Tuesday, January 24, 2017

For the Love of Torchwood

As most people know, I am a Whovian. A Doctor Who fan for those unaware of the nerdy jargon. Yes, I am also a Trekkie, a Fannibal, an X Phile and a passionate fan of numerous other TV shows (what one calls a devotee of Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) is anyone’s guess!).

I am also a “Woody” (for want of a much better moniker) – that is to say, a fan of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off aimed at slightly more mature viewer.

For the uninitiated, Torchwood sprang from the world of Doctor Who thanks to the wonderful, talented brain of Russell T Davies. Originally, the term was merely a pseudonym for production of the mother show in order to keep filming as secret as possible. The notion of an alien/crime fighting team had been at the back of RTD’s mind for years (with a working title of ‘Excalibur’) but once he got his creative claws into the Whoniverse, it was only a matter of time before the perfect blend came together.

The Torchwood seed was planted within the world of Doctor Who very subtly during episode twelve of series one (of 21st Century Who) in 2005 and was explored further more blatantly in the second series. We finally got to witness the fabled organisation in the stunning two-part finale Army of Ghosts/Doomsday.

Series one was also where we first met the charming and dynamic anti-hero Captain Jack Harkness and he proved so popular with fans, it was no wonder he would return for more adventures and his own spin off.

The first fully-fledged series of Torchwood appeared on October 22nd on BBC3 with a double bill of its first two episodes. Although Russell T Davies was the mastermind behind the show, Chris ‘Broadchurch’ Chibnall would serve as lead writer for the first two series.

I was hooked instantly. As I was already a fan of Doctor Who, it wasn’t that much of a surprise that I would warm to a spin-off (I was to fall in love with the children’s spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures too!) but there was something extra special about Torchwood. Allegedly, RTD had pitched it as a cross between The X Files and This Life – two of my all-time favourite TV shows – so I was already eager to see this exciting hybrid.

OK, the show did have its detractors as most things do. One of the main complaints was that the stronger language and focus on sexuality was too aggressive, but I think if it was any other show, no one would bat an eye lid. I think it is just because people were used to the comfort of Doctor Who - I mean, look at Russell's Queer as Folk! Did anyone really think he was one to shy away from the truth about human nature? Ha!.

The cast was sublime. John Barrowman has so much onscreen charm that a number of straight blokes I know have admitted that they’d go gay for a night just for Captain Jack. Naoko Mori is a superb actress with a background in theatre and was also ‘Titicaca/Sarah’ in another favourite show of mine, Absolutely Fabulous. Burn Gorman is a man to watch whenever he is on screen. He is so naturalistic and can slip into any role with ease. Gareth David-Lloyd was a relative unknown outside of Wales but soon wooed his way into the hearts of fans world-wide. Kai Owen playing the simply lovable boyfriend/husband of Gwen...

Then there’s Eve Myles. Bloody Gwen Cooper. This woman can act the socks off anyone. RTD once described her as Wales’ best kept secret. Eve gives me goosebumps. She is simply a phenomenal actress. I am trying to be careful not to gush too much but it’s sufficient to say that, out of EVERYTHING I love about Torchwood, she is the zenith. Let that be enough, otherwise I will harp on for pages…

Series One

Series one was very much a mixed bag of stories. Some see this as a show trying to find its feet and maybe that’s true. I found that it proved how versatile the show can be. Not only were we dealing with aliens, but we had time-travel, fairies, vile human cannibals and even paedophilia. Each week I was in for a new feast and I was kept on my toes not knowing what the hell was going to happen next.

Without doubt, the highlight of the season was Catherine Treganna’s Out of Time in which three people from 1953 flew into Cardiff airport and had to adjust to 21st Century life. It was moving, heartbreaking and simply wonderful. Other highlights include P.J. Hammond’s disturbing story, Small Worlds, about fairies at the bottom of the garden (he has not lost his touch from the days of Sapphire and Steel!!) and Captain Jack Harkness (again, by Catherine Treganna) in which we meet the genuine article from whom our lead hero took his name.

Series Two

Once Torchwood settled into itself, it knew the kind of stories it wanted to tell – and series two delivered in spades. The show was beginning to attract attention and was moved to BBC2 in order to gain a larger audience. Freema Agyeman from Doctor Who joined the cast in a guest role as the brilliant Martha Jones, and we had a number of guest stars including the likes of James Marsters, Alan Dale, Julian Bleach and Ruth Jones.

This season felt more confident. There was real camaraderie in the cast and the episodes were bolder. We learned a lot more about Jack and, for the first time, his brother, Gray.

Amonsgt some of the best episodes were couple more from the superb Catherine Treganna – Meat and Adam – two fascinating episodes; one about the way humans treat animals for their own personal gain; one about the need to fit in. This show wasn’t ever going to be about evil aliens... this was a show which had a heart and would elicit empathy for others.

There was also a beautiful insight into the nature of human life and our existence in the episode A Day in the Death by Joseph Lidster. It was a rather atypical episode but one which gave us pause to reflect on what it is to be alive.

