handwave a scientific sci-fi-esque explanation.

Chaos in Cardiff

The idea for TORCHWOOD actually extends back even further than the DOCTOR WHO revival. Russell T Davies had an idea for a BUFFY-esque show called EXCALIBUR, a team of misfits sci-fi ensemble drama type show in that Joss Whedon American styling, but set in the UK. Given those roots, and its status as a DOCTOR WHO spinoff, how does the show come to have its own identity?

As far as the first series goes, the general messiness of it does a lot to strike out a unique feel for the show. Many of the scripts are noticeably sloppy, but while the characters themselves are too, they’re helped by the fact the actors certainly aren’t. Eve Myles comfortably establishes herself as the show’s strongest player, embodying her character with a freakish degree of emotional realism and nuance (perhaps most noticeable in scenes where her character very briefly scrambles to stifle a succession of negative reactions). John Barrowman modulates his performance interestingly from how he played the character on DOCTOR WHO, clearly considering how to meaningfully evolve and iterate the act. Naoko Mori manages to bring a unique sense of individual life and history to a painfully stock character, and Burn Gorman undercuts the tropes of ‘secondary, abrasive male antagonist so much that he manages to obscure the fact the character even is that stereotype. Gareth David-Lloyd gets less to play than the others, and his big showcase episode does him zero favours, but does much better when given more specific material with Barrowman to play off. The cast managing to maintain very identifiable, lived-in senses of their characters is key, as that sort of cohesion is not present in the scripts. Varying tones and approaches wildly is endearing to some extent, moreso than a strictly uniform style, but there are cases where the tonal whiplash is severe enough to undermine what story is trying to be told.

The drama between the team members escalates to outright soap opera levels at times, which has an endearingly trashy quality, but grates at times. The team goes wild threatening each other with guns towards the last two episodes, with Ianto even outright shooting Owen. Gwen sobs while eating a pizza. Jack and Inato oscillate from hatred to stopwatch-themed lovemaking. It would have been very easy for this all to feel muddled and painful, and it does at times, but it’s generally realised with such a captivatingly unique flair, one the show inhabits so proudly, that it feels likable, if for no other reason that it doesn’t exactly feel derivative.

Not all the mess is so endearing. An instance of date rape in the premiere is so manifestly wrong, egregious, tonally off, and completely out of character, that it threatens to sink that character (and by extension the team’s relationships with him) outright. It is completely forgotten by the next episode. Something of a running theme of the first series becomes the necessity to discard the ‘wrong’ aspects of it, as the writers seemed to as much as the fans. Another example is the pansexual lead character, who was first introduced in DOCTOR WHO as someone far beyond petty conceptions of gender and sexuality and such, going on a bizarrely transphobic tangent in the seventh episode. Again, completely forgotten afterwards, and so out-of-character that it demands viewers discarding it in a way, but rankling and wrong all the same.

Many episodes drill down on RTD’s atheistic conception of death as utter oblivion, an unthinking darkness, then RANDOM SHOES randomly has a character basically literally arise into heaven at the end. Palahniuk-esque masculinity guff is played straight in COMBAT, and even Burn Gorman struggles to sell its cliches. However, some scripts handle moments that could seem out-of-character much better, like COUNTRYCIDE, where Gwen’s humanity is methodically drained out enough for her to do a traitorous act by the end of the episode that would have felt completely off at its start. Wearing her down with the gruesome depravity and evil of the murderous cannibals, emphasising her nature as to need to understand the human reason why they did such things, and getting the answer ‘because it made me happy’…it’s not hard to see why, in an episode that saw animalistic friction between her and Owen rise, that Gwen acted hedonistically in her own way at the end, in cheating on Rhys with Owen.

