Torchwood has long been a series with multiple personality disorder. From its early days as an adventure anthology series, when it was, as others have commented, “Doctor Who with sex and swearing”, through to today’s polished co-production thriller, writers and producers have struggled with establishing the tone of the show. With Miracle Day nearing the end of its run, though, what happens next?
When Everything Changes first premiered on BBC 3 back in October 2006, nobody really knew what to expect. With the reappearance of Captain Jack Harkness, many viewers may have been expecting a new version of Doctor Who. What they got instead was a team of fairly dislikeable people working out of a basement in Cardiff and swearing at each other.
Within its first few weeks, Torchwood featured pet pterodactyls, half-converted Cyberwomen in metal bikinis, and a sentient sex gas; you can only imagine what parents, who let their Doctor Who-obsessed children watch the first double-bill, made of it all.
In essence, the failure of the first season of Torchwood was down to its mismatching of elements. As fun as some of the individual story ideas were, none of them seemed to mesh, and the disparate elements could have come from at least five different sources. It is fairly widely reported that Russell T Davies has always considered Torchwood a headache, and spent a lot of time after the first series thrashing out ways to improve on the formula and make the show the success it needed to be. That series two gained better reviews and a promotion to BBC 2 is a measure of his success.
A more harmonious team, a greater focus on humour, and the addition of Martha Jones as a temporary team member all contributed to the upsurge in quality during the show’s second year, but there were still niggles. The very nature of Torchwood as an organisation was hard to pin down. The whole organisation of the team was so different from what had been established during its Doctor Who setup, that it was next to impossible to reconcile the two.
The concept of the Rift was either ignored or confused, and the notion of a secret base was more suited to a children’s show than the semi-believable world that Torchwood set out to portray. At its worst, the first two series seemed to combine Scooby Doo with Spooks; at its best, it produced wonderful episodes like Sleeper and Adrift.
It also has to be said that the decision to broadcast edited versions of the episodes in an earlier timeslot was a flawed one. Although the sex and swearing could easily be removed, that only highlighted the veneer of ‘adult’ material in the programme, and meant truly adult storylines had to be sidelined. As a result, the target audience became even more uncertain.
A break in production greeted the end of series two, and a move away from the series for many of its key staff, including Chris Chibnall. His move to Law & Order: UK took Freema Agyeman with him, which perhaps nixed a planned move to incorporate her into the team, along with possibly Noel Clarke as Mickey Smith to replace the characters of Owen and Tosh, who had been killed off.
The question of whether the permanent inclusion of more Doctor Who alumni would have been a good move is one still up for debate. As it was, there were no plans to replace the missing team members, which perhaps stretched credulity a little for the spin-off books and radio stories that filled the gap between series two and three, showing a professional team of alien hunters with no actual qualifications between them. But regardless, big moves were afoot for the future of the series.
That move was to BBC 1, a primetime slot and a weeklong event transmission for Children Of Earth. For this relaunch of the format, Russell T Davies took several brave moves. Destroying the Hub completely, relocating the majority of the action from Cardiff and finally killing off Ianto were all signs that the focus of the show was changing, and so was its style.
Here we had a five-hour storyline that fans and casual viewers could really invest themselves in. From the hook of the children all stopping at the start of the first episode, through to the tragic sacrifice of its bleak conclusion, this was a truly grown-up series, and one which had attracted a whole new audience. Finally, it seemed that Torchwood had found its tone in a more real world than its parent show ever inhabited.
Subjects tackled included the policy of appeasement, the class and education system, and shades of grey in our heroes. It also featured one of the most gripping examples of an alien first encounter seen in any TV show. I, like many others, sat enraptured as the first strange words came from the 456 as it communicated with Frobisher. Beginning to discern its shape through the smoky glass gave me the kind of chill I hadn’t experienced on television for a long time.
Just as it seemed like Torchwood was here to stay, however, it ended. Mainly due to Russell T Davies’ move to Los Angeles, the option of more UK-produced Torchwood was seemingly taken out of the BBC’s hands, and a co-production soon indicated itself as the way forward. In 2011, we have a very different version of the show.
Taking its cue from Children Of Earth, Miracle Day presents one individual story, with many twists and turns and changes of focus as events progress. We’ve had no obvious alien involvement, and Torchwood is now a team in name only, despite the presence of Gwen and Jack.
They work out of various apartment rooms and deserted houses, using laptops and a few items of salvaged technology, rather than a super base of wondrous technology with a half-naked girl chained to an operating table in the basement. In essence, is this what Torchwood should always have been? Should Jack and the things the team face be the only science-fiction elements of the show? My argument is that the Doctor Who link has always harmed what Torchwood is, and that to stand on its own, it needs to continue to distance itself (although it’s been namechecked a couple of times towards the end of Miracle Day).
The future of the series is currently uncertain. Ratings and audience interest in the UK have been solid (if disappointing for the week coinciding with the start of Big Brother), and also respectable in the US. The only question mark appears to be who would take charge of it.
Russell T Davies has previously stated that he wants to move on from science fiction and dedicate himself more to other types of drama, and has said that his plans are “To leave Torchwood in rude health”, but Starz (the BBC’s co-production partner) disagree. They have stated that the very future of Torchwood depends on Russell’s continued involvement. Although only writing 20 per cent of the actual episodes in this series, his influence and guiding hand were, of course, felt across the whole storyline.
If we do see a return of the Torchwood team, though, in what format would the show reappear? Could we see a return to the earlier monster of the week format? Given that many series are moving away from the weekly anthology set-up (even Doctor Who, to a degree), this is looking unlikely, particularly given the success that Torchwood has shown when moving away from it. In effect, Torchwood has now become a thriller series, with some science-fiction elements, but also becoming rooted more and more in our own world.
It is at its best when exploring ideas such as what it means to be alive, and whether anyone can truly be to blame for decisions taken by committees. It’s difficult to see how it can do this when it needs to fit in a story about weevils attacking people in the Cardiff branch of Staples.
In my own humble opinion Children Of Earth got the format right, and as good as Miracle Day has got, it took a little too long to tell a similar story in terms of its scope. Perhaps the ideal format would be to tell self-contained stories in two mini-series slots throughout the year? An eight or ten episode series each year, telling two separate stories throughout the winter and summer months, could work well, giving the right mix of variety and in-depth storylines.
Let’s keep the current team, and see them continuing to use the idea of Torchwood as a name only, or perhaps employed by a shadowy figure that we can learn more about as the series progress. The US location also works well, with some occasional trips to the UK, but most of all, keeps it separate from Doctor Who and more grounded in its own reality.
After all, I love Doctor Who, but I’m also enjoying Torchwood more and more. And although the name itself is an anagram of its parent, the series needn’t be.
Read more about Torchwood: Miracle Day here.