BBC Video // 2006 // 637 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge John Floyd (Retired) // February 13th, 2008
"The 21st Century is when everything changes!"
Torchwood has all the ingredients to be a great science fiction series. Why, then, is it just a good one?
A secret organization operating near a rift in time and space in Cardiff, Wales, investigates incidents of alien contact and defends the Earth against invasion from the stars.
Included in this set:
* "Everything Changes"
* "Day One"
* "Ghost Machine"
* "Small Worlds"
* "Greeks Bearing Gifts"
* "They Keep Killing Suzie"
* "Random Shoes"
* "Out of Time"
* "Captain Jack Harkness"
* "End of Days"
* "Torchwood: Declassified"
I'll confess here to being one of those viewers who felt that the character of Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and his overt sexuality were out of place on the first season of the new Doctor Who. I personally have no problem with Jack's orientation (or relative lack of one, to be more precise), but such themes are best explored on more adult-oriented shows, and Doctor Who (though many fans will never admit it) is still primarily a children's program. Making matters worse was the fact that Jack was a very smug and self-satisfied fellow who wasn't necessarily easy to like during the character's first few adventures.
Torchwood, on the other hand, is the right place to explore the more mature aspects of the immortal time agent's personality. Barrowman is given the opportunity to play the "quirky, mysterious man from space" role reserved for the Doctor himself on that other series, and he acquits himself nicely. Exhibiting both ruthlessness and vulnerability missing from his earlier appearances, Jack quickly transforms from a one-note character into an intriguing and fully developed sci-fi hero in Season One of his own show.
Barrowman is not alone in his notable performance and layered characterization. In a nice bit of symmetry, Eve Myles (who appeared as a chambermaid in the Doctor Who episode "The Unquiet Dead," which introduced the rift) plays Gwen Cooper, a Cardiff police constable who, like Billie Piper's shop girl Rose Tyler in the parent show, inadvertently becomes caught up in all of the weirdness and soon finds herself fighting monsters from beyond the stars. The first episode, "Everything Changes," so closely mirrors the initial installment of the new Who (entitled simply "Rose") that fans might be a bit shocked when they later see Gwen lustfully kissing a young woman and cheating on her loving boyfriend with a Torchwood co-worker. Though some of these plot twists at times impair the audience's ability to feel complete sympathy for the character, Myles is rock solid throughout the entire season.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, which only serves to make the show's shortcomings that much more frustrating. Even with so many talented young actors working on a program laden with fan-friendly references to Doctor Who, and produced by the man who gave that series new life, Torchwood can't quite overcome some fundamental flaws in logic. For instance, why do the members of such a secret organization ride around in a vehicle clearly marked with the company name and flash their credentials to virtually everyone they meet? As if this cavalier behavior weren't bad enough, every member of the team at one time or another betrays their teammates and the sanctity of their organization for personal reasons, making one wonder just why Jack recruited them in the first place. Season One relies so heavily on this utter lack of discipline and institutional loyalty to further its plotlines that it's difficult to imagine Torchwood successfully hiding its existence from anyone on Earth, much less in Wales itself.
Also plaguing the show in its freshman campaign is uneven writing. While the best episodes (including the underrated "Greeks Bearing Gifts" and "They Keep Killing Suzie") carry their plots out to credible and satisfying conclusions, there are several stories tht end on false notes or take regrettable turns for the worse on the way there. The climactic twist in the pilot may set the stage for one of the best entries of the year, but it is a highly improbable and rather odd narrative device for the series' first episode. "Ghost Machine" is a tense and creepy pseudo-time travel story that comes crashing down in the final moments with a needlessly bleak ending and a hokey, unsatisfying coda. Similarly, the eerie "Small Worlds" peters out at its climax, and employs one of producer Russell T. Davies' most overused clichés, aliens from "the beginning of time" (a contrivance attached to more than one extraterrestrial menace in this single season). "Countrycide" is one seriously scary twist on survival horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes -- until we find out in the closing moments that it's more like those films than a science fiction story ought to be. Throughout the season, the writers lean a bit too heavily on four-letter expletives and sexual antics to fill the moments in between gun battles and monster scenes, undermining the realism that such adult elements are supposed to bring to the mix.
The real problem with the show, however, lies in its mostly grim and heavy-handed tone. Even in his best episodes of Doctor Who, Davies has had difficulty balancing serious drama and broad fantasy, his affinity for somber, tear-filled endings being that award-winning series' one troubling weakness. Freed from any mandate to recapture the innocent spirit of the glory days of the "Whoniverse" by Torchwood's inherently adult nature, the producer overindulges his characters in moments of despair, grief, and hopelessness despite the fact that every member of the team except Gwen (who was a cop prior to coming on board) has presumably been with the organization for some time and should by now be somewhat accustomed to the uglier aspects of the job. There are sporadic (and often quite good) light touches to break the tension, but generally Torchwood foregoes any sense of wonder or excitement for the fantastic in favor of sadness and dread. While laboring to keep the stories grounded in the life-or-death real world is admirable from a dramatic standpoint, it ignores one very important rule of fantasy series television: if the ride isn't fun, the viewer will eventually get off.
Torchwood: The Complete First Season is, like all serial dramas, not meant to be watched in one sitting. The story quality does show consistent improvement as the season progresses, and the season-ending cliffhanger is very good. As with most of the BBC's recent DVD releases, this set comes loaded with great extras, including 14 behind-the-scenes featurettes, audio commentary for each episode, bloopers and deleted scenes, and a bonus disc featuring the entire "Torchwood: Declassified" Web series. Everything about the DVD presentation is topnotch.
Torchwood is essentially C.S.I. meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like both of those shows, it is extremely well-acted and loaded with potential. Like the former, however, it too often relies on excessive grimness and gratuitous sexual asides to provide drama, at the expense of any sustained sense of escapist fun. Unlike the iconic program it sprang from (and the other Doctor Who spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures), it rarely leaves the viewer bristling with anticipation for the next episode.
The accused is entertaining and promising enough to be released on its own
recognizance. The makers of Torchwood should be aware, however, that this
court is watching the defendant -- at least for now.
Review content copyright © 2008 John Floyd; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 637 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary on every episode
* "The Captain's Log" Video Diary
* "Torchwood: Out of this World" Featurettes
* "Torchwood: The Team & Their Troubles" Featurettes
* "Welcome to Torchwood" Featurette
* "Torchwood on the Scene" Featurette
* "Torchwood on Time" Featurette
* "Torchwood: Sex, Violence, Blood & Gore" Featurette
* "Torchwood: On the Road" Featurette
* "Torchwood: Declassified" Series
* Official Site