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Doctor Who for Newbies: Torchwood


Don’t say I didn’t warn you

As a fan of all things Doctor Who, I felt it was time I turned my attention to the spinoff series, Torchwood. Now, I had actually seen an episode of TW before I saw a single Doctor Who episode, and I didn’t like it. To be fair, it was the final part of a five-part mini-series and I didn’t know who any of the characters were, save one, and I didn’t fully understand the stakes. All this in mind, I still thought it was a bit melodramatic and ended on an extremely dark note. But, again, I’m a completist, and I like the crap out of DW, so after a few months, I thought I’d give it another chance. Luckily, all of Torchwood is available for instant play on Netflix. God. Bless. Netflix.

First some context. In the first series of the revived Doctor Who, a character was introduced in the last five episodes. His name was Capt. Jack Harkness, and he at first appears to be a normal WWII American Air Force pilot on loan to the British. He is quickly revealed to be a 51st Century Time Agent-cum-Con Artist. He’s a roguish character, the Han Solo of the series. He’s morally ambiguous and a bit of a loose cannon, but nevertheless is a loyal companion to the Doctor. Capt. Jack is played by openly gay actor John Barrowman, which I’m sure aided in the decision to make the character Omnisexual (men, women, aliens, monsters, etc.) and added yet another layer to his already colorful personality. The showrunner of the updated series was Russell T. Davies, the creator of Queer as Folk, and I think in general it was a very brave, awesome thing to do to introduce a main character on a “family” show who is GLBT. At the end of the season, Capt. Jack is killed by a Dalek only to be brought back to life by Rose Tyler via the heart of the TARDIS. He is, however, stranded in the far future, seemingly forever. That isn’t the case, however.

During Doctor Who‘s second series, there are multiple references to the Torchwood Institute, a secret organization started by Queen Victoria as a means of protecting the Crown against alien threats, the Doctor among them. In that series’ finale, Torchwood reveals that it takes and adapts alien technology for service to the the United Kingdom, but they are all but destroyed. Or, more accurately, the LONDON part of Torchwood was destroyed. Torchwood 3 is working just fine over in Cardiff, Wales.

And that’s where Torchwood series 1 picks up. In Cardiff, as is explained in a Doctor Who episode, there is a temporal rift allowing time and space matter to travel between dimensions, making it a hotspot for alien phenomenon. This follows the Buffy model of having all the action take place around a single area that happens to attract the paranormal. Makes it easy to keep the location shots cheap; since both Doctor Who and Torchwood are BBC Wales productions, all they have to do is go outside. When series one begins, Captain Jack is the leader of a small team consisting of medic Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), tech-savvy Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori), and stuffy paper-pusher Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd). In the very first episode, they are more or less discovered by Police Constable Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), who helps solve the case and is inducted into the world. Blah blah blah, heard it all before.

It took me about five months to get past the first four episodes. Torchwood was a “post-watershed” series, which in Britain, given the limited number of television stations, is the designation of a show that airs later at night and can have much more adult content, including graphic violence, sexual content, and bad language. I am always up for heaping helpings of all of these, except when they aren’t handled well. It felt to me that the writers didn’t know how to make a show of this nature and as such put in huge amounts of sex unnecessarily, or just because they could. In many cases, the sex didn’t have anything to do with the story and was really more just titillation for the sake of it. Sci-fi writers generally don’t know how to deal with sex. Gwen, who is dating blue collar Rhys (Kai Owen), has an affair with Owen, which is neither interesting nor very important to their characters. There was also, amongst the sex, a fair amount of homosexual activity. One episode finds Toshiko in a relationship with a mysterious blonde woman who ends up being an alien, wouldn’t ya know it? Another ends with a 360-degree camera sweep around Capt. Jack passionately kissing goodbye to a young military man of the same name. I definitely applaud the show for going there, and that much doesn’t distract.

One bit I did enjoy about the series is just how deeply damaged all the characters are. Gwen struggles with her personal life and her work life, Owen hates himself and wants to die, Tosh is crippled with insecurity about everything, and Ianto grapples with his growing romantic feelings toward Jack. We also learn little bits about what happened to Jack after he was stranded in the 24th century. Turns out the time energy that brought him back to life left him immortal, or more accurately, left him with the ability to come back to life after getting killed. He is shot, stabbed, strangled, smothered, and other means of dispatch not beginning with S, only to eventually gasp back to life. We also learn that he somehow got sent back to the late 1800s and has to live through the whole 20th century waiting for the off-chance the Doctor will come find him.

