Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Recently a friend of mine asked me about Torchwood. I gave him my two cents- but than I started thinking I could use this week’s column to flesh out my thoughts a bit more.

Torchwood is (was- its longevity is in question) a British weekly science-fiction television series, a spin-off of Dr. Who; I’ve heard it described as Buffy meets The X-Files. Torchwood is the name for a fictional, covert government agency whose job is to track and deter extraterrestrial and paranormal threats. Ironically, the Torchwood Institute was originally founded to combat one of humanity’s greatest allies: the man himself, Dr. Who. But I’ll get to Who in a bit.

As part of the Whoverse, Torchwood has been given the media-outing that every franchise gets. Fiction, monthly magazines and of course, comics (in this case a strip in said monthly magazine). I think the strip justifies an Omnicomic overview and Dr. Who’s long foray into British and American comic-dom certainly does as well.

So, Torchwood is a show that has had some fluctuating ratings and a somewhat solid cult following. It has some high points and some low ones. It includes a guest appearance by James Marsters of Buffy fame (who, of course, plays a very cool and intricate character who he brings to life). There are rumors that an American version of Torchwood, set IN America, might get launched (sort of like The Office).

So to the hardcore Torchwood fans out there?


It’s okay. It isn’t a bad show by any means.

But there’s something about it that just doesn’t…quite…GET there. Despite everything I have told you about the show, I still would have a tough time giving you a description of the "flavor" of the show. Torchwood is a show with some potential and an excellent cast of actors and actresses that just kind of- fizzles. It reminds me more of Babylon 5 or Stargate: SG-1 than anything else. You know, like, the hardcore fans love it because they see the potential in the fictional universe these shows exist IN, but the actual quality of the television series, despite a few high points, never quite flourishes? (Before I get slammed- Babylon 5, as a comprehensive story, is highly under-rated. And Stargate has come a long way. But come on, two words: production quality. Admit it.)

I suspect one of the biggest draws to the show, besides the stellar performance of the charismatic lead, John Barrowman, is its extremely sophisticated take on the nature of sexuality. Namely- that people are drawn to different things at different times of their lives. Partners of the opposite sex. Partners of the same sex. Monogamy. Polyamory. Whatever- it’s just COMPLICATED and it doesn’t fit, neatly, into anyone’s lives (usually).

And I like that. I like the idea that this show can have 2-3 lead, bi-sexual characters, and another 2 with wildly fluctuating ideas about an ideal relationship. It’s liberal, it’s progressive, it’s cool. The problem is- it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the tone of the show.

And what is the tone of the show?

I’d say "spiritually soul-crushing hopelessness." Torchwood is best described as wildly Atheistic. There is no God- just life, and than death. There’s no afterlife. There’s no paradise. You just get one life and that’s it. And most people waste it anyway.

Seriously! Lines like what I just wrote are almost verbatim dialogue FROM the show. I mean, I give the show some credit for taking a stand, in this sense. Many fictional stories leave the question of the afterlife just that- a question. So Torchwood’s final ruling on the matter, although terrifyingly dark, does put it apart, in a sense

So you see what I mean here? What the hell is going ON with this show? Is it Sex and the City done science fiction style, with some sharp, witty, Joss Whedon dialogue thrown it? Or is it modern day, H.P. Lovecraft horror, because it's a "the greatest horror is how fragile man is himself" kind of thing? Torchwood is a television series that can’t decide what kind of series it’s trying to become. And this reverberates through the entire production.

Now, the show’s predecessor is that very, VERY rare series that can pull off being everything. Like Star Trek and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Dr. Who does a seamless job of retaining an overarching, ongoing story and allowing every episode to stand as its own vignette- sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes scary. Makes sense, right? I mean Who himself is constantly reincarnated into different forms and someone different is always stepping in to play him in a different way- why shouldn’t every episode be different?

Oh, and if you’re in that camp that has always heard about Dr. Who but know nothing about him? This is probably the reason. The coolest gimmick is something of a marketing weakness (although in Britian, Who is huge- he’s sort of the geeky equivalent of James Bond, in a lot of ways)- without a consistent face to think of when you hear the name Dr. Who, you really have to get into the show to, well, know much about it. But then again, that’s why he’s Dr. "Who" right? I mean he isn’t Dr. "You Know Who I Am". That would ruin the mystery.

In case it isn’t coming through, I’ve been converted into a huge Dr. Who fan. I never was that into the old series (and it’s OLD- been on the BBC for a long time, in many different forms), but the newest run on television is one of those really great modernizations that draws you in with new characters and stories but stays VERY true to the original vision and feel of its previous incarnations. It doesn’t rail against itself- its cheesiness, its occasionally absurdity. It includes frequent references to Who-history from the old show and encounters with old allies and menaces- all of whom retain their campy, low-budget-science-fiction look (which is the kind of special touch that only a true fanboy can appreciate).

Er, where was I? OH- so Dr. Who, as a show, can pull it off, I think. It condenses every genre you can think of- romance, comedy, horror, action, science-fiction- into a single show. Torchwood? It just doesn’t work. Again, it’s that soul-crushing darkness.

Who’s life is fraught with peril, disappointment, and pain too- in fact, Who is frequently stuck wondering about whether his interactions with others cause more harm than good. But there’s something, hopeful, deep down in there, I think. But no matter how funny that one episode of Torchwood is, it seems a lot less funny a few episodes later when people are dying, horribly, left and right.

Oh, that’s the other nice twist the developers went with- right when the show starts to pick up? Most of the main cast dies. Sure, there are a few loopholes where they might be able to come back- but, wow. Climactic wasn’t exactly how I felt. It was more like- what? Why??

So, you know. Torchwood? It’s worth a watch, if only to try something different. And I think, if the show was put back into the works, something great could be in there. But it would require some thought and planning. In the meantime, Dr. Who? Two BIG thumbs up.