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Review: Torchwood, season 1


Here are some comments on each episode of season 1 of Torchwood. There are all sorts of major spoilers here.

I've italicized the titles of the episodes I especially liked.

Note that I didn't take notes on the first three, and it was quite a while ago that I saw them, so my comments are less detailed for those.

Everything Changes
Fun! Entertaining, sexy, enjoyable. (Though a little confusing in places.) I had low expectations going into it, which probably helped. Several great shots of Jack standing on rooftops in that coat, looking noble and heroic.
Day One
Continuing the focus on sex. Interesting. Not bad.
Ghost Machine
Pretty good. Nice focus on emotional stuff, and it features a reworking of my favorite psychic power, psychometry.
This is where the series started to fall apart for me. Very dark, very grim, and what's with Captain Jack ordering Ianto to kill his girlfriend? Up until now, I was assuming that Jack was just an odd and flawed leader; starting with this episode, I began to get the feeling that he hasn't the slightest clue about how to be a leader, nor about what he's doing. Which would've been kind of interesting, except that I also began to feel like his character is wildly inconsistent. Sometimes he doesn't care at all about human emotion; sometimes humanity is what's most important to him. This episode is also the beginning of his insistences that there is no cure, no hope, no way to fix broken things, which (a) is kind of the antithesis of the Doctor, and (b) seems to often be wrong anyway.
Small Worlds
I like the backstory touches with Estelle and Jack, but I get a little tired of the team not knowing even what the audience knows about Jack, and of Jack being not only secretive but condescending (it seems like every time someone asks him about himself, he says something like "It's too complicated" or "You wouldn't understand", though I didn't write down any exact quotes). And this episode is the beginning of the series not even bothering to pay lip service to science fiction per se. It's also a continuation of Jack giving up on people--you want her? you can have her! Though at least here his giving up seemed a little reluctant. ...Also, it seemed weird to me that one of the fairies' two primary abilities was weather control--that doesn't really seem to me to have anything to do with fairies. I feel like the writers were desperately casting about for some kind of special ability for fairies to have, and some kind of way to detect them, and said, "I know! I bet fairies can control the weather! So they'll just arbitrarily cause anomalous weather events, and that's how our heroes will track them down!"
Hated it. To me, this seemed like a completely standard horror story, except for the twist that the victims are professionals at dealing with supernatural stuff--only they don't act like professionals. And the rift and everything about it are completely irrelevant to this episode; the point presumably being that humans are worse than monsters, and also to show Gwen's continuing descent into seeing the darkness behind the veil of normal reality. But seeing the evil that humans can do in this episode, although it seems to tear her apart, doesn't actually seem to have any long-term effect on her (another annoyance about the show--major emotional trauma often seems to get more or less shrugged off), except for sleeping with Owen, which does have various long-term effects on the plot. And it seems to me in this ep (as in the series as a whole) that Jack alternates between showing no mercy and showing mercy, though I've lost track of details. On the other hand, I think Mary Anne rather liked it, and the reviewers over at tv.com loved it. ...I should note that in some contexts I like the idea of humans being the real monsters; it just felt very out of place to me in this particular series, done in this particular way.
Greeks Bearing Gifts
Liked it quite a bit, and was glad to see both the humor and the sex (and the casual queerness) return to the show after the previous few really grim episodes; but especially with this coming right after "Countrycide," I'm getting the impression that the underlying message of the series is that humanity is essentially brutal and ugly and irredeemable. Which is kind of a letdown after the utterly hopeful core of Doctor Who. Also: I'm astonished to see Captain Jack, of all people, the leader of Torchwood, saying "There are some things we're not supposed to know." Sheesh.