Because of the not-so-great writing and sometimes way-dramatic acting, I’d say I actually liked 2 and a half episodes of the 13. But I kept watching because I heard it got better. At the end of Torchwood series 1, Jack goes off to find the Doctor, leaving his team without a leader. That storyline picks up in the last three episodes of Doctor Who series 3 (“Utopia,” “Sound of Drums,” “Last of the Time Lords”), where Jack does indeed find the Doctor and travels with him and his companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). A whole mess of stuff happens that I won’t get into, but at the end of it, Jack decides he misses his team and working for and with Torchwood and leaves the Doctor to return to them.

But when he does, at the beginning of Torchwood series 2, he finds a team that is at once happy to have him back and resentful that he left in the first place. During this season, the writers calmed down a bit and found their own rhythm. They introduced a few characters from Jack’s past (which is our future… wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey) and strengthened the character relationships. Gwen is engaged to her boyfriend Rhys and eventually tells him about her job. Toshiko tries to confess her feelings to Owen, who just doesn’t get it. Ianto embarks on a romantic relationship with Jack that is allowed to develop naturally. My favorite arc occurs in the middle of the season where Martha, now an agent of UNIT (Unified Intelligence Taskforce), comes to Torchwood to help. During this time, Owen is killed and Jack tries to bring him back to life. It half works. Owen is animated again, but he’s still technically dead. None of his bodily functions are operating, his heart isn’t beating, he doesn’t get tired, he can’t drink or have sex. If he’s injured, it won’t heal. So he has to deal with being the living dead, which doesn’t go too well.

Series two had uniformly better writing and acting, but it was still far too “monster-of-the-week,” and often those monsters were uninteresting. The season ends with Owen being disintegrated and Tosh is killed by the bad guy, leaving Torchwood severely diminished. The next time we see Jack, Gwen, and Ianto is during the finale of Doctor Who series 4, where every character who ever existed reappears. It’s a pretty ridiculous finale that I’ve spoken about at length in other posts. But after THAT, is the five-part miniseries “Children of Earth,” which is pretty damn amazing, I must admit. It’s basically a sci-fi version of 24, which I also loved. The writing is top notch, as are the guest stars. I could try to describe what it’s about, but I wouldn’t want to spoil any part of it. If you like sci-fi at all and think I have good taste in anything, give “Children of Earth” a watch. It’s on instant play on Netflix and it’s only five episodes. What’s stopping you!?!?!

A bit I can’t seem to get past is my strong belief that, while Capt. Jack is a great character, he is not a great central character. Jack works incredibly well as a member of the TARDIS crew but as the leader of this incredibly messed up clandestine organization, he doesn’t compel. Part of the reason ensemble shows like Firefly, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica succeed (in narrative terms anyway) is because they have a very strong character at the heart of the action. They’re flawed, surely, and often make the wrong decisions, but you never question that they are the glue holding the ragtag group together. Jack isn’t that character at all. As I said earlier, he’s the Han Solo of the series. A Han Solo TV show would be excellent if he were out smuggling and pirating it up on the Millennium Falcon, but how boring would it be if the show were Han Solo training new recruits or running a fleet? Capt. Jack Harkness only really works as a supporting character, despite how cool you may think he is. He works in Doctor Who remarkably well, and he works just as well in “Children of Earth” because he’s no longer in charge. Hopefully, for the new series, they’ll keep his character roguish and not give him too much responsibility.

What’s this? A new series? Why yes! After two full years without it, Torchwood is coming back. It’s now a co-production with the American Starz cable network and will be a ten-part arc called “Miracle Day.” The premise is that on one day, not one single person in the world dies. Not a one. That’s a freak occurrence, surely, but then the next day, same thing. And people keep not dying and very quickly the world is overpopulated. Who should they call upon to aid in such a problem? Why someone who can’t stay dead, of course. The series will be written by both British and American writers and will see the return of the remaining cast members while adding a ton of new ones. I won’t say I’m excited, but I have tempered optimism. The show improved every time it came back, and if MD ups the ante of CoE, then we’re in for some excellent crap. The new series of Torchwood is tentatively scheduled for sometime in July.

