An Essay on TORCHWOOD: Series 2

Neo’s written essay on TORCHWOOD: Series 2.
The show gained more consistency in its second series – but what did it lose? What did the finale mean for the show? What did it mean to cast Spike from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER? Was the focus on open communication and relationship maintenance a worthwhile iteration over the previous year’s consideration of heartfelt mundanity and work/life balance? Did Chris Chibnall write the most nuanced script of a series?
Plus a ranking of the thirteen episodes!

Commotion of Promotion

The first series of Torchwood had been such a success that it was promoted from BBC Three to BBC Two, a promotion that saw it move up from the more informal, looser channel up to a more prestigious, mainstream one. The attempt at doing a darker, sexier spinoff of DOCTOR WHO had proven popular and workable enough for it to have been promoted in this way. The show had found a following, and was deemed suitable to expand further, at least in terms of the audience. ‘CSI: Cardiff’ was workable. People were interested in the velocity of a kebab after all.

In basically every type of show (except perhaps miniseries expanded out to become seasonal television) it is the first series where a show has an identity crisis. Then, the second series sees the elements that work honed, characters further developed, and basically everything done tighter and smoother, with those behind the show more understanding of what works, and confident in their ability to achieve it. Indeed, TORCHWOOD’s first series saw the show try on all manner of hats (sex story, ghost story, horror story, fairytale, Doctor-lite episode as in DOCTOR WHO, Moffat-esque time travel story, etc.), and its consequent whiplash of the ups-and-downs were intoxicating in their madcap ambition. The first series of TORCHWOOD was not always good – indeed, it was frequently quite bad – but it was always interesting in its unpredictability and willingness to try anything, even if that led to the cacophonic tonal chaos of CYBERWOMAN, or the delirious melodrama of END OF DAYS.

CSI: Cardiff

The second series certainly is not in that vein; it is not an identity crisis series at all. Nor is it a constantly interesting series, always exploring new places the show can go. It is most definitely a more comfortable series. The characters are more comfortable with each other, and by many standards the show is more ‘comfortable’ to watch, but so too do the writers seem more comfortable. With less need to prove itself, much of the writing seemed more complacent, turning to derivation. The entire premise of the show is derivative, of course, with it being based on showrunner Russell T Davies’ idea to do a BUFFY-esque serialised sci-fi drama in the UK. Tthe original working title for this show, EXCALIBUR, is outright referenced in the second series premiere! That whole idea of ‘American TV tropes, but in Cardiff!’ was not just a novelty but also a fundamental tension and juxtaposition at the heart of the show’s conflicts and theme of the friction of contrasting worlds jutting up against each other.

However, the second series uses so many stock plots, and outright cribs the premises of multiple episodes from shows like BUFFY, that it feels even more lost than the first series did, in that often it fails to provide any real provoking reason for the show to even exist. ‘CSI: Cardiff’ is a novel enough idea when tempered with an engaging juxtaposition (‘They’d be measuring the velocity of a kebab’), but if it were to be just CSI plots played straight, then what is the point at all? The very intro of the show can even be taken as reflecting this sort of regression into stasis, in declaring ‘Torchwood is ready’ where the first series intro declared ‘and you’ve got to be ready’. It’s absolutely a petty point to make, but it does function as a microcosm of the fundamentally more static and regrettably self-assured nature of the second series. TORCHWOOD wasn’t searching for what it wanted to be anymore. It settled on running stock plots in Cardiff.

(spoilers for the second series – but no further – below)

Avulsion

Or had it? Had the series really settled on running stock plots? It’s impossible to treat the series uncritically in such a way when the ultimate function of the series (however late in production it was decided – and it was, indeed, very late) is to tear down the premise and foundations of the series as it functioned, killing off two lead characters. Killing off one lead character can fuel drama for a forthcoming series while still preserving the fundamental makeup of a show, but killing two…

Those two weren’t exactly expendable to the regular function of the show; they were the angsty second male lead functioning as the doctor, and the timid technologies girl carrying the show’s B-plot of a will-they/won’t-they relationship with him. Removing those archetypes irrevocably removed enough axioms of the show as to make it impossible to earnestly continue in anything close to the same fashion.

Such a firm collapse in narrative fundamentals can’t retroactively make an episode like SLEEPER more engaging, an episode like FRAGMENTS less trope-ridden, an episode like ADAM less derivative but it does retroactively colour the series with a bit more purpose. Well, mostly. ADAM’s a tricky one. Not only did it crib the plot and essential construction a BUFFY episode of the same nature, but also a tie-in TORCHWOOD novel published the year previously!