Forecasting

Ostensibly John Barrowman is the lead as Captain Jack Harkness, but it’s clearly Eve Myles as Gwen Cooper that the show actually centres on. The show wisely keeps Jack at a distance until the penultimate episode of CAPTAIN JACK HARKNESS. It instead primarily focuses on developing all the characters original to the spinoff, and letting the differences between Jack’s characterisation on DOCTOR WHO and in TORCHWOOD slowly manifest so as to raise intrigue. Barrowman keenly modulates his performance between the two shows; on DOCTOR WHO he plays the rogueish conman with sincerity, on TORCHWOOD he lets more darkness and performativity seep in.

This stands out especially as Jack exits out to join DOCTOR WHO’s third series finale after the first series of TORCHWOOD ends. There, his motivations and attitudes towards the characters and trappings of TORCHWOOD are explored and set in a direction to have him embrace it all wholeheartedly in the second series. He goes from sticking around in Cardiff being born of waiting for the Doctor…

JACK: I thought 21st century, the best place to find the Doctor, except that I got it a little wrong. Arrived in 1869, this thing burnt out, so it was useless…. I had to live through the entire twentieth century waiting for a version of you that would coincide with me…. So I went to the time rift, based myself there because I knew you’d come back to refuel.

…to the opposite of that.

JACK: Back to work.
TENTH DOCTOR: I really don’t mind, though. Come with me.
JACK: I had plenty of time to think that past year, the Year that Never Was, and I kept thinking about that team of mine. Like you said, Doctor
responsibility.

It’s in the penultimate episode of the series, CAPTAIN JACK HARKNESS, that the character revisits his birthplace on DOCTOR WHO, the second World War. There, the slow recontextualisation of the character stand as a cyclical measure of the ways he’s changed, and a justification for judging him differently. The first go-around he was a conman, a thief, a coward, but on the second time around he is leaderly, sincere, and brave. Outsourcing the ‘finality’ of his character arc in the first series to the parent show of DOCTOR WHO plays oddly now the zeitgeist of 2007 has passed, but that episode alone did much to demonstrate the growth of the character not just on their own terms, but in the eyes of the audience as well.

The nadirs of this series are tremendous, like the catastrophically misjudged and distastefully sexualised tonal chaos of CYBERWOMAN, and the hollow and poorly-realised melodrama and action theatrics of END OF DAYS. But there is so much unique and memetic in the show’s early days too. The utter catharsis of Jack’s conclusive rejoinder (‘not one bit!’) to villainous Suzie ladling on a trope-ridden appeal to foolishly letting a villain live out of some absurdly misjudged morality. How much joy there clearly is in treating Cardiff as having some kind of mysterious, sexy verve, as frequently displayed in Jack’s standing-on-rooftop sequences, the many extreme pullout shots of the city, particularly at night. The Welsh atmosphere to it all. The surprising (and very well-judged) focus Gwen and her boyfriend Rhys receive, and the verisimilitude of the humanity both actors bring to it.

So much of the thematic coherency of the series comes down to how much the show treats Gwen and Rhys’ relationship as a counterpoint to keep swinging episodes back to, in the soap-opera style of Russell T Davies’ revived DOCTOR WHO. It also continually hammers home the ‘mundanity as the key to life’ theme. Perhaps most iconic is the fantastic Hub set, biting off more than it could chew production-wise, but looking all the more incredible for it. That sums up the whole first series, really. It shot for the stars, be they amongst its dingy Cardiff, but for all its misses, the mess it made even attempting it was full of charm.

Episode Rankings

SMALL WORLDS

The best execution of the show’s theme of friction between mundane spaces and the extraordinary rubbing up against each other. Very distinctive narratively, very much of writer Peter J. Hammond’s specific style, and very committed to the sort of ending that TORCHWOOD could tell where DOCTOR WHO – or even some of the show’s earlier influences – either wouldn’t, or couldn’t. An ending so strong, and so spectacularly keyed into what works about the characters of Jack and Gwen, that RTD would later evolve it into something even stronger.