Man, I do go on.

You’re welcome.


Images: BBC

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  1. The last TW dealt with cannibalism and it was so sophomoric in the” who did you snogg dept” that I almost turned it off before I found out what the mystery was about! The characters are so frustratingly unprofessional it’s eye rolling and the gratuitous snogging/ violence/gore are enough to stop watching it. The acting is poorly done. Believe me, I wanted to like it as the Dr. Who episodes are finished and I liked Jack from DW but alas, TW just can’t meet the same standards that Doctor Who has met for so many years. My advise is to find something else to watch and when you do, post it and let everyone else know! 

  2. charles says:

    omg pleas dr who stay away form torchwood now or you also will be in ruins .. they stepped over the limit lately .. your a family show torchwood at the moment is a porn show please i hope someone who is involved reads this else all is lost in a yr

  3. Derek says:

    Thanks, guys!

  4. Eric says:

    @Derek, Seasons of Fear (another 8th Doctor story) is great. The One Doctor (featuring number 6) is an enjoyable comedy. Kingmaker (featuring number 5) has its moments. Singularity (another featuring 5 and Turlough) is a well-done story throughout.

  5. Kyle Anderson says:

    Good on ya, you did get my attention!
    I’ve not heard all that many Big Finishes, there are so many after all, but I’d definitely recommend any of the 8th Doctor stories, specifically “Storm Warning,” “Sword of Orion,” and “Chimes of Midnight.” McGann really does a great job and truly becomes the Doctor for me. Hope you enjoy, they’re lots of fun.

  6. Derek Martz says:

    This doesn’t have anything to do with Torchwood, but, as it’s his most recent post, I figure this is the best way to get Kanderson’s attention. I want to try out a Big Finish story, so which ones do you recommend?

  7. Tommy says:

    As an American fan,I’d like to see them actually film here in America & not like they did where the plot was in America but actually recorded in the USA. We have Hollywood,California so we’re no strangers to TV & movie making and there’s no reason why we can’t host an episode or two.

  8. Josh says:

    It wasn’t until Owen had nothing more to lose that his character finally got interesting and I was pissed he was disintegrated. Same with Tosh. Children of Earth was super grim. Like watching all of the serious episodes of Cowboy Bebop in a row grim. I thought it was a fantastic idea, and I really hope Starz shakes the crap out of it and makes it a worthy spin off.
    Also, did anyone else think “Young” preTorchwood Ianto was way cooler than suit wearing Jack lovin’ Ianto?

  9. Cheryl says:

    I agree with Nathaniel’s point about Gwen as the main TW character. Capt. Jack’s Han Solo-ness is a lot of what I like about him. Though, considering CoE, I am really interested to see how he copes with his actions and losses. I got my husband hooked on DW via TW, and we’re super excited for the return of both series.

    Thanks, Kyle!

  10. Scott S says:

    I watched Torchwood from the start, and kept watching even though I didn’t like it that much, mostly out of dedication to Dr Who. I didn’t like the first couple of seasons of the new Dr Who either, but that at least did improve.

    I guess Sarah Jane is next, then. Another show that has some worthwhile bits, but not enough without the Dr Who hook.

  11. Eric says:

    I really like Doctor Who’s Capt. Jack, but I’m not so fond of Torchwood’s Capt. Jack. The two just seem like different characters to me. If we could’ve had DW’s Jack in Torchwood I think I would’ve enjoyed it more.

  12. Gospel X says:

    Honestly, the only reason I started watching Doctor Who was because I heard its spin-off, Torchwood, was a dark but straight scifi take on the fantastic DW universe. I had also heard that Children of the Earth was amazing. So I muscled through Doctor Who as best I could over the past six months, and Torchwood’s first series was almost completely disappointing for me. It just didn’t have it. Things pulled together in series 2, though. Then came Children of the Earth. I would say that series alone is best science fiction television I’ve seen.

    My recommendation for any fan of SF is to watch Children of Earth. It’s just that good. Explore the rest of Torchwood if you want, as it adds an additional layer of depth to CoE; but CoE is great television all by itself.

  13. Simon says:

    I hope this is useful. Torchwood is an anagram of Dr Who. Russel T Davis used to send out DR Who scripts in folders labeled Torchwood to help keep the scripts secret.

