Russell T Davies’s new Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood, starts out several steps ahead of the game. Viewers of Doctor Who already know, and presumably love, the main character, and have been hearing about the exploits of the Torchwood Institute since Queen Victoria founded it in the Who episode “Tooth and Claw”. But countering that familiarity, you’ve got significant factors that could weigh the series down.
Set in Wales, populated by a cast mostly unfamiliar to American audiences, and featuring some of the most impenetrable English accents ever, Torchwood might not be as amenable to American audiences as it has been to those in the UK.
The pilot episode, smoothly plotted and beautifully filmed, wisely focuses on Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), whose discovery and investigation of Torchwood serve up the required exposition. We immediately peg Gwen as not only smart and curious, but also possessed of the charmingly old-fashioned conviction that there is a difference between right and wrong. She feels obligated not just to do the right thing, but to help others whenever she can. Gwen’s character is appealing on several levels, not least of which is she’s attractive in a down-to-earth way. It’s also refreshing to have a female lead who is neither leggy nor blonde and who could never be described as “sassy.” Gwen’s live-in boyfriend Rhys (Kai Owen) is sweetly schlubby, and just as believable.
The writing here uses a light touch with balanced doses of humor, awe, and terror, with the occasional dash of gore. There’s also a lot of flirting, but it feels organic to the plot and characters rather than gratuitous. I laughed when Torchwood team leader Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) went on at some length about the estrogen (which he pronounces, English-wise, with a long “e” at the beginning) he can taste in the in the rain, deadpanning, “At least I won’t get pregnant. I’ll never do that again.” It’s the kind of line that Barrowman can just toss off, but that we want to examine: Wait a minute, what did he just say? Never mind, they’re moving on—and so we do, too.
The pace is zippy, but not frantic. In just the first half of this episode, Gwen witnesses a seeming miracle when a metal glove is used to temporarily resurrect a murder victim; tries to investigate the strange team (Torchwood) in possession of the glove; plays follow-the-leader only to witness a gruesome murder, and does a bit of detective work to find out where these Torchwood folk are hiding themselves.
I wonder whether pizza delivery joints in the US would so quickly give up the names and addresses of their frequent customers; I’d like to think they wouldn’t. But such is the simple method by which Gwen locates Torchwood. Notwithstanding anything else you may have heard: of course they were expecting her. She’d been wandering around outside, under surveillance, for hours before spotting the pizza delivery scooter. It’s both silly and gutsy for Gwen to show up at Torchwood’s front door with pizza, but when she’s ushered through the over-the-top security doors, you know something’s up. She wanders, bewildered, through an array of incomprehensible bits of technology, some recognizable, some not. She is the proverbial kid in a candy shop, but everyone’s ignoring her—for about a minute, when they all start cracking up because they can’t keep up the ruse.
Then it’s formal introductions all around, and we learn, along with Gwen, that Cardiff is home to a rift in space and time (first featured Doctor Who’s “The Unquiet Dead,” and several times subsequently), and as a result, alien flotsam and jetsam frequently come ashore there, so to speak. It’s Torchwood’s job to keep the aliens away from the humans, and to scavenge and adapt whatever technology is left behind. They’re led by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), American, but with citizenship; the others are Susie (Indira Varma), second in command, emerging from behind a welder’s mask; Toshiko (Naoko Mori), obviously the team’s computer whiz; Owen (Burn Gorman), a self-confessed prat (he was the one ordering pizza under the name “Torchwood”); and Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd), who’s the front man of the operation, keeping them all on track and cleaning up their messes—though from the pizza boxes left lying around, you can see that doesn’t necessarily apply to housekeeping. As to Torchwood’s ultimate purpose, Capt. Jack’s warning becomes the series’ tagline: “Everything changes in the 21st century. You’ve got to be ready.”
Ah, but they can’t have police constables, even PCs like Gwen who offer to liaise, wandering around talking about Torchwood or sticking their noses into Torchwood business. Jack slips Gwen an amnesia drug, and Ianto accesses her computer remotely to destroy the file she’s frantically trying to write before the drug kicks in. This nearly wordless sequence is spectacular, and establishes each member of the Torchwood team in a few brief scenes: despite Capt. Jack’s insistence that all alien technology remains on base, we get glimpses of each team member exploring or exploiting alien tech for his or her own ends. Toshiko uses an alien scanner to upload A Tale of Two Cities to her computer in seconds; Susie uses the glove to revive a dead housefly. Owen uses some alien pheromone spray to make himself irresistible to a gorgeous blonde. Hilariously, he then calms the protestations of her hunky boyfriend by using the spray again, snagging the boyfriend as well. It appears that omni-sexuality is the order of the day in Cardiff, at least among the Torchwood team.
And Jack, what’s he up to? He’s standing, inexplicably, fearlessly, on the edge of flower-shaped skyscraper’s roof, providing the perfect excuse for some very pretty camera work. The shot pulls in tight and then expands, and nicely flows around him, widening to eventually show a lovely panorama of Cardiff. This swooping wide-shot motif is used to transition scenes several times in the episode, and standing on rooftops is one of Capt. Jack’s favorite activities. (BBC America broadcasts cut these long shots down considerably.)
It seems as if Capt Jack’s drug has worked perfectly until Gwen goes back to work. Entwined throughout all this Torchwood business are scenes of Gwen at the police station, and I’m sorry but I can’t get over the horror of her uniform’s high rise pleated pants and boxy white button-down shirts. It’s not that Myles can’t carry it off; she looks terrific in everything. It’s just that I thought high rise pleated pants were deader than dead, and yet here they are, thriving in Wales. In a supposed backwater like Wales, maybe it’s useful to have such recognizably bad uniforms. There’s no question as to who the constables are; who else would dress that way?
