September 20, 2007

Fall 2007 TV Roundup: Torchwood

Posted in Television at 11:35 pm by Calico Jack

I didn’t realize the BBC’s Torchwood was a spin-off of their long-running series Doctor Who until well after I saw the pilot episode. It’s most likely a good thing, since I’ve never been a huge fan of Doctor Who‘s odd mix of science fiction ingredients. But this fall during my weekly viewings of the guilty pleasure Hotel Babylon, BBC America kept airing promos for a new show that would anchor their “Supernatural Saturdays” lineup. The previews looked like a mashup between the X-Files and Hellboy, with a bit of Hex thrown in for sex appeal. There hasn’t been a decent alien-based sci-fi show in years, and I’m rather fond of most British television (Doctor Who notwithstanding), so I set my TiVo to record the pilot and hoped for the best.

The setup is quite intriguing: an extra-governmental agency investigates crimes, supernatural and otherwise, in Cardiff and the surrounding area, using whatever alien tech they can scavenge to aid them in solving mysteries and protecting the Earth. Eve Myles stars as Gwen Cooper, a Welsh cop recruited into the team by Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the swinging leader of Torchwood with quite a few secrets of his own. It’s through Gwen’s eyes that the first series is presented, as we learn along with her the dangers of being tasked as the first line of defense against alien intruders.

As I said, Torchwood‘s premise is rather engaging, like a weekly, less-humorous version of Men in Black (notice I didn’t say it was original). Unfortunately, the show’s execution itself left me rather cold. I think it borrows almost too heavily from other sci-fi; after seeing several episodes, I don’t think Torchwood has quite come into its own as a television show. Much of it is disjointed and unwieldy, especially the interactions among the cast. When Gwen is first introduced to what she is told is a crack team of agents, Captain Jack warns her that the use of alien technology is highly restricted, that none of it should be removed from the base without permission. Yet in the very next scene we see each member smuggling a piece home for his or her own personal gain. Even though this scene is played for laughs, I was instantly wondering what kind of crack team would flagrantly violate Harkness’s pronouncement — unless there were more layers than what Gwen realized. But no, later in the episode the consequences of these decisions become startlingly apparent, and the jarring tonal change is unsatisfying rather than exciting. However, apart from that shocker of an ending, the rest of the episodes have been numbingly predictable, lacking sharp characterization and dense plotting that might have excused some of its more pronounced flaws.

Torchwood wants to be a jack-of-all-trades, combining the best parts of sci-fi from the aforementioned Hellboy, Men in Black, and X-Files, with an interdimensional rift (also known as a Hellmouth, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) thrown in for extra credit. But Torchwood has neither the serious pacing of Mulder and Scully’s investigations nor the visual gags and crackling dialogue of Buffy. Its characters are often juvenile when they can least afford to be, and there is a disconcerting amount of adult content for a daughter show of the family-friendly Doctor Who. It has some of the more bloody violence shown on British television, and its sexual content seems to be haphazardly thrown in as a heavy-handed way to let the audience know that this isn’t for the kids — which is sad, really, because I think a lighter take on the proceedings (yes, much along the lines of the good Doctor’s show) might make Torchwood rather more compelling.

Final verdict: This spin-off of Doctor Who is much darker than its predecessor, but lacks a strong narrative thread to tie its grab bag of sci-fi elements together. Some of its problems might be attributed to growing pains; but unless it gets a handle on what it wants to be, Torchwood might end up as a cliché-ridden alternative to better science fiction television. Still, there is a spark of promise at its core waiting to be drawn out.

Season pass on TiVo? I’m giving this show a few more chances to hold my attention, since I really do want it to succeed.

1 Comment »

  1. Patty said,

    Stick with Torchwood CalicoJack…You won’t be dissapointed…The series starts to come into it’s own with ‘small worlds’….

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