Torchwood is in several ways one of the most unusual television drama series to have been recommissioned for multiple seasons. It was launched in 2006 as a spin-off of Russell T Davies’ astronomically successful reboot of Doctor Who, and was pitched as appealing to a more adult demographic, with the set-up involving a shadowy team of vaguely X-Files-y scientists and investigators operating from a secret base in Cardiff, with a brief to look into anything alien, or paranormal, or extra-sensory-perception-ish. The first unusual thing about the series is that the BBC didn’t bother sticking its toe in with a pilot but went straight for a 13 week run of 45 minute episodes – they obviously felt confident that anyone over the age of 12 who watched Who would also want to watch this. They didn’t however give it much of a budget. They put it out on their widely derided youth channel BBC Three and most of the money seemed to have been spent on inexplicable helicopter shots of John Barrowman’s character Captain Jack Harkness striking moody/heroic poses atop local landmarks.
The second unusual thing is that, presumably due to the speed with which it was thrown together, the scripts for the series didn’t seem to have gone through any kind of editing or revision process of the type that is needed to catch obvious clashes of tone and transparently risible plot devices. Because once the series started airing, and particularly once past Davies’ reasonably acceptable opening installment, it became obvious very quickly: Torchwood was terrible. The best description I’ve come across is that it was like a 14 year old boy’s idea of what “adult” science fiction should be like: histrionic, seemingly hormone-driven regular characters who divide their time between shouting at each other, getting off with each other and pointing guns at each other, while ludicrous (and very cheaply computer generated) aliens pop up periodically and characterlessly and generally completely non-interestingly in order to be shouted at, or shot at, or got off with. The second episode actually features an alien obsessed with shagging people to death. You get earthy Welsh humour running up against overwrought psychodrama and then colliding with purportedly uber-cool techno-fetishism and that’s really gotta smart.
However, and this third unusual thing may be the most interesting of them, despite its manifest awfulness Torchwood was also hardly ever boring, and often compulsively watchable. Part of this is the attraction of watching a bad accident unfold, but every so often you’d get a hint of something really quite promising: some of the quieter episodes would explore ideas of memory, or loss, or change and sometimes one of the extra-terrestrial artefacts that would regularly appear would catch one’s imagination – the pendant that allows one to read other’s thoughts or the machine that gives one access to the powerful memories associated with significant locations. The ratings were certainly very good, and the series came back a year or so later, this time promoted to BBC Two.
The second series was again 13 episodes, and a certain amount of reining in of extremes had been achieved, but again the feeling was of a show put together by a team under too much pressure and with too little time. Symptomatic of the problems of the programme was the plot strand in which the unlikeable Owen died, but was for obscure and unsatisfactorily presented reasons still able to walk around fully functional and conscious. He seemed to earned this privilege basically because he was able to best a smoky entity representing death in a fist fight. Elsewhere, the tone was still swinging wildly between grotesque black comedy (the wedding/alien pregnancy themed Something Borrowed), event-free “atmospherics” (Out Of The Rain) and glaring campery (anything with Captain Jack squaring off with his sparring partner/alter-ego James Marsters’ Captain John Hart). Again it wasn’t very good – again a lot of people watched it.
Given this run of form it was therefore rather surprising, and yet another unusual thing, that the third season of Torchwood, which aired over five consecutive days in July 2009, turned out to be more or less the best television science-fiction made in Britain since Quatermass. This was one story with the umbrella name Children Of Earth and it masterfully laid out a terrifying scenario in which a powerful and implacable alien ambassador arrives on Earth to present a dreadful claim on the world’s children. Everything that had previously been laughable or unconvincing about Torchwood had been comprehensively expunged and suddenly we had intelligent, probing, sometimes very funny and sometimes genuinely chilling scripts rendered expertly on screen by the actors and the production team. Before, the aliens on Torchwood had been a joke – now they were nightmarish, and the fact that they were never fully visible on screen made it even worse. Peter Capaldi gave what is probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on TV as a conflicted civil servant, and regular characters were seen to make heartbreaking sacrifices and be presented with impossible choices. This was extraordinary television.
And then…well, it’s two years later, and there’s now a fourth season of Torchwood running on BBC One. Rather unusually, it’s now a co-production between the BBC and US company Starz, which means that the action is largely taking place in the states, and most of the cast are American. As in the previous season, it’s one long story running over several episodes (ten this time, under the banner title Miracle Day), and also as before, it hangs on a simply explained concept: one day, human beings stop dying. This intriguing idea has the mark of Russell T Davies about it, and for sure he’s involved, overseeing and writing some episodes, but you know what? Three episodes in, and I’ve stopped being interested. These days Torchwood is slick and expensive and can afford big-name stars like Bill Pullman and classy location shooting but it’s also, for the first time ever, really boring. The plot is moving at snail’s pace, blatant padding abounds, all of the new characters are either bland or obnoxious and it may just be me, but isn’t it a little patronising to give characters lines explaining to the British audience what a gas station or a drugstore or an ATM is? There must be some interesting avenues to explore with a central idea as audacious as this one, but they sure don’t seem to bothered about getting there any time soon. This may be where me and Torchwood part company – shame, but as rides go it’s sure been damnably unusual.