They Keep Killing Suzie
An okay episode, but flawed. The nihilism didn't really bother me that much; thought the scene between Gwen and Suzie about the afterlife was pretty interesting. I especially liked the line "We're just animals howling in the night because it's better than silence." But Suzie's plot/plan was too convoluted, and whole Dickinson/ISBN thing just annoyed me. ...Also, in an interstitial segment in this episode, Russell T. Davies said, "We'd be the most miserable series on Earth if we were this dark all the time," specifically referring to the exchange about the afterlife. Dunno, I think the past four episodes were significantly darker than this one. P.S.: I loved Jack's bit that started with "I had a boyfriend who used to walk into rooms like that." P.P.S.: Jack/Ianto at the end?!?!
Random Shoes
Lovely and sad and funny and hopeful and really well done, except for throwing away any pretense of being science fiction per se, but I can live with that--Dr. Who has gotten pretty mystical too, after all. This was by far my favorite episode among the past several, probably my favorite of the whole season.
Out of Time
I quite liked this one, too. It started out feeling kind of flailing and aimless--and why the need for secrecy? and why did they put the 1953ers up in whatever kind of weird boarding-house that was?--but I was surprised by how well it worked in the end. Moving and sad, and I didn't expect John's resolution, and there was a lovely moment there of sad humanity from Captain Jack, holding John's hand. And I liked Diane and the Owen/Diane thing, though it did feel a little rushed. ...Of course, the "it's totally impossible for you to go back" stuff was kind of undermined a couple episodes later. P.S.: I was disappointed that Owen didn't mention boyfriends anytime in this episode, but I guess it would've distracted from the main storyline. And I guess the evidence we've seen suggests that he's mostly straight; I'm now guessing that he only sleeps with men when the opportunity arises.
Eh. Way too Fight Club-derivative. Some nice moments, but nothing special. Though I think I liked it a little more before I read several reviews on Behind the Sofa that heavily and thoroughly (though entertainingly) panned it. ...I was disappointed that Owen and Mark didn't hook up. ...Here again we see Captain Jack quite willing to let someone die if they want to, though not Owen, only Mark.
Captain Jack Harkness
Went into this with perhaps too-high expectations, alas. I loved parts of it, but found other parts annoying. Why not contact 1941 Torchwood and ask them to leave a message for the future? How can original Capt. Jack get away with dancing with and kissing another man right out there in front of everyone? (It was a lovely moment; I just had a hard time with plausibility issues.) Why does Gwen flee from Bilis and then come back calmly? How do they find the clues that Tosh leaves? Why doesn't anyone notice that this could have solved John's problem from "Out of Time"? Has the rift machine even been mentioned before now, and if not, why not? How did the key get into Bilis's clock? Why couldn't Tosh use ink instead of blood? And so on. Oh, and what does "You've told me all I need to know" mean? Also, goofy equations, and goofy thing about needing two halves of the equations to open the rift, etc. ...But the dance-and-kiss scene just about makes up for all the rest of it.
End of Days
Disappointing throughout. Obvious trap, which the characters nonetheless walk right into; characters behaving out of character; unscary giant monster; anticlimactic resolution (Capt. Jack letting it feed on his life energy). And what's with Rhys coming back to life? And what's with the kiss bringing Jack back? I liked the final scene or two of the episode, though. (Even though the last 30 seconds or so were cut off in my recording, argh. But I looked at the transcript, and it appears that I didn't miss anything important.) And some nice moments of Jack looking sad about having been brought forward from 1941.... Some relatively minor annoyances about the end: If they think Jack is dead for several days, why don't they read through his notes and files? Why haven't they talked about how/whether to continue Torchwood's mission without him? And has Gwen really been sitting there for days, not talking to Rhys? Seems like a mistake, under the circumstances. Also, where did Bilis go? Surely if he can wander around at will through time and space, he would have noticed pretty quickly that his master didn't get very far.