This was the series with the team most comfortable with each other. After MEAT (where Rhys was brought into the fold), and before RESET (where Owen first dies), things were as close as TORCHWOOD could get to idyllic. Tosh and Owen’s lack-of-a-relationship was bubbling away with at least some promise, Jack and Ianto were basically openly in a relationship, Gwen and Rhys were openly communicating; it was more or less a happy family, with far less of the thorniness of the previous year’s setup (only Gwen initially knowing about Jack’s immortality, the constant lies and underhandedness between characters, team members outright shooting each other towards the end of the series, affairs being had, etc.). Appropriately, the most consistent theming in the series is that of how open communication sincerely benefits relationships, and how necessary it is to prevent relationships terminating.

Open Communication

That theme is the closest thing the series has to a throughline, certainly more than the undercooked ‘arc’ of the difficulties of hand-holding. Ianto being clear with Jack in the premiere gets him the clarity over their relationship that he’d been wanting. Jack being emotionally open about why he came back for his team goes a long way in getting him comfortably back in their fold. The tragedy in SLEEPER comes from an alien sleeper agent’s insistence on communicating with their partner jutting up against their uncontrollably violent nature. The gimmick of the relationship in TO THE LAST MAN (the soldier Tommy only being woken up one day a year, based on an idea James Goss cooked up for the Torchwood website the previous year) enables Tosh to feel confident enough to be open with Tommy, which nets her a relationship, of sorts, and certainly some fulfilment.

MEAT centres around Rhys finding out Gwen’s actual job, and how her openness and refusal to do anything less than include him entirely benefits the relationship so hugely. ADAM literalises gaslighting, memory erasure, and the twisting of emotional truths into a creep of a villain whose final evil act in the episode is to rob Jack of a foundational memory. Tension in RESET arises from the team’s lack of understanding of the Jack/Martha relationship, which consequently makes them insecure (at least until Martha’s openness soothes them), and the antagonists fall into the trope of a company keeping secrets for their own profitable ends.

Owen shuts down and doesn’t communicate effectively in DEAD MAN WALKING, at least until the climax where his (rather odd, it must be said) speech to a sick child and distressed Tosh serve as development enough for him to grapple with a CGI personification of death. The entire concept of A DAY IN THE DEATH is how open communication can, if not heal someone, then at least stop them being alone, and provide much-needed empathy and companionship. SOMETHING BORROWED may conclude with a wedding party being drugged out of remembering anything, but the commitment and openness of the Gwen/Rhys relationship is the driver of the whole story, the comedy hijinks come from the ineffective attempts at lying and misinformation, and clarity of relationships provides heartwarming moments like Jack and Gwen’s platonic dance, and Owen offering Tosh a dance as well. Perhaps the biggest rankling flaw of the second series is how it never addresses that Gwen still is yet to confess to Rhys that she cheated on him with Owen in the first series, at least not without drugging him after, a genuinely misfired lapse that clouds the sincerity attempted in SOMETHING BORROWED.

FROM OUT OF THE RAIN contrasts how Jack played his immortality as a mystery in the first series, with him freely sharing anecdotes and knowledge of the experiences of his long life. Jack’s openness and acceptance of the team members in their flashbacks in FRAGMENTS is how the team was (retroactively said to) have formed in the first place, with the endless despair of confinement away from any interaction played as the horror in Tosh’s flashback, and the gaslighting misinformation in Owen’s played as maddening. Captain John Hart’s clarity about his allegiance in EXIT WOUNDS gets the team productively on his side, and Owen and Tosh’s honesty with each other is what makes their final moments so emotionally productive and powerful.

On the Island

What’s more complicated is ADRIFT, likely Chris Chibnall’s best scripted contribution to the DOCTOR WHO media empire. It opens with an exchange befitting the central theme, with Gwen and PC Andy openly discussing the hardship of his crush on her, and essentially treating each other normally, as mates anyway. But the two stories of the episode (Gwen investigating missing people but thwarted by Jack at every turn, and Gwen and Rhys’ marriage struggling as she can’t untangle her mind from her investigation and he won’t brook her not being present in the relationship) prod at the simplicity and didacticism of the theme.

