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Carrying a Flame for "Torchwood"

Saturday night television has become an oxymoron these days, with networks liberally sprinkling repeats and burnoffs throughout their weekend schedules. But in the age of TiVo, surely there's something airing on Saturdays that's worth the effort, even if you're not sticking around at home to watch it. (Someone has to go out and drink all of those mojitos.)

So it's with much insistence that I tell you to record Torchwood on BBC America, the only intelligent and gripping thing on the telly on Saturdays. I praised the series when it first premiered (an advance review of the series can be found here), but over the last few episodes, Torchwood has managed to further deepen its characters and offer plots that differ in tone each week while still offering glimpses into a tantalizing moral grey zone.

Sure, it would help if Torchwood had aired in the US when it did in the UK (between Seasons Two and Three of Doctor Who), as much of the mystery of what's up with Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) has already been revealed and resolved in the final three episodes of Doctor Who. (If you missed it: Jack's immortal and can't be killed and it's hinted that the former pretty boy from the Boe peninsula grows up in a few millennia to become the Doctor's ally The Face of Boe.) But that's just icing on the cake. To me, the series isn't so much about Barrowman's roguish Jack as it is about the deeply flawed individuals who work for him as part of Torchwood.

In this week's episode ("Greeks Bearing Gifts"), techie Toshiko, on the outs with the rest of the group after discovering that her unrequited crush Owen is sleeping with newest member Gwen, is approached by a woman named Mary who claims to have an alien pendant that grants the user the ability to read everyone's minds. Of course, the gift comes with some sizable strings attached: Tosh has trouble fine-tuning the input and is overwhelmed by everyone's thoughts and she hears what everyone around her--save Jack who is impervious to telepathy--really thinks about her. Tosh attempts to use the pendant for good when she "overhears" a man planning to murder his ex-wife and child and stops the crime but she can't deal with the weight's of the world's thoughts pressing on her constantly.

It also gives her a sobering look into grieving Ianto's head as he clears up used coffee cups. The poor lad finds it difficult to function in the face of his pain, caused by Jack when he murdered his girlfriend Lisa, who had been transformed into a Cyberwoman. It's a grave lesson about getting involved with the subjects they study, a sin that Toshiko can't help but commit when she falls into an affair with Mary... who isn't really Mary but an alien who has inhabited her body for hundreds of years and has been trapped on Earth. Naturally, this creature isn't an altruistic ally for no reason; she feasts on the beating hearts of her human victims and, like any other killer, she's got to be put down by Jack.

Of course, this was nothing compared to last week's episode, "Countrycide," which was one of the single most terrifying hours of television I've seen in years, in which the team investigates a series of disappearances in the country, only to uncover a town's sick centuries-old secret: every ten years they brutally murder travelers and feast on them. No aliens, no special powers, just humans who are far scarier than the alternative.

Torchwood is certainly far more dour and dark than Doctor Who would ordinarily be. These characters are all intensely human and deeply flawed individuals, capable of a multitude of sins. Instead of cataloguing artifacts and celebrating their victories by going down the pub, the employees of Torchwood find themselves inexplicably changed by their interactions with alien culture, their outlooks subtly altered by what they've seen and experienced. They have looked into the abyss and it did look back into them.

That's perhaps the most attractive element of the series, that these are ordinary people thrust into situations far beyond the norm and the series constantly asks how they cope with the pressure, with the knowledge that we're not alone, and with the notion that we, as humans, are just as savage as the things that go bump in the night.

Next time on Torchwood ("They Keep Killing Suzie"), when Torchwood is implicated in a series of murders, Jack uses the gauntlet to resurrect Suzie Costello to provide some answers, but Suzie has other plans when she comes back to life for longer than the gauntlet's standard two minutes.


For the most part, Doctor Who celebrates both human and alien life. But Torchwood offers a much bleaker look at the universe and follows more of a shoot first and ask questions later sort of approach. They are the protectors of humanity and are constantly on the defense.

In the last few episodes alone Jack has killed two alien life forms (Lisa the Cyberwoman and "Mary" in last night's ep). The Doctor would have handled each of these situations very differently, with execution being the last resort. And that's what I like about Torchwood. It gives us a different perspective into this brilliant world that Russell T Davies has created. Doctor Who is still my favorite sci fi import from across the pond but Torchwood makes a perfect companion for the Doctor!
Unknown said…
I am sooo disappointed that I don't get BBC America. I would so love to view Torchwood especially after the Doctor Who finale! Here's hoping it comes out on DVD and my wonderful library buys it.
The Region 1 DVD boxed set is due out on January 22, 2008. It's probably worth asking your library if they'll order a copy. Also, if you go to the BBC American site and vote for the cover design (before October 26) then they'll enter you into a draw for a free copy.

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