Appellate Judge James A. Stewart fights for good viewing on behalf of the human race.
Our reviews of Torchwood: The Complete First Season (published February 13th, 2008), Torchwood: Children Of Earth (Blu-Ray) (published August 17th, 2009), and Torchwood: Miracle Day (Blu-ray) (published April 11th, 2012) are also available.
"Torchwood. Outside the government. Beyond the police. Fighting for the future on behalf of the human race. The twenty-first century is when everything changes—and Torchwood is ready."
"Excuse me. Have you seen a blowfish driving a sports car?" a woman in a van asks as she passes a pedestrian.
"Bloody Torchwood," the woman says after they pass. Inside the van, there's a confusion of overlapping dialogue.
This was my introduction to Torchwood at the start of Season Two. I'd heard of the show and seen its characters in guest turns on Doctor Who, the British show from which Torchwood was spun off. However, Sci Fi never picked up Torchwood and my cable package doesn't have BBC America, the series' cable home in the States. Thus, I was curious about Torchwood: The Complete Second Season.
The premise is simple and familiar, best presented in these words from the show: "There's a rift through space and time that runs through Cardiff, and stuff slips through it from other timelines and planets, and it's our job to monitor it." You'd think that any self-respecting alien invaders would have figured it out by now: The Doctor protects London, and Torchwood protects Cardiff, so it'd be a darned good idea to check out the space and time riff over in Edinburgh. Nobody's watching, and you can catch a good fringe show or two.
The Torchwood team drives around Cardiff, Wales, in a spiffy van. They take an invisible lift down to their secret lair in what appears to be a forgotten underground stop. Their tools include amnesia pills, a cryogenic chamber, and a supercomputer. From the looks of things, their existence is known, but no one knows who they are, thanks to those handy amnesia pills.
Does Torchwood live up to the hype? Is it worth a pricy blind buy? As a reviewer who watches a season set in roughly a week, I'll also be looking at whether the show stands up to power watching.
Facts of the Case
Torchwood: The Complete Second Season features 13 episodes on four discs, plus a bonus disc of Torchwood Declassified:
"Sleeper": "Keep her away from me! The woman in the flat," a dying robber says in the hospital. How can the Torchwood team tell the woman that she's got an alien sleeper agent inside her?
"To The Last Man": Tommy, a World War I soldier, is regularly thawed by Torchwood so that he'll be ready to seal a time rift. When the rift arrives, will Toshiko (Naoko Mori, Spice World) let her love for him interfere with his duty?
"Adam": A bad trip down altered memory lane for the Torchwood team has something to do with Adam Smith. Who—or what—is he, and why do they remember him as if he'd been a part of the team for years?
"Reset": Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman, in her Doctor Who role) drops by to say hello, perform an autopsy, and go undercover. People are dying in hypodermic attacks, and Torchwood wants to know: What do they have in common? Alan Dale (Lost) guests.
"Dead Man Walking": When a Torchwood team member dies, Jack has a brilliant idea: use a resurrection glove. Can the Torchwood team stop Death from coming to life as well?
"Something Borrowed": Crashers at a wedding for Gwen (Eve Myles, These Foolish Things) and Rhys (Kai Owen) include an alien baby in her belly and a shapeshifter mom who's coming to collect the tyke—through violence. Will champagne laced with retcon drugs become a new wedding tradition?
"From Out of the Rain": At a new cinema built on an old rift, a night at the flickers releases two Night Travelers from their celluloid cell. Will Torchwood recapture the filmic fugitives before they round up a captive audience?
"Fragments": As team members lie trapped in rubble after an explosion, flashbacks tell how Jack rounded up his team. Who set the explosion and why?
"Exit Wounds": "Everything you love, everything you treasure, will die," Captain John tells Jack. Soon, explosions are going off all over Cardiff, and Jack is buried alive under the city—just before it's built. Will the city—and the Torchwood team—survive?
The season opens with Captain Jack Harkness returning to Torchwood after a mysterious absence. One more mystery shouldn't surprise anyone, since he's a visitor from the 51st century, a former Time Agent, and an immortal. It seems to have been one too many mysteries for Gwen, who has abandoned hopes for a relationship with Jack and become engaged to Rhys, who runs a trucking firm. No worries. Jack's got his eye on another colleague, reserved Ianto. Jack wishes Gwen well, but there's always a hint of jealousy.
There's some kissing and thrashing around, but mostly, the sexual activities of the Torchwood team are revealed in quick exchanges like this:
Witness to Jack: "Your bedside manners were a bitch."
When you hear this one, note the reactions from Ianto, and then Jack.
If you're looking for a new version of Mulder and Scully, the sci-fi couple that'll just be miserable friends until the sixth or seventh season, Torchwood has Owen and Toshiko. Owen's cocky. He says he doesn't need anyone, although that boast seems doubtful by the end of the season. He's friends with Toshiko and always watches her back, but he doesn't want to get too close. Toshiko, on the other hand, wears her heart on her sleeve, prodding him to go out for a game of pool or making his favorite sandwiches when they're working late together.
