Tuesday, October 24, 2006


'Dear The Producers of Robin Hood, watch and learn...'

Actually, that's unfair. If I were feeling uncharitable I could rip the pilot of Torchwood, if I'd been visited by the ghosts of pilots past, present and future I might feel more inclined to the pseudo-medieval tosh that is 'Robin Hoodie and his Ineffective Men'. But I haven't been, so I'm not going to. And I did like Torchwood. It's supposedly a more adult version of Doctor Who but if DW is aimed at a bright twelve-year-old then T would appear to be aimed at their bored sixteen-year-old sibling, with stories that involve people who are their older brothers and sisters who are old enough to have just left university.

Cardiff beat cop Gwen Cooper comes across a mysterious group of people who can bring a murder victim back to life for a few minutes to question him about his attacker. Digging deeper she locates their secret HQ in the centre of town by the Millenium Centre. After unsuccessfully trying to wipe her memory of the experience she is instead offered a job by Captain Jack Harkness and their first job involves a discarnate alien energy being that lives off the energy human beings produce when doing the sex.

It really shouldn't work, especially the second episode which is really an excuse for a lot of jokes about shagging (at one point the woman who's been possessed by the sexy sexy sex alien of sex makes moves on Gwen and they start snogging in her cell. Rather than start worrying about alien contamination or mind control the rest of the team watch them go at it for several lo-o-o-ong seconds before deciding they should break them up, while another records it). But while Bob Hood aimed lower on Saturday night and failed, this manages to survive through two decent scripts. The first episode is exposition-heavy, both in explaining itself to viewers who've not seen the new Doctor Who but also to those who have as to what is different. Captain Jack apparently can't die and, although we don't know yet exactly how or why he's here and now, he's on the look-out for the Doctor. Although he's as smart-arse as he ever was John Barrowman also plays him with more of an edge, suggesting life hasn't been all fun since we last saw him. The other members of Team Torchwood haven't been particularly fleshed out, Burn Gorman is slightly creepy, not above using some alien technology to make him irresistible to women, but Ianto Jones, who seems to manage (as opposed to run) the team and Toshiko Sato have thus far been left as little more than sketches. Eve Myles role as everywoman Gwen, our way into the series, has a particularly thankless role in episode one, running around saying "what is..." and "who is..." every few seconds, but seems a lot happier in episode two, though things flag for a while about two-thirds of the way through. This has been a noticeable problem in Robin Hood, it seems no one involved has yet worked out how to write their episodes in the allotted time, so there's action at the beginning and the end and a boring middle.

In terms of problems there is the question of exactly how covert Torchwood is. It's an ultra top-secret organisation yet when people like the police or the army are told to pull back they're told it's because of Torchwood, which doesn't sound very stealthy. You can tell Russell T. Davies really wanted a cool 'entrance in plain site' moment, with a false step that descends into the Torchwood HQ, so he's really put a lot of effort into explaining how something so silly works without anyone noticing. The Torchwood set looks very good (except for one point which I shall get to in a moment), crammed full of stuff, and Cardiff is shot to look gorgeous. The prosthetics, such as the alien 'Weevils' masks look great, but some effects, like the CGI pterodactyl that flies around the ceiling of the Torchwood base just looked awful. Unless it has a key role to play at some point in the future I would suggest it's quietly forgotten about. If it does play a part them perhaps it should die in the playing. Some of the scenes are badly lit. Twenty years ago there was always a clear divide between stuff shot on film and stuff shot in the studio on video tape. The video material always looked tacky and nasty by comparison. Now that technology has improved there's no longer that clear divide (Remember Neverwhere which looked nasty throughout because the video made the sets look cheap even when they were real places?) but especially the Torchwood set looks like a set at the moment. There are any number of scenes, such as when they are examining the meteorite at the start of episode two, which just look nasty.

As I'm too old for DW I'm probably not placed to comment on Torchwood 's 'adultness'. When Virgin Books started putting out 'The New Doctor Who Adventures' in the nineties a lot of the writers took the opportunity to ramp up the ick factor of the violence and introduce sex and swearing. So far that's what we've got here, having characters occasionally shout "shit!" is hardly a great step forward for drama. It'll be interesting to see what Russell T. Davies has in mind for the emotional climax of the season, considering what he was able to do in the constraints of 'Doctor Who'. Although the second episode wasn't bad, I'm not convinced that just because it couldn't have been done if the show was made under the constraints of DW. When Angel spun out of Buffy it was intended for an older audience but there weren't that many changes beyond the weird ones where if someone in Buffy so much as were in the same room as something alcoholic their souls were damned to hell. To me this seems at the moment a cynical attempt to hook the kids who sneer at DW, no-one seriously thinks that by putting it on at 9:00 pm in this day and age the BBC are putting it beyond the reach of any kids that want to watch it, they're just trying to avoid the obvious complaints. For a supposedly adult show it's depressingly hetero and vanilla, two episodes in to Captain Jack's time on the TARDIS and the Doctor was already having to explain to Rose about how people from the 51st century danced better and Jack was chatting up sexually confused airmen. Now, while he does have some good lines, Jack's now all business and his team all assume that he's gay, presumably based on the fact he's an American who takes care of his appearance. Handled badly, alternative sexuality on screen can be as crass and as dull as straight sexuality and RTD surely wouldn't want to be pigeonholed as 'the big poof who puts big poofs on screen into everything he does' but BBC3 has also broadcast Two Pints of Lager and Casanova, and I hope that Torchwood leans towards the latter (I'm thinking of the scene where Casanova decides that if he loves someone it shouldn't matter what their sexual organs are) rather than the former (big laughs ensue whenever two guys end up looking even remotely gay).

It's won the BBC a big audience share for a tiny channel and is being repeated on BBC2 tomorrow. I'll be looking to it to improve and believe it can.

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