Some other assorted notes:

Looking at the list of episodes, I don't see a pattern in the writers of the episodes I liked best, but I do see that Chris Chibnall wrote several of the ones I liked least, and in particular wrote all of the ones in which I thought the characters behaved most erratically and least consistently. And since he's writing several season-two episodes, I have even less interest in coming back to the show than I already did.

I spent most of the season being disappointed in Jack. I keep thinking that they want us to be fooled into thinking that he's amoral and willing to do all sorts of horrible stuff but that then they'll reveal that there's really a heart of gold under all that; but I'm beginning to wonder if maybe there isn't a heart of gold, maybe he's just perfectly willing to do whatever's most expedient. Ordering Ianto to kill his girlfriend--why was that necessary? And why did he need to transport the alien in "Greeks Bearing Gifts" into the sun? Wouldn't it have sufficed to send her home? And then there was the torture in "Countrycide," and so on.

Also, I'm sorry to say this (because my crush on him is still deep and abiding, and he still looks totally hot standing on rooftops wearing that coat, and he was superb in the Dr. Who episode "Utopia" and pretty much all his other Who appearances), but Captain Jack is a terrible leader. Someone should give him some management training. His approach to management seems to consist of (a) barking unpleasant orders at people, (b) trying and failing to reassure people with cheap platitudes; (c) snapping at anyone who dares to question any of his orders, no matter how crazy the orders sound; (d) demanding total loyalty and trust without giving anything in return; (e) refusing to answer questions, especially about himself; and (f) occasionally admitting that he has no idea what to do next. Oh, and (g) coming back from the dead (but not letting most of his team know that he's capable of doing that). I would happily sleep with the man, but I sure wouldn't want to report to him. I can almost see all this being intentional--the character has always been kind of a lone wolf--but if so, why have they built the series around him being a leader, and why don't we see him having to deal with consequences of his multitude of leadership failures?

General question: At various times, Torchwood appears to be both (a) completely outside governmental jurisdiction, and (b) a secret governmental agency. If they're not connected with the gov't, why do they get such top clearance to everything? If they were founded by Victoria, why are they outside the gov't? Where does their funding come from? Are they totally autonomous, or is there some kind of oversight they have to report to? If the police and hospitals and such know about them, why was their existence a surprise to Gwen at the beginning?

Weirdly, BBC America blanked out every occurrence of the word "fuck" (and a few other words), and blurred out Rhys's butt. Showing the good guys torturing and killing and cheating on partners and having sex is okay, but they can't say "fuck"?

At a couple of points midseason, the writers seem to have completely forgotten that the show is theoretically focused on aliens and alien tech. I guess I don't mind all that much, but it seems like they could at least have paid lip service to the aliens idea for at least the first season.

They don't treat Rhys very well. Gwen's always running off to be with her exciting new friends in her exciting new life. I was really pleased in the first few episodes that she still came home to him, still cared about him, and that he seemed to take it all in stride; I liked him as a nice counterpoint to the craziness, and (as Jack suggested) a way to keep Gwen, and by extension the team, human. But later in the season, they mostly just ignore him, and then Gwen mistreats him, and then he gets killed, and then he comes back but Gwen ignores him again. A waste of what could've been a really good character.

...I completely missed the running theme throughout the season (in "Day One," apparently "Cyberwoman," and "End of Days") of kisses reviving people. Interesting. Note that all of those episodes were written by Chibnall.

Am I right in thinking that Jack has now lived through bits of WWII three times? I was going to elaborate on this, but it would involve spoilers for at least three Dr. Who episodes, so I'll hold off.

Okay, enough. My overall feeling is that the show has a potentially promising premise, and some interesting characters, and a good sense of humor (when it tries to be funny), and is capable of some really good stories and really nice moments when it focuses on human emotion, and I by and large like how it handles sex; but that the writers and I seem to have pretty different ideas of what the show should be and what it should focus on and who the characters are, and in such conflicts the writers inevitably win. So I think I'm giving up on the series, alas. But I will miss Captain Jack.


Nice review. I think our overall opinions of the episodes are very similar, apart from my having a rather higher opinion of "They Keep Killing Suzie". I usually recommend to people that they just skip "Cyberwoman" and "Countrycide". People who have failed to take my advice on "Cyberwoman" have later told me they regretted it.

And you're right that Jack is a terrible leader, and I'm not at all certain whether the writers realize that at this point (actually, something that Jack says at the end of the Doctor Who episode "The Last of the Time Lords" makes me think maybe Russell T. Davies realizes it on some level. But since Chibnall is the show runner, he's the one who needs to be convinced.)

At some point, I'm sure someone will succumb to temptation and do an episode where Jack meets all of the different versions of himself in WWII.

I'll be watching Season 2, partly 'cause that's how we pass the time in Doctor Who fan club meetings when Doctor Who isn't airing, and partly because of a casting spoiler that I've just realized that I don't know if you're aware of or want to be aware of.

I'm sure someone will succumb to temptation and do an episode where Jack meets all of the different versions of himself in WWII.

:) And they'd have to call it "The Three Jacks." Or, if you include the original, "The Four Jacks."

Further thoughts:

I can see skipping "Cyberwoman" and "Countrycide" being a good idea -- though I'd think you'd need to mention the Gwen/Owen plot thread from those episodes. Huh -- now that I think of it, I sorta get the impression that Chibnall was writing his own separate show. In his episodes, the characters do dark nasty things to others and each other, there's a fair bit of violence and killing, there are no long-term emotional consequences, and there are continuing plot threads (Gwen/Owen) and tropes (revivifyng kisses, multiple violent deaths) that don't show up so much in the other episodes. I'm probably exaggerating, but I do wonder whether some of the other writers consciously chose to reduce the importance of the things Chibnall wanted the series to focus on....

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