The marriage story ends well. While Rhys does blow up at Gwen, in an explosive restatement of the key theme of the mundanity of life being the anchor to humanity, the ‘victory’ comes from both her making space emotionally for him and their marriage, and him in turn being perfectly happy for her to vent and share the emotional hardships of her job. But the missing persons story takes a conspiratorial bent, with Jack hiding truths and clarity, obfuscating his role in present-day affairs, his past actions becoming a tension point in the present narrative (a function the character is so effective in that RTD understandably expanded on it in the show’s future).

While the ultimate reveal that Jack set up a care facility for people devastatingly affected by the Cardiff Rift does situate him in a good position morally (and he and Gwen make up perfectly well for that), the episode defies any sort of moral simplicity. Gwen’s revelation of the state of affairs to a mother whose child went missing due to the Rift does not play as a comfortable expression of the theme of open communication being necessary to sustain relationships. The character outright says she wish she did not learn the truth, given the horrific extent to which her son’s fairytale narrative (stolen by the fairies at one age, then returned much later, out of time) transformed him.

It’s no coincidence this point of tension is what later series of the show draw so much out of; the same way that life’s mundanities were not always enough cause for humanisation in the first series, creating a tension point for the second series to develop in demonstrating how mundane work like relationship-maintenance is necessary to that humanisation being sustained. So too does ADRIFT’s case of providing a dissatisfying answer to whether openly communicating is always the solution provide a seed for future series to grow.

Tense and Taut

Points of tension are an integral part to what makes TORCHWOOD work. Things like the surprising inhumanity of UNIT in Tosh’s section of FRAGMENTS, where in the Doctor’s absence their facilities are played as a Guantanamo Bay-esque dens of evil. Things like the close-to-life horror of the depraved animal abuse in MEAT. Things like the fundamental dissatisfaction in Owen’s zombie state, at times a metaphorical representation of the unliving-reality of depression, at times a synecdoche of the frailty of human mortality, expressed through ironically excising its actual stopping point. These are the spaces the show works well in.

And yet…so much of the series is spent on moments that, while they may not be happy or superficially satisfying, are narratively comfortable. Episodes like SLEEPER and RESET regress characters to their stock positions in how their plots force characters into a runaround of tropes. RESET’s shock ending is certainly a fruitful collapse in the show’s narrative, but there’s still forty minutes of an entirely rote ‘evil scientists’ narrative before it, that could’ve felt dated even fifty years previous.

The ‘twisted mirror of the main character’ trope played through Captain John Hart in the premiere works because everyone involved (not just the cast and the writer, but the director and composer leaning in so hard to a western style) were having so much fun, and because casting James Marsters from BUFFY and ANGEL was so on-the-nose that it demanded aping such shows more creatively than just cribbing plots and tropes outright. Nevertheless, the finale did regress to a Cain and Abel narrative drawing from a period of Jack’s history so removed from his characterisations that audeinces had grown attached to that it effectively worked on nothing except the most base narrative levels.

The finale abandoned even those, quickly dispensing with Jack’s brother in the second act as it set to moving Tosh and Owen into position for their deaths. A concept like Jack being secretly, tortuously buried underneath Cardiff for centuries is fascinating, sure. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea that ‘present-day Jack’ would’ve been aware of it for quite some time, given his ownership of the Hub and its vaults and archives since 2000, which would contextualise his relatively muted reaction to such a fate in the finale. But no matter how fascinating a lone concept like that is, episodes in this series often seemed more inclined to go through narrative motions than really probe such things.

The Captain Now

There’s very much the sense that the second series was somewhat abandoned by nominal showrunner Russell T Davies. In his book THE WRITER’S TALE he describes ultimately abandoning an attempt to write the second series premiere himself, resigning to just contribute the first five minutes of it (which are, as to be expected, fantastic and driven and motivated in all the ways so much of the series lacking his touch isn’t). RTD’s DOCTOR WHO media empire was vast in 2008, with the parent show itself, the second spinoff THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, and of course TORCHWOOD, but for all its promotion up to BBC Two, it seemed to mostly languish with not much vision behind it. It almost functioned in the treading-water pattern of a comic or audio drama series that can’t really do much besides provide trope runarounds for characters in lieu of being able to actually progress characters or narratives meaningfully.