The finale, Exit Wounds was stunning. I was genuinely in floods of tears when we lost two of our lead characters. When Tosh uttered the line “Because you’re breaking my heart”, mine broke too. It’s such a shocking but deeply upsetting way for two characters to leave a series. It still makes me tear up…

Series Three

Now it was confirmed that Auntie Beeb had a hit on their hands, the show was moved to a prime time slot on BBC 1. However, the format was to change. No longer made up of thirteen episodes, series three was to be just one story told over five consecutive nights. I, for one, was shocked when I heard this announcement. I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to get a full banquet and only a mere snack.

Boy, was I wrong.

Children of Earth as it was eventually subtitled, was one of the most harrowing but brilliant pieces of television in years. Aliens return to Earth to complete a deal made decades earlier which involves giving up the human children for one of the most disturbing reasons possible.

The dilemmas posed in this five-night spectacular were astonishing and provoked much discussion amongst viewers. One scene in particular stands out for me and that’s where a cabinet of ministers in the British Government try to determine how to choose which children to give up. This is pure drama and actually made me feel physically sick as it made us an audience ask ‘What would WE do?’

We had exceptional performances from all, but most notably Cush Jumbo, Paul Copley ("Egg's Dad!"*), Susan Brown and the future Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi. I would love to see Cush Jumbo return as Lois Habiba one day… The series ended on a depressing note with too many lives close to Jack lost. It was chilling.

Series Four

Miracle Day (provisionally titled The New World) was always going to suffer from the ‘Tara King Syndrome’. Linda Thorson wasn’t Diana Rigg and Miracle Day wasn’t Children of Earth. It was the "difficult second album" (or fourth in this case). This does not make it any less worthy. Some tiresome fans online were extremely negative about this fourth run, mainly because of the American input (which, frankly, reeks of insular thinking and parochialism and is barmy in this day and age!)

Yes, we had part American funding and a lot of American cast, but this didn’t take away anything from the show in my opinion. It just made the show more global (as it should be!)

The premise was gold – no one dying and the cataclysmic aftermath of such a population growth – we saw how it affected various people in society; the families who lost people close; the greedy corporate world; the media’s spin; the life of those who were supposed to die… it raised so many existential issues and it took us to places we would never have thought to go.

New members of the cast fell seamlessly into the Torchwood world such as Alexa Havin’s beautiful performance as Esther Drummond from the CIA, Mekhi Phifer as the cynical Agent Rex Matheson, Lauren Ambrose as the conniving Jillian Kitzinger, Arlene Tur as the ill-fated Vera Juarez, and Bill Pullman as the repugnant Oswald Danes, a killer paedophile who survived the death penalty to go on to become a star. What an incredible performance he gave. I should also mention the new blood of writers including Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s very own Jane Espenson!

For me, one of the highlights of Miracle Day was episode seven: Immortal Sins in which we get to visit a period of Captain Jack’s past that has severe consequences in the show. It’s a beautifully orchestrated piece of television and stunningly shot. And, even though it’s a Jack-centric episode, we still get a knock-out performance from Eve Myles… again!!

The larger universe...

Whether it was the mixed reviews or the lack of funding, we were not fortunate enough to see more of Torchwood on TV (I live in hope…) but the Torchwood universe is larger with books, comics and audio plays continuing to entertain the fans. The BBC Radio did a series of plays which were received very well. The company behind the behemoth Doctor Who range of audio plays, Big Finish, got the rights to Torchwood and we are now treated to superb stories on a regular basis featuring a lot of the regular cast (including the adorable Tom Price as PC Andy and, brilliantly, Indira Varma as the troubled ex-Torchwood operative Suzie Costello).

At the time of writing, we have been subjected to two series of audio adventures (six episodes apiece) and three special releases: The Torchwood Archive, Torchwood: Outbreak, and Torchwood One: Before the Fall. The latter is the highlight of the three specials as we delve into the history of the London base with Yvonne Hartman, played to perfection by Tracy-Ann Oberman. The writers of the Big Finish audios (including series writer Joseph Lidster), the books and the comics are true fans of this much-loved show. They know their characters and they really “get” what Torchwood is. Even if we never get it back on our screens, I am more than happy to listen to their adventures or read about them as long as people keep writing them.

One last thing; while I have been typing this, I have been listing to the Torchwood soundtracks on my iPod. Ben Foster’s score is absolutely friggin’ wonderful. Murray Gold’s main theme is a classic and I wish they would release his score for Miracle Day one day as it has yet to be published (I am unsure as to why Ben Foster didn’t do the score, but Murray did a grand job!). Torchwood is one of those entities where all the ingredients worked for me. The writers, the cast, the directors, the stories, the production, the ethos… I am very passionate about it and, frankly, I’m a die-hard fan.

Long may the legacy last.

* I always shout "Egg's Dad!" whenever i see Paul Copley in anything. He played Andrew Lincoln ('Egg')'s father in the aforementioned This Life. He got to shag Anna Forbes. Good on Egg's dad!"

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