TV reflection: “Torchwood” series one

Below is a slightly edited piece I wrote about the first series of the Doctor Who spin-off show Torchwood. I never wrote about any of the following seasons because, frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to watch any of them.

Anyway, here’s my three sentence summary of Torchwood, series one: Life sucks (but death sucks even more). People suck. Plots suck.

The first two points are messages I have distilled from watching the first thirteen episodes of Torchwood. The third is less a message (as far as I can tell), more an observation I have made which holds for more than 92% percent of the episodes in the first season (those that had any plots at all).

It’s kind of an achievement for the writers to take a show with such an interesting, dynamic premise, and make it so utterly dull, derivative, and incoherent. (Ironically, the sole exception in series one is also the only episode which does not feature either alien or supernatural events in its main plot.) Of course, as achievements go, it’s kind of like discovering a way to make plastic bags take even longer to biodegrade—the kind we can really do without.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that the show tries to be two very different things at once. From the promotional material and the lead-in of the Doctor Who two-parter “Army of Ghosts”/“Doomsday” I expected Torchwood to be a large, high-tech operation with near-unlimited resources and lots of high-tech, alien-detecting and–capturing equipment. Something like the setup Angel and company had after they took over the Los Angeles branch of Wolfram and Hart in Angel season five. Or better yet, like the Lower Elements Police in the Artemis Fowl series.

The LEP are a large organization charged with keeping fairy activity secret from humans, or Mud People. Fortunately for them, quite apart from their magic, they’re armed with technology at least a century ahead of ours. This gives them the ability to, for instance, hack into just about every electronic human communication system on the planet, and set off security alerts if they get a certain number of fairy-related keywords. It also gives them cool hardware like flying suits with super high-tech helmets and laserguns with nuclear batteries, and the ability, when needed, to freeze time in a given area for up to eight hours in unfrozen time. (Admittedly this is more Magitech than straight technology. Then again, so is a lot of what goes on in Torchwood.)

The point here is not that the fairies use technology as a substitute for good ol’ human (well, fairy) faculties, but that they use it to cut out the boring stuff like figuring out there’s a troll on the loose and where it is, and getting to it, and thus save the good ol’ faculties for the important stuff, like dealing with a rampaging troll, or a rogue fairy manufacturer, or an American tycoon with his hands on a piece of advanced fairy technology.

With Torchwood I didn’t necessarily expect something that big and far-reaching, but something comparable, and at a comparable level of technology and efficiency.

Instead, what I got was a shoestring operation of five people, whose primary method of investigating possible alien activity and artifacts can be summed up as “poke it and see what happens … but carefully.” Tricorders? Not a chance. Experts? Nuh-uh. Procedures? Sorry, what?

Now doing things low-tech and informally would be fine, it worked for four seasons of Angel and most of Buffy, but in Torchwood, they’ve got all this amazing equipment, some of which they even know how to work. They have the computer skills to hack into Gwen Cooper’s personal computer in episode 1 and monitor alien activity on CCTV, yet they can’t use their computers to, say, analyze how the resurrection glove works, or research what the contents of the comet in “Day One” might be, or postulate a weakness of the fairy creatures in “Small Worlds.” Technology on Torchwood is a plot device, and its usefulness is entirely plot-sensitive.

The really maddening part about all this is that the stories in series one, at least, are more conducive to a low-tech show. I can see “The Ghost Machine” working with an Angel Investigations-style operation. For Wolfram and Hart, it’d be one big waste of time.

So, basically, the stories are low-tech, while the premise and some of the unimportant background stuff is high-tech. This does not make for a cohesive narrative.

Of course, there’s also the fact that you’d have to be crazier than the villains in “Countrycide” to trust any of the Torchwood team with any technology more complicated than a cell phone. These people are hardly CSI: Cardiff. More like the Kardiff Kops.

They don’t coordinate, they don’t plan, they don’t follow any sort of procedure, and they attach more priority to assigning blame than to getting the job done. Some of their crowning moments of ineptitude so far include going into an area where several dozen people have disappeared with no plans, no preparation and no backup, and then letting somebody hijack their minivan (seriously, no alien locks? Not even a beckon call?) Other great blunders of humanity’s finest would be getting trapped in their own headquarters with a homicidal cyborg, getting trapped in their own headquarters by a deceased former colleague, and generally letting their own people compromise Torchwood and/or the Hub every other episode because they’re too caught up in their own neuroses to notice when their friends have gone completely Bursar.