Aside from wardrobe considerations, the Cardiff police have their hands full trying to solve three random murder cases, linked only by the use of a very unusual weapon. Gwen’s fascinated with the sketch of the blade, which seems familiar. She can’t place it, and we get a montage of scenes showing her struggling to remember throughout the day and into the wee hours. Unintentional humor: it’s always 2:00AM when something is interfering with Gwen’s sleep.
The single word “Remember” scrawled across a photo of a civic plaza inspires Gwen to return to Torchwood, only she hasn’t remembered it’s Torchwood yet. Events unfold rather quickly, and Indira Varma really sells her scene here. It works because although we’ve had all of about 2 minutes with Susie before, what little we’ve had has provided a solid grounding for the emotional maelstrom that develops.
There are two big reveals in the final moments of the episode: Capt. Jack connects again with the Doctor Who-verse and references events in
Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways”, and then he offers Gwen a job, which she immediately accepts. The camera swoops away yet again, looping and twirling as it pulls out in the signature Torchwood shot, and thus ends the pilot episode.
As pilots go, it did a lot right: it focused on the two main characters, Gwen and Jack, and established the Big Idea of the series. It introduced the rest of the team and gave us just enough of them so we know who they are without getting overwhelmed with their stories just yet. Barrowman, Myles, and Varma got to stretch a bit. Barrowman seems to be on an extended lark, or is that just the way Capt. Jack is written? It’s hard to tell just yet. Myles is perfect as the directly to-the-point Gwen, and it benefits the viewer having a main character who’ll ask every single question we want answered. Of course this technique won’t work forever, or Gwen will look like an idiot. For this early in the series, it works.
There’s plenty to look at here in addition to those panoramas. In particular, watch for the spectacular shot of Torchwood’s morgue; the remaining sets range from believably lived in (Gwen and Rhys’ apartment) to suitably cluttered with techno-junk (Torchwood’s base.) Torchwood’s Wales is rainy and street lights there emit weak yellow halos unable to penetrate the gloom. For all the dark and atmospheric shots, I didn’t get an X Files vibe once, but that may be because no one pulled out a flashlight, or because Capt. Jack is the only one who wears a long overcoat.
That doesn’t mean it was perfect. The Weevil looked like a typical latex-masked Monster of the Week, which was slyly addressed by having both Gwen and a porter (the Weevil’s eventual victim) mistake it for a man in a very good mask. At first we’re led to believe that the Weevils have something to do with the unsolved murders, but that plot thread was a red herring, or possible foreshadowing. We will see more Weevils later in the season, so we can defer judgment on them till then. Another problem? The CGI pterodactyl.
Perhaps the biggest problem I see in Torchwood is confusion about its intended audience. This is not the family fare of Doctor Who, which never goes further than a chaste kiss and rarely even engages in double entendre. Torchwood serves up the f-word (dropped during BBC America showings, although several instances of “shit” remain) within its first five minutes, and its characters have no problems discussing or displaying their sexuality. Having thus established its bona fides as an adult program, Torchwood can explore more deeply themes that Doctor Who barely glances at. Humans messing with technology they don’t understand was deadly, but not morally perilous, in the Doctor Who episode “Dalek”. Van Statten started out as an asshole and ended up with a memory wipe, dumped along a highway somewhere. But here, Susie’s corruption is swifter, more personal, and infinitely more dark than Van Statten’s recognizable idiocy. Susie sacrificed her own humanity the moment she put on the glove and decided that murder was an acceptable route to her mastery of it.
Like Doctor Who, Torchwood celebrates us; our adaptability, our persistence, our ability to be whatever we need to be to survive. Unlike Doctor Who, Torchwood is willing to poke a stick in the murky places that we try to cover up, recognizing that humans can be more monstrous than any interstellar detritus that washes up along Cardiff’s space/time rift. Each one of us has that monstrous potential. For all that Team Torchwood does to protect the earth, there’s no one to protect Team Torchwood, no Doctor standing between his companions and their destruction. (Capt. Jack is a disinterested manager, not the planet’s—or the team’s—savior.) That gives Torchwood an edge that Doctor Who lacks: we’re on our own here, and we’d better learn to deal with it. But how far will we go, to protect ourselves? The Doctor encapsulated Torchwood’s dark themes when he railed at Harriet Jones in the final moments of “The Christmas Invasion,” after she ordered the destruction of the departing Sycorax ship: I should have warned them about you.
It’s a pleasure to contemplate issues like these, but Torchwood doesn’t seem quite convinced it’s grown-up. Goofy effects like the Weevil—scary when it attacked so viciously, but lame when sedated—and the CGI pterodactyl are simply unnecessary and bizarre. (If only the show runners had watched Walking With Dinosaurs.) Worst of all, Davies seems to think you can’t have drama unless the main characters are racing around two or three times per episode. A well-executed chase scene would be fine from time to time, but I don’t want to see Gwen &co running all over Cardiff as she did in this episode. I’m glad she’s in such great shape, but it’s tedious; can’t the writers find a better way to get their characters from point A to point B?
It’s practically impossible to judge how the series will progress from here. We’ve seen Gwen in her old job, but she’s about to start anew. We don’t really know much at all about Team Torchwood and how they work, or how they work together. For my part, I found the premise to be interesting, and the characters, particularly Gwen, engaging and realistically complex. I love how she’s got a righteous streak a mile wide, but she’ll lie to her boyfriend without batting an eyelash. “Everything Changes” now, for Gwen. How is she going to fit in at Torchwood? Will she be able to maintain her relationship with Rhys? Will she respond to Capt. Jack’s flirtation? How, exactly, does one track down aliens and alien technology, anyway? I’m more than willing to follow Gwen, and Capt. Jack, through the upcoming episodes to find out.