Torchwood: Complete Series 1 Review
The BBC does tend towards getting itself into something of a fuss as regards the promotion of new television shows. Not only does it advertise itself as surely as the independent networks promote chocolate, personal loans and, in shouting this next bit, CILLIT BANG!!!, but it also builds the television of an inverted pyramid, where one show spins off another, which begets yet another. From the bare bones of that third show will often come yet one more. It's like the week after Christmas when, with the turkey curry and cold turkey sandwiches eaten, the bones are tossed in a pot to make soup. Torchwood, one step removed from Doctor Who, isn't quite that old soup but neither is it freshly carved bird either.
Torchwood is an odd show. The efforts made by the BBC and the producers of Doctor Who to flag up their programme were quite extensive. Indeed, it does feel as though all of the second series of Doctor Who was given over to promoting Torchwood. This viewer was glad when The Doctor landed on some alien planet or other as it meant forty-five minutes without some mention of Torchwood. In the end, a good deal was promised of Torchwood. It dated back to a Scottish mansion in Victorian times when the queen was bitten by a werewolf and, it was suggested, contracted lycanthropy and, in the first Christmas special, was capable of shooting down spaceships over London. How did they hide something like that? Well, Torchwood, as it happened, wasn't really all that. That season's two-part finale revealed Torchwood to be little more than an office building in London in which attractive young things flirted with one another via email and were as unprepared for an invasion of Cybermen and Daleks as the average nursery school.
Actually, Torchwood the series was closer to that than the producers might like to admit as the sexual goings-on in this are given almost as much, if not more, screen time, than the aliens. While Russell T Davies must take much of the blame for this, the signs weren't good when the BBC began promoting this show as being an adult drama that would be shown in a post-watershed slot. We may not have been promised serious science-fiction but neither was Torchwood sold on the idea of it Carry On Time Travelling, a saucy little number set in secret lab beneath Cardiff in which a supposedly crack team investigate lesbian aliens and an alien who feeds off orgasms.
Torchwood has a silly, adolescent view of sex, where a quick snog is to be had, where girls laugh about hard-ons and everyone blushes when somebody says fuck. Actually, it's more like a primary school class in which everyone starts giggling when someone says bum. It has the appearance of being done and dusted prior to the BBC deciding that it would be shown in a post-watershed slot, after which announcement the production team worked night and day to assemble, Lego-style, material worthy of the schedule. Where each episode would make for a decent thirty-five minute show, these extra fifteen minutes are those in which there's a bit of swearing, someone looks a bit squinty in an effort to appear seductive and there's the unpleasant sight of a security guard masturbating over CCTV footage. I'd be happier had they just had a naked man simply wander about in the Torchwood building or, Airplane!-style, brought a topless woman before the action for a second or two before exiting the show once again.
Now, I'm not adverse to swearing, nudity or bloodshed but there is a problem with how it's been pushed into the drama, as unwillingly as a commuter being shoulder-barged into the path of an approaching train. In a bid to add a romantic subplot between Owen and Gwen, it has them kiss one another. Another show might have had this moment of romance occur over a dinner or in the final and very drunken moments of a night out but in the very limited world presented by Torchwood, this snog in the broom cupboard comes as an unfinished Cyberwoman is stomping about the Torchwood office, there being apparently no more suitable a time for this development of the characters. And they're not entirely done with it either as an episode later and while surrounded by country cannibals in the middle of the forest Gwen finds that there is no better a time to mention feeling Owen's hard-on pressing into her during that kiss. I'd be rather more concerned about the approaching savages but, then again, what I say and do, unlike Torchwood, is not dictated by a 9pm threshold.
Add to that a tendency to conclude episodes in a manner that the producers of The A Team would dismiss as fantastic and Torchwood, in spite a lot of good ideas, is a bit of a disappointment. In spite of being billed as a collector of alien artifacts, Torchwood don't appear to have very many at their disposal, one of which is the Tenth Doctor's hand in a glass display case, which doesn't actually do anything. There are only three others, one of which they give to the aforementioned lesbian alien while they shoot another one. I would have expected particle beam weapons or plasma rifles but, far too often, Captain Jack deals out the Torchwood brand of justice with a couple of six-shooters. When not letting aliens into their HQ, he and the rest of the team spill about Cardiff and its surrounding area in a Range Rover modded by someone with a Knight Rider fetish and in spite of its opening spiel about being working outside the remit of the United Nations, the government and the police, they don't appear to trouble anything east of the Severn and north of the Brecons. The dearly departed Bill Hicks used to wonder how it was that aliens had such a liking for appearing to slack-jawed yokels in the Southern United States but Torchwood's audience will wonder how it is that they have such a liking for Cardiff.
The shame of it is that there are some very good ideas in here. The Ghost Machine, which allows its users to see back into the past and experience the emotions of the people they find there makes for a good concept but rather loses its way as Owen searches for a rapist. The actual ghost machine is all but forgotten. Small Worlds could have been great, using WB Yeats' The Stolen Child to imagine fairies protecting a little girl but ends with a lot of awful computer-generated beasties hopping about at a barbecue while their victim stares blankly into the distance before simply falling over. Countrycide is good fun for the most part, being a slight return of Dog Soldiers but swapping the werewolves for cannibals while the best episode is one in which the Torchwood team barely feature, something of a reprise of the Doctor Who episode Love & Monsters in which a Torchwood geek, by means of an alien artifact, has the means to look back over his life in a very sweet way after being killed in a hit-and-run. But then there are episodes like the orgasm-hunting alien who heads for the rich pickings of a sperm bank.