It’s like Darth Dumbass Caedus all over again … and again and again and again. What made it worse in Legacy of the Force is how out of character it was for all of Jacen’s relatives to be so blind. What makes it worse in Torchwood is how in-character it is for the Torchwood team to be so blind.

And that’s probably the best set-up I’m going to get to talk about the characters in Torchwood.

Captain Jack Harkness returns, and almost makes you wish he hadn’t. The fun, light-hearted extrovert last seen marooned on Satellite 5 at the end of the first series of the new Doctor Who, has apparently transformed into a secretive, brooding introvert who makes the Tenth Doctor look like … well, like Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who. (My theory is that this is an unwritten law for all Davies’ main characters, and only twenty-six years of precedent to the contrary have saved the Tenth Doctor from being taken over completely by the Davies Sulkiness Principle. We’ll see how Sarah Jane Investigates goes, whenever I get around to watching it.)

He also has a leadership style which almost puts him on par with Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. At least Mal is competent, in his own sick and twisted way; Jack’s fun, quirky personality from Doctor Who does resurface on occasion, but not nearly enough.

Of course, it’s possible the story editors for Torchwood wanted to suggest that the 140+ years Jack lived through after The Parting of the Ways had drastically changed him. This would make sense, even if it would file under “really smart idea, people (*roll eyes*).” If so, somebody forgot to memo Davies, as Jack is (thank God) back to his jovial self again in the Doctor Who series three finale.

Gwen Cooper is … a Mary-Sue. An annoying, stupid, useless Mary-Sue. Her biggest accomplishment in episode 1 is to get someone else killed. Her biggest accomplishment in episode 2 is to get several people killed. After that it gets better, but only to the extent of Gwen not actually causing other people to die all the time. She’s still useless and annoying. And selfish. Really selfish.

She hits an all-time low when (in episode 11, “Combat”) she confesses to her boyfriend Rhys that she’s been having an affair with one of her Torchwood colleagues. This would appear at first to be a step in the right direction: Gwen owning up to her infidelities. Until she reveals that she’s laced Rhys’ drink with Retcon, and he’s going to forget everything she’s told him. Rhys points out how selfish this is of Gwen, and she replies that she knows. Again, the audience is poised to sympathize with her character, if only a little: she knows what she’s doing is wrong, and she’s sorry, but she doesn’t have the strength to stop herself. While her actions are not admirable, they are understandable, and who among us have not had similar failings in our time? And then the flickering sympathy is again snuffed out: she doesn’t just want to confide in Rhys and then make him forget, she wants him to forgive her and then forget. She demands it. She begs Rhys to forgive her not only for her unfaithfulness, but also for dodging the consequences by making him forget all about it. Because she needs him to forgive her. Gwen Cooper: graduate of the Veronica Mars School of Boyfriend Management. With honors. Even when she’s trying to save his life in “End of Days” by locking him in a cell, does she give any thought whatsoever to his emotional and psychological wellbeing? No, it’s all “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Stay here. Be good. If you don’t like it, tough. Gotta go.”

The only time her character actually works is when she’s teasing Owen about his lousy forensic skills in “Greeks Bearing Gifts.”

Owen Harper is the only consistently well-presented character on the show. He works, for the same reason that the character House works on the TV show of the same name. He’s an incredible jerk, but he’s supposed to be that way, and the writers make that clear throughout the show. Now imagine if House’s behavior were the same, but everyone on the show treated him as if he were only a little rough around the edges, except for the characters like Vogler and Tritter who are obviously villainous. That’s Jack and Gwen.

There is a key lesson for fiction writers in all this, one that even some of the most popular contemporary writers have yet to learn: It’s less important how (im)moral you characters are than how well you understand them. If you know what you’re doing, you can make the most heartless mass-murderer sympathetic, maybe even heroic. If you don’t, then your perfectly saintly character may in fact come out a grade 1 jackass.

Anyway, getting back to Owen, my sister pointed out that he’s the one character on the show who gets what he deserves. Jack and Gwen are jerks and good things happen to them. Toshiko and Ianto are nice and bad things happen to them. Owen is a jerk, and bad things happen to him. Granted, this doesn’t bear out 100% of the time, but that’s the default setting.

