Friday, January 30, 2009


Secret Services: Torchwood

Only a few more entries in the Secret Services to go. Today we've reached one of the higher profile examples of recent years, the BBC's Torchwood.

was created by Russel T. Davies, spinning out of his successful relaunch of the Doctor Who franchise. The name, an anagram of "Doctor Who," had originally been used as a "code name" for production reasons in the early days of the new Who series, much like "Blue Harvest" was a fake working name for Return of the Jedi (see here for other notable examples... and really, would you rather have seen James Cameron's Planet Ice?). RTD reportedly liked the name, though, and began seeding it in the second series, beginning with the RTD-penned "Christmas Invasion."

As revealed in the episode "Tooth and Claw," the instory source of the name is the Torchwood Estate in Scotland, where in 1879 Queen Victoria had a bad encounter with a werewolf. some kung-fu warrior monks, and a certain Time Lord. It is revealed that the Torchwood Estate had been constructed with the express purpose of trapping the werewolf by the former lord of the manor, abetted by the late Prince Albert. When all is said and done, Victoria creates the Torchwood Institute in their honor, to safeguard the realm against any such unnatural threats (including, as it happens, the Doctor himself).

As the second series progresses, the Doctor encounters Torchwood a few times, in which they're revealed to possess alien technology which they use to safeguard Earth against extraterrestrial menace. They are a more secret, more dangerous answer to UNIT, their existence known only to a select few. Finally, in the two-parter "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday," we meet the modern-day Torchwood, based in a high-rise in Canary Wharf, from which they lead the defense of Earth against the invading armies of the Cybermen and the Daleks. The good guys win, the Daleks and Cybermen are defeated, but Torchwood is destroyed in the process. And that seems to be that.

Only all of us know that wasn't the end. The BBC had already started touting a Torchwood spin-off, and we had only a few months to wait. (And really, this was for many of us the weakest aspect of the second series of Who. In the first series, the question "What is Bad Wolf?" is a drum-beat that drives the series along, and even if the answer is somewhat less than satisfying, it's fun speculating on the possibility along the way. With the second series, we all knew from the start what Torchwood was, at least in general terms, and so the mystery was pretty much shot.)

In the meantime, there was the question of timelost Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and con artist from the 51st century, who'd first appeared in Steven Moffat's incomporable two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances." At the end of the first series, in "A Parting of the Ways," Jack had been left--seeming for dead--in the future after the last big dust-up with the Daleks, and then restored to live by Rose Tyler's temporarily-obtained time-vortex powers. In essences, Rose turns into God for a few minutes, and rolls the clock back on Jack's death, restoring him to full health. Problem being, the Doctor thinks he's still dead and leaves him there.

Which brings us to the first episode of the new Torchwood, which aired in fall of 2006.

In a familar set-up, a police officer is investigating a crime when she discovers that the perpetrater is no ordinary human, at which point she encounters a shadowy organization with hidden ties to the government, licensed to investigate matters beyond the scope of the regular authorities. (Catching echoes of Ultraviolet, anyone? Or Hellsing, for that matter?)

The organization is, of course, Torchwood, their leader is one Captain Jack Harkness, and they are headquartered in an abandoned Underground station beneath the streets of Cardiff. Like Sunnydale's Hellmouth, there is a Rift in time and space that runs through the heart of Cardiff, from which things are constantly falling into our world. And like the Men in Black, the agents of Torchwood are able to induce amnesia in anyone who learns more than they should.

It's a familiar cocktail of genre elements, to be sure. The only notable feature of those early episode is the sexuality with which they're spiced; the series was billed as a kind of "Doctor Who for grownups," which largely devolved into characters having frequent sex with one another.

From humble beginnings, though, the show gradually began to improve. I think the end of the first second is better than its beginning (though they'd have been better served not showing the big monster in "End of Days," and just letting the audience's imagination do the work). There were some clever ideas in there, though, and some nice little touches. This five-person operation in Cardiff was revealed to be Torchwood Three, only one of several. Torchwood One had been the one we saw destroyed in the "Battle of Canary Wharf", Torchwood Two is one guy in Glasgow, and Torchwood Four is "missing" ("we'll find it one day," they assure). The episode that revisits Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies is chillingly effective, and "They Keep Killing Suzie" stands alongside the best episodes of Who in recent years.

It's in the second series that Torchwood really begins firing on all cylinders, I think. James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up as Captain Jack's fellow time-agent, ex-partner, and ex-lover Captain John Hart, and Freema Agyeman returns as Martha Jones, the Doctor's former companion. The scripts are generally tighter, the ideas better, the episodes more satisfying. The penultimate episode, "Fragments," is a marvel of narrative structure, revealing the backstories of each of the main characters through flashbacks, adding new layers of meaning to character interactions we've been watching for a year and a half. The final episode ends on something of a downer, but manages to serve as a nice end-cap for the series to date.

There's apparently a new miniseries in the making, "Chidren of Earth," which is to air this spring. Unfortunately, though, three of the five episodes are written by RTD himself, and the experience of Doctor Who and Torchwood to date suggests that Davies's series are usually best when written by other hands. But I remain cautiously optimistic about its quality.

For comic fans, I'll point out that Titan is putting out a collection of Torchwood comics that haven't been widely seen under the title The Rift War, with contributions from Paul Grist (Jack Staff), Ian Edginton and D'Israeli (Scarlet Traces and Stickleback) and Simon Furman (Transformers UK). I've already ordered my copy, on the strength of those names alone.

In the end, I think the good outweighs the bad, and would recommend checking out Torchwood. You should be warned, though, that there is bad, and if you have a low tolerance for suck you might want to give it a pass.


I never twigged that Torchwood was an anagram of Doctor Who until you pointed it out. I feel ashamed ;)

And like Doctor Who, I agree with you, Torchwood quality is highly variable, with a large standard deviation.
You probably know this, Chris, but for those who may not...
Naoki Mori from TORCHWOOD appears as Toshiko Sato in the two-part Eccleston story that introduces the Slitheen. (The titles escape me at the moment.) She appears to be a medical doctor in this story, which conflicts with her skill set on TORCHWOOD, but this is actually explained in "Fragments." A minor point, but still pretty cool
To be honest, I didn't work out the fact that it's an anagram of "Doctor Who" on my own, either. RTD mentioned it in one of the "Doctor Who Confidential" episodes, as I recall.
You know, Bill, I know I knew that at one point about Toshi's character, but I'd completely forgotten it. Thanks for pointing that out!
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