And I came to this Torchwood DVD set as one who actually rather liked the three or four episodes that I watched on its original broadcast on BBC3, thinking that people were being very unfair on it. However, having had the chance to watch the entire series, I can now see that lines that I dismissed as not quite understanding during that first showing did actually have a meaning but, unfortunately, not one that endears the audience to the show. A show as fantastical as Torchwood usually sells itself on the audience wanting to be a part of it. Who wouldn't want to drive monster trucks with The A-Team, take a ride in Knight Rider or steal Regan's thunder with a, "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" On the contrary, I'd hate to work at Torchwood, although not for the at-threat-from-aliens reason that you might assume. Instead, the lack of alien technology, the inappropriate swearing - they all but say diddies, fannies and "Wotchit, ya shitters!" - and of either being snogged by Gwen or shagged by the jump-anything Captain Jack far outweigh the risks posed by alien lifeforms. And never mind being free from the constraints of the police, government and the UN, Torchwood are so small a concern that they probably qualify for the tax breaks available for cottage industries. Indeed, the best episode in this series, Random Shoes, is the one in which the Torchwood team barely feature at all, their place taken by a rather endearing geek who, with his alien eye, has as much extraterrestrial flotsam as does Torchwood.
Eventually, one admits defeat to there being anything serious about Torchwood in favour of enjoying the unintentional comedy. The finale is great fun for all the wrong reasons. A rift in time has opened and the past is spilling out into modern-day Cardiff. Elsewhere, this might mean a dinosaur or two but all Torchwood can offer is a few extras in period dress. The black death breaks out and the hospitals await the arrival of Owen and Tosh. It was at that point I actually shouted at the television, "Are you having a laugh...wait for Torchwood? You might as well call Rentaghost!" Ianto tells Jack that cells on all nine levels are full in spite of us not only ever seeing one level but never any more than one cell and even that's made of sellotape, Pritt Stick and a bit of Plexiglass bought cheap off a post office. Eventually, they run out into the streets of Cardiff where a dozen or so extras lie down in the road in quite a leisurely fashion - I think they're meant to be dying - before Jack and the demon Abaddon face one another in a bit of wasteland outside the city. The CG Abaddon bellows, Jack says, "Raaah!" back at him and tries to resolve the question of how might a destroyer of worlds destroy one who cannot be destroyed. Frankly, I'm none the wiser but there were plenty of laughs, not least when it looked as though Armageddon was going to begin and end in a back street in Cardiff.
If anything, series two of Torchwood promises to be very much worse that this with each episode coming in two flavours, one for adults and another, edited for content, for children. Having watched this series and publishing this the day that this second series premieres on BBC2 (9pm), I would suggest that the edited version would be the better of the two, if that it only does away with all the silly swearing and even more silly romantic/sexual subplots in favour of just getting on with killing aliens. Years ago, there was a British science-fiction show for adults but, unlike Torchwood, Ultraviolet avoided the traps of hopelessly unnecessary swearing, some suggestive language and snogging in favour of a well-written story about modern-day vampires. It gets better with every passing year, something that series one of Torchwood certainly won't. And nothing will date it more than Captain Jack Harkness running about Cardiff with a Bluetooth headset in his ear all the bloody time no matter how close his team are to him. When we have UMTS implants in our heads, we'll all laugh at Captain Jack. Perhaps even more than we're doing now.
Torchwood doesn't, you won't be surprised to learn, look so very different from 2 Entertain's releases of Doctor Who, perhaps more at the Earthbound and brasher end of Who but very much like Who nonetheless. With the series spread over six discs and with the extra bandwidth afforded to each episode, the DVD presentation of Torchwood does much better than it did on digital television with a sharper picture, much less artefacting and more detail throughout. However, like Who, the quality of each episode can vary. Countrycide does much with its bleak setting in the mountains and The Stolen Child has a nice fairytale setting but far too often it stays rooted in that dull Torchwood underground base, from which little can save it. The lowest point comes with the CG Abaddon in the finale. I can only assume that the BBC visual effects was otherwise engaged that day and that the Dragon 32 that was quickly procured was though to have done the job. It didn't.
Like Doctor Who, Torchwood has been released with a DD5.1 audio track on all thirteen episodes and while the occasional use of the surround channels is nice to hear, there's not quite enough of them. However, the episodes themselves are generally free of any problems. None of them really stand out, mind, other than The Stolen Child, which makes good use of its ghostly sounds but neither are there any problems with the dialogue and effects being well separated and capable of standing out from one another. Finally, there are English subtitles selectable off the main menu.