Owen also carries the comic relief of the show. Everybody’s funny on occasion, but Owen is the only one who’s consistently funny. And because the writers recognize he’s a jerk, they can signal the audience when he’s not being a jerk, and it’s even more touching when he shows that he can be a sweet, sensitive guy, too. The part at the end of “End of Days” where he breaks down in front of Jack (who he’d earlier shot) is one of the few genuinely touching moments of the first series.

Toshiko Sato is the show’s token black Asian character, and she adheres to many of the big Western (or at least American) stereotypes of Asians: smart, logical, and insanely good with technology (… when she bothers to use it, see above). Fortunately, on those semi-regular occasions when the writers let her come out from behind her computer, she shows that there’s a lot more to her than just the stereotypes.

She’s not just intelligent, she’s innovative. She’s also levelheaded, bighearted, and can be delightfully straightforward. In the episode where she’s given a pendant which lets her hear people’s thoughts, she picks up on a man planning to kill his ex-wife and child in a scene quite reminiscent of that Buffy episode “Earshot.” Toshiko’s response: follow the guy home, wait a suitably dramatic length of time for him to produce the shotgun and go into a pre-murder ramble, and then knock him cold with a golf club. Well done Toshiko.

Ianto Jones is a pretty fun guy … when he’s doing anything more than serving everybody coffee, which is rare. He’s very scrupulous in his duties, but I simply haven’t seen enough of his character to describe him any further. It should give the reader some idea of the horrible continuity on this show when I describe him as having an on-again-off-again dead girlfriend complex.

That just about wraps it up for characters, so let’s get back to the show’s central themes for a minute. We’ve addressed the fact that the plots suck already, and we’ll get back to it later, so that leaves us with two overall messages: “Life sucks” (death just sucks more) and “People suck.”

The reason I count “life sucks” and “death sucks” as one message is because they’re so conflated on the show. The implication of most of the episodes is that “life’s a piece of shit.” When the writers go any deeper into the philosophy of existence, they generally add “but stick with it because this is all there is.” Not even “this is all there is, so make the best of it,” just sort of “eh, life’s pretty bad, but the alternative is even worse so … yeah.” Torchwood as a whole gives the distinct impression of having been written by a group of particularly cynical nihilists.

The nihilists’ cynicism is not limited to the meaning of life, either. It extends into the human sphere, giving us an excessively negative view of human nature. Even when the people the Torchwood team interacts with aren’t actually villainous, they’re almost always selfish, spiteful, stupid, cruel, depressive, apathetic, almost as cynical as the writers, or a mixture of the above.

After a while, you start to wonder why the Torchwood team is so committed to “arming the human race for the future.” This could lead to a message about good humans like the people in Torchwood (who, in the Torchwood universe, are the exceptions to the rule) standing up for humanity because of some sort of misguided species solidarity. A very bleak message, granted, but at least it would be some attempt at explanation. However, exploring why the Torchwood team does what they do (especially if, as the show would have it, most of humanity is so unworthy of their help) would apparently be straying too far out of the writers’ depth, so they leave us with a vague “just because.”

At this point, we’re going to examine a few choice episodes in greater detail. First up, episode 9, “Random Shoes”:

The Legacy of the Force series is, in a word, awful. Horrendous, disgusting, repulsive, and otherwise offensive to the sensibilities in the extreme. Why do I begin this account of an episode of Torchwood by bringing up Legacy of the Force? Because the latter series is mostly bad in context. By itself, it’s problematic, but you have to know and love the characters and the series as a whole to appreciate the monumental vileness of Legacy of the Force.

“Random Shoes” on the other hand, requires no specific context, no overall mythos, no previously established canon to be awful. Anyone at all can turn it on and feel their brains convulse at the offensiveness of it. That’s why, with “Random Shoes,” I now have a new baseline for terrible media.

It isn’t that “Random Shoes” is objectively worse than Legacy of the Force. It’s just that Legacy of the Force is only an insult to Star Wars fans (and not even all of them); “Random Shoes” is an insult to anyone who has the misfortune to see it. I’ve never actually seen Battlefield Earth or probably any of the films on the “worst movies of all time” list, but they’re up against some steep competition here.

