Torchwood - Everything Changes
Much-hyped Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood began on BBC3 this week. In the first of Noise To Signal's episode-by-episode reviews, we answer the question: was it any good?
Some time after being killed by Daleks, revived by Rose Tyler, and subsequently abandoned by The Doctor on a space station in the distant future, Captain Jack Harkness has found himself in modern day Cardiff working for Torchwood. As established in Doctor Who, Torchwood is a top secret organisation dealing Men In Black-style with the various intergalactic flotsam and jetsam that fall through a Time Rift (a kind of torn seam in space and time, but effectively the Hellmouth off Buffy) in central Cardiff.
One of the strengths of Doctor Who has always been the conventions of the series - the central dynamic between the Doctor and his assistant, the cliffhangers, the unreliable TARDIS, the general Englishness and good manners of the piece. Adding serial elements, cataclysmic season-finales, more complex relationships and other such staples of US genre shows made for a richer programme.
However, unburdened by Who's conventions, Torchwood is an opportunity for Davies to create the first completely new and original British sci-fi show in recent memory. It's unfortunate that "original" is one of the last words you'd use to describe it. Which isn't to suggest that isn't plenty to love about this episode - in particular for established Who fans - but I'll come to that shortly.
I assume that most people who read this website are going to be watching the series, so expect SPOILERS ahead.
Police Constable Gwen Cooper is our eyes and ears in this episode. We see her work life and her home life - both of which are fairly badly scripted. Russell T Davies seems to enjoy churning out this kind of bland toss ("What do you fancy for tea tonight what's on the telly eh let's all have a cup of tea and maybe a shag eh what's all this then in the paper about the queen eh it's all mad if you ask me") so the plebs have something to identify with, but as with Who, I felt constrained by it, and not a little bit bored. It's frustrating that Davies feels the need to supply us with another audience surrogate character, and one who is so similar to Rose. I want to see the good stuff!
The good stuff is pretty much whenever John Barrowman is onscreen. Captain Jack is just a terrific character to watch - relaxed, charming, charismatic, always one step ahead of the game. Gwen Cooper manages to spy on the Torchwood team temporarily reviving a murder victim using a metallic glove, and then bickering over what they ought to say to him. When Harkness yells "What do you think?" and shoots a glance straight at Gwen who is on the fifth or so floor of a multi storey car park, it's the first great moment in the show. Barrowman might as well have shouted "this is MY programme! I am in charge, and I am great!"
What else is good? The HQ set is absolutely wonderful; it's detailed and claustrophobic and blends real elements with CG flawlessly. The music is heavily influenced by Clint Mansell's Requiem For A Dream score, but is suitably atmospheric and mostly unobtrusive.
Via an overlong and unfunny scene where Gwen stumbles into the Torchwood HQ and the staff pretend not to notice her, we are given our formal introductions to the Torchwood team, who are all bisexual, morally suspect and obsessed with their jobs. Owen Harper, who looks like a smudged drawing, turns out to be a kind of high-tech date rapist.
Another aspect of the show that really irks is the continuing public denial of the presence of aliens. This is after The Christmas Invasion (wherein The Doctor even said something like, "there's no denying it now! everyone saw them!") and Doomsday, where the skies were full of Daleks and the streets were full of Cybermen. Frankly, to believe as Gwen does that the whole thing was a "mass hallucination", you'd have to be thick as fucking mince. Gwen even strides up to a Weevil (this episodes alien) in a cordoned off area of a hospital and starts asking it for directions. I mean, even if you did assume it was a bloke in a mask, you'd surely be a little bit wary of a mute bloke in a threatening mask glaring at you in a cordoned off and empty section of a hospital? Things like this are simply bad writing, that really hinder the whole show. If the premise doesn't ring true, no amount of set pieces are going to raise it anywhere above the level of "alright".
Clearly influenced by programmes like Angel or CSI that celebrate their real-world setting, Davies throws in a lot of aerial shots of Cardiff at night. While those shows celebrate the seamy underworld of their host cities, Cardiff has never really looked cleaner or more modern than it does here, so quite what these shots are supposed to achieve is a little ambiguous. Is it just for the sense of scale, or just because it looks quite expensive?
Anyway, after a whole load of palaver involving that magic glove, one of the team turns out to be a murderer. It's a rubbish cheat of a twist and feels completely tacked on - the killings were such a minimal part of the episode, that for it's ending to be a big reveal about them feels odd. Perhaps if this had been a two parter, and a little more time had been spent on Gwens investigations, then the next plot point wherein Jack offers her a job at Torchwood wouldn't seem so bananas.
Aside from wander around that big open square in Cardiff going "I DON'T GET IT", what exactly has Gwen done to earn this job? Jack explains that he wants her, with her relationship and ordinary life, to steer Torchwood towards being an organisation for helping people. It's more of this guff that clogs up Doctor Who about human beings and how wonderful they are except where Rose was helping a 900 year old nomadic time traveller alien to be a bit more human, Gwen will be helping a BUNCH OF HUMANS to just be slightly less twatty and obnoxious. I find this idea less compelling.
There's also the matter of Jack being invincible, that while pushing the thing a little bit too close to Angel for comfort, is fairly interesting. It does whet my appetite for Who S3 more than the remainder of Torchwood, though.
The basic premise for Everything Changes and a lot of the specific moments are absolutely great, but it's riddled with plot holes and feels very rushed. Like Rose, it's bearable as groundwork, a necessary preamble to the real meat of the series, but not worth revisiting in it's own right. Despite Davies' flaws as a writer (and while this is a much better script than Rose), he still manages to plagiarise everyone from Joss Whedon to himself), he has proved himself a more than competent showrunner and there's nothing here to suggest that the later episodes shouldn't dazzle.
Except that the episode shown directly after does anything but. Chris Chibnall's script is complete toss, and a quick glance at Wikipedia reveals quite ominously that he's writing quite a lot of episodes. Is he a "Russ" (Russell T Davies) (Rose) by any other name? I do hope not.