If it's crap ... We'll tell you
It's no secret around these parts that I'm a complete nut for Doctor Who. Even when its at its absolute silliest or preposterous, I'm all up in that bitch with love. Unfortunately, the man who brought the show back to life after a 16 year break, had serious trouble making his darker, more adult spin-off, "Torchwood" live up to the same level of quality. Which isn't to say it didn't get there, but a bit of patience is involved.
Taking the unkillable omni-sexual Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from the first season Dr. Who finale, Davies cast Jack, about 70 or so years after the events of the Who episode, as the modern day leader of a British X-Files team who deal with alien stuff on Earth in a black ops sort of fashion. That is, when he's not out trolling gay bars. I wish I was kidding. But more on that later.
At the beginning of series one, Jack is heading up a team comprised of a medical officer, Burn Gorman (Owen Harper); a computer specialist, Toshiko Sato (Naoko Mori); the administrative office guy, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd); and Jack's second-in-command, Suzie Costello (Indira Varma). The pilot reveals Suzie to be using a bit of alien tech for nefarious and murderous purposes, so a local police officer who stumbles across the Torchwood Institute in the course of her investigation of Suzie's crimes, is brought in to replace her. The new inductee, Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) is hired not just for her qualities as an investigator, but for her more humane moral sensibilities, which Jack realizes the team desperately needs after Suzie's betrayal. More importantly, she serves as an audience surrogate, a noob to be able to appropriately feel awe at the wonders and terrors that the much-bigger-than-she-ever-imagined universe regularly visits on the Earth.
As much as this seems outwardly to be TOTALLY my kind of show (I love the 'paranormal investigator' fictional dramas...hellooo, 'Buffy'? 'X-Files'? ... duh), "Torchwood" has its share of crippling problems, although they somewhat ease up as the show goes along. One of the biggest things that takes me right out of it all is Captain Jack himself. As I've regularly established in various places on the site over the years, I have zero problem with having a gay (or, like I said, omni-sexual...this guy'll fuck anything) primary character, and for the record, am quite happy that such a prominent science fiction show features one (and now, the wonderfully silly "Warehouse 13" does as well...just sayin'). But dammit, Captain Jack...why do you regularly like to abandon everything and everyone, even in the midst of serious chaos, in order to get some? It doesn't matter who or what you're sticking your wang into, stop putting everyone else in danger for the sake of it!
Perhaps Davies feels he has to make up for the majority of the rest of the history of television not having a gay lead character by indulging in a "Queer as Folk" level of homosexual oriented plotting and even casting (in fact, Davies created that show as well), but it comes off as a more than just a bit of an agenda at times. To be fair, if I had a show to run, I'd probably throw in lots of agnostic and skeptical undercurrents and subtexts, but I probably wouldn't do it within a previously existing universe like Dr. Who. I probably should just let sleeping dogs lie on this, but there's no denying that sometimes it seems more like you're watching a homoerotic "Red Shoe Diaries" than a Dr.Who-universe storyline. Reminds me of when "Enterprise" decided it needed to be more sexy. Gag.
Honestly, that entire issue is almost forgettable next to the real problems with "Torchwood". In its attempt to come up with darker stories and characters, it's made some of its protagonists damn near impossible to give a shit about. I'm talking a lot here about team member Owen Harper, an egomaniacal 'playa' who uses alien technology to, for all extents and purposes, to 'recreationally' rape people he's attracted to. What a winner. Most of the characters, with the exception of Gwen, get their chance to act uncharacteristically asinine at points, which almost always manages to feel more in the services of the plot's needs than in any realistically organic way, but sure enough, by season two, things aren't anywhere near as bad.
The struggling spin-off in its second go-round does what struggling spin-offs usually do: it starts having more cameos from characters in its parent show. It's certainly great to see Martha, the Doctor's companion from series three, reappearing for three of season two's episodes. Considerably more fun is clearly being had with the episodic format this time around, especially when James Marsters shows up towards the end as a Time Agent (different from Time Lord...just take my word for it) and former lover of Jack's, and a fellow rapscallion, currently with a bit too much self-interest in his intent. Generally speaking, things ease up a lot and for the betterment of the show.
All of the first two seasons, as far as I'm concerned, is largely only a prelude to the masterful "Children of Earth" five-episode mini-series, considered to be season three of the show. Pretty much every problem I've had in the previous episodes is shown to the door, with what ended up being one of the most tight, well-written, heart-breaking, and even frightening sci-fi serials in modern Who history. You can read about it in detail in my original review of the series, but suffice it to say, it's a 'can't miss' for both Who fans and even as a stand-alone for sci-fi fans not as generally taken with the Whoniverse. Yes, that's a word now. Because I said so.
Now that the Starz network and BBC are co-producing and broadcasting the new "Torchwood: Miracle Day" series, a self-contained story like "Children of Earth", it's time to get your feet wet. The BBC set with seasons 1, 2, and 3 along with all the previously included bonus materials, now upgraded to blu-ray, is a handsome prize for your shelf. With all honesty, my problems with the show just didn't seem as heinous the second time through. Perhaps you'll feel the same. Perhaps you'll be as impressed as I was with the beautiful style of hardback book packaging they squeezed all the discs into. Either way, it's a conveniently compact collection of an important part of the Whoniverse (stop it, I already said it was a word...don't make me turn this review around and go right home), and an intro into an important period in science fiction television - the British/American cross production of this segment of the most prolific series in sci-fi history. I'm looking forward to this playing out in a way that delivers more and more amazing, and hopefully, better and better financed, entertainment. Now, next up, where's my F/X-E4 cross production of "Misfits"? Get on it.
--CLICK HERE TO BUY Torchwood: The Complete Original UK Series [Blu-ray]