The idea of “Random Shoes” is that some stupid, pathetic Torchwood groupie gets hit by a car and killed. Gwen, feeling guilty about the way they all ignored this loser, decides to inform his family and investigate the circumstances of his death. Meanwhile, the loser himself is hanging around as a sort of ghost, and since he conveniently can’t remember the past week either, decides to tag along with Gwen on her investigation.

Cue forty minutes of the most boring, random crap this reviewer has ever been unwillingly subjected to. While Gwen has random, boring encounters with the loser’s family, coworkers, and friends, the kid has random, boring memories of some of the big events in his life which led him to get interested in aliens and eventually Torchwood.

In some Torchwood episodes, the plots are dull and stupid. In others, they’re incoherent. In the rest (with one exception) there is no plot. “Random Shoes” is one of the latter. It consists entirely of the kid bouncing from one memory to the other while Gwen bounces from one encounter with people who knew him to another.

“Tension” is provided by the fact that the kid himself doesn’t remember the circumstances of his death, so the audience knows there must be some big secret to it, including how he came to be a ghost. Except, the question is boring, and within five minutes the audience knows the “big secret” is going to be something lame and anticlimactic. The most you can say for “Random Shoes” is that it delivers on its promises. The photograph of shoes from the title is the prefect metaphor for the episode: pointless, inconsequential, stupid, random and, yes, boring. This isn’t “Rosebud,” and these people are nowhere near to Orson Welles.

And then we get to the final insult, the “moral of the episode” as shoved down the audience’s throat by the kid while he fades away into nothing, like Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. (Another theme in Torchwood is taking a familiar convention, presenting it in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of a well-known work which also used that convention, and then utterly failing to live up to the original, let alone say something new.) In “Random Shoes,” this behavior is particularly odious, as the writer doesn’t even bother to explore her themes properly throughout the course of the story, leaving us with a load of pseudo-uplifting bullshit shoved in at the end. (Think “Love and Monsters” only worse. Much worse.)

Ironically, “Random Shoes” has what’s supposed to be the most uplifting message of the season. Bullshit aside, we are shown that the kid had been on the brink of escaping his unhealthy obsession, and he really cared about the wellbeing of that one coworker. The guilt-ridden father returns to his wife and remaining son (why Mr. Davies, I know you’ve written some pretty horrendous drivel in your time, but I never thought you’d sink so low as to associate with this crap). The younger brother didn’t really care more about TV than the life of his sibling (at least, I think we’re supposed to infer that from the funeral sequence). The friend who was giving Gwen the cold shoulder wasn’t avoiding her because he’s EEVIL, but because he felt guilty and he missed the dead guy.

In short, it’s the one episode which reverses the series’ usual message that “People suck.” It also, if you have the stomach to sit through the final “moral of the story” lecture, reverses the usual message that “Life sucks.” However, the episode as a whole is so steeped in the principle that “Plots suck” as to reduce such cheap attempts at “heartwarming” to an added insult.

Next up is the series one finale, “End of Days.” This episode, like writer Chris Chibnall’s “42” from the third season of the new Doctor Who, gives the impression of being somewhat based—mood-, style-, and plot-wise—on the Doctor Who series two two-parter “The Impossible Planet”/“The Satan Pit.” Unfortunately, neither of Chibnall’s offerings manage to duplicate even those episodes’ minimal charms.

“End of Days” could’ve been a good story, maybe even a great story, if not for a few unfortunate blunders. The biggest, in my opinion, was trying to cram it all into one episode. Abaddon, the “giant monster laying waste to the city” deserved more than the three or four minutes’ worth of attention the episode gave it. A whole episode devoted to Abaddon could’ve better established the monster’s method of killing people merely by casting its shadow over them, could’ve given the viewers a true sense of horror at the destruction it caused, and let the Torchwood team repeatedly try and fail to destroy the beast, sending Jack out on a suicide mission against it only as a last resort. As it was, Abaddon as a Monster of the Week was nothing short of pathetic, and Jack’s plan to defeat it completely ridiculous. The fact that it worked only deepens the insult.

That just about covers “End of Days,” so let’s move on to the last episode we’ll be considering in depth: “Countrycide.”

