Saturday, November 04, 2006


Dear me, it's been a while since I posted here. Tsk.

So - Torchwood. We're now three episodes into the BBC's post-watershed spin-off from Doctor Who, and it's a strange beast. Frankly, at this stage I'm not entirely sure the creators know quite what it's meant to be either.

The idea is perfectly straightforward. It's about the five guys who work in the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute, whose job is to investigate alien stuff and store it up for future use. Torchwood itself has cropped up several times in season two of Doctor Who, and in charge of the Cardiff branch is Captain Jack Harkness, who has somehow survived his apparent death at the end of season 1, and returned alive, well, and with superhuman powers to get things ready for some sort of world-changing event that's apparently just around the corner.

The thing is, you could do that idea in many different ways. You could do it as a bog standard BBC sci-fi series like the late, unlamented Bugs. You could make something a bit like X-Files. All sorts of possibilities exist. So far, though, the creators don't seem quite sure which take they're supposed to be following.

Doctor Who was created to be a Saturday tea-time show for all the family, and succeeded brilliantly in that role, crushing everything that competing channels threw at it. And now we have the adults-only version, but why? The BBC already has a Doctor Who for adults. It's called Doctor Who. They watch it in their millions. That's precisely why the BBC think there's a market for an adult-targetted spin-off, but who ever watched an episode of Doctor Who and thought "You know, this would be better with tits, swearing and a bit more blood?" It's just not that kind of show.

At its best, Torchwood is basically just Doctor Who, only a bit more sophisticated. It wouldn't look entirely out of place in US primetime, where they evidently aspire to sell it (the running time is 50 minutes, leaving space for American adverts). That's probably the right way to play it. It's got decent performances all round, and the characters have potential as a team. Episode 3 is by far the best, since it makes some proper effort to flesh out one of the B-characters, and it's structured more like an adult drama than an episode of Doctor Who. It's not desperately original, but it works.

On the other hand, we also have some obvious copying of the Doctor Who template. Episode 1 has the "spunky neophyte female lead discovers strangeness and joins in" structure lifted wholesale from the first episode of Doctor Who, and despite it being a nominal team show, it's clearly focussed around Captain Jack in the enigmatic alpha male alien role, and Gwen as the young female sidekick, complete with irritating moron boyfriend, with only one of the other characters getting any noticeable screen time. (Poor Toshiko seems to serve no purpose whatsoever, other than to deliver expository dialogue, and to not be white.)

Then there are glaringly horrid instances of the show trying its best to be "adult" even though it doesn't know why. Episode 2, "Day One", is appallingly misguided on almost every level. Although written with the style and sophistication of a typical Doctor Who tea-time episode, the plot involves an alien coming to Cardiff to feed off orgasmic energy, possessing the body of a teenage girl, and sending her on a mission to kill men by fucking them to death and absorbing their energy. Somewhere along the line she snogs Gwen as well, for no terribly clear reason other than to get a bit of open-minded lesbianism onto the screen.

Now... really. This is a concept straight out of the grimmest depths of fanfic, which should never have been commissioned at all. But to put it on in episode 2, when the show is still finding its feet and defining its tone? Absurd. It's Lesbo Sluts from Outer Space, for crying out loud! It's something that you'd pitch to an adult Doctor Who spin-off as a joke to see whether they'd take it seriously. But there's not even a hint of irony in the broadcast product.

And then there's Cardiff. Cardiff, Cardiff, Cardiff.

Torchwood, like Doctor Who, is made by BBC Wales. The real reason this series is set in Cardiff is budgetary - it's the nearest major city. That's also the reason why the good Doctor has fought a surprising amount of Welsh-related evil over the last couple of years. The problem is that, whatever BBC Wales may think, Cardiff still registers in the minds of most non-Welsh viewers as terribly provincial. Of course, logically any location is equally unlikely as the setting for repeated alien invaders, but London and New York can get away with it because most of us don't experience them as real places, only as shared reference points from TV and movies. But Cardiff... I'm not sure what a good American counterpart would be, but readers might like to imagine something along the lines of an X-Files-type show based entirely around the idea of aliens invading Missouri.

Now, some of the creators clearly recognise this problem. They've moved to solve it by giving Cardiff its very own Hellmouth, in the form of the time rift previously established back in the Doctor Who episode "Boom Town." We're told that aliens and technology either slip through the rift or are attracted towards it. Well, fair enough. It's as good an explanation as any.

But the directors persist in pretending that Cardiff is a desperately sexy, metropolitan city, deserving of loving aerial shots and footage of characters standing moodily atop local landmarks. This is just silly. It doesn't work. People simply don't buy Cardiff as that sort of place, which is why they rightly introduced the time rift to begin with. By far the best use of location, in fact, is in the chase scene in episode 3 with characters leaping through suburban back gardens, with Cardiff treated as a sort of generic everytown. All too often, though, the show seems to be on the verge of putting up a phone number for the Welsh tourist board.

The potential is there for this show to be good; the potential is also there for it to fall off a cliff. They just don't seem to know quite what sort of show they're making. If the template is episode 3, it'll be worth following. If it's episode 2, well, god have mercy.