"Honestly, it's just sex, sex, sex with you people," Captain John says of the Torchwood team, but there's more to Torchwood than that.
Torchwood takes delight in a light, even goofy, tone. Most of the season premiere is given over to loopy dialogue, and Gwen's wedding is played mostly for farce, with Toshiko trying to fend off a guest's advances even as they're trapped in a spider web-like goo facing death together and Jack verbally abusing a female guest and then finding out, to his chagrin, that she wasn't the shapeshifter. "From Out of the Rain" doesn't make sense, but you'll get a kick out of the surreal visuals.
Even so, it's not all laughs—and I'm not talking about the fact that there's more blood spurting than on Doctor Who. There are some real dramatic moments here, whether it be a woman coming to terms with an alien sleeper within, characters considering death after a colleague comes back to life, or the dialogue between a Torchwood team member and a would-be jumper. There are also hints of an ethical sense in dealing with aliens, important since the secret of alien arrival has been getting out.
The show centers around the vain, reckless Captain Jack and his mysterious past. The theme of a character who's a wanderer, forever out of place, turns up here as it did in Doctor Who. However, Jack's not given to brooding, keeping his memories locked away and always favoring action. It seems like he believes that there's no problem that can't be solved with a bigger gun. That isn't always good, since he might try a resurrection glove to bring a colleague to life and raise Death as well, but it makes for a lively hour or so of TV. His convoluted trip through time yields gags, such as the team's discovery of film of his stint with a freak show or his plan to appear at just the right time in the season finale. A flashback in "Fragments," with Jack himself being examined as an anomaly by an earlier Torchwood team, gets a lot of mileage out of his inability to die.
When Freema Agyeman turns up as Martha Jones for three episodes, you might notice that she's a stronger verbal sparring partner for Jack than his regular colleagues. This hints at Torchwood's main weakness: when you create a show around a character like Captain Jack, you need someone strong enough to rein him in.
The ensemble is likeable, though, and they do get some good scenes, especially Gwen, whose relationship with Rhys is often strained by her strange missions. In "Adam," for example, a temporary case of amnesia wipes out her memories of Rhys so that she must fall for him again. The same episode gives Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd, Beethoven), who has limited screen time, a big moment as he deals with terrifying false memories planted by Adam. The timid seeds of a relationship between Owen (Burn Gorman, Bleak House) and Toshiko continue to sprout slowly throughout the season. The characters also are capable of exhibiting a joy of discovery when they meet new alien life; watch Eve Myles' wide eyes in these moments. It's also fun to watch Rhys, the outsider, cope with the Torchwood goings-on.
The look of Torchwood is slick and sleek, with a fondness for shots that make the characters look small against a big, scary world. The night scenes of Cardiff that get a lot of use make the motorways and office towers seem to be pulsing with life. I was distracted by a halo effect that turns up when there are blue backgrounds, but problems with the transfer were otherwise scarce. The sound was handled well, especially in "From Out of the Rain," in which the noises of a traveling show join the music and ambient sound for great effect.
Disc Five presents a season's worth of Torchwood Declassified, segments that average around 10 minutes and provide background on the episodes. Each one discusses key aspects of its corresponding episode in detail. There are spoilers, so wait till you're done watching the episodes to check these out. Among the best segments: a look at Toshiko's tragic love life (Episode 3); how Torchwood stretches its Weevil budget (Episode 7); analyzing character-based comedy (Episode 9); creating a circus on a budget (Episode 10); and the career of PC Andy (Episode 11). These do a good job of demystifying the stunts and special effects.
Tops among Disc Four's extras is "The Life and Deaths of Captain Jack," a biography and timeline of the character starting with his origin on Doctor Who. It includes narration by Freema Agyeman and comments from David Tennant. It also includes tidbits on the show's music and how to explain tricky plotlines to actors. It's a good refresher course on the character. Also on Disc Four are outtakes, mostly the usual mugging and giggles but also including some minor mishaps and Psych-style singing, and deleted scenes, including some risque bits and an extended scene with Richard Briers. All told, there are more than three hours of extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You might laugh at the logic gap when Jack pulls out "rules and regulations" to keep a dead colleague off duty. After all, Jack doesn't seem like a stickler for rules.
Some of you will have noticed that I wrote some convoluted plot descriptions to avoid spoilers, both about the season's ongoing storyline and the explosive season finale. Torchwood does a reasonably good job of sticking to the monster-of-the-week ethos, but it does feel the need to get complicated in places.
Speaking of complications, chances are that if you like Torchwood, you won't like the second season's final twist.
How was the power watching? Excellent. I watched four Torchwoods in a row one night and wasn't reaching for the amnesia pills.
The oddball storylines, action, and general glee of Torchwood make it a good blind buy for viewers who enjoy British sci-fi shows. Professor Quatermass didn't talk about sex like the Torchwood team does, but he'd be at home with their case files. Since the characters still seem to be developing, Torchwood: The Complete Second Season looks like an acceptable place to start.
Not guilty. Let's hope those slow-witted aliens keep turning up in Cardiff for years to come.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
• Torchwood Declassified
Review content copyright © 2008 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.