Revisiting Torchwood: first impressions
The first in a new weekly series of themed Torchwood look-backs, Andrew remembers the Cardiff team's arrival on screen...
Before Children of Earth - even before Wilfred Mott - came Torchwood. It was a brand new Doctor Who spin-off, the first one made for television since 1981's K9 and Company.
Unlike K9 and Company, words like 'dark', 'wild', and 'sexy' were being used to describe Torchwood. For Russell T Davies this was a chance to create drama in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for a post-watershed audience, based loosely on an idea he'd developed before becoming the showrunner of Doctor Who. After making that a hit, he was able to realise his ambition, but due to the prohibitive workload involved he was forced to delegate responsibility. Enter Chris Chibnall.
Torchwood would proceed unevenly under their supervision. Initially unsure of itself, it wasn't until its second series that the storytelling became more assured and confident. Then Children of Earth came along and everything changed once again. Post-Miracle Day, Torchwood's fate now rests in the busy brain of Russell T Davies.
It was hard to predict such a situation from Torchwood's pilot episode, Everything Changes. It introduced us to a group of unpleasant, awkward people that are apparently the embodiments of darkness, wildness and sexiness. PC Gwen Cooper witnesses them at work, and her investigations lead her to an underground chamber crewed by aloof, distant smart-arses with an impressive array of personality problems. It's a slow, awkward journey into their world, and the supporting characters (Gwen's boyfriend Rhys, most of the Cardiff police force, the Weevils) are all vastly more likeable and interesting than all the secret special people with their oh-so-clever in-jokes. Gwen is the audience identification figure here, a stubborn and determined force whose presence forces the team to adopt a new approach to policing space/time flotsam and jetsam. On initial broadcast, the episode is a solid if unexceptional start. It shows promise amidst glaring problems that, viewing the episode now, seem more apparent with hindsight.
The lift onto Roald Dahl Plass is brilliant though, and for once a secret base beneath a major city landmark seems to be a celebration rather than a novelty. It's instantly iconic, turning an already-impressive piece of architecture into a cut-price Cloudbase or Tracy Island; not only is it a real location you can visit, but now it's a secret headquarters. Bonus. And Torchwood know how cool this is. They do, however, think pretty much everything they do is mint, so it could just be coincidence. Where this misplaced confidence has come from it's hard to say, because in many respects they're incredibly bad at their job.
The major early problem with Torchwood, the fictional organisation, is that they're the least enigmatic paranormal investigators ever. They have a massive great car with 'TORCHWOOD' written on the side, order pizza under the name of their secret organisation, and all of them swagger-saunter everywhere. This includes just after they drive as ostentatiously as possible through a police investigation in order to resurrect a dead body. Gwen notices something's awry, and decides to investigate. It's hard to separate my knowledge of what happens next from the potential in this premise, but at the time it seemed like an interesting if familiar setup. It's basically the function Rose fulfils in the 2005 series of Doctor Who, to humanise the flawed genius.
Despite the promise of Gwen shaking up and challenging Torchwood's ways, the most interesting characters are the ones we don't see much of. Ianto is, at this point, the only enigma left. Tosh has the endearing trait of using stolen alien tech to speed-read Dickens, but she also comes across as a sociopath when describing what'll happen to the unfortunate medical orderly who gets to be the first 'Phwoaar-we-can-show-blood-and-spunk-and-guts-and-stuff' death victim of the series.
Owen's character comes across as so slimy that about fifty percent of series two is geared towards making him into a likeable human being, and even this only just salvages him from an audience's first impression. Captain Jack, now that he's in charge of his own show, gets to deliver the big speeches about how great humanity is and run around in a big ol' coat so as not to draw attention to his secret organisation by doing anything so stupid as to stand atop a selection of tall buildings - seemingly chosen for their backdrops - with said big ol' coat billowing out behind him, all dramatic-like. Fortunately Cardiff's CCTV department don't tend to look upwards at any point.
There are several stylistic touches in series one that would be jettisoned as soon as everyone realised they were pointless: aerial shots of Cardiff, the aforementioned standing on top of buildings in big ol' coats, and gratuitous insertion of alternative rock music as a bonus credibility boost.
Critics were also divided on Torchwood after the opening set-up and go of Everything Changes and Day One. Taken on its own, the aggressively stated explicit content seems to drag things down somewhat, being so in-your-face that the interesting aspects of Torchwood almost go unnoticed. As a pilot, though, it sets up the series well and has the hook of seeing how Gwen's arrival will alter things.
Next week, read about what series one of Torchwood did right.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.