At the beginning of this essay I said that the truism “plots suck” applies to more than 92% of the episodes in Torchwood. I arrived at that figure by taking 1 divided by 13 (approximately 7.7) and then deducted that number from 100%. I did this because there was exactly one episode in the first season which broke that mold. The episode in question: “Countrycide.” (Astoundingly, this episode was also written by Chris Chibnall.)

The lame pun for a title aside, “Countrycide” is a genuinely good episode. Not a great episode except in comparison to the rest of Torchwood, but a good episode. The plot hangs together, without any of the loose ends or unanswered questions that other episodes routinely leave over. The tension is real, the character interactions meaningful, and the Monsters of the Week suitably horrific.

True, the Torchwood team descends to new depths of stupidity in letting the villagers steal their car, but at least that’s sort of expected in a horror movie. Besides, “Countrycide” is the only episode in the season when each and every character truly gets to shine (well, except Gwen, and even she isn’t as annoying in this one).

Ianto gets awesome points simply for the goofy smile he gives Evan Sherman, the cannibal leader who has Ianto and Toshiko trapped in his house. But then when Ianto gives Evan the classic TV headbutt move, giving Toshiko the chance to make a break for it, his awesomeness in this episode solidifies.

Toshiko is awesome for keeping it together when they’re trapped in the basement and scared out of their minds with worry, to the point of hiding the traces of blood she finds and trying to hide the refrigerator full of human organs from Ianto, who’s in even worse shape than she is. Then, when Ianto distracts the cannibals for her, she gives Evan quite a chase (although she was still stupid enough to try hiding at one point) and a couple good kicks, and basically doesn’t stop fighting until he overpowers her and starts choking her.

Owen has a really cool moment kicking Evan off Toshiko (after threatening to shoot him and not doing it, a tactic he apparently picked up from Jack). He’s also generally funny, as per usual.

Jack also gets an awesome rescue, busting into the cannibals’ house in a tractor and taking them all out with strategic shotgun fire (though why he used disabling shots if, as is heavily implied, he was only going to kill them anyway still escapes me).

However, if “Countrycide” neatly subverts the Torchwood convention that “plots suck,” and proves largely ambivalent towards the message that “life sucks,” it makes up for these deficiencies with an extra dose of “people suck.” If “Random Shoes” is the quintessential example of “plots suck” in Torchwood, “Countrycide” is the quintessential example of “people suck.” Which only goes to show that it matters less how bad your messages are than how bad your plot is.

I’m not saying I applaud “Countrycide”’s handling of its villains, mind you. “Because it makes me happy” is response without answer, without explanation, a total non-reason, in fact. It leaves the viewer with the feeling that, according to the episode “Some people are just evil, what can you do?” which is unhelpful at best, repulsive at worse. Even if we were to accept that some people are “wired” for evil, then how are they wired for it and why? It’s never a matter of “Just because.”

So yes, I absolutely hold “Countrycide’s” messages against it, and the fact that it blazed new trails in depicting the Torchwood team as complete idiots. I’m just saying that while these elements do detract from the episode’s success for me (as does the fact that it’s basically a mini-slasher movie, but only because that’s not my personal beverage of choice), the story is solid enough to hold up despite such problems.

So there you have it. Torchwood: Series One. Twelve episodes ranging in quality from below mediocre to utterly repulsive and one episode that’s actually good.

Of course, some people would say that I’m being too hard on Torchwood. Well I’m not, every word I just wrote is the absolute truth. But quality in fiction is highly subjective, and apparently some people thought that at least the beginning of the season had some merit, or there wouldn’t’ve been a series two. If this review still hasn’t convinced you, then I would suggest watching the first three episodes, and then deciding for yourself whether the show is worth your time. (Of course, if you give up sooner than that, I don’t blame you.)

If you do find this review convincing, remember that this only holds for series one. I’ve heard that some things, at least, do get better in series two. I have my reservations on this point, but I won’t make any commitments until I’ve actually seen it. Till then, I’ll leave you with somebody else’s review of Torchwood. I don’t agree entirely with the review, but I think on the whole, it’s got the right idea.

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2 thoughts on “TV reflection: “Torchwood” series one

  1. Pingback: TV review: Dollhouse season one | tothemarx

  2. Pingback: TV review: Doctor Who the complete series five | tothemarx

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