We’re three episodes into the “adult” spin-off of Doctor Who, building on the phenomenal success of Russell T. Davies’s relaunch of the much-loved BBC sci-fi classic, so now is as good a time as any to pin it to the table, stab a scalpel into its guts and see what we can find.
And I’ve been struggling all week to articulate exactly what it is about Torchwood that is bugging me. And I can’t.
It’s not just the lazy pilot episode Everything Changes, which is an uninspired imitation of the Doctor Who relaunch pilot Rose, following exactly the same path: A disenchanted woman (Rose / Gwen) is bored with her mundane life and her dreary boyfriend, until she is unwittingly hurled into the life of a mysterious charismatic stranger (The Doctor / Captain Jack Harkness) and a scary yet exhilarating world of aliens and monsters lurking around every corner.
It’s not just the transparent gimmick of having Gwen saddled with the thankless audience POV role, helping us wade through all that pesky world-building exposition. (Just like Rose in Doctor Who). Good writing should cleave to the maxim of “Show, Don’t Tell”, rather than having the characters sitting around explaining everything.
It’s not just Davies’s self-indulgent insistence on having a different member of the core cast engaged in a same-sex kiss in every episode for no apparent reason.
It’s not just the truly risible second episode Day One, which confirmed all my worst fears of what an “adult” show would mean. The orgasm monster, or whatever the fuck it was, was a horrible idea. The men reduced to little piles of dust after climax was a laughable visual. Silly me, I thought “adult” meant grown-up, intelligent entertainment, as opposed to bolting gratuitous sex onto bog-standard evil alien set-ups.
It’s not just the fact that I think Davies has failed to capitalise on one of his biggest assets in the character of Captain Jack Harkness. In Doctor Who, Jack was the ideal foil for the Doctor. Whilst the Doctor is an adventurer and scientist with a dry wit and unapologetically quirky ways, Jack was his mirror image - a swashbuckling con-man overflowing with charisma and gung-ho machismo. Jack is rampantly pansexual, whilst the Doctor is virtually asexual. In Torchwood, Davies has dumped all of that characterisation, and Jack has become a much darker, brooding figure. Granted, there may be a story-driven reason for this, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
And, in fairness, the show is getting better. It has its moments. It’s OK. It’s thoroughly watchable. But I’m still disappointed by the whole package. And yesterday I finally worked out why that is.
Nigel Kneale, the creator of the Quatermass series, died yesterday. And Warren Ellis posted a small obit on his website on Kneale and the cultural impact of Quatermass. Here’s a small excerpt: “…Britain used to shut down on Quatermass night, and it’s all people would talk about the next day.
And that was down to Nigel Kneale, last of a generation of writers for British television who were determined that this common culture should always be entertaining, intelligent, challenging and groundbreaking.”
Ellis nailed it. That’s my problem with Torchwood. Despite Davies’s claims that the show is “dark, clever, wild, sexy”, it’s just not dark or clever or wild or sexy enough. It’s perfectly serviceable, but it is startlingly unambitious television. What could have been a wonderful opportunity to challenge us with a smart genre piece has been squandered on endless sequences of Men in Black running around the streets of Cardiff, labouring under the weight of an oppressive score and some shonky special effects.
In the pilot episode, Captain Jack proclaims that “The 21st Century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready.”
Well, I’m ready. And still waiting…