OUT OF TIME

Very probably the first episode of TORCHWOOD to work on every level, with nary a flaw, and working to the strengths of all involved. A touching, character-centric story that really drills down on the very human responses to two parallel worlds (times, rather) colliding, and refrains from trite moralising. It instead lets the three out-of-time characters play out their frictions with the new world with dignity.

COUNTRYCIDE

No science-fiction is to be found in this very 2000s-horror-styled outing that highlights the aggressively mundane as even more horrific than the supernatural and alien ephemera the team usually deals with. That revelation is so horrible it pushes Gwen to begin sinking into depravities and dehumanisations herself. So upsetting is the episode, that even the climax – which veers into typical Chibnall tonal chaos, bulked up by Barrowman and the director’s glee with with they amplified the action – works as pure catharsis.

CAPTAIN JACK HARKNESS

This episode may have lost the Hugo to Steven Moffat’s BLINK, which did a similarly temporal criss-crossing story, but it’s a reliably strong character-centric outing from Catherine Tregenna. She brings Jack back to his origin point on DOCTOR WHO, and in doing so highlights just how much he’s developed since that go-around of World War II, and how he can be situated to progress and develop further. All that, and a love story too. And some soapy nonsense back at the Hub.

GHOST MACHINE

Oddly-paced, with a bizarrely overlong first act, but a strong story that finds space to humanise the characters (Gwen’s slow introduction into weaponry, Owen’s shaken outrage over a crime long forgotten) while doing a compelling sci-fi riff on a ghost story.

EVERYTHING CHANGES

A very assured, very Russell T Davies opening, very much in the vein of the companion introduction of the ROSE episode that revived DOCTOR WHO in 2005, but grounded in the aesthetic and concerns that will shape TORCHWOOD as a series. The roteness of a ‘call to adventure’ narrative is subverted not by the show’s unique setting, but its willingness to depict the strange secondary world the show operates in as genuinely horrifying – cue Gwen as a would-be humanising force, and the series proper.

GREEKS BEARING GIFTS

Were the disastrously transphobic out-of-character scene to be excised, it’s a wise episode that puts the spotlight on Naoko Mori. While the scripting and performance struggles to make the episode’s antagonist more than a stereotype, the central conceit of the amulet emphasises the strength of the show’s regular characters.

RANDOM SHOES

The fundamentally creepy nature of the Eugene/Gwen (lack of) relationship, as well as the sappiness of the ending, both really do not work, but much of the rest of the episode sparkles along, particularly the lowkey story of betrayal and false friends.

THEY KEEP KILLING SUZIE

Hammers home the ‘mundanity of life is glorious!’ theme well, and ‘not one bit!’ is genuinely glorious itself, but the bulk of the runtime is harried and repetitive

DAY ONE

The show falls over its feet trying to distinguish itself from DOCTOR WHO, but there are some interesting touches like the POV-filmed sequence, and it’s bristling with excitement about being a new show of its own.

END OF DAYS

Some of the madness of it all is enjoyable, but it’s the show trying to be something it’s not (and couldn’t afford anyway), and painfully failing at it. The show works well when it’s not being DOCTOR WHO, but attempting an end-the-world story, complete with massive CGI monster, just does not play to any strengths.

COMBAT

A lazy entry in that 2000s genre of gen X masculinity guff on rich guys needing to beat others up to feel alive and so on, with a truly ugly (yet well-played!) Gwen/Rhys scene that maddeningly isn’t followed upon. All that, and an ending that even Burn Gorman couldn’t pull off.

CYBERWOMAN

A complete and utter catastrophe. The appallingly-misjudged costume for the titular antagonist. The embarrassing tonal chaos that sees Gareth David-Lloyd in the awkward position of trying to act his heart out while John Barrowman squirts barbecue sauce on a half-naked Cyberman pastiche so a to-be-CGI’d pterodactyl will gorge itself on her. It doesn’t get any worse than this.

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