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Outside the Government, Beyond the Police

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | June 25, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | TV | June 25, 2009 |

“Torchwood: outside the government, beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth, arming the human race against the future. The twenty-first century is when everything changes. And you’ve got to be ready.” — Captain Jack, opening narration

“Torchwood” has an interesting sort of etymology. Back in 2005 when the new “Doctor Who” was getting up and running, the anagram “Torchwood” was used as the fake production title of the show. As “Doctor Who” progressed, “Torchwood” was then used as the name of the British government agency set up to defend against the Doctor and to research alien technology. Naturally, when Russell T Davies spun off Captain Jack into his own show, he sent the good captain to work at the Torchwood Institute. “Torchwood” is in all likelihood the only spin-off named after the fake title of its parent show.

The show feels a lot like the first season of “Angel” and early seasons of “The X-Files,” but with more of a pulp feel to it. It manages a swashbuckling joy that is familiar from “Doctor Who,” but at times is reminiscent of “Highlander” with Jack’s flashbacks to various times and incarnations.

The central enigma of the series is that Jack has been left invincible and immortal by his resurrection by Rose at the end of the first series of “Doctor Who.” He has been stranded in modern day Cardiff and heads up the Torchwood division in that city. The other characters certainly know that he isn’t normal, but they have no idea just how foreign he really is, speculating that he is American, gay, and/or something else entirely. What unifying themes the series manages tend to deal with the intertwined quality of life and death and sex. Jack, unable to die, just persisting forever, is dually obsessed with the nature of death and with shagging anything and everything gorgeous enough for his attentions. Having lived hundreds of years, with no hint that he will ever die, Jack is understandably quite curious about what happens after death. The recurring answer sums up everything good and creepy about the show: there is no life after death, there is only darkness, but there is something moving in the darkness.

Sexuality plays an important role in the series. Jack (originally from the 51st century) thinks the current classifications of gay and straight are hilariously limited and shortsighted, with the sort of eye-rolling dismissal we’d have about medieval notions of the unsuitability of women’s brains for higher thinking. Of the five more or less permanent main characters in the first series, four openly have relationships (of the short or long form) with both sexes over the course of the series.

The show works best at its darkest, when it dwells upon the horror and lurking ghouls. It grafts Lovecraft onto the “Doctor Who” universe, creating an interplay between unfathomable darkness and the joy of exploration. The world is fundamentally knowable and understandable, but if you’re not a Time Lord or a god, it can be a damned terrifying and immense place. It’s a delightfully schizophrenic combination when hitting on all cylinders but certainly has weak points during the first series.

“Small Worlds” is one of the episodes that gets it all right. Fairies are real, and true to their mythological roots, they are monstrous stealers of children. They want a particular girl, and if they don’t get her, they’ll freeze the Earth, destroy all life. Humanity is a footnote to them, something to be swept aside. They’re Cthulu with pixie dust. It underlines the difference between us and the Doctor. With all his power and knowledge, he can afford the luxury of never wavering on principle. But we’re not gods like him. We have to compromise in order not to be wiped out entirely. “Torchwood” is in part about the price of not having power.

In particular, many of the stories are time travel stories but from the exact opposite point of view of the Doctor. Far from being lords of time, the protagonists of “Torchwood” are victims of it, buffeted by slips in time and paradoxes. In that sense, some of the best stories in “Torchwood” series one (“Out of Time”, “Ghost Machine” and “Captain Jack Harkness”) are evocative of “Doctor Who’s” third series episode “Blink”.

The strength of the show is really in the individual characters and the actors who play them. They are unique characters with interesting back stories and strengths and weaknesses. They’re not cardboard cutouts, even in the initial episodes before they have a chance to get fully established.

The weakness of the series is that it doesn’t tie together enough into an overall theme or story. There is little sense that any of the characters really change throughout the course of the series, although many of the standalone episodes are excellent short stories in their own right. There’s a sense that the episodes could almost be viewed in any order whatsoever. The weakness becomes most apparent in the finale, “End of Days”, which is one of the weakest episodes of the series. The characters and the cultivated horror take a backseat to a bad guy invented just to act mysteriously and wake up a giant really bad guy who is only truly scary in that the CGI is really really bad.

Russell T Davies now has three shows set in the “Doctor Who” universe running concurrently: “The Sarah Jane Adventures”, nominally for children, “Torchwood”, nominally for adults, and of course “Doctor Who,” bridging all ages. “Torchwood” is a very flawed show at times, but it still fills at least a bit of the need for intelligent and adult science fiction. The show could truly be great if it pulled together more of the philosophy and thought-provoking elements of “Doctor Who”, but even so, series one is worth a watch if you’re into science fiction generally, or more particularly if you loved Captain Jack on “Doctor Who”.

“Sometimes a little technobabble is good for the soul!” — Captain Jack

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.