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Got (Torch)wood?

By Matt Kamen     October 25, 2006


Torchwood
© BBC
Torchwood Touches Down

The BBC have this niche little show called Doctor Who – you probably haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. Despite the fact that very few people watched that show, the BBC, being the kind-hearted souls they are, let Who’s creators make another show connected to Doctor Who and Torchwood is the result.

Launching with a double bill on digital-only channel BBC3 this past Sunday night, Torchwood sees the return of Captain Jack Harkness leading a new incarnation of Torchwood in the investigation and reclamation of alien artifacts on Earth. Well, by ‘Earth’, it’s taken they mean ‘Cardiff’ but hopefully the show will venture further afield after a while.

The first episode introduces Constable Gwen Cooper, very much the Rose Tyler of the series. The episode even takes a similar pattern to that of New Who’s debut episode, Rose – inquisitive female is exposed to extra-normal goings on, meets beguiling and enigmatic male lead character, enters his world and sexual tension results. Gwen even has the detachable boyfriend, much as Rose had Mickey. Torchwood is a much darker show than its parent series though and it shows in the central character's background – whereas Rose was a lackadaisical shop worker assaulted by living mannequins, Gwen is an experienced police officer investigating a murder, until she sees the dead victim brought back to life by the Torchwood team. An investigation into the murders leads her back to the Torchwood base where she's slowly assimilated into the team. The 'sense of wonder' that infused Rose's early journeys with The Doctor is replaced with a cautious intrigue on Gwen's part and a jaded indifference from her new teammates. I suppose that direction was taken to enhance the adult nature of the series – if you're dealing with the fantastic every day, the fantastic becomes mundane and the characters represent that, as well as being a subtle commentary on modern workaholic society. It's all very grown up.

Unfortunately, the quest to be more adult backfired with the second episode, which dealt with an alien parasite that feeds on sexual energy. While there were a few moments that touched on the fear of the girl hosting the creature, it was mostly an incredibly juvenile episode dealing with sex in a manner not far beyond the reasoning of a 14 year old. “It’s an alien! And it likes to shag people to death! Oh, and we’ll throw some lesbian groping in there too! Wait – what if the alien shags its way though an IVF clinic? Wouldn’t that be funny and kewl and edgy?!” I'd be hard pressed to consider the second episode to be of any higher calibre than the movie Species.

There are plenty of questions to be answered as the series goes on, chiefly how Jack got back from the future, how he came to lead Torchwood, how Torchwood itself reorganised after the Cybermen/Dalek smackdown at the end of Doctor Who season two and what the Weevil aliens - introduced here - are up to on Earth. Torchwood is blessed with a talented cast and, for the most part, suitably dry and witty dialogue. Russell T. Davies and company have proven to be well-versed in delivering compulsive serial TV so this gets the benefit of the doubt for the time being. However, while its ties to Doctor Who will help carry the series for a while, after two episodes it feels like it needs to find its own identity to have any real staying power. Episode after episode of slightly naughtier Doctor Who stories won't sustain the show once the initial buzz wears down but making it a showcase for 'confiscated alien gadget of the week' holds little appeal either.

Although there are some cute continuity references to Doctor Who, including a certain severed hand left behind after a certain Christmas Invasion, Torchwood is definitely not aimed at the same audience as its parent show. The language is coarser, the violence is more graphic and the sex factor is ramped up significantly. The decision to air on a fringe channel in a late time slot was probably a wise and potentially scandal-avoiding choice on the BBC’s part. Even so, Torchwood gained a fairly astonishing 2.4m viewers – the highest ever for a debut series on a UK digital channel. The episodes will be repeated on the terrestrial BBC2 on Wednesday night and it will be interesting to see how the numbers compare and if they hold up for the next eleven weeks.

Off to Expo

Next week's column will be up mid-week again as I'll be attending the London Expo this weekend. Maybe I'll see you there!

New DVD Picks for 23/10/06

The Ultimate Farscape Collection

When they say “ultimate”, they mean it. Every single episode from all four seasons plus ‘The Peacekeeper Wars’, the mini-series that ended it all, all supported with commentaries, interviews, concept art, trailers, deleted scenes, cast biographies, outtakes, deleted scenes, making of documentaries, in-universe guides, PC extras and an alien swearing guide! 41 discs of arguably the best science fiction TV show of the last ten years. It’s pricey - £250 before online discounts – but oh-so-very worth it.

Masters of Horror Volume 1

Seven movies, seven directors, seven discs. Masters of Horror is one of the best horror shows to hit the small screen, largely because the format provides an attractive venue for some of horror’s finest directors to work in TV without the confines of episode-to-episode continuity. The quality varies from movie to movie but they’re all enjoyable and often intelligent excursions into the genre. Each movie in this set is complemented with its own special features – usually commentaries and behind the scenes material – making this an attractive package, especially at the low price point of £24.99.

Maid Marian Series Three

Although Red Dwarf and other similar shows get the majority of the recognition, Maid Marian was one of the better, if not best, comedies to come from the BBC. One could go so far as to say that the only reason it isn’t held in as high regard as shows such as Fawlty Towers or Blackadder is that Maid Marian was labelled as a ‘kids show’, automatically leading a chunk of the viewing audience to dismiss it without thought. Thankfully, the show found its niche and lasted four seasons, gaining uniformly high ratings for its timeslot. The third of those seasons makes it to DVD here, with all six episodes supported by a commentary track, bonus Christmas episode and an introduction booklet written by series creator Tony Robinson.

That’s it for this week. Thoughts? Comments? Hatemail? Contact me at mattkamen@gmail.com

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