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From Across the Pond: "Torchwood"

Longtime readers know that I have become quite a Doctor Who fan since the advent of the new, reinvigorated series starring at times either Christopher Eccleston or David Tennant. So it was no surprise to me that I fell--hook, line, and sinker--for the Doctor Who spinoff, Torchwood, which premieres tomorrow night on BBC America.

I should begin by saying that Torchwood is not similar to Doctor Who in tone, scope, or theme; in anything, it approximates a winning combo of The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, albeit with a Welsh accent and a quirky, offbeat cast of characters, each with their own cross to bear.

Here's the skinny: John Barrowman (Doctor Who) stars as the bisexual adventurer Captain Jack Harkness, a former 51st century Time Agent and con man who has more than a few secrets of his own under his carefully coiffed head of hair and military-issue overcoat. He leads a team of alien hunters and scientists known as Torchwood (itself, mind you, a famous anagram for Doctor Who), a covert, global organization determined to fighting the invisible war between Earth and alien visitors. (Who enthusiasts will remember the mentions of Torchwood that lurked throughout its second season; the London-based facility itself featured prominently in the Battle of Canary Wharf, where it was destroyed in the two-parter season finale.)

Harkness is therefore in charge of Torchwood Three, a Cardiff-based Torchwood facility that houses a number of alien detainees and performs experiments on technology harvested from these incursions, hoping to arm the Earth in order to fight the future. It's also home to its very own pterodactyl, a collection of alien ephemera, and a troika of genius outcasts--Owen Harper (Bleak House's Burn Gorman), Toshiko Sato (Absolutely Fabulous' Naoko Mori), and Susie Costello (Rome's Indira Varma)--along with receptionist/odd jobs-man Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd).

This isn't a lovey-dovey group of people; on the contrary, they are odd, plucky, and given to some rather serious eccentricities, not the least of which is stealing the alien technology they're supposed to be protecting and using it for their own ends. Owen is in possession of an alien pheromone spray that makes him desirable to anyone he meets; Toshiko uses another device to scan and speed read books; Susie experiments on dead insects with a glove that brings dead things back to life.

Which is how this story starts in the first place. In the pilot episode ("Everything Changes"), written by Doctor Who executive producer Russell T. Davies, Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Doctor Who's Eve Myles) sees the Torchwood gang use the glove to bring a murder victim back to life. This isn't an altruistic assignment; Torchwood could care less about who killed the poor bloke as they are there to test the glove, bringing back the victim for two minutes of post-mortem questioning (too bad they didn't have Pushing Daisies' Ned along for the ride). Gwen's terrified but equally compelled to get to the bottom of this mystery and sets out to find Torchwood and Jack Harkness.

I won't say anything more but, along the way, there's a drugging, some computer hacking, and a rather intense alien attack at a hospital that is both atmospheric and gruesomely horrific. It's rather obvious just what will happen to Gwen by the episode's end but there are some interesting plot twists along the way, including the resolution to that pesky serial murder plot and a rather fantastic bait and switch.

Barrowman and Myles are compelling series leads and play off each other marvelously. Myles' Gwen is all bluster and physicality, running to and fro and investigating just what's going on with a copper's intuition. Barrowman's Harkness cuts a mysterious and dashing figure, aware of more than he's letting on, giving the plethora of places and times he's visited a sadness seen in his eyes. The rest of the gang is equally great, especially Gorman, who continues his streak of playing characters, like Bleak House's Mr. Guppy, that are both odious and compelling at the same time.

As for why the series is set in Cardiff, there's an interesting and plausible explanation going on that's derived directly from the mythology already existing in Doctor Who: the city is itself a site of a rift in time and space and the 21st century is the flashpoint for the coming war between the humans and the extraterrestrial denizens of other worlds and dimensions.

Ultimately, it's a battle that I cannot wait to see. Torchwood itself remains a smart, sexy series that never takes it too seriously, a lesson that many of Sci Fi Channel's series should take to heart.

Torchwood launches tomorrow night at 9 pm ET/PT on BBC America.


Jon88 said…
Caveat spector (or whatever the Latin for "viewer" is). BBCA is applying the shears to Torchwood. Assuming broadcast length to be 42:30, that will require cutting 5 to 8 minutes from each episode (based on timings of eps 1-4 on the screener).
Anonymous said…
Being a big Doctor Who fan I had very high expectations for Torchwood and, luckily, it met them! It's quirky and creepy and fun but different enough from "Who" that you don't feel compelled to compare the two. I've seen the first two episodes and can't wait for more!
Unknown said…
I sure wish my cable co had BBC America.
The CineManiac said…
Having already watched the first season of Torchwood I was going to give it a pass on BBC America, but I think after your review I may just watch it again, especially to see how they cut it down.

I'm assuming they'll cut out the bare ass from the pilot.
For anybody that likes Torchwood, I can thoroughly recommend a six part British series from 1998 called Ultarviolet. It was written and directed by Joe Aherne who also directed several episodes of the new Doctor Who (Dalek, Boomtown, Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways). It stars Jack Davenport (Coupling, This Life) and Susannah Harker (House of Cards).In many ways it is better than Torchwood, it certainly has a more consistent tone - dark and serious. Anyway, it's available on Region One DVD as it has been shown on the Sci-Fi channel. here is the Amazon listing for it.
Anonymous said…
You had me at "Buffy." This is sitting on my DVR, waiting for me. Now I'm looking forward to watching it.
Kevin said…
Actually, the run time on BBC earlier this year for "Everything Changes" was over 50 minutes (including seperate "Next Week" clip and end credits), meaning they cut out about 30% of the show.

It was annoying watching the show and feeling like I'd been retconned myself!
Anonymous said…
Just watched this and I prob. wouldn't have watched if it hadn't been for your review and recommendation. It's not rocket science but it's a fun little sci fi gem of a drama. Thanks for recommending it!
Dani In NC said…
Torchwood received a mixed reception when it first aired in the UK. Critics complained about it being uneven. I personally don't think it is any more uneven than Doctor Who. If you notice, Doctor Who always starts with light episodes in the beginning of the season and then heavier episodes toward the end. I prefer a mix of light and dark in my sci-fi.
As with Doctor Who, the style of each episode is quite different, so you shouldn't necessarily give up on the series if you don't like an episode. When the series aired in the UK last year a lot of episodes got a love/hate reaction, and there was no real consensus about which were good and which not. However, a lot of people who were initially disappointed were more pleased with later episodes (ie episode seven onwards).

My only real concern was that the overall story of the characters didn't make a lot of sense - and so I had to watch each episode more or less as a stand alone story and try not to think too much about what had happened in previous episodes. I think this will be much better in series two - as all the writers will have a clearer idea of what Torchwood is now. Plus the production team have admitted that they made series one very quickly and they will be taking more time over series two.

Regarding cuts, Torchwood ran in a 50 minute slot, with no adverts on the BBC. A BBC America one hour slot will have 46 minutes of programme and 14 minutes of adverts. So the most that will be cut out is 4 minutes. You are NOT missing 30% of the show. Also, Torchwood episodes usually contain a number of aerial shots of Cardiff to add atmosphere, so these can be cut without damaging the plot.

Full length episodes will be available on BBC America On Demand and HD Net (in High Definition). For more details see:

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