Commentaries: There are commentaries accompanying every episode in this set, all thirteen of them, each one of which offer a mix of cast and crew, often with a producer or writer and at least one member of the crew. Anyone with a liking for Saturday night entertainment will be perfectly aware of how John Barrowman loves to talk and he's no exception here, being flippant about his role and what motivates his character but probably also being the best contributor across these commentaries in spite of him only being on two of them. Producer Richard Stokes and writer/co-producer Chris Chibnall are the most consistent with Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner appearing only on the first episode but while it's very possible to appreciate their inclusion on this set, it would take a very dedicated viewer (or simply a reviewer) to make their way through all thirteen commentaries.
Welcome To Torchwood (14m32s): "Unpredictable, sexy and very exciting!" Yeah, that was The Professionals but what about Torchwood? This feature serves as an introduction to the series with Russell T Davies' hype-o-gland having been much stimulated prior to his appearing here. Dark, disturbing, sexy, explosive and a rollercoaster ride are all words and phrases used to describe Torchwood in this short feature, which is very predictable and, having not watched the series, not entirely honest of them.
Torchwood On The Scene (15m42s): A read-through of a script neither looks nor sounds particularly interesting so this wisely moves on from that to look behind the scenes at the production of the series, albeit from the only-slightly-more-interesting point of view of people overlooking the rather threadbare Torchwood set.
Torchwood Out Of This World: The aliens, gizmos and monsters are not Torchwood's strongest points, reaching something of a nadir with the sex gas of the second episode. These five features take a creature each and in footage from the series and interviews explain how these monsters were written into the series. The Weevils (5m12s) open this series but it continues with Sex Gas (5m27s), Ghost Machine (5m17s), Cyberwoman (4m21s) and Fairies (5m15s) before appearing to lose interest.
Torchwood Declassified: The Complete Series (140m14s): Still just selected highlights of the series but edited versions of all thirteen episodes of Declassified have been included here on the seventh disc in the set. I may not think very much of BBC3 but it does a fine job indeed of going behind-the-scenes of Torchwood and Doctor Who with these Declassified/Confidental shows and to have all of them, albeit in reduced form, does allow this set to have a very decent making-of, which takes each episode in turn and has an impressive amount of access at the production of the series.
Torchwood: Sex, Violence, Blood & Gore (15m42s): Apparently, it's a post-watershed show...they say so here. Actually, they make that point half-a-dozen times or more just in case anyone hadn't quite grasped it up until now using some clips from the series to illustrate their efforts to make the series more adult than Doctor Who. Almost all of these come from Countrycide, which is amongst the best episodes here, something that probably doesn't make as strong a case as the producers might have liked.
Torchwood: The Team And Their Troubles: And this is more about the various relationships between the couples, including Ianto & Evan (5m12s), Toshiko & Mary (5m15s), Owen & Suzie (5m43s) and Gwen & Eugene (6m02s) but which aren't always about the sex. And that is, contrary to what I've been saying elsewhere, something of a pity as there really isn't enough in the entire series to sustain five minutes of bonus material on Owen and Suzie. The same could be said of Ianto and Evan - I had to watch the episode just to remind myself who Evan was - with only that of Toshiko and Mary being anything like a relationship.
Torchwood: On The Road (9m09s): ...and their horrible, black car. "It was decided to be an iconic British vehicle!" They should have used a Mini if that was the case, which would have made the show much entertaining. And practical too as the four members of Torchwood, their sixguns and their one remaining bit of alien technology could easily have fitted into a Mini with quite a bit of room to spare. Instead, they went for an SUV. Or 4x4 in English, which you can thank John Barrowman for. Happily, they seem to have indented a large bullseye on the roof for any passing fighter jets, attack helicopters and inter-continental ballistic missiles can feel free to have a pop at it .
Moments In The Making: There are four of these very short features, all of which illustrate one particular moment from four of the final episodes in the series, beginning with A Wing And A Prayer (5m18s) and Fight Night (5m25s) and going on to Officer And The Gentleman (5m29s) and Bombing The Base (5m09s). It is the third of these that's the most interesting with it being about the meeting and the brief romance between the two Captain Jacks with the small number of highlights from the episode combined with interviews to do a better job or explaining that friendship than does the episode itself.
Torchwood On Time (10m11s): Captain Jack Harkness meets another Captain Jack in the penultimate episode of Torchwood - I'm thinking of Mike and Bernie Winters and of, "Christ, there's two of them!" here - with this feature looking at the period setting of the episode.
Finally, there is a set of Outtakes (5m37s), which show the cast fluffing their lines, three sets of Deleted Scenes (11m06s, 6m51s and 14m20s) and a video diary from John Barrowman called, rather predictably, The Captain's Log (10m26s). All of these bonus features with the exception of the commentaries are subtitled in English.
Watching Torchwood over a few days is probably not ideal. As a series of standalone episodes, Torchwood can be fairly entertaining and I certainly thought as much when watching a few episodes the first time around but all thirteen in so short a time simply shows up the problems of the series, of which there are quite a few. So I may not like Torchwood a great deal as a series and perhaps watching it over a few days is not ideal but all credit to 2 Entertain for the quality of this set. The DVD presentation is fine but it's the sheer amount of bonus material on which they've done a good job. I may not, though, be watching the show's second series tonight.