  14. Alex says:

    I watched all of Torchwood shortly after CoE aired on BBCA. Having missed the entire mini-series I decided to start from the beginning. I almost gave up on the series after 5 episodes, but I forced myself to power through it to find out more back story on Captain Jack.

    The major flaw I saw with the show’s first season is that it was not designed for DW fans. The writers built it to be an introduction to the Who-niverse, and that made anyone already familiar with everything bored because they didn’t care about the world-building which was the main focus of that season. Just look at Gwen, as pointed out already, she was the one just discovering all the wonders Torchwood’s world had to deal with. So rather than jumping right in with stories that developed the characters they had to spend 13 episodes getting everyone comfortable with the world they were in.

    Series two was better because you finally got to learn about the characters instead of the world. And CoE was the best because it was all character driven during the most important parts of the episodes. Now that they have the world established I think the new series should be good.

  15. Galadriel says:

    Thanks very much for a civilized Torchwood summary/critique! As a Who fan, I was hoping someone would write an article like this before I jumped into TW cold. Heard many great things about CoE, so I think I’ll dive in there.

    For those feeling the pain of hiatus withdrawal, I recommend looking up a list of the best classic Who eps and choosing some to watch. Examples: Tom Baker/Lis Sladen in the Hinchcliffe era–weird and fun, you can’t go wrong–Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius… etc. Be sure to listen to the commentaries afterward so your modern-day brain doesn’t take the effects for granted; much more difficult to create then, of course. (And if you’ve seen all those eps, then start on the lesser-known and rarer ones!)

  16. Benjamin P says:

    I skipped over Season 1 and 2 after watching the first two episodes and went straight to CoE, which was probably the best thing I watched all summer (2010). Shame you didn’t elaborate on how good it was at the end of this article.

  17. David Morin says:

    My viewing of Torchwood mirrors yours pretty well. After exhausting the modern Dr. Who’s I was desperate for more and dove into Torchwood Series 1 on Netflix. I had an immediate crush on ‘Gwen’ and Capt. Jack was a character full of possibilities.

    It took me almost a year to watch it all. Hugely uneven writing and acting. I stuck with it but glazed over a lot.

    Series 2 got better.

    Series 3 “Children of Earth,” however, was some of the most compelling SciFi I’ve seen in ages. I watched all 6 eps back to back in one sitting. It was riveting, emotional, excellent storytelling…. I loved it.

    Not sure where they will go with the Starz’ed up Series 4 but “Children of Earth” has made me a life-long fan and I look forward to seeing it.

  18. Jenn says:

    I got hooked on Torchwood after watching Captain Jack on Doctor Who. I really enjoyed the first two seasons. Children of Earth was kind of weird, but stick with it. The ending is really great. Can’t wait for the new season!

  19. Bocephus says:

    I should say that I do think the actors are fantastic and the roles themselves are very hard not to like once you get into the series a bit. but what a waste as well? Why keep a dead character around when he is literally (pardon the pun) dead weight to the show and the stories themselves (trying not to give away too much spoiler) they set up so many little story lines and then by the end there are so many loose ends and forgotten lines of thought that the show can’t help but trip up a little

  20. Bocephus says:

    My wife and I watched through the entire TW series because we love doctor who so much and Jack Harkness’ character was always a favorite, but I wish we had known just how different the shows were going to be beforehand. The writing is so back and forth the first season that its hard to get into it and Jack’s character is just not the same which was a bit of a shock. He’s not the nice jack from DW. By the end of series 2 I was too deep into it to stop but I wasn’t in any way happy about it. Then came the miniseries that ended things. What a depressing way to do it. Its like Moffatt has forgotten how to write a story that makes you smile as much as it makes you tear up in places. The mix of dark to light is just not there . Is it really that depressing in London all the time? And why is it that the TW team just can’t seem to trust each other at all? every other episode they’re acting like they just met each other and wouldn’t trust each other as far as the front door. Stick with The Doctor…he’ll never let us down

  21. Well I guess I’m the odd one out here! I loved all 3 seasons of Torchwood…I thought the characters were great, each had their own personalities and issues which all in all made the show interesting, slightly daring and diverse. Then again, Capt. Jack is my favorite character from DW (besides Ten) and I was all happy like a giddy little school girl when I first discovered TW and I’m actually quite anxious to see season 4 ☺ but I am a bit saddened that they killed off Ianto, his character was finally “getting more action” and I don’t just mean that in the literal sense….in season 2 he was quite funny and was more than just the coffee boy & then season 3 he died! (OOP’S SPOILER)

  22. Great post. I have one little quibble though.

    A bit I can’t seem to get past is my strong belief that, while Capt. Jack is a great character, he is not a great central character.

