Revisiting Torchwood: what series 2 did right

Feature Andrew Blair 5 Dec 2012 - 18:29

Andrew's weekly Torchwood look-back appraises the positives of the second series...

This feature contains spoilers.

We are four minutes into series two of Torchwood and John Barrowman has already chuckled like Sid James, and made a heartfelt plea to his team set to a backdrop of Channel 5 erotica exposition music (‘So, if we subpoena him before the warranty on the chainsaw expires, you’ll get your houseback. Now do me’). 

And - adding to this heady cocktail like crème du menthe to a coke float - comes James Marsters. Swaggering. And being incredibly pithy. This is splendid. Unnervingly splendid. 

Who are you? And what did you do with the real Torchwood

It's funnier, brisk and confident, and tonally it feels completely certain. This is meant to be fun, self-aware, and not a little ridiculous. It's like they've taken Charlie Brooker's 'Scooby Doo with cum shots' description as a mission statement rather than an insult. If anyone is looking to revive the Carry On... franchise they could do worse than to hire Chris Chibnall as a writer. 

However, the cunning trick played during Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the segue into drama after the initial rumpus. In the background is the continual restoration of Torchwood's credibility, so that when the insurmountable odds are overcome it feels all the more impressive. Starting off with a pensioner tutting at them as they chase after a big fish, and then ending with a turnaround and statement of intent: Torchwood are back, and this time they're sassy, likeable and competent. 

Well, not entirely competent. Competent-ish. If they didn't make mistakes it'd be a much shorter programme. Narrative necessity is the most powerful force in the universe, hence the lack of dramas that take place in perfect utopias. In the first two episodes of series two, we see a sudden lurch into unexpected and brutal violence. Team members get shot, necks are snapped, and babies are killed. 

The key change is that violence here is shocking, not sensationalistic. In the case of sick puppy James Moran's Sleeper episode it's frequently horrible, but mainly because of the relationships placed on screen - seeing a father and husband stabbed repeatedly in front of his family is worse than seeing a hospital orderly's throat ripped out in front of a woman he doesn't know. Less ‘War: it’s fantastic’, and more ‘War: it’s really horrible’. 

Also, it turns out that Tosh has a type: Doomed. Everyone she loves dies. Lament out loud. For yes, this is the series where our heroes start having their foibles evened out. 

Of course there are missed opportunities: Adam is a great idea only realised partially successfully, and Matt Jones’ fumbled A Day in the Death makes you pine for The Satan Pit. After his stellar offering for the first series, P.J. Hammond’s Out of the Rain is disappointingly tepid. The main problem is the ongoing arc with Captain Jack's long-lost brother Grey, culminating in his return as the villain in the series' finale. Considering we had the vastly more entertaining prospect of Captain John as a potential villain, the anti-climactic melodrama of the family Harkness seems like a wasted opportunity. 

Still, with more preparation time and plenty of feedback, Chris Chibnall and co. were able to craft a more satisfying and rounded series. It supplied its gobsmackery in the form of death, revelation and horror, compared with the sight of a sexualised Cyberperson fighting a flying dinosaur. Some people miss the nadge-pushing-usery of series one, with its madness worn proudly like bloody post-fight gums, but for those of us who can only take so much brain-fellatio series two was a welcome dose of adult sci-fi/fantasy; its content far closer to what many assumed Torchwood would be like initially.

Making the characters flawed but likeable was helpful. Gwen gets taken to task by Rhys and Andy, her world becoming morally murky as she descends into a more isolated mindset. Ianto is now Kryten from Red Dwarf thrust into an episode of This Life - more brittle, sardonic and reserved, like he's been training at mockery by playing Monkey Island; Tosh sasses people between moon-eyed Owen/Tech fawnings. Though she tells Owen she loves him approximately 1,482,300 times she seems quite well adjusted considering the sheer amount of horrible things that happen to her. 

Then there's Owen. 

Owen's storyline is inspired. Take the least popular character, make him kinda likeable (well, a bit of a dick as opposed to a total bell-end) and then kill him. Then bring him back to life, make him unlikeable, then likeable, then kill him. Again. 

Still flawed characters, yes, but now less grotesquely so. 

Tosh and Owen have to die, because otherwise the finale would have had no impact. It'd just be a strange, melodramatic family dispute that probably could have been solved after mediation from Cardiff Council's Community Safety Team. Tosh losing her death-virginity is grossly more tragic than Owen’s mortal-coil shuffling; although the glimpses of his less aggressive side (in Adam and Fragments) do make you feel sorry for him, no-one can hold a candle to the sheer level of suffering Tosh goes through. If they did it would probably be held directly under her bare feet. 

Plus getting shot in the stomach is unbelievably painful. Ask Tim Roth. 

Series two also leaves several threads dangling that will very likely never be resolved on television. The seemingly ageless fortune teller, the many historical iterations of Torchwood, Jack’s brother in deep-freeze…these are now confined to spin-off novels and audiobooks. Although Grey is presumably now dusty remnants, inhaled by the residents of Cardiff along with the artron energies, dead star matter, and the many dissipated tears of Ianto Jones. 

Surmounted by the onslaught of Children of Earth, series two isn't perfect, but it remains underrated as a result, and offers an intriguing glimpse into an alternate series three. If your only experience of Torchwood is the original run, then seek it out. You may well be pleasantly surprised.

Read more of Andrew's Revisiting Torchwood features, here.

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