DOCTOR WHO co-lead Martha Jones being in a quarter of the series seemed monumental, but it ultimately amounted to little more than making some narrative space for Owen’s zombie arc. Sometimes the show seemed to not even crib from other shows so much as itself, with Owen’s zombie arc recycling elements from the Satanic Abaddon arc in the first series. That was also an odd bit of repetition from writer Matt Jones, who similarly had such interests, right down to spooky chanting, in his DOCTOR WHO two-parter about Satan.

Peter J. Hammond’s second TORCHWOOD outing, FROM OUT OF THE RAIN, sits oddly in the context of the show (no characterisation really even fits properly besides Jack’s), but its clearly driven by imagination and curiosity that the more derivative episodes of the series lack. It’s concept-first and unconcerned with constant serialisation, which feels offbeat and even grating given it sits in the dramatic back half of the series, but for all that (and all the oddness of Ianto getting Gwen and Owen to come to an old cinema showing) it feels TORCHWOOD, and like the sort of TORCHWOOD I’d have liked to have seen more of.

Stories like SOMETHING BORROWED and ADRIFT hone in on key foundational elements of the show (the friction between the mundane world and the aggressively alien one) and do it in a way that’s aesthetically tied to the setting’s geography and culture. Flashback episodes, team personality mix-up episodes, long-lost evil relative episodes, evil version of the main character episodes…those don’t, and grace notes like the tonal chaos of the finale (the genuine sadness of drama of its deaths, with the hilariously misjudged melodrama of its villain – ‘I BEGRUDGE YOU EVERYTHING!’), or the utter commitment of the cast in ADAM aren’t enough to offset that. The joyous genre ride of the premiere is more than enough to justify its derivativeness, and the the madness of a scene like Owen fistfighting a CGI Death does a lot to make the whiplash of DEAD MAN WALKING’s quality variance interesting if nothing else. Still, it’s a shame to see a series filled with competent rehashes where the first series threw everything at the wall to see what stuck. The second series commendably blows it all up in the end, but I wish it could have had more of a uniquely TORCHWOOD road in getting there.

Episode Rankings

ADRIFT

A heady conspiracy narrative with a lot to say about the role of open communication. Jack and Gwen work so well in this sort of narrative that, like with SMALL WORLDS, Davies would take inspiration and evolve out an even greater story from these seeds.

SOMETHING BORROWED

A joyous, heartfelt story that plays so specifically to the cast’s unique characterisations. More than any other episode this series, it screams Torchwood.

MEAT

The show’s best character writer doesn’t just nail a crucial moment in the show’s developing narrative, but smartly glues it to a horrifying, iconic story of animal abuse as well.

TO THE LAST MAN

A rare episode to smartly give Naoko Mori more to do, one full of temporal drama and the grounded pain and awkwardness of naturalistic relationship-writing.

A DAY IN THE DEATH

A very singularly character-focused episode that gives Burn Gorman plenty to do, while finding life in Owen and Owen/Tosh narratives that all too often felt inert in the hands of other writers.

KISS KISS, BANG BANG

Self-assured fun that sags a bit in the middle, but always gets its mileage out of John Barrowman and James Marsters.

ADAM

Clunky and needless backstory for Jack and an overly derivative premise can’t undo how fun seeing the cast play against type is.

FROM OUT OF THE RAIN

It might not work exactly as a TORCHWOOD: Series 2 episode, but it sure does work as a unique, fascinating episode of television. I’m glad that episode of television is TORCHWOOD rather than something else.

DEAD MAN WALKING

The closest equivalent the second series has to CYBERWOMAN in its baffling tonal chaos, but there’s undeniable pleasure in the madness of seeing Owen fight Death, or Martha wrestle with a hand much as Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor did in ROSE.

EXIT WOUNDS

A dull first act of forgettable explosions, a second act riddled with an abominable failure of a villain, an unforgettable third act that emphasises just how much the audience will miss the characters it bravely kills off.

FRAGMENTS

It never rises above feeling like retroactive, needless backstory, and in some cases the backstories feel actively at odds with the working characterisations (planting a Jack/Ianto romantic tension earlier in the timeline is “logical”, but regrettably plain), but there’s some good performances in there. Tosh’s backstory genuinely works too.

SLEEPER

Completely forgettable, but completely serviceable. Could just have easily been a script for THE X-FILES or some such – not necessarily a bad thing so much as an uninteresting one.

RESET

Martha’s return, a genuinely shocking ending, and the few good moments any episode with this cast can conjure up still can’t make this limp vacuum of a story as old as time work at all.

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