    I don’t disagree, but I would say that Jack isn’t the central character of Torchwood, Gwen is. He’s exactly as you’ve described him. He’s Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker. That’s Gwen. One of the things that I think works so well about the show is that we basically experience most of it through Gwen’s eyes — through the eyes of a regular person who can barely process all the amazing and horrible things swirling around her. Looked at in that context, maybe the show might seem a little stronger for you.

  23. Walker says:

    Glad to see these articles are continuing, well done and good points all around. I have watched all of TW twice now (once on my own and once with my wife), but it is ultimately a pale shadow of Doctor Who.

    Does this mean you will be watching Sarah Jane Adventures next? I watched one episode, and couldn’t get through any more.

  24. Jon says:

    @wayno: I would start with Children of Earth, because it has the best production values, then watch the other two seasons if you’re hooked. if you read this entire article, you’ve already spoiled all the twists from those seasons for yourself anway.

    VERY excited for the new DW and Torchwood seasons this year. Still think S2 DW was the best thing ever, but will eagerly watching everything that comes out for either of these, even if it involves ridiculous melodrama/crossovers/idiotic daleks etc

  25. wayno says:

    Okay gang here it goes. Need some help.
    I grew up only knowing the Dr from the PBS reruns during the 80s.
    Having been so immersed in Star Wars and X-Men the good doctor was not the right perscription for me. Even as a child I disliked the over all aesthetics and bland character design of the aliens and robots. The time traveling thing sounds interesting and the Queen’s secret Torchwood team is intriguing but I still have a difficult time getting past the hokeyness. The only full thing I have seen was a made for FOX movie years ago when they were playing such terrible crap like MANTIS. I m willing to jump in and check some shit out with an open mind and even endure the weird 25FPS BBC production values of any series past or present. I just wanted to know where should I start? Torchwood? The newest? The oldest? What’s a great introduction that my eyes could handle? Thanks gang,

  26. Robin Burks says:

    I am a huge fan of Torchwood, but I do feel that it didn’t hit its stride until the second season and I, too, felt that Children of Earth was darkly brilliant. I think going into the series expecting Doctor Who is the wrong way to go about it, though! It’s entirely its own entity.

    As far as the new season goes, I’m really excited with Jane Espensen being on board for the writing. I think she’ll treat the show with the respect it deserves and perhaps even bring a breath of fresh air to it (considering the dire ending of Children of Earth, it will need it).

  27. Chips O'Toole says:

    Children of Earth was very disappointing, even for this series. I like dthe series fine, but the miniseries, apart from the presence of Malcolm Tucker (any Thick of it fans about? seek it out), the ending is…annoying. didn’t care for it. Like Capt Jack, though, and the series has its moments, but it isn’t DW.

  28. Kyle Anderson says:

    Netflix started combining all seasons of a show under one heading. If you search for Torchwood, it’s under “Season 3.” Cheers.

  29. Colin says:

    hey, I read this review and it looks like Children of Earth might be the one worthwhile piece of this who show. Now I don’t see it on netflix. Whaa Happenen…..?????

  30. Blair says:

    I know what you mean about Netflix. I watched all the available DW and found myself going through withdrawal from British sci-fi. Started TW because of Capt Jack and found the first few eps hard to watch. Soldiered on to CoE which I am now rationing myself on in anticipation of new DW in April. Glad to know I have something to look forward to.

  31. strutterms says:

    Once again, another lovely and informative article. I’ve already zipped through TORCHWOOD, and while I disagree that Jack’s not a strong enough base to hold the show together? I agree with most everything else. It’s a living learning curve, getting better every time it progresses forward, and I’m dying to see how the next one turns out. It lacks, I think, some of the passion that’s part of DW, but it’s still incredibly compelling.

    TORCHWOOD is my Doctor Who-verse double-chocolate chip muffin: you know it’s really not a great choice for breakfast, but it’s just so TASTY. ;D

    Keep up the good work!